By Rabbi Yehoshua Berman
Kesubos 23 – Powerful Words, Powerful Minds
The mechanism of peh sheh’assar mandates that it is the subject’s own admission that is the only source of our knowledge of that which could potentially make him or her assur. That is why when the individual in question adds a piece of information that would indicate heter, it is accepted. However, if, for example, it is known that a woman was captured by Goyim, we cannot rely on her own testimony that they did not violate her. Unless we can find at least one objective witness (even an eved) who can corroborate that fact, she will not be permitted to marry a Kohein.
For this reason, Shmuel could not understand why his father – known as Avuha d’Shmuel – insisted on appointing Jewish guards over the women that were in captivity and brought to their locale while negotiations for their ransom were still ongoing. “Who kept watch over them until now?” is the challenge that Shmuel presented to his father over the latter’s seemingly unnecessary insistence to have guards.
As it turns out, there was no statutory, halachik reasoning behind Avuha d’Shmuel’s actions. It was simply a matter of care and concern for the girls’ welfare irrespective of whatever may have already taken place. And he was not too pleased by his son’s apparent indifference.
“If it were your daughters would you be so discourteous?!”
That was the stinging rebuke that Avuha d’Shmuel gave to his son in response to the latter’s query. But, beyond the need that Avuha d’Shmuel felt to set things straight that it is not only statutory halachik considerations with which one must be concerned, the Gemara says that uttering this statement in the manner that he did was like a blunder coming forth from before the ruler, k’shegaga sheh’yotza mi’lifnei ha’shalit.
At some later point, the Gemara does not disclose precisely when, Shmuel’s daughters were also captured by Goyim. The captors eventually brought them to Eretz Yisrael (Shmuel lived in Bavel). They brought the girls to the local, Jewish leadership to demand a ransom for their release. However, the girls managed to convince their captors to wait outside for a few moments while they go in first to talk to the Rabbanim. Maybe they persuaded them to believe that if they would go in first by themselves, there is a higher chance that they could arouse the mercy of the Rabbanim to pay whatever will be demanded.
In any event, once inside the Beis Medrash of Rabi Chanina, the girls both told him “I was captured but nothing happened; I am tehorah.” Rabi Chanina immediately pronounced them permissible to marry Kohanim. Finally, the captors made their entry to follow up with the business for which they came. Although at that point it became obvious to everyone that these girls had been captured, and knowledge of that information was no longer based on their word alone, the heter stood. Once the pronouncement of heter in such a case is given, it is not revoked.
Rabi Chanina did not conceal his excitement over what these girls had just done, and he exclaimed, “These are children of a great person!” That is the only way they would have known, explains Rashi, to do what they did. Eventually, they figured out that these girls were the daughters of Shmuel.
A dramatic account, isn’t it? Although involving a very unpleasant situation, it does have a happy ending. There is certainly a lot that can be said about such a maaseh. Not the least of which, the awareness of our power of speech. Granted, none of us are holding anywhere near the greatness of Avuha d’Shmuel, and we therefore would not expect such disastrous results of a slight slip of the tongue that carries an unintended negative implication. Nevertheless, we still get an idea of the power of our words.
And, of course, if this applies when it comes to words that are potentially negative, how much more so when it comes to words that carry positive power. Because the klal gadol is middah tovah merubah, the positive side is always 500 times stronger than the negative side (as Rashi brings down by the Aseres Ha’Dibros). It is amazing to think about how much bracha and chesed we can draw down from Shamayim, both for ourselves and others, when we say positive things that convey hope, confidence, and goodness (see Tiferes Shlomo on Pesach).
Another amazing facet of this story is the way Shmuel’s daughters managed to keep such a cool, level-headed frame of mind despite their harrowing situation. Don’t forget, for all they knew, the negotiations could fall through, and they could remain in captivity for the foreseeable future. Nevertheless, they managed to maintain their composure and self-control to the extent that no one there entertained the slightest notion that there were captors standing right outside the walls of the Beis Medrash!
By doing this, they managed to score a really big win for themselves.
It’s true, the Gemara does say that they only knew to do what they did because of who their father was; but that is as far as knowledge of the halacha is concerned. Regarding the way they kept up their absolute composure, though, we have many contemporary accounts of people of much simpler background doing just that in the face of great danger, particularly in the annals of Holocaust history. But not at all limited thereto.
The point is, as admittedly difficult as this can be, that we stand to gain a lot by keeping our cool. When a person goes into panic mode, it doesn’t really matter how much he or she may know. In the moment of unbearable dread and anxiety, a person’s rational thinking can fly right out the proverbial window. Maintaining one’s composure, on the other hand, affords one the opportunity to greatly mitigate any potential damage; and, at times, as we see in this story of Shmuel’s daughter’s, to prevent any damage at all. Is it hard? No question! But it is nevertheless a very worthwhile investment.
When you put these two points together – cultivating a habit of positive word power and an overarching sense of equanimity no matter what – the doors of opportunity and bracha that open up are simply inestimable. So it’s worth a try, right?
Rabbi Yehoshua Berman serves as the Rosh Kollel of Kollel Reshet HaDaf in Ramat Beit Shemesh, Israel. In addition to having authored Reflections on the Parsha, Rabbi Berman regularly delivers shiurim on Halacha and Hashkafa, writes comprehensive chazara questions (in Hebrew) for the advanced Daf Yomi learner, and weekly words of inspiration from the Parsha. Rabbi Berman can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.