Did you know that by Jewish law you may pick fruit that is not yours so long as you eat them in the garden from which you’ve plucked them?
I’m not kidding, here is the relevant text. “When you enter your neighbor's vineyard, you may eat all the grapes you desire, until you are sated, but you shall not put [any] into your basket [to take home]/”
I wasn’t kidding, but I also wasn’t entirely honest. Our sages explained that this passage applies narrowly to employees that are hired to harvest the vineyard. So long as they are on the job, Jewish law allows them to nibble on the grapes, but they may not pack up any grapes to take home.
To prove this explanation correct, the Talmud engaged in elaborate formulas of exegesis. Some sages made use of an exegetic link between our verse, “When you enter your neighbor's vineyard,” and a later verse, “You shall give him [your employee] his wage on his [due] date and not let the sun enter [set] over it.” That both verses employ the word “enter,” implies an exegetic link between them and since the latter verse speaks of an employee, we infer that the former verse also refers to an employee.
Other sages used a more straightforward method of inference. The verse indicates that the stranger may not place grapes in his basket, which implies that the stranger entered the neighbor’s vineyard with a basket in hand. Who, but an employee, would enter a neighbor’s vineyard with baskets in tow?
It is interesting to note that Rashi, the famed eleventh century commentator, comments rather casually that the verse applies narrowly to employees, but doesn’t offer any proof. The Talmudic sages struggled to prove it, but Rashi apparently expected his students to accept it as a matter of course. Why was that?
The difference between Rashi and the Talmudic sages is that Rashi wrote his commentary for children whereas the sages wrote for adults. When you cite this verse to adults they ask sophisticated questions. How do you know this verse applies only to employees? Perhaps it is a blanket approval for all people?
A child scoffs at the very idea. How could the Torah possibly refer to anyone but employees? By what right do non-employees enter another’s vineyard? Adults would reply that they too don’t know why, but they can’t simply dismiss the literal meaning of the verse. They would then postulate all kinds of theories to justify the presence of strangers in the vineyard. Children don’t have such complicated problems. To them it is patently obvious that only those with a right to enter have business in another’s vineyard. Otherwise, why are they there?
We adults use our brains too much and often grow confused. Children are blissfully simple and pure.
Most adults would agree that Rashi and the sages were correct because trespassing on another’s property, let alone taking what is not yours, is unethical and illegal. I don’t know of any adults who would casually admit to picking from a neighbor’s garden, let alone attempt to justify it. We have an innate sense of right and wrong and, at the very least, are shamed into proper comportment.
But there is a different kind of property, the property of information that we trespass regularly without a qualm. We help ourselves to another’s private information and share it in public as if it belonged to us.
We know well that the most common subject at synagogue is the latest community gossip. One asks, "did you hear that so and so is divorcing?" "Yes, the other responds, and apparently the husband cheated." Next the conversation turns to the ethics of the banker, who was caught embezzling, the morality of the rabbi, who was caught plagiarizing and the efficacy of the president with whom no one is ever satisfied.
We assume that if the subject is raised in public, it is fair game. If the person is a public persona, it is even fairer game. Each person is presented, dissected and hung out to dry in public. If we ourselves would ever commit such sins we would never want people like ourselves to find out.
Then there are those cases where we are convinced that gossip is a mitzva. When we hear that someone was indicted for abusing others, we turn it into a crusade, destroying the defendant’s character before they even see the inside of a courtroom. We justify our public vilification of the alleged offender under the guise of protecting the victim. Everyone loves the victim, yet not a single person offers to help the victim. Furthermore, when the item fades from the news, we conveniently forget about the victims, who are left to cope for themselves.
As Rosh Hashanah approaches we must ask ourselves, what right we have to enter another’s vineyard and place their private grapes in the public domain. We wouldn’t do it to our neighbor’s physical garden, why would we do it to their much more sensitive and personal metaphoric garden?
As adults we concoct all kinds of excuses, but we need to heed the child in us. The shrill cry that asks why we trespass in the neighbor’s vineyard?
A story is told of an old lady on a bus in Israel, who overheard two girls gossiping about their friend, who had recently become engaged to a fine young man. To pass the time, they began to enumerate their engaged friend’s flaws and tried to guess how the groom will react when he learns of them. How will he react, when he learns that she doesn’t know how to cook or never washed a dish? How loving will he be, when he learns that she can’t save a penny, rarely brushes her teeth and her room is always messy? They shrieked with laughter as they imagined the groom’s reactions.
The old lady leaned over and said, “I couldn’t help, but overhear your conversation and I am glad I did. This young man is my grandson and now that I know how terrible his bride is, I will encourage him to break off the engagement.” The girls were aghast; they never imagined that their innocent chatter would bear such bitter results for their good friend. They stammered a hasty retraction, but the old lady interrupted them with a smile. “I am not his grandmother,” she said, “but what if I were?”
Gossip is a form of trespass. It is never right and it is never innocent. Gossip always hurts someone and sometimes that someone is us.
Rabbi Lazer Gurkow, a respected writer, scholar and speaker, is the spiritual leader of Beth Tefilah congregation in London, Ontario. He is the author of Reaching for God: A Jewish Book on Self Help, and his new book, Mission Possible: Living With Higher Purpose will be released this spring and can be pre-ordered by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org