Pesachim 4

How to break bad news.

Today the rabbis continue their exploration of the use of indirect language.

There’s a childhood saying that “sticks and stones may break my bones but names will never hurt me.” The truth is, though, that words can indeed inflict pain, and sticks and stones and names all cause lasting damage. And so today’s daf opens with a series of discussions about some of the ways that we must be intentional with our language and with our actions.

The daf begins with the story of how Rav tells his uncle, Rabbi Hiyya, that Rabbi Hiyya’s half-brother and half-sister, Rav’s own parents, have passed away.

For context, Rabbi Hiyya’s parents had both been married previously and had children in those previous relationships. Then they had a child together – Rabbi Hiyya. To make things even more complicated, two of the children from the first marriages, who were not related to each other, married each other – and their son was Rav! So Rabbi Hiyya’s half-brother and half-sister were both Rav’s own parents. Talk about a tangled family tree.

When the story opens, Rav, who lives in Babylonia, has traveled to visit his uncle Rabbi Hiyya in the Land of Israel, who naturally wants to hear about how the rest of his family is doing in Babylonia. Yet when Rabbi Hiyya asks Rav about his parents, Rav doesn’t just tell him the bad news outright.

Rabbi Hiyya said to Rav: Is your father, Ayevu, alive? He said to him, replying with a question: Is your sister, Imma, alive? He said to him: Indeed, is Imma alive? He said to him: Is Ayevu alive?

Rabbi Hiyya’s statement indicates that he realizes that his half-siblings might no longer be alive and well. But rather than just deliver the devastating news abruptly, Rav allows Rabbi Hiyya to slowly come to the realization that his siblings have passed away. This indirect speech spares Rabbi Hiyya from a sudden shock. (In the previous pages we saw the rabbis were reluctant to say such words as “night” and “impure” — so one can imagine them also not wanting to speak directly of death.)

While Rav models the importance of thoughtful and intentional speech, Rabbi Hiyya models the importance of thoughtful and intentional action. Immediately upon hearing the terrible news about his siblings, this is what he does:

Rabbi Hiyya said to his attendant: Remove my shoes and carry my garments after me to the bathhouse.

This seems a strange response to learning of the death of two family members. The Gemara explains:

Learn from Rabbi Hiyya’s instructions three halakhot. Learn from it that wearing shoes is prohibited for a mourner, and learn from it that for distant tidings mourning is practiced only one day, and learn from it that with regard to the halakhot of mourning, the legal status of part of the day is like that of an entire day.

Rabbi Hiyya is a mourner, but because he learned of the deaths long after they occurred, his mourning is different. Since the official period of burial and shiva has passed, and so Rabbi Hiyya mourns symbolically without observing the extensive obligations of mourners in those early phases. In acting deliberately, Rabbi Hiyya sets a precedent for how to mourn when you hear that someone close to you died some time ago.

The point of this story, coming as it does in a longer discussion of indirect speech, seems to be not that euphemism and circumlocution should be used to obscure the difficult message, but that these verbal tools can benevolently soften the blow of hearing bad news, and can also serve as a model of instruction for future generations. Sometimes, how we say something is just as important as what we say.

Read all of Pesachim 4 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on November 25, 2020. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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