This article originally appeared in the Jewish Free Press, Calgary

Verify Your References*

Researchers in academia are fond of quoting the maxim If you steal from one author it's plagiarism; if you steal from many it's research. Few of those who cite this bon mot take the trouble to refer to its author, the American dramatist Wilson Mizner. Nevertheless, the obligation to cite one's sources remains one of the few values that is cherished and enforced in the university milieu.

Jewish tradition traces this sacred tenet back to the story of Purim. In the book of Esther, shortly after our heroine's induction into Ahasuerus' royal household, Mordecai learned about a conspiracy against the king that was being hatched by Bigthan and Teresh. Fortunately, the Jewish courtier was able to make use of Esther's presence in the palace to convey this vital intelligence to Ahasuerus. He told it to Queen Esther, and Esther told the king in the name of Mordecai (Esther 2:22). Based on this incidental detail, a rabbi in the Talmud derived an important lesson: Rabbi Eleazar said in the name of Rabbi Hanina: Anyone who cites something thing in the name of its author brings redemption to the world.

As will become evident later on in the biblical narrative, Mordecai's role in saving the king's life contributed significantly to Haman's humiliating debacle. Nevertheless, it is not immediately obvious why is was so essential for Esther to identify her source when reporting the matter to the king. It was therefore logical for the talmudic sages to infer that the author wished thereby to convey a general lesson about the momentous importance of quoting one's sources.

Apart from the exegetical issues that were posed by the biblical text, we may plausibly assume that Rabbis Eleazar and Hanina were sensitive to the importance of accurate attribution in their own scholarly culture, which was founded on the transmission of oral teachings across generations. In the discourse of Jewish religious law, the identity of a saying's author is frequently the chief criterion for deciding between conflicting opinions. For this reason, the rabbis applied the words of the Torah (Deuteronomy 19:14) You shall not move the landmarks of your neighbor, which the former ones set in the inheritance to individuals who confuse the names of the authors of halakhic statements. As the commentators explain, the imprecise attribution of a Torah tradition constitutes an illicit moving of the landmarks of the Almighty, which were carefully set by the ancient talmudic authorities.

Rabbi Hanina's advocacy of intellectual property raises an interesting conundrum. While he flourished in the early third century, his insight into Esther's behaviour had previously been noted by Rabbi Josiah, a scholar who lived several generations earlier. Rabbi Josiah pointed out that, according to the account in the Torah, Eleazar the priest was careful to preface his instructions to the Israelite armies with the acknowledgment This is the ordinance of the law which the Lord commanded Moses (Numbers 31:21). This served as a legal precedent for citing sayings in the names of their authors, in the same way that it says 'and Esther told the king in the name of Mordecai.' The eighteenth-century scholar Rabbi David Pardo explained that the Bible's explicit attribution of Eleazar's words to Moses would otherwise be superfluous, since we automatically presume that all the teachings of the Torah were taught by Moses. For this reason, the Midrash understood that the Torah was teaching us a universal principle, which was also understood by Esther.

In fact, a similar teaching about identifying sources is found in yet another early source, a passage appended to the end of Pirkei Avot (6:6), where no author is named! Therefore, it is not clear whether R. Josiah should be viewed as the original author of the dictum, or if he was merely transmittings an older tradition. Either way, there is no little irony in the fact that the Pirkei Avot version should bring this particular statement without identifying its earliest author, and that the Talmud should in turn present it as a teaching of Rabbi Eleazar in the name of Rabbi Hanina without referring to the older versions.

Rabbi Eleazar himself had his own run-ins with plagiarism. In one episode recorded in the Talmud, he neglected to stipulate that a statement he uttered in the academy had been heard from his teacher Rabbi Simeon ben Lakish. When Rabbi Simeon heard about this, he was understandably irritated, and tried to embarrass Eleazar in the academy by hurling difficult objections at him. Eleazar humbly accepted the rebuke and did not attempt to resolve the objections. Eventually, Rabbi Simeon was appeased, and he calmed down.

On another occasion, it was Rabbi Yohanan who was offended because Rabbi Eleazar failed to reference him. Rabbi Yohanan's indignation was not placated until another scholar pointed out to him that everybody knew how close was the master-disciple relationship between these two rabbis, and therefore it was universally understood that anything the student taught had to be based on what he had learned from his teacher.

We are all sensitive to the harm that is caused by sloppy and inaccurate reporting. I don't know whether the raising of journalistic or scholarly standards will be enough to bring deliverance to the world--but at any rate, it is most unlikely that any redemption will be forthcoming until, like Queen Esther, we begin to pay closer attention to the sources of our information.


This article and many others are now included in the book

Sanctified Seasons
Sanctified Seasons

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My email address is: eliezer.segal@ucalgary.ca

 

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