"…Perhaps it was an oversight on their part." (Bereshith 43:12)
The previous essay discussed the importance of accustoming oneself to
saying, “I don’t know.” One could ask: is there not a certain amount of
deception in one saying that one does not know something when in fact one
does? Is it not better to tell the truth?
How insightful were our Sages when they said that one should “accustom”
one’s tongue to say that one does not know. By making a habit of this, it
becomes a type of catch phrase rather than an expression of fact. When
people recognize that this statement is a regular part of one’s
conversation, they will no longer take it literally. Consequently there is
no question of falsehood involved (1).
A certain Rav would often reply, “I don’t know,” when asked his opinion.
On one occasion, one of his students asked him a question and received the
usual repsponse, “I don’t know.” The student, wanting to get a clearer
answer, mustered up his courage and asked: “What does the Rav mean when he
says ‘I don’t know’?” The Rav responded, “Sometimes I don’t know; other
times I know but I realize that the person asking me disagrees, and will
not be budged. In that case, it is preferable to say ‘I don’t know’ than
to engage in a meaningless argument.” Recognizing that the Rav was
speaking frankly, the student continued “So what did ‘I don’t know’ mean
in this case?” The Rav smiled and said, “I don’t know”(2).
1. Commentary of the Paath Lechem on the Chovoth Levavoth Shaar
HaYichud, Ch. 2. See also related essay entitled “Ambiguous Statements I,”
(page 136) on Bereshith 23:11, 15-16.
2. Heard from Rav Pinchas Lebovic.