Today’s daf (Ketubot 12b) references the halachic principle of ברי ושמא ברי עדיף – which literally means ‘certain and possible, certain is preferred’ and which is invoked when two people make a statement where one claims that they are certain (ברי) about what happened, while the other is less than sure and says that it is possible that things happened differently (שמא). In such an instance, the court prefers the testimony of the individual who makes the certain claim.
However, while the principle of ברי ושמא ברי עדיף is invoked by the Gemara as a legal principle, the fact is that we all apply similar reasoning to our daily life decisions, and when considering a range of options, we often make decisions by comparing the certain (ברי) versus the possible (שמא) benefits of each. But how do we know what is certainly beneficial to us, and what is only possibly beneficial to us?
While many of us might like to think that we only make purely objective decisions when presented with a range of options, the fact is that we are all influenced by the way in which different options are presented and marketed to us – which means that there are times when we consider various options to be ‘certainly’ beneficial to us because we have been led to think this way, while there are times when we consider something to be only ‘possibly’ beneficial to us because we have similarly been led to think this way.
To use a couple of examples in terms of living a religious life, if someone thinks that prayer may be beneficial to them (שמא) but having an extra 30 minutes of sleep or work will certainly be beneficial to them (ברי), then logic will dictate that they will choose the sleep or the work over prayer. And if someone thinks that keeping Shabbat may be beneficial to them (שמא) but shopping in the mall will certainly be beneficial to them (ברי), then logic will dictate that they will choose the mall over Shabbat observance.
But who is to say that prayer is the שמא (possible), and the sleep/work is the ברי (certain)? And who is to say that Shabbat is the שמא (possible) and shopping in the mall is the ברי (certain)? The fact – especially as various studies have acknowledged the physical and psychological benefits of prayer and Shabbat observance – is that many of us have been led to think by our growingly secular world that there is a hierarchy of life-choices, with billboards and the media placing the pursuit of materialism way ahead of the pursuit of spirituality. What this means is that when we make choices comparing the שמא (possible) and the ברי (certain), our conclusions are not only based on objective facts, but also on which is most effectively marketed to us as being certainly beneficial to us.
With the all the efforts and spending by various organisations to do what they can to ‘market’ spirituality, these will always be dwarfed by the efforts of the big brands to sell a lifestyle that often leaves little room for religion and spirituality. What this therefore means is that in order for us to make life choices that include religion and spirituality, we need to appreciate and market these values to ourselves by listening to the needs of our soul.
If we are led by voices beyond us from the wider world, then religion and spirituality is unlikely to be something we choose. But if we are led by the voice within us from our inner world, then we are likely to acknowledge that choices such as prayer and Shabbat can change our life.
Ultimately, for a Jew to overcome the many challenges that we face today, we need to choose that inner voice.