A Son’s Solution to Tension between His Parents
Those who have the privilege of regularly studying Gemara constantly hear about the rulings of Rav and his many debates with colleagues such as Shmuel and Leivi. We also very often hear of Rav’s illustrious son Rabi Chiya express his authoritative opinion on a wide variety of Torah matters. The Gemara (Yevamot 63a) offers a rare glimpse into the family life of this celebrated family of top-rank Rabbanim. I thank the congregants at the Sephardic Congregation of Teaneck (Shaarei Orah) and the students at the Torah Academy of Bergen County, whose insights helped shape the current presentation.
The Gemara tells us:
“Rav was irritated by his wife. If he asked her to make lentils, she made peas. If he asked her to make peas, she made lentils. When his son Chiya got older, he (Chiya) would reverse the request (and then his mother would make what the father wanted). Rav said to his son, ‘Things are going better with your mother. Chiya said, ‘I am reversing it for her.’ Rav said, ‘This is what people say (a Talmudic expression for a popular adage): “The one who comes from you teaches you good sense.” You should not do this, as the verse states, “They have taught their tongue to speak lies and weary themselves to commit iniquity” (Yirmiyahu 9:5)’.”
Rav apparently admires his son's clever strategy, as he mentions a common folk proverb about learning wisdom from children. At the same time, he instructs his son to cease misreporting to his mother.
A Classic Contradiction
Several of the traditional commentaries ask why Rav instructs Chiya to refrain. After all, it is a well-accepted Halachic principle that one is permitted to lie for the sake of Shelom Bayit (preserving peace). For example, Halachah follows Beit Hillel who rules (Ketubot 17a) that one should praise a bride as beautiful even if she is not. Moreover, a few pages later in the very same Masechet (Yevamot 65b), we learn that Hashem Himself deviated from the strict truth to preserve harmony between Avraham Avinu and Sarah Imeinu. Sarah could not believe she would have a child because “my husband is old” (BeReishit 18:12). Hashem, when reporting Sarah’s words to Avraham Avinu (ibid. Pasuk 13), stunningly alters Sarah’s words and relates that she said “How can I give birth seeing that I am old!” Furthermore, Hashem even instructs Shmuel HaNavi to lie (Shmuel I 16:2) in order to maintain his peaceful relationship with Sha’ul HaMelech.
Why shouldn't Chiya employ the same principle?
Three Classic Answers
The Maharsha (commenting upon Yevamot 63a) sees the Pasuk cited from Yirmiyahu as the key to the answer. The prophet there speaks about learning to evade the truth. A situation in which Chiya would constantly lie to his mother would train him for a life of deceit. While the occasional lie to protect someone's feelings will not have a negative educational impact, an ongoing pattern of falsehood will. Therefore, Rav directs Chiya to stop. Indeed, the Gemara (Sotah 42a) states that habitual liars will not merit receiving the presence of the Shechinah.
The Iyun Ya’akov (a commentary by Rav Ya’akov Reischer found in the Ein Ya’akov) offers an alternative explanation. He argues that in situations where the truth will invariably come to light, one should not lie. In such a case, the lie will only bring temporary relief until the full truth emerges, and then the deceived individual will respond with even greater anger.
Rav Yitzchak Blau notes (in his wonderful book Fresh Fruit and Vintage Wine page 130):
“We can understand that the Iyun Ya’akov is making more than the pragmatic point of ‘Lie only when you can get away with it.’ Rather, he is pointing out how often the spreader of falsehood becomes trapped in webs of his or her own making and ultimately cannot keep the falsehood going. As a result, it behooves us to think carefully about lying, even when we do so for a good cause.”
Rav Shlomo Luria (Yam Shel Shlomo) says that lying for the sake of peace is permitted only for the occasional lie, but not for a consistent policy of lying. Rav Blau (ibid.) writes:
“While we could understand his point as being identical with that of Maharsha, Rav Luria says nothing about training the child in deceit. Perhaps he intends to make a different point. If a relationship depends upon an ongoing pattern of falsehood, then the falsehood is not truly repairing the relationship, but only covering up the fact that something in the relationship is rotten. The occasional lie can be reconciled with a healthy and meaningful relationship, but not a lifetime of falsehood. Rav understands that Chiya's strategy does not truly address the tension between him and his wife, and he instructs Chiya to desist.”
The author of the Ben Ish Chai, the great Sephardic luminary Rav Yosef Chayim of Baghdad, also wrote a commentary on the Aggadah, called Ben Yehoyada. There, he adds a point that works well with Rav Blau’s insight. He asks: Why does Chiya tell the truth to his father, and not just lie to him as well?
Rav Chayim explains that not telling Rav would lead to calamity. Rav would think that the rift is repaired and would return to the former intimacy with his wife, including revealing his innermost secrets. If his wife remains angry with him, she will use those secrets to hurt Rav. Chiya understands that Rav must know the truth so that Chiya's strategy won’t damage his father.
This explanation also strengthens Rav Blau’s interpretation of Rav Luria's position, namely, that false solutions often cause more harm than good. Although not every rift can be healed, falsehood is no substitute for proper resolution.
Three New Explanations
Torah Academy of Bergen County students suggested that Rav is teaching that children should not try to resolve tension between their parents. Although children’s efforts may help the parents, it is psychologically harmful for children to try to solve their parents’ issues. This is a boundary which children should never disrespect. It is always in the best interest of children to not become tangled in the web of parental marital discord.
TABC students also suggested that one may lie only for exceptionally important matters. Apparently Rav felt that his receiving his preference of either peas or lentils is not sufficiently important to justify telling a lie. The Torah regards truth-telling as being of paramount importance. The Mishnah (Avot 1:18), for example, states that the world stands on three things: “justice, truth and peace.” In fact, the Gemara (Shabbat 55a) teaches that Hashem's seal is truth. Thus, one may lie only in regards to matters of very serious import. Rav felt that receiving his preferred meal is a trivial matter not warranting his lying in order to receive the food he wishes to eat.
I suggest an answer based on the following insight: Rav seems to have been living (at least during that time in his life) in poverty. The fact that the Gemara mentions only peas and lentils suggests that this is all he ate, perhaps because he could not afford to purchase anything more expensive. I find it most reasonable to assume that Rav considered using his son’s strategy of reversing his requests long before Rabi Chiya introduced this idea (Rav simply wished to criticize his son in the gentlest manner possible, so he couched his rebuke with praise).
I believe that Rav understood that his wife was (either consciously or subconsciously) resentful of their poverty and that this generated her habit of refusing to serve him the food he preferred. Rav felt, I believe, that it is better to allow his wife a benign outlet for her resentment in order that she function properly in all other areas of their family life. Rav teaches an essential lesson that is vital for all couples to learn - it is of utmost importance to maintain perspective and not be bothered by small irritations.
In contemporary society, if a spouse behaved like Rav’s wife, his or her partner would likely file for divorce. Richard Carlson, author of the best-selling book Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff, observes that many Americans may be characterized as very easily irritated. He notes that this negative character trait sharply decreases one’s quality of life. Rav teaches us to live differently. Rav teaches that expecting less and tolerating more enhances one’s quality of life. Rav did not “sweat the small stuff” and was blessed with his son Chiya emerging as a major Torah giant whose thoughts appear on many pages of the Gemara.