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Rabbi Gil Student

The Problem with Stories

Judaism thrives on stories that inspire and educate. The Talmud and Midrash contain many such stories, some about legal cases and others about interactions filled with important messages. The Talmud explicitly discusses how to use stories properly, which can inform how we consume information in other areas of our lives.

Rav Chisda once ruled on an inheritance case and when R. Ami heard about it, he exclaimed how wrong the ruling is (Bava Metzi’a 39b). This got back to Rav Chisda, who dismissed R. Ami’s proof because the younger brother in the case was a minor at the time of the father’s death. When R. Ami learned of this, he retracted his comments because he had not heard the full details of the case and, indeed, Rav Chisda ruled properly. R. Ami’s experience should be familiar to us all. Too often, we hear a story only in broad outlines. In our minds, we fill in the details, often without realizing it. Yet those details make all the difference and we easily reach an incorrect conclusion.

Missing Data

For this reason, many Sages warn against drawing conclusions from stories. The Gemara (Bava Basra 130b) says that we do not derive a halachah from a teaching or a story unless the speaker or protagonist says explicitly that the message is intended for practice. Rashbam (ad loc., s.v. ve-lo, ad) explains that if you see your teacher doing something, do not establish halachah like that because you might not understand the nuances of the situation. You must confirm the ruling with your teacher to ensure you fully understand his thinking. Similarly, Tosafos (Horayos 2a s.v. hacha) says that a student may not have looked at the action with sufficient care and understanding. He might have overlooked an important aspect.

This is an important message to keep in mind, particularly when hearing scandalous stories reported in the media and online. What are the reporters missing? What key condition was overlooked which could turn a damaging story into a reasonable occurrence that could happen to anybody? It is difficult to know the truth when we hear only partial information, or information that is sometimes twisted to look as bad as possible. On the other hand, what does this attitude do to the Talmudic method? So many lessons are taught through stories. If we cannot learn from them because we might be missing crucial details, why are we told so often to learn from stories? I think the answer lies in a radical story about R. Yehudah Ha-Nasi.

Saving Stories

The Gemara (Chullin 7a) tells of how R. Meir’s brother-in-law, R. Yehoshua ben Zeiruz testified that R. Meir ate a vegetable leaf in the city of Beis She’an without removing from the vegetable the required portions of maser and terumah. Based on this, R. Yehudah Ha-Nasi declared that Beis She’an is outside the borders of biblical Israel and therefore produce grown there is not subject to terumos and maasros. This was a big step, for which R. Yehudah Ha-Nasi suffered heavy criticism. 

  1. Yirmiyah challenges R. Yehudah Ha-Nasi’s ruling. Maybe R. Meir holds that terumah and maser on this vegetable apply only to a bundle and not a single leaf. Maybe R. Meir forgot to remove terumah and maser. Maybe he took terumah and maser from distant vegetables. While we might be able to answer each question, R. Zeira finally shuts R. Yirmiyah down with the statement: “See how great the man is who is testifying!”

Putting this in different terms, R. Yirmiyah raises the question that we have been discussing. Stories cannot serve as a source of normative practice because there might be crucial details missing from the story. R. Yirmiyah pushes his point by suggesting different details that might change the conclusion. R. Zeira answers that a story is as good as its source. He does not focus on R. Yehoshua ben Zeiruz’s telling the story as testimony but his personal status. A story can be used to draw practical conclusions when the person who is its source, and presumably those within its chain of transmission, are mature scholars who understand the relevant factors.

Critical Reading

Rav Naftali Tzvi Yehuda Berlin (Netziv, 19th cen., Russia; Meromei Sadeh, Chullin 7a) states this clearly. Even though we do not normally draw practical conclusions from a story, we accept a Torah scholar’s teaching of practical halachah even when he deduces his ruling from a story. Rav Menachem Mendel Krochmal (17th cen., Czech; Responsa Tzemach Tzedek, no 75) responded to stories about Torah-observant people drinking beer made with non-kosher wine sediment. Rav Krochmal rails against reliance on such stories. People often testify about activity that is blatantly against halachah and cannot be trusted because they do not understand the laws or the circumstances. They compare cases, assuming equivalence based on ignorance. It is like saying that someone cooked on Yom Tov so clearly you can cook on Shabbos. It is easy for someone unfamiliar with the nuances of Jewish law to be unaware that cooking is specifically permitted on Yom Tov, in contrast to Shabbos. Therefore, unless a Torah scholar transmits a story, you cannot rely on it for practical conclusions.

Skepticism is an important trait when reading news and hearing stories. However, you go too far in your skepticism when you take it to mean that nothing is reliable. We need to balance our critical reading, looking for missing information and trusting reliable sources where appropriate.

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