Today’s daf (Ketubot 55b) raises an important question about the Talmudic principle of אומדנא, or what we may describe as ‘circumstantial evidence’. Specifically, if a situation arises when it seems as if we know the intention of someone in a given event, but we could be wrong and they may have had a different intention, can we rely on our presumption of their intention based on the circumstances of that event?
Overall, the answer of whether we can rely on circumstantial evidence depends on the circumstances. If it comes at a personal or financial cost to someone then we generally don’t do so, whereas in other instances an אומדנא can be relied upon. In terms of our daf – which discusses a financial transaction of someone on their deathbed – we follow Shmuel who raises doubts about what might have been the intention of the individual. To quote the Rambam, ‘[in such a situation] perhaps he did not make up his mind to transfer ownership except via a legal document. In such an instance, the gift would not be effective because a gift given by someone on their deathbed takes effect only after their death, and a legal document cannot transfer property after the principal’s death’ (Zechiyah U’Matanah 8:10).
But if the law is that we don’t rely on an אומדנא if it comes at a personal or financial cost given the possibility that this presumption could be wrong, we would do well to also consider, especially while we conduct our own personal ‘cheshbon hanefesh’ (soul searching) during this month of Ellul, why so many of us jump to conclusions about the intentions of others – oftentimes while only doing so based on our incomplete knowledge of a given circumstance, and especially when doing so can come at a significant loss to the relationships that we have with family and friends?
Yes, sometimes we may correctly guess the intentions of others. But sometimes we may not. And so the question – raised in our daf, and in numerous further places in the Gemara – is what is the ‘cost’ of getting it wrong? And the answer, at least in some instances, is sufficiently significant as to justify actively dissuading us from doing so.
Sadly, too many family broigeses stem from presumptions of intentions, and too many friendships end because we think that we know what another is thinking. Given this, the way to improve our relationships is by acknowledging that perhaps we don’t know people as much as we think we do, and so, when a circumstance arises which is ambiguous, rather than making a presumption and judging harshly, we should judge people favourably (דן לכף זכות) because, if we are going to make a presumption, the best presumption to make is a positive one.