White lies and family manipulation in the Talmud

Wed, 02/27/2013 - 12:00am -- JOFA

by Mona Berdugo   

One of the things I really enjoy about doing the daf is getting a glimpse into the everyday lives of the rabbis living at the time. They had real lives and real families with real problems etc. In the past few weeks we read two short stories about the family lives of the amoraim that I found fascinating. For anyone who ever felt that no one ever listens to them, you are in good company.

The first story is related during a discussion about preparing food in the afternoon on Yom Kippur to break the fast.

Talmud - Mas. Shabbath 115a (Soncino translation) 

It was taught in accordance with R. Johanan: If the Day of Atonement falls on the Sabbath, the trimming of vegetables is permitted. Nuts may be cracked and pomegranates scraped from the [time of] minhah and onwards, on account of one's vexation.  The household of Rab Judah trimmed cabbage. Rabbah's household scraped pumpkins. Seeing that they were doing this [too] early, he said to them, A letter has come from the west (Israel) in R. Johanan's name that this is forbidden.  

Rabbah was upset that his family was starting to prepare food too early in the day so he told them that he received a letter from R. Johanan forbidding this. That would be fine if it were true, but according to Rashi he didn't actually get such a letter. Rabbah knew that R. Johanan did in fact forbid this and decided that he could use R. Johanan for support when talking to his family. He figured that they wouldn't necessarily listen to him but if they thought it came from someone else they would listen. 

I could totally relate to this story. In fact, it's nice to know that some things never change. Somehow when people we are close to say things we often don't take them too seriously, but when the same thing is said by someone else it suddenly takes on more significance. My kids have occasionally come home from school and told me that their teacher said something that I have been saying for years. For some reason, when I tell them something they don't always listen, but when it comes from their teacher the same words suddenly take on a profound wisdom. Or, perhaps Rabbah just didn't want his family to be upset with him so he decided to place the blame on R. Johanan instead. I can relate to that too. Either way,  I can't blame Rabbah for telling this little white lie to get his family to do the right thing. In fact, I just might use that trick myself sometime. 

The next story (129a - 14 pages and 2 weeks later) is a bit more disturbing. In a discussion about bloodletting (no, that's not the disturbing part - that's just ancient medicine) the importance of eating a good meal afterwards is stressed.  R. Nahman was afraid his students would not eat properly afterwards and therefore:

R. Nahman b. Isaac said to his disciples: I beg of you, tell your wives on the day of blood-letting, Nahman is visiting us. 

He apparently felt that their wives won't necessarily prepare a good meal just because their husbands did their bloodletting that day, but if are expecting an important guest for dinner they will. While it's nice that R. Nahman was concerned for his students' well-being, it made me wonder why he thinks their wives would make good food for a rabbi/guest but not for their husbands who need it for health reasons. And is lying really the best way to get what they need? Maybe this is the real reason women aren't supposed to learn gemara – we'll find out all our husbands' secrets about how they try to trick us to get what they want.

Then I thought maybe I'm being too harsh. After all, don't we all tell white lies to our significant others for much lesser reasons? (When I say "we all", of course I am not referring to myself. I would never do such a thing. I'm always completely honest with my husband about everything. And I really did buy those new shoes on sale for a great price. Really.) Besides, there are stories about women being less than completely honest with their husbands too. I recall learning at least one story where a woman disguised herself before asking her husband a halachic question. That seems pretty manipulative to me. Or maybe she just wanted to ensure his objectivity. Either way, it seems to go both ways, and who am I to judge what works in other people's marriages?  

In fact, looking back at both these stories together I think that maybe instead of concerning myself with the very normal if slightly imperfect relationship between family members I should take notice of the huge amount of respect afforded totalmidei chachamim in both stories. That certainly seems like a positive lesson we use today. Assuming of course that the talmidei chachamim we are respecting are real ones deserving of the name. You know, the kind that increase peace in the world (תלמידי חכמים מרבים שלום בעולם) and not the other way around, but that's a whole other story.


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