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Thought for the Day: How Much Chutzpah Is Too Much?

According to Merriam-Webster, chutzpah is an English word whose origin is from Yiddish, which gets it from Late Hebrew whose first known use was in 1867.  All I have to say about that is: What a chutzpah!  First known use in 1867... grumble grumble... Late Hebrew.... grumble grumble... Regardless, it gives my license to use "chutzpah" in my English writing.

Chutzpah is, of course, a real thing.  Being real, of  course it appears in halacha.  In certain situations, Chazal tell us: לא חציף איניש/a normal person would not have that much chutzpah.  In what situations and who cares how much chutzpah is normal?  Before I can tell you, I need to introduce another halachic concept: מִגּוֹ, pronounced "mee-goh".  (Or, if you are in my grandson's pre-1A class, "mee-goy"; he is tolerant of my pronunciation, and often tells me so, but without a drop of chutzpah.)

I don't know a good translation for מִגּוֹ, so let me just describe it.  Shimon comes to Yehuda's house one day and says that he accidently backed into Yehuda's car and broke the left headlamp.  The two of them go out to look and find that the entire left side of the car has been side swiped and smashed in.  Yehuda says, "Hey!  You said only the headlamp, but this is thousands of dollars of damage!"  Shimon sticks to his story and has no explanation for what happened to Yehuda's car.  The two of them go to beis din to present their cases.  There are no witnesses.  The beis din will believe Shimon and he will only be required to pay for the replacement (and installation, of course) of one headlamp.  Why?  Because Shimon could have simply denied having done any damage; after all, there were no witnesses.  We therefore say מִגּוֹ/since Shimon could have made an even better claim, we believe him.

So far no chutzpah, just plain honesty.  Now... Farmer Bob goes to his neighbor Shepherd Stewart and says, "Your sheep have been coming into my yard and eating my vegetables.  I want $1000 in damages and I am keeping three of your sheep (which I found in my yard) until you pay up!"  Shepherd Stewart claims that his sheep did no such thing and wants them back!  They go to beis din and Farmer Bob makes the following claim: "I could have made a bigger claim.  Namely, I could have claimed that I bought the sheep from Shepherd Stewart.  Since I am not required to keep a receipt and I am in possession of the sheep, you would have to believe me.  Therefore I win the case because I have a מִגּוֹ.  Dayanim... please make it so!"  Does he win?

Tada... It's a matter of dispute!  (I know, you are shocked.)  The S'ma says that Bob does not have a מִגּוֹ.  Why not?  לא חציף איניש to claim in court that he bought something in a case like this when the erstwhile seller is right here and knows he is lying.  Since Bob, according to the S'ma, does not have a מִגּוֹ, he cannot force Stewart to pay and Bob must return the sheep.

The Shach, however, sides with Bob.  Normal people do have that much chutzpah.  When would even the Shach agree that enough is enough and no one has that much chutzpah?  In the case of a friend who was watching something for you and then claims it was stolen.  In that case the friend will either have to pay or swear (which no one wants to do).  Doesn't he have a מִגּוֹ?  After all, he can claim that you never gave him the item in the first place.  On that, the Shach agrees that לא חציף איניש to boldly make that cliam in front of beis din with his friend (someone close enough that he entrusted his possessions with him) standing right there who knows he is lying.

Of course, the fact that Chazal have to say that sometimes לא חציף איניש, means that there are plenty of cases where כן חציף איניש/they certainly do have that much chutzpah.  (Like the way Bob spoke to the dayanim....)  Its just that even chutzpah has its bounds.


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