I am telling the following true story with permission but I am changing the names. There are two players, one of whom isn’t even aware that she’s involved in this story. We’ll call one Mrs. Partridge and the other Mrs. Huxtable. Mrs. Partridge is a family friend and Mrs. Huxtable is a co-worker of my wife, whom I don’t even know. (I know my wife; it’s her coworker I don’t know.)
The aforementioned wife was sitting shiva last week and Mrs. Partridge, the family friend, was a big help in taking care of things. One of the things she did was arrange meals. One night, however, dinner was late in arriving. The missus was getting hungry and she asked me to call Mrs. Partridge to see what the situation was. When I called and asked, Mrs. Partridge was appalled. “Do you mean to say that Mrs. Huxtable hasn’t been there with food yet?” she asked.
“I don’t know Mrs. Huxtable but no one has brought food yet, so I guess not,” I replied.
“I can’t believe it!” she exclaimed with indignation. “These people ask to participate but if I don’t stay on top of them, they don’t follow through!”
“I thought you were doing today,” I said.
“No, I’m doing Wednesday,” she replied.
“What’s today?” she continued.
(Another pause, including a big revelation)
(I doubt very much that she actually said “dagnabit” but it was some family-friendly exclamation and “dagnabit” amuses me.)
I found this exchange wholly entertaining. It only took 30 seconds (and yes, we got dinner), so no harm done. Nevertheless, Mrs. Partridge felt terrible for not giving Mrs. Huxtable benefit of the doubt – even though no one was aware of her mistake except for me, and I don’t even know Mrs. Huxtable!
The reason she felt bad I imagine is because being dan l’kaf z’chus (judging others favorably) is an important characteristic in and of itself. It’s an essential trait for us to cultivate for our own sakes. Maybe we didn’t go around bad-mouthing the other person. Maybe we didn’t confront them unjustly. Maybe we didn’t cost them business because of unfounded accusations. Nevertheless, we might feel bad for wrongly suspecting them merely because we wrongly suspected them.
The preeminent dan l’kaf z’chus story is told in the Talmud (Shabbos 127b). The abbreviated form is that one man labored in another’s employ for three years. Before Yom Kippur, he requested his wages so that he could go home and feed his family. The employer replied that he had no money. Whatever the worker requested as payment, be it real estate, livestock or utensils, the employer claimed not to have it. Ultimately, the man went home empty-handed.
After Succos, the employer showed up at the man’s home with not only his wages but also with three donkeys carrying a banquet’s worth of delicacies. After their meal, the employer asked his former laborer what he had thought upon being told that the boss had nothing with which to pay him his salary. The man proceeded to relate a string of far-fetched assumptions – that the boss had invested his money, rented out his livestock, not yet tithed his produce, sanctified his possessions, etc. As it turned out, these “far-fetched” assumptions were actually all correct! The employer replied, “Just as you judged me favorably, so may God judge you favorably!” This is our general philosophy on the subject.
Judging others favorably, however, does not mean being a patsy or making yourself a target. Let’s say that your 8-year-old child (or your 14-year-old child or your 22-year-old child, etc.) is offered a ride home from a random stranger. That’s not a situation in which they should be taught to judge others favorably; that’s a time for them to learn to exercise great caution. Similarly, you don’t have to give strangers the run of your home and failure to do so is not a shortcoming. We see this from a story in the “minor tractate” of Derech Eretz Rabbah (chapter 5):
Rabbi Yehoshua once hosted a stranger. He gave the guest plenty of food and drink, then he took him to the roof, where he had prepared a place for the man to sleep. (People used to use their roofs for various things.) After the man was settled, Rabbi Yehoshua descended and removed the ladder. As it turns out, the guest was a burglar. After Rabbi Yehoshua’s family was asleep, he scooped up the property that they kept on the roof, stuffed it in a sack and tried to climb down. Unfortunately, he discovered the hard way that the ladder was gone and he tumbled to the ground. When Rabbi Yehoshua found him in a crumpled heap, the would-be thief tried to blame his host. “You didn’t judge me favorably!” the banged-up burglar complained. “When I host a guest,” Rabbi Yehoshua explained, “I’ll wine and dine him as if I’m hosting Rabban Gamliel himself, but I’m still going to protect myself against the possibility that he might be a thief!”
In short, judging others favorably is contextual and, to an extent, it is a privilege that must be earned. If you see your rabbi driving on Shabbos, you should assume he’s dealing with a medical emergency. If you see him entering a turnpike McDonald’s, you should assume he’s using the restroom. But if you see someone who doesn’t keep Shabbos driving on Shabbos, or who doesn’t keep kosher entering a non-kosher establishment, you need not make such assumptions.
If one does mistakenly suspect an innocent person of wrongdoing, as we all probably do now and again, we are obligated not only to make it up to them but also to give that person a blessing. The Talmud (Brachos 31b) derives this lesson from the story of Chana in I Samuel chapter 1. Chana prayed with such heartbroken distress that Eli, the High Priest, thought she must be drunk. Upon learning that he was mistaken, he immediately gave her a blessing that God should grant her prayer, which was for a child. This God did, and Chana gave birth to the great prophet Shmuel, whom King David equated with Moshe and Aharon (Psalms 99:6).
Space does not permit a full examination of the topic of being dan l’kaf z’chus. Suffice it to say that even if no harm comes to a wrongly-suspected person, judging others favorably is still an important trait to cultivate for our own sakes. How we judge others says more about us than it does about them. A certain level of trust, however, must be earned so that we do not needlessly endanger ourselves, our families or our communities. It’s a tricky tightrope to be sure, so further study is called for, as well as consultation with our rabbis, teachers and mentors. Sometimes we may get it wrong, circumstances requiring us to err on the side of caution. When that happens, try not to feel too bad about it. As Shmuel’s mother Chana would tell you, receiving another bracha never hurts!
The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.