By Rabbi Yair Hoffman
“Are you going to the wedding tonight?”
“Yes. Would you like a ride?”
“No, actually. I was wondering if you could do me a favor . . .”
“Sure, what is it?”
“Could you take my place card for me and put it in your pocketbook? I really don’t feel up to going.”
A quick survey revealed that this is actually a common conversation. While it may be common, it may not necessarily be permitted. The issue might be subsumed under what is called gneivas da’as, deceiving others. In cases that may not involve financial transactions, it may also be problematic. On the other hand, it could be that such a request is meant to avoid causing the host any pain. Indeed, it may even be construed as a mitzvah.
Let’s begin with the pertinent sections in the Talmud.
The Gemara in Chulin 94a cites a Braisah which discusses four examples given by Rabbi Meir of things that are forbidden on account of the issue of gneivas da’as:
1. It is forbidden to repeatedly invite someone to a meal when one knows that he will refuse.
2. It is forbidden to repeatedly offer someone gifts when one knows that he will refuse.
3. It is forbidden to open a new barrel of wine for a guest, when one had previously arranged for its remaining contents to be sold, unless one informs him of the real reason for opening it (the underlying issue is that the wine will not last as long once the barrel is open, and it will appear to be a big favor to the guest, much as opening a brand-new bottle of Blue Label would be nowadays).
4. It is forbidden to offer someone oil from an empty flask to anoint himself, when one knows full well that the person will refuse it. If, however, one is offering the oil to show his fondness for the person (to others, according to Rashi), it is permitted.
The Gemara questions the third example by pointing out that Ullah visited Rav Yehudah’s house, and the latter did this very thing!
Two Answers In The Talmud
The Gemara provides two resolutions to this question. The first answer is that Rav Yehudah informed Ullah that the barrel had to be opened anyway. The second answer is that Rav Yehudah loved Ullah so much that he would have opened up the barrel for him anyway—even if he would not have had to do so due to previously arranging for a sale. This can be qualified further by the fact that the fourth example any case when there is further economic “owing” on the part of the person being honored.
Two Different Approaches To Geneivas Daas
The commentaries (see Lechem Mishnah Hilchos Dayos 2:6) point out that these two different answers seem to hold two very different views as to the parameters of the prohibition. The first opinion would seem to hold that gneivas da’as would be forbidden in all circumstances—even when the person would have done the favor anyway. The second opinion seems to hold that when there is a beneficial mitzvah purpose, and there is no economic damage that the gneivas da’as itself is causing, gneivas da’as would be permitted.
The Gemara in Yevamos (106a) cites an illustration of where gneivas da’as would be permitted. Abaye someone money perform the mitzvah of chalitzah. Other examples can be found too (see, for example, CM 81:1 regarding the promotion of Torah learning, and the Levushei Srad on the TaZ 261 cited in Ohel Avrohom of Rav Avrohom Teitelbaum p. 130).
The conclusion that must be made from this second Gemara is that gneivas da’as is permitted to avoid the negation of a positive mitzvah in the Torah.
Back To The Place Card
Getting back to our wedding place card, according to the second answer of the Gemara, gneivas da’as would be permitted if he would have done it for the person anyway. Here the guest would have come; it is just that something else came up or the person wasn’t feeling well. Thus, if the reason to request that the place card be taken away is to prevent the host from feeling bad, it might be permitted, particularly because there is no monetary damage involved here.
On the other hand, the first answer of the Gemara forbids geneivas da’as even under circumstances where the person would have come anyway.
Assuming that this understanding of the two answers is correct, how do we ultimately rule? The Poskim (see Tur CM 228, Rambam Dayos 2:6, and Rosh ibid) do not cite the second answer of the Gemara, which indicates that they do not hold of it.
How then do we understand the Gemara in Yevamos 106a where Abaye gneivas da’as? We must conclude that it is permitted when faced with the abnegation of a positive mitzvah in the Torah such as chalitzah, or bris milah, etc.
Gneivas da’as is different from lying. The Gemara in Yevamos (65b) allows one to lie when it is unavoidable in order to maintain shalom. We do not find this leniency, however, in regard to gneivas da’as.
The Views Found In Other Writings
This position is also backed up in the Mussar writings of Judaism. Rabbeinu Yonah (Shaarei Teshuvah 3:181) also states that sheker (lying) and gneivas da’as (misleading) are not synonymous. He cites the oft-quoted section of the Talmud that for purposes of peace, mipnei hashalom, it is permitted to lie, and adds that there is no such leniency for gneivas da’as. We also find that the Magain Avraham (OC 156:4) wonders whether the leniency to lie for the purposes of maintaining peace applies only to lying about the past and not about the future.
Rav Yechezkel Abramsky (Chazon Yechezkel Bava Kamma 7:3), in his commentary to the Tosefta, also rules that, even mipnei hashalom, it is forbidden to violate gneivas da’as. The likely reason for all this is that, given the opportunity, one is liable to use improper means to achieve personal benefit.
Nature Of Gneivas Da’as
Another issue is whether the prohibition is of biblical or rabbinic origin. The Sefer Yereim (in Mitzvah #124 of Lo Signov) rules that it is a biblical prohibition. The Ritvah on Chulin also rules that it is biblical—even when not dealing with monetary damage. The SMaK (#262) rules that gneivas da’as is a rabbinic violation. How does the SMaK understand the fact that the Gemara cites a pasuk to back up this prohibition?
An analytical device called asmachta involves the sages quoting a verse that alludes to an issue—even though it may not be a biblical prohibition, just a rabbinical one. Why would the Gemara do this? The meforshim explain that the verse is cited to show the readers that they should take it seriously.
One Last Possible Counterpoint
One could possibly argue that avoiding making someone feel bad fits into the fourth example of the Gemara cited earlier, that if it is to extend honor to the person and there is no financial damage to the person (or further “owing”), then it would be permitted. The problem with this is that extending honor is not necessarily synonymous with avoiding making them feel bad. Nonetheless, the Vilna Gaon does provide an alternative reading of the Tosefta in Bava Kamma (7:3) that would fit into this distinction.
All in all, however, it would seem that gneivas da’as is not something recommended by the poskim. Most poskim hold that it is a Torah prohibition and is worse than mere lying, which might be a strong moral recommendation rather than an out-and-out prohibition (though the Chofetz Chaim does hold that lying is an out-and-out prohibition).
Thus, it would probably be advisable not to ask someone to take the place card. One can understand, however, why someone would want to do so. Indeed, it seems that the second answer in the Gemara in Chullin agreed with that rationale. Ultimately, however, the poskim seemed to have rejected that approach.
Also, one can question whether the tactic of taking off the place card will actually work. One woman who recently married off a child remarked, “I would know. Even though I had over 700 guests, I can still tell who was there and who wasn’t.” There are also the matter of the photographs and the video.
This article is not addressing some other very important issues, such as the monetary waste involved in so much food being thrown out, as well as the tremendous time expenditures involved in waiting around for the first dance to begin. We will leave these issues for a possible future discussion. v