Shakespeare and the Tosefta

Today I found a brayta that echoes a quote from Shakespeare. Or, perhaps more accurately, I found a quote from Shakespeare that corresponds to a brayta that we studied in Gemara class.

Here is the brayta, from Tosefta Ketubot perek zayin, appearing also in B. Ketubot Ayin Bet: aleph:

He who vows forbidding his wife to borrow or to lend a rafa? or a chvara? or a millstone or an oven must release her and give her the ketuba money because he is causing her to bear a bad name among her neighbors.

The Tosefta is dealing with the limits of a husband’s right to restrict his wife’s activities. What sorts of vows is a husband permitted to take, in cases where the content of those vows will infringe upon his wife’s liberties? We are told, for instance, that he is not allowed to take a vow that will forbid her from going to weddings or funerals; nor is he allowed to take a vow forbidding her to dress in colorful clothing. Here the brayta stipulates that a husband is forbidden to prevent his wife from borrowing from or lending to her neighbors. A husband cannot say, “I swear to God that you are forbidden from lending any utensils to the neighbors,” because he will be causing his wife to develop a bad reputation. If his wife is forced to abide by such restrictions, the neighbors are likely to deem her antisocial or stingy or just plain rude.

Now why would a husband make such a vow? Why would he not want his wife to borrow or lend? I was thinking about this during chevruta today, when suddenly a quote popped into my brain: “Neither a borrower nor a lender be.” Where is that from, I asked myself? And then suddenly I remembered: Hamlet! When Laertes announces his decision to travel abroad (“my thoughts and wishes bend towards France”), his father Polonius gives him a valedictory benediction filled with some rather long-winded advice. Included among his Mishlei-style (i.e. proverbial?) wisdom is the following:

Neither a borrower nor a lender be;
For loan oft loses both itself and friend,
And borrowing dulls the edge of husbandry.

Hachi garsinan: Polonius tells Laertes that he should neither borrow nor lend, because these types of behaviors tend to destroy friendships. That is, they will cause one to develop a “bad name among her neighbors,” as the Tosefta puts it. Moreover, “borrowing dulls the edge of husbandry”: if a person can rely on her neighbor as a source of goods, she has less of a need to maintain an efficient household economy – any time she is out of an egg, she can always just knock on her neighbor’s door. When read in conjunction with the Tosefta, this “husbandry” takes on a double entendre, as it is quite literally the man’s status as husband that is endangered by his prohibition on borrowing and lending.

But the most famous part Polonius’ speech comes in the lines immediately following these warnings about borrowing and lending:

This above all: to thine ownself be true,
And it must follow, as the night the day,
Though canst not then be false to any man.

The woman whose husband forbids her from borrowing or lending is prevented from being true to herself. She may wish to be a good neighbor and lend a cup of sugar to the woman down the hall (or in the adjacent courtyard), but she is bound by her husband’s vow. This is quite an untenable situation, given that one “canst not then be false to any man.” Therefore her husband is obligated to release her from the marriage (and from his vow) and to give her the monetary value of her ketuba.

I conclude in iambic pentameter: Kach piresh rabeinu Shakespeare zal.

One thought on “Shakespeare and the Tosefta

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s