Shiur #4: The Choice Between Intimidation and Pleasantness

  • Rav Yitzchak Blau
The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash

Understanding Aggada
Yeshivat Har Etzion


Shiur #4: The Choice Between Intimidation and Pleasantness

by Rav Yitzchak Blau


Rav Chisda said: "A person should never place excessive intimidation in his house, because in the story of the concubine of Giva, her husband did so, and it led to the deaths of tens on thousands from Israel."


Rav Yehuda said in the name of Rav: "Whoever excessively intimidates his family will eventually come to three sins - sexual immorality, murder and desecrating the Shabbat." 


Rabba the son of Bar Chana said that "Regarding the rabbis' saying that 'A person should say three things to his family on Friday before dark: Did you tithe? Did you make the eiruv? Then light the candles' (Mishna Shabbat 2:7) - these must be said in a pleasant fashion, so that the family will accept it from him."


Abbaye said: "I did not hear the teaching of Rabba the son of Bar Chana, but I fulfilled it due to my own reasoning." (Gittin 6b-7a)


            This aggada instructs us both about the negative implications of a home atmosphere based upon intimidation, and about the positive benefits of a more tranquil family environment. The placement of Rav Yehuda's statement immediately after the earlier discussion of the "concubine of Giva" motivates Tosafot to assume that Rav Yehuda refers specifically to that story. Locating murder in the concubine story is easy, as the story includes a bloody war fought between the tribe of Binyamin and the rest of the Jewish people. Locating the Sabbath desecration provides a bigger challenge. Tosafot, based on Seder Olam, argue that the story took place on a Shabbat. Alternatively, they cite the version of Rabbenu Chananel that the correct text of this gemara reads "chillul Hashem" (profanation of the name of God), rather than "chillul Shabbat." This makes the explanation simple. The poor behavior of almost all involved in this tale certainly constituted a significant profanation of the Divine name.


            Rashi differs from the above approach, and thinks that Rav Yehuda no longer has the "concubine of Giva" episode in mind when he mentions the pitfalls that come from fear and intimidation. In general, an atmosphere of trepidation for another human being paves the path toward sin. For example, a woman afraid of the shouts and insults of her husband might conceivably cook on Shabbat to quiet his capricious rage. In this fashion, the intimidation could lead to the three terrible sins mentioned by Rav Yehuda.


Following the discussion of the problems of intimidation, the gemara moves on to the positive impact of speaking nicely.  First, Rabba instructs us how to encourage our family members to finish all the requisite religious duties before Shabbat. Abbaye then points out that he came to the identical conclusion without hearing this teaching directly from Rabba. What is the import of Abbaye's remark? Why is it critical for us to know that he hit upon this idea without any help?


            Rav Meir Schiff, the seventeenth-century Rav of Fulda whose novella are printed in the back of the Vilna Gemara, offers an explanation. When Rabba derived this principle in a different way than Abbaye did, it was based on a careful reading of the mishna in Masekhet Shabbat. The mishna utilizes the word "lomar" (to say). Rabbinic tradition teaches us that the verb "amar" reflects a softer utterance, while the verb "daber" reflects a harsher command. Moreover, the phrase "be-tokh beito" indicates that the speaker sees himself as part of the household unit, rather than as a captain barking orders from above. Thus, a close reading of the Tannaitic source led Rabba to his teaching. Abbaye, on the other hand, thought that logic dictated speaking kindly, even without any textual inferences.


            Maharam Schiff's comment illustrates the twin aspects of Jewish learning. On the one hand, we have traditional sources whose authority we accept. We engage in a painstaking reading of these sources, in order to catch all the subtle nuances and inferences contained within. At the same time, we employ human reasoning – both analytic ability and intuitive insight - to help us understand the Torah. If so, Rabba and Abbaye complement each other, together reflecting the two aspects of talmud Torah (Torah learning). 


            Another way to think about Abbaye's postscript sees it as a more pointed statement. Some people mistakenly think that all halakhic demands come to us as explicit details in the great codes of Jewish law. They fail to realize that the Torah gives us overarching directives to live lives of holiness and moral goodness. These directives create demands even when these demands do not appear in the Shulchan Arukh. Perhaps Abbaye was saying that a person should not need a traditional source to teach him to speak nicely to his family members. Abbaye told us that he spoke softly without hearing it from Rabba, as no tradition is necessary for such basic ethical behavior.


            Rav Avraham Yitzchak Ha-kohen Kook (Ein Ayya, Shabbat 34a) offers another perspective on the difference between Rabba and Abbaye. Rabba explicitly adds that a person should speak this way "so that they will accept it from him." In other words, Rabba evaluates which approach provides a more effective educational strategy in the long run. As many teachers have done since, Rabba wondered whether he would get better results by coming down hard on those he is instructing, or by offering them words of gentle encouragement. He concluded that the softer path ultimately leads to greater performance. 


            Abbaye, however, chose to speak nicely because of his own reasoning, which did not factor in the question of consequences and results. When Abbaye mentions his "reasoning," he refers to a deontological ethic in which certain things must be done and other things must be avoided, without any connection to which results might emerge. Even if yelling at the family would give them greater motivation to tithe the produce, this would not justify yelling at people who do not deserve to be yelled at. Thus, Abbaye instructs us that even pedagogic issues of great importance cannot be settled by the utilitarian calculus that asks only what will produce finer results. Improper behavior remains so, irrespective of the good that might emerge from it. 


Rav Kook's insight should provide a stern warning for educators who focus only on pragmatic results. Such educators might arbitrarily pick a student to yell at on the first day to set the right tone of intimidation in the classroom. They might choose to throw a student out during the first month of school, so that those slacking off shake up. For Rav Kook, a teacher must evaluate the appropriateness of the act per se, before asking about the possible ramifications of the act.


Yet, it must be recalled that Rabba came to the same conclusion as Abbaye from the perspective that focused on results. This suggests an endorsement of speaking kindly from both outlooks. Most importantly, speaking gently is an independent value. Additionally, it will ultimately generate better results. Let us not be seduced into yelling as a form of righteous indignation, or as a quick fix for difficult students or children. From a multiplicity of viewpoints - textual and analytic, explicit norms and implicit values, deontological ethics and consequentialist morality – our sages taught us to speak with a gentle voice.