I think everyone would agree that attending a simcha can challenge one’s social skills. Saying the right thing to a baal simcha or to a guest often involves exercising a sense of discretion. I learned this lesson early in life at a birthday party for one of my classmates. As a kid I went to a lot of birthday parties and none of them were too memorable. However, this one I will never forget.
My mother, may G-d bless her, had a policy regarding these numerous parties that at the time I did not appreciate at all. She would recycle all the presents that I had received from my friends at the party that she had made for me the previous year. You have to understand that my mother was born in Poland where she had been very poor. When the war started, she fled to Siberia where she was even poorer. My mother was not about to spend good money on silly toys for my friends when she had plenty of them ready to go. I was allowed to keep one present of my choosing, and the rest were spirited away into her closet.
My mother did not give me a choice in the matter. She would pull out a present from her closet, wrap it up, and send me on my way. This system worked well until that one unforgettable party. The birthday boy was unwrapping his presents and everyone was watching. As he unwrapped the present that I had brought, a strange expression appeared on his face. “Hey, I gave you this at your birthday party!” he said. Understandably, he was quite upset. I wanted to melt into the floor.
Then, I said something which can only be understood as having been divinely inspired. “Yeah, I liked it so much I decided to get you the same thing,” I replied. I said that big fat lie with such confidence and finesse that everyone believed me. It was then and there that I concluded something very important about lying. Sometimes, it’s worth it.
Is the conclusion that I had made as a little boy halachically correct? The answer to this question is found in the halachos of gneivas daas, literally translated as ‘stealing a person’s understanding.’ These laws dictate when misrepresentation, deception, and concealment are forbidden and when they are allowed. Clearly, one must be familiar with these Torah laws in order to know what one is permitted to say to a baal simcha or to a guest when saying the truth seems inappropriate.
The following story related by the Talmud in Chullin, 94b, will provide us with a number of valuable insights into the underlying principles which define gneivas daas .
Mar Zutrah the son of Rav Nachman was travelling from the town of Sichra to Bei M’chuza. While on the road, he met Rava and Rav Safra who had left Bei M’chuza to travel to Sichra. Mar Zutrah thought that Rava and Rav Safra had come out specially to greet him. In truth, they were just travelling on their way to Sichra. He said to them, “Honored Rabbis, you did not need to trouble yourselves to come out all this way to greet me.” Rav Safra replied, “We did not know that you were coming. But had we known, we would have gone out even further to greet you!” Later, Rava asked Rav Safra, “Why did you tell Mar Zutrah that we did not know he was coming? You made him feel bad.” Rav Safra answered, “Otherwise, we would have been misleading him.” Rava countered, “We were not tricking him. He tricked himself.”
A basic question should be asked regarding this story. Certainly, Rav Safra would have wanted to make Mar Zutrah feel good by remaining quiet. Yet, he felt compelled by halacha to say the truth. Why did Rav Safra feel that he was not allowed to bend the truth in this particular case? After all, the Torah generally permits bending the truth for the sake of peace.
The answer lies in the concept that engendering undeserved gratitude is a form of gneivas daas. Rav Safra was concerned that Mar Zutra would feel gratitude to him for walking out to greet him. Mar Zutra would at some point express that gratitude in some form or another. At that point, Rav Safra would be forced to accept Mar Zutra’s expression of gratitude without having done anything to deserve it. That is tantamount to stealing. One may bend the truth for the sake of peace, but not if it will devolve into a form of theft. Of course, when Rav Safra did inform Mar Zutra of the truth he said it in as pleasant and positive way possible, saying that if he had known he would have gone out further to greet him. This is in accordance with another Torah principle that must always be kept in mind, namely, that the ‘ways of the Torah are pleasant.’
A further point must be made. Even Rava agrees in principle to Rav Safra’s understanding of the prohibition of gneivas daas. Rava’s only point of contention with Rav Safra is that in their particular case Mar Zutra had no solid reason to have assumed that they had gone out specially to greet him. They could have just as easily been going on their way. Rava’s argument was that in their particular case the prohibition of gneivas daas does not demand of them to correct Mar Zutra’s false assumption.
These principles can be readily applied to a scenario which can easily happen to someone who is invited to an out-of-town simcha.
Yossie looked at the bar mitzvah invitation and then at his calendar. “I can’t believe that I am finally going to be able to be at one of his simchas,” he said to himself. The invitation was from Yossie’s cousin, Yitzy, who was a member of an out-of-town kollel. Though Yitzy had made a number of simchas in the past, Yossie had not attended any. He would have liked to go to them. However, the five hour drive to the town where Yitzy lived took too much time from Yossie’s very busy schedule. But this simcha would be different. His boss had recently given him a new territory and he had landed an account with a company whose headquarters were in Yitzy’s town. He was scheduled to visit their offices on the same day as the bar mitzvah.
“Wow, I can’t believe that you drove all this way to come to our simcha,” Yitzy said in appreciation to Yossie.
Does Yossie have to inform Yitzy that he had other reasons to drive into Yitzy’s town? Yitzy’s assumption that Yossie had no other reason to be in Yitzy’s town was a well-founded one. After all, until now Yossie’s business never took him to that area. According to our previous discussion, Yossie does have an obligation to in some way inform Yitzy of his other reasons to be there. If he would remain silent, then Yitzy would feel indebted to Yossie and the next time Yossie makes a simcha, Yitzy might feel compelled to make the five hour trip to attend.
Of course, Yossie should be as diplomatic as possible. He might say something like “Well, Yitzy, I had a lot of siyata d’shmaya in order to be able to make it. The timing worked out perfectly. In fact, I even met here with a new client.”
Obviously, if a simcha is in an area to which you travel frequently, then the baal hasimcha has little reason to assume that you had travelled there solely to attend his simcha. However, there are many situations in which the simcha is located in an area which you may frequent only once in a while. At that point, a competent halachic authority should be consulted.
Returning to my childhood episode of gneivas daas, it would seem that I had done the wrong thing. I had wanted to promote peace by misleading the birthday boy into thinking that I had done something special for him. I had not bought a special present for him though I had said that I had. The birthday boy may then have gone out of his way to buy a special present for my next birthday because he had thought that I had done the same for him. That would have been an expression of a level of gratitude which I had not deserved.
Furthermore, the birthday boy had not fooled himself into thinking that I had bought the same present for him as he had given to me. Rather, I had done a very convincing job of lying. Why should he not believe me? However, there is more to consider.
The halachic authorities present a number of considerations which are reasons to permit what would otherwise be gneivas daas. We have already mentioned the permissibility of gneivas daas when the victim has ‘fooled himself.’ Gneivas daas is also permitted when telling the truth would cause serious embarrassment or insult to the person being fooled. Another consideration which allows for gneivas daas is when misleading the person is in some way necessary in order to give him public honor.
In light of these two exceptions to the rule of gneivas daas, we can safely conclude that on both accounts I was permitted to tell the birthday boy the lie that I had said. Firstly, if I would have not misled him, he would have felt very embarrassed and insulted by my gift. Secondly, my gneivas daas had the effect of giving the birthday boy honor in front of his friends by showing them that I considered him important enough to buy a special present for him. However, I have to admit that these two considerations were not forefront in my mind at the time.
Given what we now know about gneivas daas, we can understand the rationale behind another interesting halacha. Generally speaking, a false compliment that is sincerely intended to make a person feel good is not considered to be gneivas daas. A false compliment will not engender any undue feelings of gratitude. This is because the essence of a compliment is to make the other person feel good, not to impart reliable information. When Shani meets her friend Chavi at a chasuna and says “Chavi, you look marvelous!” and really she looks just so-so, Chavi owes Shani a real debt of gratitude for saying something nice to her. And when Chavi returns the favor with the reply “Shani, so do you!” Shani has not received anything from Chavi which she does not deserve. The only thing that has happened is an equal exchange of good will. The Torah generally allows and even promotes this type of lying because it fosters peace between people.
Although this article has only discussed a few situations, believe me when I tell you that the scenarios in which the laws of gneivas daas have relevance are many and varied. (Really, I am not fooling you.) Determining the halacha with regard to a specific case of gneivas daas is a challenge because every case has its unique circumstances. Often it boils down to a judgment call based upon a breadth and depth of Torah knowledge and Torahdik common sense. Therefore, the goal of this article is only to serve as an introduction to a difficult topic that is not familiar to many. Hopefully, that goal has been accomplished.