Quoting One's Sources - Middah Omer Davar BeShem Omro

Marlene Myerson

About Mussar and Middot
The Hebrew word "mussar" means moral conduct, instruction, or discipline. The Mussar Movement arose in the 1800’s in Lithuania and encompasses a range of spiritual practices, focusing on the individual’s personal characteristics, traits, or virtues, which are called middot (in Hebrew, singular: a "middahMiddahמִדָּהcharacteristics, values, or virtues of Jewish life that focus on becoming a better and more fulfilled person; plural: middot ").

Omer Davar BeShem Omro translates as "Quoting one's sources." The Hebrew root of omer is aleph-mem-reish, meaning "to say" or "to speak." The Hebrew root of davar is daled-bet-reish, meaning "saying," or "thing." Beshem comes from the Hebrew root shin-mem, which means "name."

"Whoever repeats a statement in the name of the one who said it brings redemption to the world." (Avot 6:6)

The sages deemed it so imperative that credit should be given for another's ideas that they identified the act as a cause for redemption, both communal and personal. (Midrash Shmuel) In the Pirkei Avos Treasury, a verse from the Book of Esther is used to illustrate this understanding of the Text. "As it is said: "And Esther said to the king in the name of Mordechai". (Esther 2:22) When Mordechai uncovered a plot to assassinate King Ahasuerus, he reported it to Queen Esther. She in turn related it to the King in the name of Mordechai, and the act of loyalty to the king was recorded in the royal chronicles. Later, when Ahasuerus sought to reward Mordechai, Haman "happened" to be present and was charged with honoring his archenemy Mordechai. That was the beginning of Haman's downfall and the subsequent salvation of the Jews. Thus, the commentary suggests that repeating something in the name of the original source was the catalyst for redemption. (Pirkei Avos Treasury, p. 425)

The word we use to describe "the use or imitation of the language, ideas, and thoughts of another author, and representation of them as one's original work" is plagiarism. (Webster's Encyclopedic Unabridged Dictionary of the English Language). The Talmudic sages issues a specific warning against plagiarism, stating that not only should one refuse to pass off as his/her own whatever he/she has heard from others, thus falsely taking credit for someone else's statement, but he/she should also mention by name the person from whom he/she heard it, thus displaying indebtedness to the source. (Tiferes Yisrael)

Rabbi Joseph Telushkin suggests that a person involved in a discussion has two possible motives for interjecting a new fact or insight: to help bring the participants to a deeper understanding of the issue under discussion, and/or to impress everyone with his or her intelligence. If a person presents as his/her own an intelligent observation that he/she learned from another, then it would seem that it was done to impress everyone with how smart he or she is. But if that person cites the source from which he/she learned this information, then it would seem that the motive was to deepen everyone's understanding. Rabbi Telushkin concludes that a world in which people share information and insights to advance understanding and not just to advance themselves is one well on its way to redemption. (Telushkin, The Book of Jewish Values. p. 93)

Repeating something in the name of the one who said it is considered a great source of merit for that person - even after his or her passing. Tradition has it that the lips of the deceased move in the grave when one of his/her ideas is repeated. (Talmud, Yevamot)

To Talk About

  1. "Torah demands forty-eight attributes (middot) from its students including giving credit for a comment to the one who made it." (Avot 6.6). Why do you think the rabbis kept omer davar beshem omro for the last one?
  2. Jewish ethics caution us against g'neivat da'at ("stealing the mind"). There is a connection between this injunction and the middah that counsels us " to quote our sources". (Omer davar beshem omro) In what way(s) are they similar? How are they different?
  3. The Talmud warns us that when a person cites a tradition in the name of the person who uttered it, s/he must speak as if that person were standing right before him/her." (B. Shek 7b) Why do you think that the rabbis insisted on that rule?
  4. Why do you think that the act of plagiarism is so reviled within Jewish tradition?
  5. Think about someone in your family who is no longer alive. What words of wisdom can you remember that person sharing with you? Repeat them now, but first name the individual who said them.

To Do
Make a concerted effort to share what you learn from someone else with the others around your Shabbat table, but be sure to quote your source and do so in the name of the person from whom you learned it.