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Owning Up To a Mistake


This week’s article discusses the obligation to admit making a mistake. In this week’s parasha, Moshe Rabbenu rules mistakenly and acknowledges he was mistaken. How could the greatest of all men, Moshe Rabbenu, have made a mistake? Where is a leader’s greatness apparent – in his perfectness of character, or in his ability to be human and admit a mistake? How is a wise man defined – one who knows it all, learned all there is to learn — or one who knows his knowledge is finite and there’s always something new to learn? The Mishna in Pirkei Avos mentions the golem, the boor, as one who cannot admit he was wrong, contrasting him with the wise man. What is the difference

Shame is a feeling that might inhibit one’s ability to own up to a mistake. But how does the Torah define truly shameful behavior? How is the dispute between Beis Hillel and Beis Shamai connected, and why is halacha determined by later halachic sources despite earlier sources’ deeper and broader knowledge?

Of this and more, in the coming article.

Eat Humble Pie

In this week’s parasha, we find recorded an argument between the two greatest brothers that walked the earth – Moshe and Aharon. The Torah writes (Vayikra 10: 16-20):

And Moshe thoroughly investigated the goat which was brought as a sin offering  and behold, it had been burnt! He was angry with Eleazar and Itamar, Aharon ‘s surviving sons, and said, “Why did you not eat the sin offering in the holy place? For it is holy of holies, and He has given it to you to gain forgiveness for the sin of the community, to effect their atonement before the Lord! Behold, its blood was not brought into the Sanctuary within, so you should have surely eaten it within holy [precincts], as I commanded!” And Aharon spoke to Moshe, “But today, did they offer up their sin offering and their burnt offering before the Lord? But [if tragic events] like these had befallen me, and if I had eaten a sin offering today, would it have pleased the Lord?” Moshe heard [this], and it pleased him.

Moshe wanted to know why Aharon and his sons had burnt the Rosh Chodesh sacrifice instead of eating it.  Aharon replied that the special permit to eat the sacrifices on that day despite their onen status (one whose close relatives had died on that day – Nadav and Avihu, Aharon’s two sons, had died on that day) pertained only to the extra sacrifices brought in honor of the Mishkan’s inauguration. The regular Rosh Chodesh sacrifice, however, was forbidden for them to eat. Therefore, they burned it.

In this coming article we will not focus on the halachic aspects of the sacrifices, but rather on Moshe’s reaction to Aharon’s answer: “And it pleased him.” He accepted Aharon’s explanation.

The Gemara (Zevachim 101b, mentioned here in Rashi) explains: “He was not embarrassed to say ‘I never heard that’, but rather said: ‘I heard but  I forgot’.” Despite the discomfort involved in admitting the truth, Moshe was not ashamed to admit he was mistaken. And he didn’t even cover up for himself with an excuse that it was a new halacha. Rather, he explicitly admitted – “I heard and forgot.”

Targum Yehonason mentions that Moshe not only admitted his mistake to Aharon, but he sent an announcement around the camp saying, “I was mistaken in this [the halacha of the sacrifice] and my brother reminded me of the halacha.” The Talmud Yerushalmi writes that in merit of humiliating himself, Moshe earned great merit.

In this article we will examine the obligation to own up to mistakes.

A Wise Man and a Boor

We tend to see the opposite of a wise man as a boor, one who knows nothing. The Mishna calls the opposite of a wise man a golem, bringing to mind the Maharal’s famed Golem from Prague, who indeed was an ignoramus. But in chazal’s writing we find inference to a golem as one who is quite wise but incomplete — he lacks only the final finishing touches to be perfect. The commentaries on the Mishna (Rashi, Rambam, Rabbenu Yona and others) explain that the word golem does not connote a dimwitted fool but one who is close to be finished, however he does not know how to use his tools correctly – he does not know how to direct his wisdom to produce the desired results.

Similarly, the word golem is used in reference to an unfinished utensil, since however cleverly it is crafted, it cannot properly fill a need.

The Mishna (Pirkei Avos 5:7) reads: “There are seven things that characterize a golem, and seven that characterize a wise man. A wise man does not speak before one who is greater than him in wisdom or age. He does not interrupt his fellow’s words. He does not hasten to answer. His questions are on the subject and his answers to the point. He responds to first things first and to latter things later. Concerning what he did not hear, he says ‘I did not hear.’ He concedes to the truth. With the golem, the reverse of all these is the case.”

One common thread seems to unite the differences between the wise man and the golem – the wise man knows that his wisdom is not the goal – it is but a tool with which to reach the truth. And it is not his own subjective truth that he seeks – he strives to reach the absolute, objective truth.

Therefore, when the wise man sees one who is wiser than himself, he does not flaunt his wisdom but utilizes the opportunity to gain more wisdom.

When his friend speaks, he is in no haste to sound his own opinion but rather uses the opportunity to listen carefully to his friend’s words.

He is also not hasty in replying. He only answers after thinking carefully about his contemporary’s argument. He is always open to hearing new ideas and reconsidering.

Questions for a wise man are not intended to prove his way is the right one, and the answers are not for providing known answers. Questions are for striving to reach the truth and not merely for the sake of the argument, and the answers are offered only when the wise man is truthfully convinced that there is a truthful, proven answer.

Therefore, when the wise man is stuck he has no problem saying, “I don’t know.”

The final description of the wise man is one who concedes the truth. When the wise man concludes that he was mistaken he hurries to admit that he didn’t know, not trying to save face.

The golem, in contrast, is one who knows a lot. His problem is that does not know how to utilize his knowledge properly. The golem (boor) feels he is wiser than everyone, and uses every opportunity to flaunt his wisdom. He wants to convince everyone that his wisdom, his subjective truth, is the only one. Therefore, he is very busy. He is so busy, that he has no mind space left for hearing other opinions — He is too busy purporting his own.

The golem speaks before those who are wiser than himself because he is not there to learn from anyone else, but to prove his own worth. Therefore, when standing before a wise person, he hurries to speak and prove that he, too, is wise.

When another is in the middle of speaking, he cuts into the speaker to add his two cents, finding it difficult to let the other person finish talking. Again, this stems from the same mindset.

The golem also finds it difficult to carefully construct his arguments – he is too quick to answer and express his own opinion on the matter.

The golem also does not answer in an orderly fashion – he answers in a rush, throwing out any argument that enters his mind. His questions and answers do not come from a deep striving for the truth but as arguments meant to prove his position.

Since all conversation with the golem are intended to augment his own sense of self-worth, he does not know how to utter the words “I was mistaken” or “I don’t know”. What contributes to this warped wisdom?

Bad Middos

The Meiri (Chibur Hateshuva, Meshiv Nefesh, Ma’amar 1:4) explains that the source of all the golem’s problems lies in defective middos. That is why he argues with those who are wiser than himself. One who feels that he is the greatest of all men will even attempt to override the instructions of earlier sages, claiming that he knows better.

The Meiri explains that, “Every bad middah is born from ta’ava and ga’ava (lust and haughtiness). The proud tend  to arguing everything. They will never agree with the words of the wise and will not follow their institutions, repeating this format until imagining their own words are the truth and their Torah – correct.”

Similarly, the Shela writes (Vayeshev, Torah Or, 5): “The attributes of Yaakov and Yosef are truth and the opposite is Eisav. Therefore, it says, “And the house of Yaakov shall be fire and the house of Yosef  a flame, and the house of Eisav shall become stubble, and they shall ignite them and consume them, and the house of Eisav shall have no survivors, for the Lord has spoken” (Ovadia 1:18). Fire, [Heb. esh] is the acronym of emet – truth, and shalom – peace. The attributes of Eisav are the acronym of kash [Eng. stubble] – kina’a [envy] and sina’a [hatred]. These are the attributes that prevent one from admitting the truth because he is always envious of whatever is not ‘his’ truth, never admitting the truth when expressed by another.

Not Answering Excuses

A man who had stopped keeping Torah and mitzvos used to pester Rabbi Chayim Soloveitchik with questions in emuna. Reb Chayim told him he could not answer him because his questions are not really questions – they are just excuses for his terrible behavior. Answers can be given to real questions, but excuses cannot be answered. As the Maharal succinctly puts it (Be’er Hagola, Be’er 1:7): “One who looks for excuses will find no satisfaction with an answer, for he searches for other things.”

The recent COVID upheaval highlighted these different human attributes. The virus was unknown, then the vaccine came onto the public scene as a big question mark. Some were hasty to jump in, others were more cautious and less quick to take the risk. All in all, people’s character became very apparent. While those who were willing to learn were open to change their positions as  more information became known, there are people whose positions cannot be swayed by proof. They used all of their wisdom to prevent the facts from changing their opinion.

True Leadership

The Torah tells us what real leadership qualities are and how to detect them in a leader.

A real leader is not the perfect person who cannot make mistakes but rather one who is wise enough to admit having made a mistake, and subsequently correct it.

The Gemara is replete with examples of the greatest of men who were not embarrassed to admit a mistake publicly. To list a few:

On several occasions (Bave Kama 127a; Zevachim 94b; Niddah 68a) Rava publicly taught a halacha and changed his mind the following day. To correct it, he sent the meturgeman (translator) to make a public announcement of the retracted halacha.

Rav Dimi (Shabbos 63b) sent a letter to Naharda’ah informing them that his former halachic instructions were mistaken.

Yerushalmi, Chagigah 1:8 recounts that when Rabbi Yehuda Hanasi gave Rabbi Chiya a letter of approbation to introduce him to his new locale, he listed his good qualities: “We sent you a great man. And what is his greatness? He is not ashamed to say: ‘I did not hear’.” [Apparently, there is great wisdom in this letter: Rabbi Chiyah, upon reaching his new locale, might be posed with various questions for which he might not have exact knowledge. He, in his humility, was accustomed to answer that he did not hear (i.e. does not know the halacha) and then the locals might mistake him for a simpleton. Therefore, following Rabbi Yehuda Hanasi’s approbation, the locals would realize the greatness in his answer and honor him accordingly.]

Rabbenu Binyamin Ze’ev ben Matitya (a 16th century Greek-born Torah sage, whose Torah responsa is quoted by leading poskim) ruled on a certain halacha, and then retracted his opinion and ruled the opposite. As a result, there were people who questioned how he could rule mistakenly and then change his mind, to which he answered (Shut Binyamin Ze’ev, chapter 301) that there is in fact nothing to be embarrassed about it. On the contrary, when a rabbi realizes he was mistaken and changes his pask accordingly, there is no one greater than him – for who is greater than Moshe Rabbenu, who did just so? He continues and lists all the Talmudic sages who behaved in a similar way.

Rashi recorded in his commentary on the Gemara (Chulin 116b) that he wrote a halacha, but after relearning it he realized he had been mistaken. In his commentary on Bave Kama (108b) he writes that in the past he had learned a specific topic in a mistaken fashion because he did not study his rebbe’s words with enough care.

When the Tashbetz (volume 3, p. 285) reproached a Torah scholar for a mistake in halacha, he comforted him at length that there is no shame in making a mistake because every person is prone to mistakes and even the Great Sanhedrin can issue a mistaken halacha [for which a special sacrifice is offered]. It is insisting that one’s first opinion remains true even when proven mistaken is what constitutes truly shameful behavior which is inappropriate for Torah scholars.

The Rambam’s son, Rabbi Avraham (chapter 106) writes that there is nothing wrong if there are differences of opinion between Torah scholars, especially between those who are just starting to study wisdom and are not accustomed to it. Arguments are a shame only when linked to personal ambitions, pride, and jealousy, and do not serve as a tool to seek the truth. An argument with one who is wiser or on a higher status is flagrant boldness and audaciousness.

Beis Hillel and Beis Shammai

The Gemara (Eiruvin 13b) writes that although Beis Shammai were sharper and wiser than Beis Hillel, halacha follows Beis Hillel because they were humbler. When learning, they would repeat Beis Shammai’s ruling before their own, training themselves to be humble. The Maharal (Be’er Hagola, Be’er 5:1) explains that this was not merely a reward for their positive character traits. Rather it is because  as a result of their humility they were able to actually reach the truth. Since they were humble and did not have any personal interest — only pursuit of the truth — they honored Beis Shammai who were smarter and of wiser intellect, making every effort to understand their words. Only when they were convinced that Beis Shammai were mistaken did they argue with them. Their ability to admit the truth enabled them to reach the truth more more so than those who possessed wisdom and sharpness of the mind.

Today there are 300 recorded disputes between Bei Hillel and Beis Shammai, the majority of which follow Beis Hillel. This indicates that the actual number of disputes was much greater, but if Beis Hillel rechecked their opinions and found them lacking in face of Beis Shammai’s approach, they admitted that Beis Shammai were correct and the dispute was never recorded.

On a similar vein, the Maharik (chapter 84) explains the rule of Halacha Kebasraei – when a later sage argues with the opinion of an earlier sage, halacha follows the later one. This seems to contradict our understanding of yeridas hadoros – decline of generations. How does this rule make sense? Don’t the earlier generations have greater Torah knowledge than the later ones? The Maharik explains that the sages of later generations learned the words of the earlier sages and were aware of their preexisting opinions, and made every effort to understand every one of their words. If they nevertheless still chose to argue, we give greater credence to the latter authorities. However, it is important to emphasize that this is not due to any intrinsic advantage of the later authorities. Rather it is a technical advantage due to the fact that they happened to live later. (If it is known that the later authority had no access to the words of the earlier authority, this rule does not apply.)

Gemara Study

The Shela (Psachim, Sfiras Ha’Omer 525) writes that Torah study brings its learners to the attribute of admitting mistakes and acknowledging the truth, adding peace and kinship. This is mentioned in the Gemara (Brachos 64a) “Talmidei Chachomim augment peace in the world, even when there is a dispute in Torah, as it is written in Kiddushin (30b): ‘In the end they come to love one another’.”

Indeed, the traditional format of Torah study with a chavrusa as we find in yeshivos today is a training field for developing these positive middos. An honest yeshiva student finds himself admitting his mistakes many times a day, and study of Gemara requires the learner to constantly shift his point of view. Real understanding of a sugya cannot be reached without admitting mistakes often  since the objective is reaching the truth and not adulation of one’s self or intellect.

Admitting No Mistake

Rabbi Yosef Chayim Sonnenfeld (Toras Chayim 104) quotes the Piskei Tosefos (Taanis 8) that a talmid chacham always agrees with his contemporary’s opinion whether he is right or not. In proof, he quotes the Gemara (Taanis 8b) where we are taught that when Rav Shimi bar Ishi saw his friends were embarrassed by his questions he decided not to challenge them in public so as not to cause them shame.

Once, a Beis Din fined a certain talmid chacham. The talmid chacham came up to Rabbi Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld to complain about it, claiming that the Dayanim ruled mistakenly. Rabbi Yosef Chaim told him that the Torah mentions a negative commandment not to curse a dayan – why is this negative commandment necessary? Why is it necessary to warn a thief who was fined to pay back double not to curse the dayan? Obviously, the Torah is teaching here not to curse a dayan even if one knows that he was fined mistakenly, when the litigant is sure that only due to the dayan’s lack of competence was he fined. Nevertheless, he must accept the ruling.

“You,” said Rabbi Yosef Chaim, “are a talmid chacham. I know you would give all your money so as not to transgress even one negative commandment. How can you, for a small fine, transgress this commandment?” The talmid chacham accepted the explanation and admitted the truth.


In the morning prayers we say, “A person should always be in fear of G-d, privately as well as openly, admit the truth, and speak truth in his heart…” Admitting a mistake is a central component for reaching the truth. We are obligated to reach it and there is no shame in making a mistake – shame only lies in failing to own up to it.

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