Talmud Tips

For the week ending 24 June 2017 / 30 Sivan 5777

Bava Batra 151 - 156

by Rabbi Moshe Newman
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Words Really Matter

“To not open his mouth to the Satan.”

This means that one should not speak about events that he does not wish to transpire, such as disasters and catastrophes, since words have the power to cause these misfortunes to happen. This phrase is how the Rashbam explains an opinion in our sugya, and is codified in halacha by the Rema (Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh De’ah 376).

Here is how it applies to what we learn on our daf, and also how a person should follow this principle in everyday speech. This includes being careful to word certain statements in ways that require great care and sensitivity, instead of expressing the same ideas in ways that may seem to be acceptable and accepted as a “kosher” way to speak.

What is the context of this idea in our gemara, and what is an example of how this halacha should be moved to the forefront of one’s mind and tongue when expressing certain thoughts?

The gemara deals with a gift given by a “shchiv me’ra” — a person “on his deathbed” and is facing death. When a healthy person gives a gift, the gift belongs to the intended recipient immediately, and the giver cannot change his mind to rescind the giving and take the given item back. The law regarding a gift made by a “shchiv me’ra”, however, is quite different. His intent is that the gift should pass to the recipient when he passes from this world, but should he somehow recover from his life-threatening status to good health his intent is that the gift giving was not final and he may retract the giving and keep the item for himself.

A dilemma is posed by the gemara if a “shchiv me’ra” has a document written for giving a gift, which contains two opposing words: “In life and in death” (the text of the Rashbam is “In my life and in my death”, which appears to have the same meaning in our case). He apparently cannot mean both “life and death”, because “life” would make it an immediate gift that is irreversible, even if he heals, whereas “death” would mean that it takes place when he dies and is therefore reversible and he may keep it if his good health is restored. So how is this baffling phrase to be interpreted?

The great Torah Sages named Rav and Shmuel dispute its meaning. Rav says that the person means to give it only when he dies, and the giver may retract the giving as long as he is alive. Rav argues that this is because he wrote in the document for the gift “in death”, meaning that it is only a gift when he dies. So why did he also write “in life” asks Rav rhetorically? “As a sign of life” he explains. The Rashbam explains that since his true intent is to give it only when he dies, and he truly meant the words “in death”, he adds the words “in life” as a “siman tov” (“good sign”) — in order not to “open his mouth to the Satan” — although he does not really mean that the gift is given now when he is alive.

Shmuel rules in just the opposite manner and claims that the “shchiv me’ra” really meant to give it “in life” and he may not retract the giving. So why did he write “in death”? “In life and death” is a somewhat poetic way of saying that the gift is the recipient’s “from now and forever” (in the giver’s lifetime and also after his death).

One example of being careful not to “open one’s mouth to the Satan” is that one who has not seen a specific person for a long time and that person has also not returned his communications should not say: “So-and-so must have died, since I haven’t heard from him for so long.” Opening one’s mouth with such “appalling” words as “He must have died” might be a negative factor regarding the other’s well-being, due to the tremendous power of human speech.

Another, less obvious, example that was pointed out to me in my youth that falls into the category of “not opening one’s mouth to the Satan” is the following type of sentence that a person might say when discussing even a theoretical situation. Reuven says to Shimon, “You know, the Torah says that if a person kills you unintentionally, then he can flee to an ir hamiklat (a “sanctuary city”), and live there in safety.” Or any variation where the speaker mentions a tragedy that happens to “you”. Instead he should say, “kills a person”, or whatever verb is appropriate to the case — but not speak to you and say “you”.

(By the way, who is this “Satan” that is mentioned by the Rashbam? Our Sages teach: “The Satan, the yetzer hara (the inclination in a person to act wrongly) and the angel of death are all one.” — Bava Batra 16a)

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