Geneivat da’at’

Geneivat Da’at for altruistic motives has been sanctioned by Jewish religious leaders and was condemned when used for selfish interests because the values of integrity and honesty are paramount.

July 24, 2019 18:24
Geneivat da’at’

WHEN RAV requested that his wife cook him lentils, he received chickpeas; when he requested chickpeas, he would receive lentils.. (photo credit: PIXABAY)

The literal meaning of geneivat da’at in Hebrew is theft of one’s mind, thoughts, wisdom, or knowledge, i.e., fooling someone and thereby causing him or her to have a mistaken assumption, belief, and/or impression. Thus, the term is used in Jewish law to indicate deception, cheating, creating a false impression.
The origin of the term is attributed to the Talmudic sage Samuel of Nehardea in Talmud Chullin (94a): “It is forbidden to mislead people, even a non-Jew.” Indeed, one Midrash states that geneivat da’at is the worst type of theft. Geneivat da’at is the worst because it directly harms the person, not merely their money.
Geneivat Da’at for altruistic motives has been sanctioned by leading Jewish religious leaders and was condemned when used for selfish interests because the values of integrity and honesty are paramount.
An example of the latter is found in Tractate Yevamot (63a): The wife of Rav (one of the outstanding scholars in the Talmudic era) was in the habit of irritating him. When he requested from his wife to cook for him lentils, he received chickpeas and when he requested chickpeas, he would receive lentils. When his son Chiyah grew up, he reversed his father’s requests to his mother. Rav said to his son: “Your mother has improved.” His son said: “I reversed the requests to her.” His father said to him. “This is what people say, that your son teaches you wisdom. Even so, don’t do this, because it is written in Jeremiah, ‘Their tongues will teach deceitful things.’”
Below are presented several anecdotal examples of deceptive and manipulative behavior by prominent rabbis and religious leaders, ancient and modern, who acted out of altruistic intentions.
Rashi (the 11th century biblical commentator) in his commentary on Ethics of the Fathers (1:2) records the deceptive-manipulative interventions of Aaron the High Priest, who pursued peace and infused love between disputants and between quarreling spouses, and who can be considered the first marital and strategic therapist.
“One man became angry with his wife and chased her out of the house and swore that he would permit her to return only if she spat in the face of the High Priest,” Rashi wrote. “When Aaron became aware of this, he summoned the woman and told her that he had an eye infection which could only be cured if she spat at it. After considerable pleading, the woman acceded to Aaron’s request. Afterwards, Aaron summoned the husband and related to him what his wife had done. As a result of this, the couple reconciled.”
“When two men quarreled, Aaron would go to one of the disputants and inform him that he had just returned from the disputant’s friend and found him terribly upset and regretful of the pain that he had caused his fellow,” Rashi added. “Aaron would not leave the disputant until all jealousy and hatred had been removed from his heart. Afterward, he would go to the other injured party and repeat the same thing to him. When the men met, they would fall on each other’s shoulders and tearfully reconcile.”
The most famous and psychologically sophisticated manipulative and deceptive intervention by a Jewish religious leader recorded in the Scriptures, is described in Kings-1 (3, 15-28), regarding King Solomon’s judgment in the dispute between two women contesting the maternity of the live child.

SEVERAL EXAMPLES are recorded in the Talmud of deceptive behavior by prominent religious figures whose intentions were to help fellow Jews. It is related in Tractate Nedarim (50a) that the Prophet Elijah appeared at Rabbi Akiva’s dwelling (a barn where he and his wife slept on straw) as a pauper and requested some straw for his wife, who had recently given birth, to lie down on. Rabbi Nissim explains that Elijah did this in order to console the couple and show them there were people poorer than themselves.
In Tractate Yevamot (116b) it is recorded that the Sages advised a woman to “playact” (to cry, tear her clothing, and dishevel her hair) when she appeared before Rabbi Judah to convince him that her husband had died, so that he would permit her to remarry.
In Tractate Arachin (23a), it is related that Moses the son of Etsri was the guarantor for the marriage contract of his daughter-in-law. His son, Rabbi Huna, was a scholar with little financial resources. Abaye said: “Is there no one to advise Rabbi Huna to divorce his wife and since he is without means, his wife will collect the money from his father and afterward Rabbi Huna will remarry her. This way he will be able to support her and himself.” The Talmud explains that this kind of conspiracy is permissible when it is done for the benefit of a son who is a scholar.
Rabbi Ezkiel Landau (18th century), author of Nodah Biyhudah, did not believe in amulets or in other supernatural remedies. Once he was consulted regarding an amulet. A distinguished woman was seized by a spirit of insanity. She felt that her condition was critical, and that she could be remedied only with an amulet prepared by Rabbi Ezkiel. Rabbi Ezkiel took a blank piece of parchment, wrapped it in a small pouch, sealed it with his personal signet, and said: “This amulet should be worn around the neck of the woman for 30 days. After 30 days, open the amulet. If the writing disappeared and the parchment is blank, it is a sign that the woman is remedied.” And so they did. After 30 days, they opened the amulet and found the parchment blank with no sign of any script. The woman entirely recuperated from her illness.
An example of a creative, deceptive intervention on the part of a respected rabbinic figure is an incident related about Rabbi Mordechai Lebton, the chief rabbi and head of the rabbinical court in Syria in the 19th century. One day, a distraught couple appeared before the rabbi for a divorce. Though the couple had been happily married for many years, during the last year the husband had become depressed, angry and impatient with his wife because she was barren and therefore decided to divorce her. The rabbi unsuccessfully attempted to persuade the husband to reconsider his decision since his wife was a fine meritorious person.
The rabbi, a highly intelligent and perceptive person who was able to penetrate the inner recesses of people and discern their dynamics and weaknesses, decided on a plan of action to cause the husband to revive his affection and appreciation of his wife. He instructed the couple to return the following day for the purpose of arranging the divorce procedures.
The next day, as the rabbi was preparing to divorce the couple, his student (upon pre-arranged instructions) barged in and whispered into the rabbi’s ear. The rabbi unexpectedly began scolding and yelling at his student to the astonishment of the estranged couple. When queried about his unusual behavior, the rabbi explained that his student had crossed the line of propriety. “My student had the audacity to ask me to hasten the divorce proceedings so that he could propose marriage to this wonderful woman.”
Upon hearing this, the shocked husband informed the rabbi that he decided to return to his wife and asked the rabbi for his blessing. The following year, a son was born to the happy couple.
It appears that the rabbinic attitude regarding the ends justifying the means is quite flexible, as they sanction and use manipulation and deception when noble goals are involved such as the enhancement of people’s emotional and social well-being.

Seymour Hoffman, PhD, a senior clinical psychologist, edited Interface Between Psychotherapy and Judaism:Issues, Case Studies and Deliberations and authored Thinking Out of the Box: Unconventional Psychotherapy, Golden Sky Books.
Rabbi Avrohom Gershon Hoffman is a Torah editor and consultant. He lives in Neveh Yaakov, Jerusalem.

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