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Tuesday, 8 April 2014

Would you tell your mother everything you do online?

Beitzah 9

Today’s Life Yomi is in memory of the 150 kedoshim who were burned alive in York, England, on this day in 1190 and l’iluy nishmas Binyamin ben Moshe z”l.  Following the massacre, the Jewish community made a decision not to live in York for hundreds of years.  Binyamin z”l was one of the first people born in York following the end of the cherem in the early twentieth century.  

Stacy had dragged Boris in to see me, completely shocked at what she called her husband’s “secret life.”
“What happened?” I inquired.
“I caught Boris gambling online,” said Stacy, the tears welling up in her eyes.
“Rabbi, please tell her that spending fifty bucks on an online poker game doesn’t make me a compulsive gambler.”
“He’s right,” I responded, “If that’s all he spent, don’t you think you might be coming down a little hard on him.  Many people spend that in five minutes at the casino.”
By now Stacy was fighting back the tears.  “I understand, Rabbi.  But my dad was an addict and went to jail for embezzlement.  I don’t want my husband to go anywhere near that evil.  And I was so upset to find him doing it secretly.” 

In order to have food for Yom Tov, we are permitted to slaughter on the festival.  If one keeps his doves in a tall bird-house, Beis Hillel would permit bringing a ladder to reach them.  Beis Shamai, however, forbids bringing a ladder, because ladders were generally used to perform manual labour on top of the roof.  Onlookers who see someone schlepping a ladder might assume that it is being carried for work purposes.  And therefore to avoid any suspicion, one may not even schlep such a ladder to the bird-house.  This principle of avoiding suspicion is called maris ayin. 

Rabbi Chanan bar Ami teaches that in a private area where there are no people around to watch and get the wrong impression, Beis Shamai would agree that one may schlep the ladder to the bird-house.

Rabbi Yehuda asks: According to Rav, anytime our Sages prohibited an activity due to maris ayin, such activity is forbidden even in the privacy of an inner chamber of one’s own home, when it is impossible that there be onlookers.  Once our Sages determined that something is maris ayin, the decree applies no matter where you are.  Even if you’re the only person on a desert island, you can’t engage in activity that might ordinarily be cause for suspicion!  If so, Beis Shamai’s ruling about the ladder should not make any distinction between public or private space.

If we may not engage in behaviour that is completely innocuous and permissible when nobody is watching, then certainly we must be so careful that we do not engage in behaviour that is improper or sinful when we are alone!  If we would be ashamed of doing it publicly, then we must hold ourselves to the same standard, even when no one is watching. 

In times gone by, it wasn’t so easy to engage in improper behaviour.   To be a gambler, one had to frequent a casino.  (While gambling on occasion is not forbidden in Judaism, it is frowned upon).   People notice when you go regularly to the casino and they start talking about you and your family and your ethics. Who would want to be the talk of the town?  Not anymore.  Nowadays, one can become a gambler in the privacy of one’s own bedroom or office.  And nobody else will ever be any the wiser.

Today, at the click of a button, one can view images that previously would have required walking into a newspaper store and publicly placing an item on a counter for all to see – something most decent people would never have dreamed of doing.    

Rav’s teaching is a helpful litmus test for us in our private lives.  Even if you think that your behaviour is harmless and really not that terrible, would you be prepared to engage in such activities publicly?  Would you be comfortable telling your spouse that you do it?  How about your mother?  Or the person you sit next to in shul?

Whatever you wouldn’t do publicly for fear of giving the wrong impression, you must not do even privately.  And certainly those things that are not just hidden from the public eye because of wrong impressions but because they’re not 100% kosher, don’t do them privately either!  We live in trying times when the yetzer hara (evil inclination) seeks to ensnare us with every click of the mouse button.  Don’t ever let him get you with his wily tongue – just keep asking yourself ‘would I be happy to admit publicly that I do this?’

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