Change that is More than Skin Deep
In our Gemara on Amud Aleph, a discussion revolves around a particular eye disease and its potential cure. Tosafos raises a contradiction between our Gemara and Bechoros (38b), where the latter categorizes this disease as a permanent blemish rather than a temporary one. The distinction lies in the fact that a temporary blemish does not render a sacrifice invalid nor allow for its redemption, while a permanent blemish does. (Instead, one must wait until it heals, and then it can be brought as a sacrifice. Refer to Rambam Laws of Invalided sacrifices 2:6.)
Tosafos provides two answers to this apparent contradiction. First, Tosafos suggests that although the disease is curable, since the cure requires significant medical intervention and effort, it is still considered a permanent blemish. Alternatively, Tosafos proposes that our Gemara refers to the earliest stages of the disease when it is still curable.
Now, let’s delve into the underlying rationale behind each of Tosafos’ opinions. The second answer does not take into account the extent of medical intervention needed for the cure. As long as it is POSSIBLE to heal the blemish, it is considered temporary. On the other hand, the first answer maintains that the blemish must be able to heal with only minor medical intervention to be considered temporary. This viewpoint suggests that if there is a strong likelihood that the blemish will remain unchanged without intensive efforts, it cannot be considered temporary.
Arvei Nachal (Emor 1) highlights an intriguing text in Vayikra (22:25) that explains why blemished animals are not acceptable as sacrifices:
“וכִּ֣י מׇשְׁחָתָ֤ם בָּהֶם֙ מ֣וּם בָּ֔ם לֹ֥א יֵרָצ֖וּ לָכֶֽם”
The verse seems repetitive and circular, stating that blemished animals are unacceptable because they have a blemish. This explanation appears redundant.
Arvei Nachal proposes an insightful interpretation: Just as there are superficial blemishes in human character, there are external blemishes that reflect inner corruption. The repetition in the verse underscores this spiritual reality: “For their corruption is in them, they have a defect in them; they shall not be accepted in your favor.” The reason the “offering” is not accepted by Hashem, (i.e. the person in the metaphor), is that their behavior and external blemishes emanate from an inner imbalance.
Additionally, Arvei Nachal points out that the Hebrew word for blemish, “Mum” (מום), signifies this status. Each letter, Mem, Vav, Mem, forms a palindrome, indicating consistency from the inside to the outside. If a spiritual blemish is temporary (i.e., not deeply ingrained in one’s character), then the person is still acceptable before God when they repair it.
Health Benefits of Saffron and Talmudic Medicine
In our Gemara on Amud Aleph, there is a discussion about an herb that appears to restore sexual vigor:
אָמַר אַבָּיֵי: מִי שֶׁאֵינוֹ בָּקִי בְּדֶרֶךְ אֶרֶץ, לֵיתֵי שְׁלֹשָׁה קְפִיזֵי קוּרְטְמֵי דְחוֹחֵי, וְנֵידוּקִינְהוּ, וְנִישְׁלְקִינְהוּ בְּחַמְרָא וְנִישְׁתֵּי. אֲמַר רַבִּי יוֹחָנָן: הֵן הֵן הֶחְזִירוּנִי לְנַעֲרוּתִי.
Abaye says: As a remedy for one who is not an expert, i.e., does not have strength, in the way of the world, i.e., in sexual intercourse, let him bring three vessels [kefizei], each containing three-quarters of a log of kurtami. And let him grind them, and boil them in wine, and drink the mixture. Rabbi Yoḥanan says: These are the remedies that return me to my youth with regard to sexual intercourse.
The kurtami is identified as wild saffron according to Arukh, and it is believed to be related to the Greek Carthamus. Modern research supports the medicinal properties of Saffron oil. Studies conducted by researchers Hossein Ranjbar and Akram Ashrafizaveh have indicated improvement in erectile dysfunction in men and clinically significant improvement in issues related to female arousal, lubrication, and pain. (J Phytomed. 2019 Sep-Oct; 9(5): 419–427. “Effects of saffron (Crocus sativus) on sexual dysfunction among men and women: A systematic review and meta-analysis.”)
It is worth noting that there is a long-standing Cherem, enacted in the early Middle Ages, that discouraged the use of medical cures mentioned in the Talmud. The reasons given for this ban vary from potential mistranslation of the cures or recipes to changing physiology and/or environment, resulting in the treatments being ineffective. Moreover, concern was raised about the potential loss of faith among the unlearned, not only in these cures but also in the halakhos of the Talmud. (See Maharil, quoted by Rabbi Akiva Eiger on Shulkhan Arukh YD 336:1, Yam Shel Sholomo Chulin 8:12, and Responsa of Chavos Yair 234.)
It is likely that this prohibition only applies to cures exclusively validated by the Talmudic tradition. If there is an independent secular practice that utilizes the same medicine, it should be permitted. Otherwise, we would be stuck with a new set of stringent guidelines, needing to consult a “Rabbi Blumemkrantz” booklet to determine if a particular modern medical treatment corresponds with a Talmudic treatment to be avoided. Therefore, readers who are interested in exploring the potential health benefits of saffron may consider trying it, but they should not interpret these musings as medical advice.
Our Gemara on Amud Aleph employs a proof text from Psalms (38:14) to define the Hebrew words “Cheresh” as someone who is deaf and “Ilem” as a mute who does not speak:
וַאֲנִ֣י כְ֭חֵרֵשׁ לֹ֣א אֶשְׁמָ֑ע וּ֝כְאִלֵּ֗ם לֹ֣א יִפְתַּח־פִּֽיו׃
“But I am like a deaf man, unhearing, like a dumb man who cannot speak up.”
In the face of mistreatment, the question arises: When is it proper to speak up, and when is it proper to either ignore or forgive?
Rambam (Laws of Deos 6:6) states:
“When one person wrongs another, the latter should not remain silent and despise him, as [II Samuel 13:22] states concerning the wicked: ‘And Avshalom did not speak to Amnon, neither good, nor bad, for Avshalom hated Amnon.’ Rather, he is commanded to make the matter known and ask him: ‘Why did you do this to me?’ ‘Why did you wrong me regarding that matter?’ as [Leviticus 19:17] states: ‘You shall surely admonish your colleague.’”
Is it an extra act of piety to choose to forgive and not speak up? At first glance, it would seem that this is what the Gemara (Rosh Hashanah 17a) means when it says:
“רָבָא אָמַר: כׇּל הַמַּעֲבִיר עַל מִדּוֹתָיו — מַעֲבִירִין לוֹ עַל כׇּל פְּשָׁעָיו”
Rava understood this verse differently and said: With regard to whoever forgoes his reckonings with others for injustices done to him, the heavenly court, in turn, forgoes punishment for all his sins.
Even if this is true, one must be careful about deluding oneself into thinking they are pious and forgiving until they suddenly blow up with repressed rage over a series of past misdeeds. The other person was unaware of all these transgressions as you were avoidant of discussing it, possibly for less than pious reasons (see Arakhin 16b, which might be referring to this when it uses the term, “Anava Shelo Lishmah”).
However, I do not believe this to be true. Here is how the Rambam formulates this (ibid 6:9):
“If a person who was wronged by a colleague would rather not admonish him or mention the matter at all because the person who wronged him was very boorish or because he was mentally disturbed, [provided] he forgives him totally without bearing any feelings of hate or admonishing him, it is an act of piety. The Torah is concerned only with those who carry feelings of hate.”
The implication is that the preferred path is to confront the other person as long as it is done with respect. It is considered an extra pious act to let go and forgive if the person was not likely to be receptive. (Avodas Hamelech on the Rambam agrees with this interpretation.) Rashi’s choice of words in Rosh Hashanah (17a) seems to also indicate that the pious standard is not absolute silence in the face of humiliation, though his formulation is not like the Rambam, :
“המעביר על מדותיו – שאינו מדקדק למדוד מדה למצערים אותו ומניח מדותיו והולך לו”
One who overcomes his personal temperament: someone who is not exacting to make sure to give back in-kind to those who distress him. Instead, he stays calm and carries on without confrontation.
Rashi implies that it is a relative matter: “He does not give back in kind.” This extra phrase suggests that his response should be measured but perhaps not without any attempt at clarifying or assertiveness.
You might wonder, let us say you are not such a pious individual, and you do not want to overlook this insult, and you still don’t believe the person will take the confrontation well. Is it permitted by the Torah to confront the person anyway? Quite possibly. After all, that is why it is considered an extra pious act to abstain from saying anything. Or, maybe one must keep quiet if there is a strong likelihood of ugly conflict, and the extra piety involves not resenting the person and forgiving them as opposed to hating them. Sefer Yereim (195) does seem to say that if you make reasonable effort to inform somebody that they hurt you, and they remain hostile and not contrite, at that point there is no prohibition against hating them because they are a sinner and a violator.
One important point to consider is that even if the person is now labeled a sinner and is permitted to be hated in a sense of loathing and disgust, we are still obligated to show kindness towards a person in terms of our behavior. Rambam (Laws of Murder 13:14) states:
“The enemy mentioned in the Torah is not a gentile but rather a Jew. One might ask: How is it possible for one Jew to hate another? Is it not written Leviticus 19:17: ‘Do not hate your brother in your heart’? Our Sages explained that this is referring to a person who, while alone, sees a colleague violate a transgression and rebukes him, but the colleague did not cease transgressing. In such an instance, it is a mitzvah to hate the person until he repents and abandons his wickedness. Even if he did not repent yet, if one sees him in panic because of his cargo, it is a mitzvah to unload and reload with him, instead of leaving him inclined toward death, lest he tarry because of his money and be brought to danger. For the Torah showed concern for the lives of the Jewish people, both the wicked and the righteous, for they are attached to God and believe in the fundamentals of our faith.
Also, at the moment that a person is being attacked, it may be permitted to fire back in kind, because it is considered self defense, (See Shemiras Halashon, Be’er Mayim Chayyim, Lavin 8:4). Of course, judgment and discretion should be used. Not everything that is permitted is smart to do relationship wise.
One final point regarding the verse quoted in our Gemara. This verse indicates two processes: (1) to practice holding back from speaking when insulted or shamed but also (2) to not even hear the insult in the first place.
Tzror Hamor (Bereishis 3:7) speaks of this idea, that the pious person doesn’t even see or notice mundane matters so he is insulated from certain griefs. This is why Adam and Chavah are described as having “their eyes opened “ after they ate from the Tree of Knowledge. They started to notice the various distractions of the world.
As Sefer Hachinuch (241) counsels, how you perceive what is happening can help manage the hurt and anger:
מִשָּׁרְשֵׁי הַמִּצְוָה. שֶׁיֵּדַע הָאָדָם וְיִתֵּן אֶל לִבּוֹ כִּי כָּל אֲשֶׁר יִקְרֵהוּ מִטּוֹב עַד רַע, הוּא סִבָּה שֶׁתָּבוֹא עָלָיו מֵאֵת הַשֵּׁם בָּרוּךְ הוּא. וּמִיַּד הָאָדָם מִיַּד אִישׁ אָחִיו לֹא יִהְיֶה דָּבָר בִּלְתִּי רְצוֹן הַשֵּׁם בָּרוּךְ הוּא, עַל כֵּן כְּשֶׁיְּצַעֲרֵהוּ אוֹ יַכְאִיבֵהוּ אָדָם יֵדַע בְּנַפְשׁוֹ כִּי עֲוֹנֹתָיו גָּרְמוּ, וְהַשֵּׁם יִתְבָּרַךְ גָּזַר עָלָיו בְּכָךְ, וְלֹא יָשִׁית מַחְשְׁבוֹתָיו לִנְקֹם מִמֶּנּוּ, כִּי הוּא אֵינוֹ סִבַּת רָעָתוֹ, כִּי הֶעָוֹן הוּא הַמְּסַבֵּב, וּכְמוֹ שֶׁאָמַר דָּוִד עָלָיו הַשָּׁלוֹם (שמואל ב טז יא) הַנִּחוּ לוֹ וִיקַלֵּל כִּי אָמַר לוֹ יְיָ. תָּלָה הָעִנְיָן בְּחֶטְאוֹ וְלֹא בְּשִׁמְעִי בֶּן גֵּרָא. וְעוֹד נִמְצָא בְּמִצְוָה זוֹ תּוֹעֶלֶת רַבָּה לְהַשְׁבִּית רִיב וּלְהַעֲבִיר הַמַּשְׂטֵמוֹת מִלֵּב בְּנֵי אָדָם, וּבִהְיוֹת שָׁלוֹם בֵּין אֲנָשִׁים יַעֲשֶׂה הַשֵּׁם יִתְבָּרַךְ שָׁלוֹם לָהֶם.
It is from the roots of the commandment that a person know and put into his heart that everything that happens to him — good and bad — the cause of it coming to him is from God, blessed be He. And from the hand of man — from the hand of a man to his brother — there would not be anything without the will of God, blessed be He. Hence, when a person caused him pain or hurt him, he should know for himself that his [own] sins caused [it], and that God, may He be blessed, ordained this for him. And he should not place his thoughts to taking vengeance from [the one who pained him], since he is not the cause of his evil, but rather the sin is the cause; like David, peace be upon him, stated (II Samuel 16:11), “leave him to curse, since the Lord told him [so]” — he made the matter depend upon his [own] sin, and not upon Shimei ben Gera. And there is also a great benefit found in this commandment, in quieting a dispute and removing enmity from the heart of people. And when there is peace among people, God, may He be blessed, will make peace for them.
Our Gemara on Amud Aleph discusses certain legal limitations to an agent. What is considered halakhically as a verbal directive cannot be delegated to an agent. For example, if a man sent another person to direct the scribe as his agent to write the get, such a directive is mere words, and that agent cannot appoint another agent. However, if a man appoints an agent to deliver an already written get to his wife, that agent can appoint another agent. One explanation is that the get is now a tangible object and not mere words.
Sefer Sifse Maharash (Rav Shmuel Engel, 1853-1935) uses this idea as a clever derash to explain a Midrash that addresses a metaphysical question. The Midrash Rabbah (Bamidbar 21:1) tells us that God said about Pinchas:
פִּינְחָס בֶּן אֶלְעָזָר בֶּן אַהֲרֹן הַכֹּהֵן (במדבר כה, יא), אָמַר הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא בְּדִין הוּא שֶׁיִּטֹּל שְׂכָרוֹ
“Phinehas ben Elazar [who is] the son of Aaron the priest”: The Holy One, blessed be He, said, “It is appropriate that he should take his reward.”
We have a general principle, what does not receive reward for mitzvos in this world (Kiddushin 39b), so why should Pinchas be different? Additionally, there is a general question that some have asked about the idea that God does not give rewards in this world. After all, God made it an ethical directive to pay workers on time. As it states in Vayikra (19:23), “Do not hold back the workers’ payment until morning.” Why then is God allowed to hold back the reward for mitzvos until the afterlife?
To answer this last question, Rav Engel cites a legal case from Bava Metzia (110b-11a):
ת”ר האומר לחבירו צא שכור לי פועלים שניהם אין עוברין משום בל תלין זה לפי שלא שכרן וזה לפי שאין פעולתו אצלו
The Sages taught: Concerning one who says to another, “Go out and hire workers for me,” both of them do not violate the prohibition of delaying payment of wages if they fail to pay immediately. This one, the employer, is exempt because he did not hire them himself, and strictly speaking they are not his hired workers. And that one, the middleman, is exempt because his work is not performed for him.
Using this case, we can explain why God is not liable to make immediate payment and reward for mitzvos. God commanded Moshe to communicate with the Jewish people the commandments. This is just as we have learned earlier, a situation of an agent being unable to appoint a second agent to carry forth a verbal directive alone. On the other hand, Rav Engel suggests an opinion based on Kesef Mishna (Terumos 4:9) that in a case of a verbal directive for an inevitable act that must be done, the agent may appoint another if it cannot be done by the agent himself. Without getting into the lomdus too much, the logic is something along these lines: There isn’t much reason that the original appointee would have reservations about taking the initiative to appoint another person, because he knew the deed needed to be done and it was understood that the first agent was not able to do it.
We were taught in the Midrash (Rashi Balak 25:7) that at the time of crisis when Pinchas performed his zealous act, Moshe and his Beis Din temporarily forgot the halakha and did not know what to do. Only Pinchas remembered. Therefore, Moshe surmised that God specifically wanted Pinchas to perform this act. If so, this is not under the rubric of a messenger appointing workers for the householder. In this case, Pinchas was commanded directly by God. Therefore, God must make payment right away.
We can reframe this derash and understand it philosophically as well. The commandments God gives us are not really to be seen as work that we are hired out to do for Him. Instead, we might say that Moshe uncovered the truth and the will of God to help us understand the opportunity in the Torah. The mitzvos were given as commandments because they are no less than commandments. However, they are far more. It is like saying, “My doctor commanded me to take this medicine to save my life.” The doctor really is not commanding you, nor are you doing him a favor by taking the medicine. But it has at least the same imperative drive as if he commanded you to take it. Our attitude toward the mitzvos in the Torah should be in a similar light.
Do Not Be Too Smart
Our Gemara on Amud Aleph records Rava criticizing two sages for making an incorrect monetary halakhic ruling that erroneously benefited them, while presenting an unreasonable burden for the ferrymen with whom they made a deal. Rav calls Rav Pappa and Rav Huna, son of Rav Yehoshua, “White Geese.” This is an odd epithet. Rashi says the white geese refer to their long white beards, as they were elders. There is some support for this peshat also from a Gemara in Berachos (57a):
הָרוֹאֶה אַוּוֹז בַּחֲלוֹם — יְצַפֶּה לְחׇכְמָה שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר: “חׇכְמוֹת בַּחוּץ תָּרֹנָּה”
One who sees a goose in a dream should anticipate wisdom, as it is stated: “Wisdoms cry aloud in the streets, she utters her voice in the broad places” (Proverbs 1:20).
I would like to add a peshat based on a Malbim (Torah Ohr, Bereishis 2:19, Note 3) which explains, based on Adam’s naming of the animals, how each animal embodies various character traits or patterns of behavior. (It is a basic human instinct to draw comparisons between various traits of animals and human personality. For a fascinating discussion of this see pp. 170-171 in Claude Levi-Strauss’ classic, “The Savage Mind“.) From a psychological perspective, we can say that our emotional repertoire comes from unconscious and instinctive traits that can also be seen in animals. In particular, we find Geese embodying a particular archetype of a person who is alternately drawn to companionship and isolation. This is because the goose has a wild form that is undomesticated, and also a domesticated form; and even sometimes a domesticated one will run away and become wild. The Gemara (Bava Basra 73b) speaks of a vision that Rabba bar bar Ḥana had:
וְאָמַר רַבָּה בַּר בַּר חָנָה זִימְנָא חֲדָא הֲוָה קָא אָזְלִינַן בְּמַדְבְּרָא וַחֲזֵינַן הָנְהוּ אֲווֹזֵי דְּשָׁמְטִי גַּדְפַיְיהוּ מִשֻּׁמְנַיְיהוּ וְקָא נָגְדִי נַחֲלֵי דְמִשְׁחָא מִתּוּתַיְיהוּ אָמֵינָא לְהוּ אִית לַן בְּגַוַּיְיכוּ חֻלָקָא לְעָלְמָא דְאָתֵי חֲדָא דְּלִי גַּדְפָּא וַחֲדָא דְּלִי אַטְמָא כִּי אֲתַאי לְקַמֵּיהּ דְּרַבִּי אֶלְעָזָר אָמַר לִי עֲתִידִין יִשְׂרָאֵל לִיתֵּן עֲלֵיהֶן אֶת הַדִּין
And Rabba bar bar Ḥana said: Once we were traveling in the desert and we saw these geese whose wings were sloping because they were so fat, and streams of oil flowed beneath them. I said to them: Shall we have a portion of you in the World-to-Come? One raised a wing, and one raised a leg, signaling an affirmative response. When I came before Rabbi Elazar, he said to me: The Jewish people will eventually be held accountable for the suffering of the geese. Since the Jews do not repent, the geese are forced to continue to grow fat as they wait to be given to the Jewish people as a reward.
Malbim explains this as a metaphor for an encounter that Rabba bar bar Hana had with a group of Nazirs who rejected life amongst people and civilization. The goose that raised the wing represents the aspiration toward intellectual and spiritual pursuits, and the goose that raised the foot represents aspirations toward zealous performance of Commandments. However, in either case, it is not ideal that they have to isolate themselves. Part of it is an indictment upon the Jewish people who were not able to support sages well enough that they could properly afford to live amongst people. (It is interesting that Malbim has no rebuke or comment for the Nazirs themselves, who he described as abandoning their children and family. Perhaps, he felt that was implicit because the Nazir himself is an ambivalent figure, whose separation from worldly matters is not seen by the Torah as usually correct, except under unusual circumstances for a time-limited period, see Nazir 2 and 4b.)
In light of this, perhaps Rava was rebuking them for being out of touch and far away from practical concerns of day-to-day people, so the ruling that they made was without appreciation for the subjective predicament of the other party. In essence, he was accusing them of being in an ivory tower.
Echoes of this sentiment can be found in R. Kook’s words in Shemonah Kevatzim 1:463 (translation mine):
“The folk who live according to their instincts and are not learned are actually superior in many respects to the learned folk. In particular, their instinctive common sense decency and morality were not corrupted by the intricate, wearying, and too-clever burdens of scholarship.
Yes Does Not Mean Yes
Our Gemara on Amud Aleph describes various situations where a wife may be bashful to ask for payments or property promised to her, even though it rightfully belongs to her. While in some ways, female and male patterns of behavior have changed in modern times, it is important to respect that there are also patterns of behavior that remain feminine or masculine for many people. These patterns need to be respected and not ignored.
Men and women have different tendencies and emotional defenses. Often, when men are frustrated, they may turn to aggression. When women are frustrated, they may turn to more passive forms of aggression. This is not always true, but it is a pattern of masculine and feminine behavior. Thus, if a woman feels angry or trapped, she is less likely to respond with aggression and more likely to take covert action, such as lying. The idea that women under pressure are more prone to evade the truth is not a criticism. It is an observation that the sages had, most likely coming from compassionately taking into account the fact that they often feel physically overwhelmed and threatened, and tend to react less aggressively than men do in a similar situation. This has to, in some way, affect how one behaves. It is just as much the man who contributes to the pattern as the woman, but nevertheless, it is a pattern that is important to recognize in a realistic manner.
We find a ruling in Bava Basra (49) that operates off a similar assessment of male and female patterns of behavior:
The mishna teaches that a husband does not establish the presumption of ownership of his wife’s field by enjoying its profits. The Gemara suggests: By inference, the husband has the ability to bring proof that he purchased the field from his wife or received it as a gift from her and consequently be regarded as the owner of the field. The Gemara asks: Why is this proof decisive? Let her say: I did it, i.e., I gave or sold the field to my husband, only to please my husband, but I did not mean it.
In fact, it is described within the Torah with both Sarah outright opting to lie out of fear (Bereishis 18:15), and Rivka engaging in subterfuge and manipulation of Yitschok in pursuit of obtaining a blessing for Yaakov (see the beginning of Bereishis 27), as well as hiding the real reason that Yaakov had to run away (Esau’s murderous rage) by making it about Shidduchim (End of Bereishis 27 and the beginning of 28). It is notable that there is not much commentary from the sages on their behavior, even though typically when a patriarch or matriarch is described by the Torah as sinning, it is mitigated with contextual explanations and justifications, such as by Reuven or Dovid Hamelech (see Shabbos 55b-56a). Yet, when it comes to Sarah’s or Rivka’s behavior, we are met with silence. I believe the reason is that it does not require justification; it is simply the way between men and women.
There are practical relational applications to this principle. As the person in the relationship who naturally tends to more aggression, it is incumbent upon the man to check and double-check if his wife truly agrees to something or is just feeling intimidated. Rabbi Shlomo Hoffman (שיחות על שידוכים ושלום בית עמוד 147-148) tells over that one Erev Yom Kippur, Rav Isaac Sher did not let him daven at the Yeshiva because he said, “You did not get permission from your wife.” Rav Hoffman objected, “But I did ask her, and she said yes.” Rabbi Sher said, “That’s not mechilla! Any good wife would say yes under those circumstances! You need to ask her with real options, such as, “Should I go daven at yeshiva, or maybe I’ll daven vasikin and then I’ll watch the children while you go daven.” Rabbi Sher did not let me daven at the Yeshiva until I traveled back home and obtained “real permission.”
Our Gemara on Amud Beis wrestles with a linguistic conundrum: how a man should phrase a condition in his Get, to be considered valid and executed a moment prior to his death, but not be activated should he survive. This was a common practice to protect people from falling to Yibum to a much younger brother who is not appropriate to marry:
אֶלָּא אָמַר רָבָא: “אִם לֹא מַתִּי לֹא יְהֵא גֵּט, אִם מַתִּי יְהֵא גֵּט, אִם לֹא מַתִּי לֹא יְהֵא גֵּט” –
Rather, Rava said that the condition in the bill of divorce of a dying man should be worded in the following manner: “If I do not die, this will not be a bill of divorce. If I die, this will be a bill of divorce, and if I do not die, this will not be a bill of divorce.”
״אִם לֹא מַתִּי לֹא יְהֵא גֵּט״ – לָא מַקְדֵּים אִישׁ פּוּרְעָנוּתָא לְנַפְשֵׁיהּ; ״אִם מַתִּי יְהֵא גֵּט, אִם לֹא מַתִּי לֹא יְהֵא גֵּט״ – בָּעֵינַן הֵן קוֹדְמִין לְלָאוֹ.
The Gemara explains the necessity for such a formulation: The husband first says, “If I do not die, this will not be a bill of divorce,” because a person does not hasten a calamity upon himself. Therefore, he first mentions the possibility that he will not die. Then he states the compound condition in the following order: “If I die, this will be a bill of divorce, and if I do not die, this will not be a bill of divorce.” This is because we require that the affirmative precedes the negative.
Based on this Gemara, Ben Ish Chai (Shu”t Torah Lishmah 376) suggests that when it is possible, one should always sandwich the bad between good statements. For example, if somebody is discussing the pros and cons of an upcoming business deal, he should say something like, “Profits are expected to be at a rate of return of 25%, but there is a possibility that we will lose money, but hopefully we will succeed.” While Ben Ish Chai admits that this kind of phraseology is awkward, he thinks it is worth it, and people of the proper caliber would understand why you’re speaking in that manner and appreciate it.
The idea of sandwiching painful things between two positive things is also an important communication tool. John Gottman’s marriage research advocates a certain style of relating that is less likely to trigger defensiveness and create more emotional receptivity. It is known as the “Soft Start-Up.” One way to achieve a soft start-up is to broach difficult topics with an opening statement that genuinely validates and shows respect or understanding for the other person’s perspective, then injects the particular criticism or complaint, and then ends again with a positive validating statement. I liken this to the Korech sandwich at the Seder; you keep the bitter herb sandwiched between the two pieces of Matzah. So too, the harsher statement is sandwiched with the positive. Here are three examples:
- “I can understand that yesterday you were in a big hurry to leave the house, and I know that your current job situation is stressful. Unfortunately, you forgot to take out the garbage again, and it makes extra stress on my part, especially after having asked so many times. I do understand, though, that you have a lot on your plate as well. What are your thoughts?”
- “I can see how difficult it is when you are tired and all three children are making demands at the same time. I get that it is difficult for you to stick with the boundaries and consequences that we decided would be good to implement for discipline. Still, I’m frustrated because I think when you give in to the tantrum, you are encouraging the wrong behavior in the long run. I do still understand how challenging it is when you are stuck all day by yourself with demanding children. What are your thoughts?”
- “I know that you want to do what is right by your parents, and it is difficult sometimes to feel like you’re in a bind between what your parents want and what is good for our family. It is a painful situation. At the same time, sometimes I don’t think it’s healthy, and I think it’s actually hurtful when you cave into their needs and forget about what is good for me or good for the children. I do understand again how difficult it is, and you did not want to hurt your parents or make them angry with you. What are your thoughts?”
Notice how in all these cases, there is an effort to understand the other person’s subjective needs and the intrinsic validity of their point of view. There is criticism in the middle, but it is not overstated nor understated. It concludes with more validation, and most importantly, it asks the other person for their perspective. Adopting an approach like this is more likely to produce collaborative brainstorming instead of finger-pointing and frustration.