Did Dovid Accept Loshon Hora? A Narrative of Biblical and Halachic Intrigue

The Gemara quotes the great Amora Rav as saying: “Because Dovid HaMelech believed loshon hora, the Jewish kingdom was divided, the Jews worshipped idols, and we were exiled from our land” (Shabbos 56b). What does this enigmatic statement mean? Can Rav possibly be blaming Dovid, the author of Tehillim, the founder of the Jewish royal family and the ancestor of Moshiach, for causing the Churban? During the weeks that we mourn the loss of the Beis HaMikdash, we should try to understand the sequence of events that led to Rav’s comments.

THE STORY

After successfully vanquishing the enemies of the Jewish people and solidifying his monarchy, Dovid HaMelech wants to find out if there are any surviving descendants of his predecessor and father-in-law Shaul, who was slain in battle with the Pelishtim. Dovid calls Tziva, a slave who has been managing Shaul’s properties, and inquires whether Shaul has any surviving offspring. Tziva informs Dovid that Yonasan, Shaul’s crown prince and Dovid’s closest friend, is survived by a lame and unscholarly son named Mefiboshes (not to be confused with a different Mefiboshes who was Shaul’s son, an outstanding Torah scholar, and a rebbe of Dovid’s [Berachos 4a]). Dovid meets Mefiboshes ben Yonasan and discovers that he is indeed a talmid chacham (Shmuel II 9:1-5; Rashi, Shabbos 56a s.v. bilo davar). Thus, Dovid could already discern that Tziva has a tendency to libel Mefiboshes.

Dovid meets Mefiboshes ben Yonasan, and invites him to join his royal household and to take all his meals with them. In addition, he awards him with the formal ownership of all of Shaul’s properties, thus making Tziva and all his slaves into Mefiboshes’ property. In a few moments, Mefiboshes has been returned to the wealth and honor appropriate to the royalty into which he was born.

Shortly thereafter, Dovid’s own fortunes take a dismal turn when his own son Avshalom instigates a rebellion, forcing Dovid and his supporters to flee for their lives from Yerushalayim as Avshalom’s forces seize the capital.

IS MEFIBOSHES A TRAITOR?

As Dovid flees Yerushalayim, Tziva arrives with a team of donkeys laden with provisions for Dovid’s men. In answer to Dovid’s inquiries about Mefiboshes’ whereabouts, Tziva responds: “Behold, he remains in Yerushalayim, saying that now the Bnei Yisroel will coronate me, the scion of the true royal family, as their king.” In other words, Mefiboshes feels that the Jews would prefer to restore the house of Shaul to the throne and abandon the infighting of Dovid’s fratricidal family (Metzudos David, Shmuel II 16:3). In reaction to Tziva’s report of Mefiboshes’ treachery, Dovid awards Tziva the property of Shaul that he had previously given to Mefiboshes (Shmuel II 16:1- 4). If Mefiboshes has indeed rebelled, Dovid has the legal right to confiscate his property (see Rashi, Shabbos 56a s.v. dvarim).

Was it correct for Dovid to grant Shaul’s estate to Tziva?

Although Dovid has the right to be concerned that Tziva’s account might have some basis, the Gemara quotes a dispute (soon to be analyzed) whether he was permitted to assume the story to be true. Acting out of concern is permitted and is halachically termed being chosheish (suspecting) that a story may be true (Niddah 61a). One may react defensively to even an unsubstantiated story in order to protect one’s interests in the event that the story is true. However, accepting the story as definitely true and following up on that assumption violates the laws of loshon hora. One may not take definitive action, such as seizing property, as a result.

Thus, accepting Tziva’s account without sufficient proof seems to violate two serious prohibitions: (1) betzedek tishpot amisecha, judging people favorably, and (2) kabbalas loshon hora, believing loshon hora!

These issues become even tougher when we recall that Dovid had already experienced Tziva’s maligning of Mefiboshes in a previous conversation. This was when Tziva reported to Dovid that Mefiboshes was unscholarly, and Dovid consequently discovered that Mefiboshes was a talmid chacham of stature. Furthermore, we know that Tziva had ulterior motives to unseat Mefiboshes from his place of honor. So how could Dovid act as if Tziva’s story was certainly true?

Before trying to understand Dovid’s actions, we will return to the chronicle of Avshalom’s revolt.

AVSHALOM’S DEFEAT

For a while, it appears that Avshalom will indeed wrest power from his father and establish himself as king. However, Dovid’s forces decimate Avshalom’s troops in battle. Avshalom himself is ignominiously trapped. While riding a mule, his hair becomes tangled in the branches of a tree and he is left swaying above ground as his mule continues without him. Yoav, Dovid’s commanding general, and his entourage dispatch Avshalom while he is hanging in midair.

MEFIBOSHES APPEARS

Upon Dovid’s triumphant return to Yerushalayim, a very unkempt Mefiboshes welcomes him. He has not trimmed his mustache, washed his legs, nor laundered his clothes since Dovid fled Yerushalayim (Shmuel II 19:25, as explained by Targum).

Dovid asks Mefiboshes why he failed to join Dovid’s men in their flight from Yerushalayim (Shmuel II 19:25- 26). After all, since Mefiboshes had been eating daily at Dovid’s table, remaining behind when Avshalom assumes control could be highly dangerous (Malbim ad loc.)!

Mefiboshes replies: “My lord the king, my slave tricked me by telling me that he would saddle the donkey so that I could join the king – for I am lame; while he (my slave) slandered me to my lord, the king. My lord, the king, is as an angel of G-d, and should do as he sees fit. For all the members of my father’s household were guilty of the death penalty (for crimes we performed in Shaul’s service) yet you honored me to dine at your table. What right do I have to ever complain to the king?” (Shmuel II 19:27- 29)

MEFIBOSHES’ LEGAL DEFENSE

Dovid is faced with a puzzling dilemma: If Tziva is correct; Mefiboshes is an ungrateful, scheming traitor. If Mefiboshes is correct, Tziva is the worst type of slanderer. One of them certainly deserves punishment; the question is which? Dovid is in the unenviable position of trying to determine which of them is guilty. Is there any way to resolve this dilemma?

Does circumstantial evidence imply who is guilty? Let us examine:

1. Although Mefiboshes’ alibi seems reasonable, certain aspects of it are weak. For one thing, it does not explain his untidy appearance when he came to greet Dovid. How could he appear before the king without first bathing, trimming his mustache and washing his clothes! Although he claimed to still be mourning Dovid’s flight from Yerushalayim, he should have tidied himself in Dovid’s honor. Not doing so implies that he is mourning Dovid’s successful return! (Rashi, Shabbos 56a s.v. dvarim)

2. When questioned by Dovid as to why he remained in Yerushalayim under Avshalom, Mefiboshes responds, “My slave tricked me by telling me that he would saddle the donkey so that I could join the king – for I am lame. And he (Tziva) slandered me to my lord.” Granted that Tziva tricked Mefiboshes and took the donkeys with him, how could Mefiboshes know that Tziva has been slandering him? If Mefiboshes was indeed abandoned in Yerushalayim when Tziva took the mounts, he would have no idea what transpired after that point (Binayahu). Unless, of course, he actually had done or said something scandalous in Tziva’s presence…

Although the evidence against Mefiboshes is not ironclad, it does leave a dissatisfying sense that he is not telling the whole story. Later in the article, I will present another piece of evidence against Mefiboshes.

DOVID’S RULING

Who should Dovid believe? Either Tziva is telling the truth, in which case Mefiboshes is a traitor and should certainly not be granted ownership over his late grandfather’s property, or Tziva is lying, in which case he is a lowlife, and should certainly not be granted any new properties as reward!

What does Dovid do? He announces that Mefiboshes and Tziva should divide Shaul’s estate!

It is difficult to comprehend why Dovid divided the property between them–

TALMUDIC INSIGHTS

At this point, we will study the Gemara’s comments on this enigmatic story. The Gemara cites a dispute between Rav and Shmuel concerning Dovid’s actions. Rav states that Dovid violated the Torah’s prohibition of believing loshon hora, whereas Shmuel protests that Dovid was innocent (Shabbos 56a).

Why does Shmuel consider Dovid innocent? Does not confiscating the property show that he assumed Mefiboshes guilty without proof, which constitutes believing loshon hora?

Shmuel explains that Dovid had adequate anecdotal verification (dvarim hanikarim) indicting Mefiboshes for treason. Although this is not evidence that a beis din could use for a ruling, since Dovid was judging as a king, and not as a beis din, he could base his decision on substantive circumstantial evidence (Be’er Mayim Chayim, Hilchos Loshon Hora 7:22).

There is a difficulty with this approach: If indeed Dovid was justified to consider Mefiboshes guilty, why did he divide the properties between Tziva and Mefiboshes. If Mefiboshes is guilty, Dovid should confiscate all the property, and if Mefiboshes is innocent, he (Mefiboshes) should keep it all. What does Dovid accomplish by depriving him of half and awarding it to Tziva?

The Maharsha offers an original approach to resolve this conundrum. Although Dovid felt his evidence against Mefiboshes was sufficient, he realized that he would never be able to prove absolutely whether Mefiboshes was a treacherous schemer or not. Therefore, Dovid treated the case as an unresolved issue — and divided the property between the two parties, knowing that one of them was receiving a highly undeserved reward.

The Maharsha then continues by explaining the next passage of this Gemara: When Dovid informed Mefiboshes that he was being deprived of half the estate, Mefiboshes reacted with tremendous fury, saying, “I just finished telling you that I was eagerly awaiting your return to the city in peace, and this is how you treat me? My complaints are not against you as much as they are against He who returned you in peace!”

The Maharsha concludes that Mefiboshes’ sacrilegious outburst sealed Dovid’s decision, demonstrating that Mefiboshes was not as faithful as he claimed. If indeed, he had been mourning Dovid’s flight, his happiness at seeing Dovid restored to his throne should have been great enough not to criticize Dovid for any wrongdoing. Indeed his outburst demonstrates that Tziva was indeed correct and that Mefiboshes was simply performing lip service.

(This last approach presents us with an unresolved problem. Dovid had already divided the estate between Mefiboshes and Tziva. If he now had further evidence of Mefiboshes’ treachery, why did he not therefore award the entire estate to Tziva? There are several possible ways one can attempt to resolve this difficulty.)

A DISPUTING OPINION

Until now, I have presented Shmuel’s approach that Dovid did not violate the laws of loshon hora. Rav disagrees, contending that Dovid violated halacha by accepting Tziva’s story; Dovid had no right to assume that Mefiboshes had done anything wrong and he therefore should not have confiscated any property.

HALACHIC QUESTION

There are two ways to explain Rav’s position, with a major halachic difference between them. Does Rav disagree with the entire principle of accepting loshon hora when one has adequate circumstantial evidence? Alternatively, does Rav accept this principle, but dispute its application in this case. He feels that Dovid “convicted” Mefiboshes without sufficient evidence – thus violating the prohibition against accepting loshon hora.

Which of these two approaches is correct? Can we accept circumstantial evidence in halacha, or does this violate the laws of loshon hora?

This question not only concerns a judge or king, but also often affects each one of us. May we assume that someone we see behaving wrongly indeed sinned when the evidence indicates this, or do the mitzvos of not accepting loshon hora and judging favorably require positive evaluation even under these circumstances?

Many authorities conclude that if one sees absolutely convincing, circumstantial evidence one may assume that it is true (Sefer Yerayim #192; Smag, Lo Saaseh #10; Hagahos Maimoniyos, Dei’os 7:4; Magen Avraham 156:2). Others contend that we may not judge someone unfavorably unless we know for certain that he sinned and one may never rely on circumstantial evidence to believe loshon hora (Menoras HaMaor, Loshon hora Chapter 18; Bris Moshe commentary to Smag, Lo Saaseh 10:5, explaining Rambam).

According to either interpretation of Rav’s opinion, Dovid should have rejected Mefiboshes’ guilt, and therefore confiscating his property was unjustified. Consequently, the dividing of his royal legacy, the Jewish monarchy, personally punished Dovid. As we know, ten of the twelve tribes seceded from Dovid’s grandson, King Rechavam. The king appointed by the break off tribes, Yeravam, later became concerned that his people might make pilgrimages to the Beis HaMikdash, and therefore established temples in his realm as alternative worship centers (Melachim I 12:28. Note that the commentaries there dispute whether these temples were initially avodah zarah or only became avodah zarah later.) Although this idolatry initially affected only the ten northern tribes, its nefarious influence eventually spread to the two southern tribes of Yehudah and Binyomin. Eventually, this idol worship caused the destruction of the Beis HaMikdash, as Rav concludes in his statement:

“At the moment that Dovid said, ‘You and Tziva shall divide the property,’ a heavenly voice told him, ‘Rechavam and Yeravam will divide the monarchy.’… Had Dovid not accepted the loshon hora, Dovid’s royal monarchy would never have been divided, the Jews would never have worshipped idols, and we would never have been exiled from our land.”

This quotation reflects Rav’s opinion. As mentioned above, Shmuel contends that Dovid was correct and that Rav’s blaming Dovid’s contribution to the resulting tragedies is unfounded.

What lessons do we learn from this tragedy? On a halachic level, Shmuel derives from this discussion that when there are dvarim hanikarim, strong circumstantial evidence, there is no requirement to judge someone favorably. From Rav’s perspective, we derive an almost opposite lesson: that although Dovid certainly felt he has sufficient basis to “convict” Mefiboshes, he erred, and his error, albeit only a negligent mistake, caused terrible results.

We all know the enmity that believing loshon hora can cause. If we all emphasize judging favorably we will certainly assist the reconstruction of the house of Dovid in Yerushalayim!

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