This article originally appeared in the Jewish Free Press, Calgary

Loose Lips *

Several events during the recent months have drawn our attention to the immense damage that can be caused by leaking information that was meant to be confidential. Huge uproars have resulted from such diverse incidents as the mislaying of an experimental iPhone prototype in a bar, publication of the identities of Israeli soldiers involved in the Gaza campaign, or the distribution by WikiLeaks of embarrassing diplomatic correspondence.

Each of these cases raises its own practical and moral issues, and the public debate will assuredly continue to give voice to contrasting positions as to whether whether they are triumphs of our democratic rights to freedom of information or treacherous violations of national security.

From the perspective of Jewish history, at any rate, it seems quite clear that the divulging of strategic secrets is regarded as a very grave offense that should be punished severely.

Indeed, the standard daily prayers contain a passage that is explicitly directed against such miscreants: “May the informers have no hope.” Though the operative term is often interpreted as referring to the activities of gossips and talebearers, it is clear that the original meaning of "informer" was a decidedly political--or even a military--one.

When the Jews of the holy land were living under Roman occupation, Jewish society took on the character of an underground movement committed to a policy of resistance (whether active or passive) against the evil empire. Their struggle could only succeed if they could maintain a high level of secrecy; and they generally succeeded at this, as may be inferred from the events leading to the Bar Kokhba uprising when (according to the ancient historian Dio Cassius) the Jews were able to create an intricate network of clandestine tunnels throughout the Judean hills under the Romans' noses, as well as to "accidentally" manufacture substandard weaponry for the Roman legions, so that it would be discarded and subsequently refurbished for use by the rebel forces.

The Midrash projected this situation back to the Israelites in Egypt, explaining that one of the virtues by which that generation was deemed worthy of redemption was that no one betrayed the secret preparations for their departure.

It is therefore understandable that the Jewish leadership took a very dim view of informers. The sanctions were not limited to condemnation in the prayers, but could even extend to capital punishment or vigilante action. Furthermore, the secrets need not be of an explicitly military character. One of the most widespread--and most severely punished--varieties of informing consisted of revealing a person's property to the tax authorities.

We must of course bear in mind that the regimes in those days were not democratically elected governments who collected their revenues equitably in order to finance social welfare programs. Colonial taxation was a for-profit business, farmed out to greedy entrepreneurs who were determined to squeeze out as much as they could get away with from their oppressed subjects. Ratting on a person's taxable assets was therefore treated as a dire and punishable offense by the Jewish communities of Israel and Babylonia.

The Talmud preserves a disquieting incident that took place in the early third century in Babylonia. When a person threatened to reveal somebody's undeclared inventory, the eminent halakhic authority Rav ordered him to desist, but the culprit could not be dissuaded. Rav's disciple Rav Kahana, who was present during the exchange, took the law into his own hands and fatally broke the informer's neck.

From Rav's response, it seems clear that he had no religious or moral objection to Kahana's behavior, which was evidently motivated by a realistic consideration of the dangers that would have faced the informer's victim. Rav was, however, alarmed about the practical consequences of Kahana's deed. Babylonia had only recently undergone a major change of government. The previous regime, headed by the Hellenizing Arsacid Parthians, had allowed a large measure of judicial autonomy to the diverse ethnic groups of the empire, including the Jews. The Parthians would not have objected if a rabbi had executed a transgressor in accordance with Jewish law. However, since the year 226, Babylonian was subject to the authority of the Persian Sassanian dynasty who were enforcing a highly centralized administration. "Previously we were dealing with the Hellenists who were not so strict about executions, but now it is the Persians who take a dim view of our executions, and will cry 'Murder! Murder!'" Rav persuaded Kahana that now might be an opportune time to immigrate to the land of Israel.

Several Jewish communities during the medieval era continued to exercise the right of putting informers to death. This was particularly common in Spain, where the Jews argued that this authority fell within the jurisdiction granted to them by the king to administer their own legal affairs.

Rabbi Asher ben Jehiel (the "Rosh") who migrated from Germany to Spain in the early fourteenth century, observed that the prevalent custom throughout the diaspora was to seek out ways to do away with confirmed informers, in order to strengthen the social fabric and to deter other potential informers, as well as to provide assistance to their victims. On the basis of these considerations, he approved of a Jewish court that ordered the hanging of an informer, applying to him the words of the biblical judge Deborah (Judges 5:31): "So let all thine enemies perish, O Lord."

The regulations enacted for Castilian Jewry by the council of Valladolid in spring 1432 devoted much space to the penalties of fines, imprisonment or excommunication that were to be enforced against Jews who informed on their coreligionists. They felt that these crimes posed such a grave existential threat to the community that they warranted a relaxing of the normal rules of due process. In some cases where the charges could not be proven according to the strict halakhic laws of evidence, the court could be authorized to brand defendants on their foreheads with hot irons. After a third conviction, a repeat offender was to be handed over to the royal tribunal for execution [--all this, of course, provided that the leaked information was not intended in the first place for the benefit of the king].

Now I am not suggesting for a moment that anyone who divulges a secret should be branded or executed. Nonetheless, it is worth reminding ourselves that some military and diplomatic confidences can have an immense impact on lives or property, and informers should be prepared to suffer serious consequences.

To judge from the public discussion of the issues, it would appear that it all comes down to a question of whose confidences are being leaked. If they are airing your embarrassing secrets, then the informers are obviously vile traitors, but if the confidences are somebody else's, the whistle-blower is to be acclaimed as a champion of free speech.

Everybody seems to hold a very strong opinion on the topic.

So just to be on the safe side, I would request that you not divulge publicly the contents of this article.

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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  • First Publication:
    • The Jewish Free Press, Calgary, February 4, 2011, p. 13.
  • For further reading:
    • Baer, Yitzhak. A History of the Jews in Christian Spain. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1992.
    • Beer, Moshe. The Babylonian Exilarchate in the Arsacid and Sassanian Periods. Bar-Ilan University Series of Research Monographs in Memory of the University's Founder and First President Professor Pinchas Churgin. Tel Aviv: Dvir, 1970.
    • Ben-Zimra, Eliyahu Z. “Al ha-Malshinut u-Mesirah be-Ḥayyei ha-Kehillah ha-Yehudit bi-Tekufat ha-Aḥaronim.” In Sefer Aviʻad: Ḳovets Maʼamarim U-Meḥḳarim Le-Zekher Dr. Yeshaʻyahu Volsfberg-Aviʻad, edited by Isaac Raphael, 112-142. Jerusalem: Mosad Harav Kook, 1986
    • Elon, Menachem. Jewish Law: History, Sources, Principles. 4 vols. A Philip and Muriel Berman edition. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1994.
    • Friedman, Shamma. “The Further Adventures of Rav Kahana: Between Babylonia and Palestine.” In The Talmud Yerushalmi and Graeco-Roman Culture, by Peter Schäfer, 3:247-272. Texts and Studies in Ancient Judaism 93. Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2002.
    • Gafni, Isaiah. The Jews of Babylonia in the Talmudic Era. Monographs in Jewish History. Jerusalem: The Zalman Shazar Center for Jewish History, 1990.
    • Sperber, Daniel. “On the Unfortunate Adventures of Rav Kahana.” Irano-Judaica 1 (1982): 83-100.
    • Rosenthal, E. S. “For the Talmudic Dictionary—Talmudica Iranica.” Irano-Judaica 1 (1982): 38-134