March 23, 2012
Accidental Talmudist: Day 1574 - Don’t Eye the Merchandise
My son’s 7th birthday is coming up and he wants a punching bag so he can practice tae kwon do at home. I studied the art myself for years, so I know what he needs, and it’s not an inflatable, wobbling piece of dreck that ends up punctured in a week. He’s got a solid roundhouse. He needs a good bag, with a heavy base, that will survive thousands of punches and kicks.
The problem is we don’t have a spot for a bag like that inside our house, and the elements will eventually ruin a bag if you leave it outside. I did lots of online research, but I couldn’t find the right solution. So I did something I hardly ever do anymore: I went to the store.
Good thing. By seeing the bag in person, and talking with an expert, I learned we can keep a good bag outside because the punching part comes off the base quite easily, and can thus be stored inside. Having done the research, however, I also realized the bag in the store was overpriced. I could therefore simply go home, one-click on Amazon, have the right bag delivered free of charge (love that Amazon Prime) and save a fistfull of dollars. But there’s a big problem:
One should not say to someone, “How much is this item,” if he does not want to buy. (Bava Metzia 58b)
I first heard this teaching from Rabbi Mordecai Finley, who explained, “If even this kind of speech is prohibited, how much more must we avoid words that destroy peace in the home.”
It is absolutely prohibited to cause anguish through speech. In fact, the Sages teach that anyone who “makes his friend’s face turn white in public, it is as if he has spilled blood,” i.e. murdered his friend. (Ibid.)
The Sages derive this prohibition from the Torah’s monetary laws in Leviticus 25, where the words “man shall not wrong his fellow” are mentioned twice: once to ban deceit in business, and again to prevent every other form of harmful speech. Examples range from reminding people of past wrongs, to branding them with mocking nicknames.
The ban on humiliation is readily understood because damage to a reputation cannot be undone. But why is it so wrong to inquire about the price of an object when you do not intend to buy? After all, Mama said, “You better shop around.”
R’ Yehuda says a person should not even eye merchandise when he does not have money. (Bava Metzia 58b)
Catch that? It is harmful speech to imply that you’re interested in merchandise, even if you don’t say a word! Rashbam explains that you will thereby harm the vendor by causing others to believe you are buying the item, thus causing real buyers to look elsewhere. (Pesachim 112b, Daf Yomi Day 434)
Ben Yehoyada says the vendor will be harmed because others will see you looking without buying, and assume the merchandise is tainted or overpriced. (Ibid)
Most interesting of all, however, is Rabbeinu Chananel’s teaching: since you will not buy the item in the end, you will come to diminish its value in the eyes of the vendor. (Ibid.)
Now this is very strange. Surely the vendor knows what the item is worth. Does it really confuse him that I look at his merchandise without buying? Doesn’t he desire that I look today, even if I don’t buy, for perhaps I will buy tomorrow?
What is going on here? I received a clue when my wife reminded me of a teaching by Rabbi Reuven Wolf regarding Amalek, the little tribe that attacked the Jewish people right after G-d delivered us from the superpower, Egypt. At that moment, the whole world knew G-d was with us, but Amalek didn’t care. Amalek knew he would be wiped out for attacking us, but he just didn’t care. Why? Because Amalek is all about self-destruction, and Amalek is most engaged when holiness is close at hand.
Rabbi Wolf explains that Amalek means “nation of slaughter” - the kind of slaughter in which the head is detached from the torso, i.e. the brain is cut off from the heart. Amalek is an inner voice that interrupts our wise-hearted flow, and ruins everything good. It tells us we are inadequate, generates doubt, and leads to passivity, anger or worse, when the opposite is most needed.
Think of a time when you were inspired to go out, or go in, and do something new and good. At such a moment you’re in a beautiful, but vulnerable space. Your resolution can waver. The new enthusiasm can easily die. What you need at that moment is support. A pat on the back can work a wonder. What will kill the momentum every time, however, is a snicker.
Somebody dismisses your new venture with a smug little laugh, and suddenly you doubt its value. That person’s Amalek engages your Amalek, and then your new business idea, your new diet, your new mitzvah doesn’t seem so worthy in your eyes, and the bag is punctured. Worse, the mocker doesn’t even have to snicker out loud. A mere glance can send the message, and your new venture suddenly seems like a waste of time.
I like to try new things. I’ve passed through that vulnerable beginner phase many times. I don’t even remember the endeavors that didn’t stick. But I put in years of work with Talmud, tae kwon do, screenwriting, directing, rowing, and more. And I’ve been most rewarded in those activities by helping others to engage in them. I love teaching, and I’ve had many students.
As a teacher, I’ve observed over and over again how easily a person can lose regard not only for a new endeavor, but even for the most precious merchandise of all: his or her self-confidence. To build that confidence by appreciating a person’s effort is a holy thing. To eyeball their endeavor and dismiss it is a sin. And that is why we must be so careful not to look like a buyer when we stand near someone’s precious stuff, if in fact we never had any intention to buy into it.
So, what did I do at the martial arts store? Well, I got off easy. The bag they had in stock was black and pink. My son hates pink (probably because his older sister loves pink). No way I’m giving him a pink punching bag for his birthday. But I did buy him the punching gloves at the store, as well a couple of kick pads so we could work out together. Those items were overpriced too, but at least I compensated the vendor for his valuable advice.
May we all support each other in our nascent endeavors, and may we merit to achieve some level of mastery in the fields we most enjoy. Shabbat Shalom!
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Salvador Litvak wrote and directed the Passover comedy and cult hit “When Do We Eat?” His current film, “Saving Lincoln”, explores Abraham Lincoln’s conflicted tenure as commander-in-chief through the eyes of his dear friend and bodyguard, Ward Hill Lamon.