This article originally appeared in the Jewish Free Press, Calgary

Identity Crisis*

We are becoming increasingly aware of the price to be paid for the technological conveniences of instant communication and on-line commercial transactions. In spite of the vigilance of security professionals, unscrupulous individuals continue to devise ways to steal the identities of innocent victims and spend other people's money on extravagant shopping sprees. Sometimes it makes me nostalgic for the slow old days when most transactions had to be carried out in cumbersome face-to-face encounters.

The tragic consequences of a "phony ID" incident formed the basis of the bleak novella "And the Crooked Shall be Made Straight" by the Israeli Nobel laureate S. Y. Agnon. The story's protagonist, the shopkeeper Menashe Hayyim, was reduced to poverty and had to try his luck as an itinerant beggar. Armed with a letter of reference signed by his rabbi, he succeeded quite well in his new craft and was persuaded to sell his letter to a fellow-mendicant.

Before he could return to his wife and home, Menashe Hayyim was robbed of all his cash and identifying possessions. Then the new owner of the letter died of starvation, and was erroneously identified as still-very-much-alive Menashe Hayyim. On the basis of that letter, his wife Kreindl Tsharneh was now presumed to be a widow and she received authorization to remarry. The new marriage, unlike her first, was blessed with a child.

When Menashe Hayyim returned unrecognized to his home town and found out what had been happening, he realized that if he were to reveal his true identity, then Kreindl Tsharneh would be placed in a state of adultery, unintentional though it might be, and her child would be declared illegitimate, a mamzer. Rather than shatter their chances for happiness, he quietly withdrew from the town and spent his remaining years as a beggar hovering around the cemetery. All because he had transferred an identifying document to another person.

In the earliest stages of its evolution, Jewish legal procedure usually gave credence only to the oral testimony of witnesses before the judge. This made it very hard to enforce agreements when the witnesses were located far away or were no longer alive. Accordingly, it was a major advance in the streamlining of commercial and other transactions when they recognized that a written signature could be accepted as a unique expression of a person's identity and consent. When attached to a legal contract or a testimony, a certified signature serves as a substitute for the physical presence of the person.

Though in ancient times, as at present, a signature would usually consist of the person's name, other symbols could also serve as acceptable identifiers. Thus, some rabbis would inscribe a single letter from their names, while others employed pictorial icons: Rav used a drawing of a fish, Rabbi Hanina drew a palm branch and Rabbah bar bar Hana a ship's mast.

When you think about it, the legal power embodied in a signature can be quite astounding. In rabbinic law, for example, if one of the original signatories to a document is no longer alive, then it can still be upheld if the signature is confirmed by valid witnesses or verified by comparison with an authorized copy preserved in a court archive.

You may be sure, however, that for as long as there have been signatures on bills and contracts, there has also been no shortage of greedy scoundrels ready to forge those signatures for their personal advantage. In diverse ways, Jewish religious law tried to fend off the forgers and identity thieves by setting out detailed procedures for how and where signatures must be placed on a document, how they should be interpreted when brought before a court, how to make corrections or deal with erasures, and so forth. For example, talmudic procedure states that one should avoid writing numeric sums next to the page margins, so as to prevent swindlers from adding digits to the numbers.

An extreme case of a forgery-proof document was the "bound deed" that was carefully folded and sewn into numerous pleats before being signed by at least three witnesses -- convention that is much more secure than such contemporary practices as placing a signature on the sealed portion of envelope (as we professors are asked to do when submitting confidential letters of reference).

As in our times, it appears that the ancient criminals often kept a step ahead of the law-enforcement system as they devised their ingenious schemes for circumventing the law. The Talmud tells us of a forger who was caught signing the name of Rav Abba bar Adda to a bill. Rav Abba suffered from a severe shakiness and the judge asked the culprit how he was able to reproduce that quality so expertly in the faked signature. The forger retorted that he had copied the signatures while holding on to a quivering rope bridge or while standing on a vibrating irrigation hose.

The prevention of forgeries or misuse of signatures was a particular passion for the fourth-century Babylonian sage Abayé, as we can infer from some passages in the Talmud. On several occasions his sharp eyes noted subtle peculiarities in the the ways that certain letters or numbers were inscribed on legal documents--such as when there was either too much or too little space around a character. This led him to suspect that larcenous parties had altered the original texts in order to increase the sum or to misrepresent the identity of the beneficiary. When such questionable cases were brought before him, Abayé had the suspects taken into custody, where they eventually confessed to their wrongdoing.

In one instance, Abayé recommended that a person submit his signature for confirmation on a clay potsherd so that it could be authorized by the court. The Talmud notes that Abayé's mention of a potsherd, rather than a more standard writing material like parchment or papyrus, was not incidental. He knew that if people get into the habit of leaving their autographs on blank sheets or paper, then they are inviting identity theft; as an ethically challenged miscreant could easily fill in the blank space before the signature with a declaration to the effect that the signatory owed him a large sum of money, or worse.

In a similar vein, Abayé recommended that a person who has occasion to register a signature on a paper or parchment document should make sure that it not be inscribed near the bottom of the document lest a swindler fill in the preceding space with damaging text.

In connection with that ruling, the Talmud relates a story about a certain bridge toll collector who once approached Abayé offering toll-exempt status for the rabbis of his community--provided that Abayé sign the authorization. Abayé was happy to comply and kept trying to write his name near the top edge of the page, as the toll-man kept repositioning the page so that the autograph would end up at the bottom edge. The wily rabbi figured out what was going on and informed the unsuccessful con man that the rabbis had long ago anticipated the methods of scam artists and had imposed mechanisms to forestall them.

I have no doubt that if he were alive today, that toll collector would be busily at work sending out mass emails asking people to provide passwords and bank account information in order to claim their portions of Nigerian inheritances.

This article and many others are now included in the book

On the Trails of Tradition
On the Trails of Tradition

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