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Ambiguous Statements III

By Rabbi Daniel Travis

"…Perhaps it was an oversight on their part." (Bereshith 43:12)

The previous essay discussed the importance of accustoming oneself to saying, “I don’t know.” One could ask: is there not a certain amount of deception in one saying that one does not know something when in fact one does? Is it not better to tell the truth?

How insightful were our Sages when they said that one should “accustom” one’s tongue to say that one does not know. By making a habit of this, it becomes a type of catch phrase rather than an expression of fact. When people recognize that this statement is a regular part of one’s conversation, they will no longer take it literally. Consequently there is no question of falsehood involved (1).

A certain Rav would often reply, “I don’t know,” when asked his opinion. On one occasion, one of his students asked him a question and received the usual repsponse, “I don’t know.” The student, wanting to get a clearer answer, mustered up his courage and asked: “What does the Rav mean when he says ‘I don’t know’?” The Rav responded, “Sometimes I don’t know; other times I know but I realize that the person asking me disagrees, and will not be budged. In that case, it is preferable to say ‘I don’t know’ than to engage in a meaningless argument.” Recognizing that the Rav was speaking frankly, the student continued “So what did ‘I don’t know’ mean in this case?” The Rav smiled and said, “I don’t know”(2).

1. Commentary of the Paath Lechem on the Chovoth Levavoth Shaar HaYichud, Ch. 2. See also related essay entitled “Ambiguous Statements I,” (page 136) on Bereshith 23:11, 15-16. 2. Heard from Rav Pinchas Lebovic.

Text Copyright © 2007 by Rabbi Daniel Travis and



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