To Believe Is to Behave (Part 10)
To Believe Is to Behave (Part 10)
(Lailah Gifty Akita)
“These are the precepts whose fruits a person enjoys in this world, but whose principal remains intact in the World to Come. They are: honoring one’s parents; acts of kindness; early arrival at the study hall in the morning and the evening; hosting guests; visiting the sick; providing the wherewithal for a bride to marry; escorting the dead; praying with concentration; making peace between two people; and Torah study is the equivalent of them all.” (Tractate Shabbat 127a)
Mitzvah number nine is making peace between two people who have fallen out with each other. So great is the mitzvah that the Talmud teaches us in Tractate Yevamot (65b) that there are even occasions where it might be permissible to say something that is not [entirely] true in order to further the cause of goodwill between two quarrelling parties. Furthermore, in Tractate Ketubot (17b) there is a fascinating dispute between the School of Shamai and the School of Hillel as to how one should praise a bride. The School of Shamai is of the opinion that it is forbidden to say anything that is not true. In the words of the School of Shamai one must praise a bride “how she is” – i.e. not to say anything that is not true, and not even to embellish the truth in any way. According to the School of Shamai the pursuit of truth is so intrinsic to our identity as believing Jews that it is forbidden to say anything that is untrue. The School of Hillel, on the other hand, disagrees. According to the School of Hillel maintaining shalom – peace – is of paramount importance and it is permissible for a person to say that the bride is “beautiful and pious” even if it seems that she might not be.
The definitive ruling as found in the Code of Jewish Law, Even HaEzer 65:1, follows the opinion of the School of Hillel. We are allowed to say something that is not necessarily the truth in order to preserve the peace, or to enhance the feelings of goodwill between two people.
Rabbi Yom Tov ben Avraham Asevilli, 1260-1320, known by his acronym, Ritva, the universally revered head of the famed Yeshiva in Seville and the author of one of the classic commentaries on the Talmud, writes that even though there is a very clear admonishment in the Torah that it is forbidden to lie, nevertheless, it is permitted to do so when for the sake of shalom. Many of the authorities of Jewish Law clarify this position and rule that it is only permissible when what is being said does not deviate explicitly from the truth. Therefore, to say something ambiguous would be permissible but to say something that is unquestionably not true is forbidden. If so, how is it possible to balance the prevailing view of the authorities with the opinion of the School of Hillel?
Rabbi Yehuda Loewe, known as the Maharal of Prague, one of the most brilliant scholars in the sixteenth century, whose commentary on the Torah and his many philosophical works are considered to be classic masterpieces, and whose influence is still keenly felt today, explains, Netiv HaEmet, that whilst it is true that it may not be possible to praise a bride for her physical beauty, nevertheless, there are a plethora of other praiseworthy qualities that she has. It is those traits that are being praised because, in the eyes of her husband, they make her truly beautiful.
It is reminiscent of the witness in court who, when instructed to “tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth” asked the judge which one was wanted. The truth. The whole truth. Or nothing but the truth!
Unfortunately, if a person does not understand clearly what the Rabbis are teaching they may come to the erroneous conclusion that not being truthful is acceptable. That is absolutely not true (pun intended…). According to all authorities it is completely forbidden to say things that are distortions of the truth on a regular basis. And, as the Maharal points out, even in those specific scenarios when Jewish Law might permit a person to say something that does not seem to be completely truthful, it is always forbidden to say something if it is obviously not true.
The Maharal, Tiferet Yisrael7, in defining shalom, writes that when each person stays within his own boundaries shalom can exist between people. It is when a person begins to encroach on the personal space of another that shalom begins to unravel. Aharon, the brother of Moshe Rabbeinu, was the paragon of making peace between people. Our Sages describe the almost limitless extent that he was prepared to go to in order to ensure that there were no disagreements and arguments between people — especially between husbands and wives. In fact, so great was his ability to inspire couples to live in harmony, that the Midrash relates (Avot d’Rabbi Natan 12) that thousands of children born in the desert were named after him. If not for his efforts to make peace between their parents, those children would never have been born. Even the knowledge that, very often, trying to make peace between two opposing factions causes the peacemaker to become sullied in the process could not stop Aharon from pressing ahead in his holy efforts to foster love and benevolence among the Jewish Nation.
Rabbi Yechezkel Abramsky (1886-1976) was one of the foremost leaders of Lithuanian Jewry. After escaping communist Russia, he headed the rabbinical courts in London for seventeen years before moving to Israel. Rabbi Abramsky used to ask rhetorically why a pot is black. And then he would answer: “Because the pot makes ‘peace’ between the fire and the water. And whoever is involved in making peace always ends up getting dirty!”
In conclusion, the Maharal further goes on to explain, ibid. 62, that the Torah is comprised of three fundamental tenets: mishpat — judgment, chessed — kindness, and shalom — peace. Eight out of ten of the mitzvahs that are mentioned in our list contain one of these tenets. Making peace between people, however, is comprised of two — judgment and kindness. Learning Torah is all-encompassing as it includes all three tenets. That is why, writes the Maharal, making peace is followed by learning Torah.
- To be continued…