Today’s daf continues a discussion we started yesterday about the reasons the rabbis may require a man to divorce his wife. One reason is the circulation of persistent rumors alleging the wife’s infidelity. Let’s start by defining “persistent”:
At what point is it considered to be a persistent rumor?
Abaye said: My mother told me: A rumor in the city lasts a day and a half. We said this only if the rumor did not cease in the meantime. But if the rumor did cease in the meantime, even if it was later renewed, this is a rumor that has ceased and is disregarded.
To be considered persistent, a rumor must last continuously for more than a day and a half. Apparently then, as now, the news cycle was fast.
Many of us have been taught that gossip (lashon hara) and rumors are not OK. They can spread out of control, cause real harm and may or may not be spreading the truth. So how can the rabbis give rumors so much power to upend peoples’ lives?!
The answer is that rumors can, in some cases, be helpful. The word that the Gemara uses for rumor, kalah, literally means voice. And that’s what rumors often do — they give people who don’t have an institutional voice a way to communicate widely.
Someone who has an abusive boss, for example, may not be believed by Human Resources without extensive documentation, but can tell others who are interested in applying to work at their company to stay away (while hopefully looking for a new job themselves!). Rumors, therefore, are not necessarily harmful — they can be a key way that those who don’t have access to power can protect those around them.
Many cultures associate gossip and rumors with women and people of lower classes — groups whose voices aren’t always included equally in lawmaking, newspapers and public speeches. These groups find other ways to communicate. It’s no accident that Abaye gets his information about rumors from his mother! Rumors have a real social function that cannot be ignored, and the rabbis on today’s daf recognize that fact.
But just because rumors have a social function does not mean they are not dangerous or that we must always take them at face value. After all, rumors start and stop for all kinds of reasons that have nothing to do with whether or not they are true. As the Gemara then nuances:
And we said that a rumor that ceased is not considered persistent only if the reason it ceased was not due to fear. But if it ceased due to fear, it is considered persistent.
The rabbis argue that a rumor should be treated as persistent if it stopped due to intimidation, threats or other scare tactics.
Does that mean that we need to trust all persistent rumors, and rumors that have been quashed by fear? The Gemara continues:
And we said that a persistent rumor has validity only if he does not have any known enemies. But if he has enemies, it is the enemies who put out the rumor.
Getting back to the case at hand, rumors of a wife’s infidelity that would trigger a divorce, the Gemara says we need to consider the source of rumors and make sure that those spreading them are not personally motivated by hatred of one or both members of this couple. But if personal animus and intimidation are not at play, then yes, the Gemara insists that we do need to take rumors seriously and end the marriage.