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Purim and Intellectual Property

Updated: Dec 9, 2023

Did you know that Jewish law prohibits selling a basket of strawberries with the gorgeous ones on the top and the shmushy, moldy ones on the bottom? Well, Mesillat Yesharim doesn’t exactly mention strawberries, but it does say that it is forbidden to conceal the defects of something you are trying to sell. It is misleading and in Hebrew it is called genevat daat, stealing someone’s mind, misleading them, taking advantage of their ignorance.

Is it annoying or, maybe, tedious when I tell you that that teaching comes from Mesillat Yesharim, or when I am about to continue by quoting Chullin 104b as articulated in Pirke Avot 6:6, which tells us that “Whoever repeats a statement in the name of the one who said it brings redemption to the world.” If I learn something from another person or from a specific text or source, it is also considered “genevat daat,” stealing someone’s ideas, if I don’t tell you that Rabbi Judah said in the name of Rabbi Meir who heard it from the Anshei Knesset ha-Gdola. . . . I admit that this practice can be wearying. It also expresses a deep respect for intellectual property, a respect that precedes contemporary law by thousands of years. So, please forgive your rabbis when we share with you ALL the sources that contributed to our own understanding. We are honoring the tradition.

In fact, we are trying to get the best possible grade on God’s final exam, as we read in Shabbat 31a, “In the hour when an individual is brought before the heavenly court for judgment, the (first) question they will be asked is: Did you conduct your business affairs honestly?” The first thing! Not, did you light Shabbat candles every week or did you come to Kabbalat Shabbat services regularly? How we behave in the world, according to the highest ethical principles, is THE most important thing. We bring honor to Judaism and to the Jewish people when we live exemplary lives.

This Shabbat has a special name in our tradition. It is called, “Shabbat Shekalim.” It is the Shabbat before the new month of Adar, and we are reminded to get ready for Purim. This principle of genevat daat, or not stealing someone else’s ideas, has its source in the book of Esther. Alan Morinis writes as follows in With Heart in Mind– “When Mordecai told (Esther) about a plot to assassinate the king, she informed the king in the name of Mordecai. Later, the whole story turns on the king remembering the great service done to him by Mordecai, because Queen Esther had quoted her source.” (p. 254) “There can be more at stake,” Morinis concludes, “to justify citing your sources than just courtesy or good manners.” (p. 255)

Quoting the source of one’s learning is also a sign of humility, an acknowledgement that we all learn from others. Not to mention the fact that it is simply the truth. Failing to give credit where credit is due is tantamount to stealing. So says the midrash, exemplifying the principle in this example- this is a real quote!: “Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai said in the name of Rabbi Yitzchak bar Tavla who said in the name of Rabbi Chama Aricha who said in the name of Rabbi Acha who quoted the Tanna Rebbe Chiya: ‘Whoever does not say something in the name of its speaker transgresses a commandment, as it says (Proverbs 22:22) ‘Do not rob the destitute because he is destitute.’’”

Esther, whose very name means hidden- seter is secret- did not reveal her identity as a Jew until the megilla unfolded, pun intended. And yet, by quoting Mordecai as her source in the assassination plot, she exemplified this Jewish principle of quoting what you have learned in the name of the person who said it. She brought honor to her people, and, ultimately, set in place the events that led to the Jewish people being saved and our enjoying the upcoming holiday of Purim. As we prepare for the frivolity of this beloved holiday, we can also renew our commitment to the example of Esther, who fulfilled the principle that- “Whoever repeats a statement in the name of the one who said it brings redemption to the world.” Next time you hear me or Rabbi Chernow offer a long list of names of people we are quoting in our divrei Torah, perhaps you will be more patient and understanding, knowing that we are only trying to follow in Esther’s path!

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