Today’s daf (Shabbat 117b) teaches us about the duty to have two loaves of bread for each of our Shabbat meals, and it then relates how, upon reciting the bracha of Hamozi, Rabbi Zeira would break a large piece of bread for himself that would be sufficient for him to eat for his entire meal.
Having heard of this practice, Ravina said to Rav Ashi that such actions מיחזי כרעבתנותא – would look like those of someone who is gluttonous, to which Ravina responded that since Rabbi Zeira only acted in this manner on Shabbat, it was clear that his behaviour was solely expressive of his love for the holy Shabbat meals and was not a indicative of overall bad middot (character traits). Still, while Ravina may have justified Rabbi Zeira’s behaviour given the context of Shabbat and the fact that Rabbi Zeira was renowned for his good middot, this Gemara (along with Gemara Brachot 39b) teaches us that we should avoid any form of behaviour that is מיחזי כרעבתנותא.
Significantly, elsewhere in the Gemara we are warned about other actions that may be suggestive of the poor middot of a person. For example, there are numerous teachings in halacha that express concern for מיחזי כיוהרא (that such actions would appear like those of a haughty person), and many others that express concern for מיחזי כשיקרא (that such actions would appear to be those of a deceptive person).
However, while the halachic concept of מראית עין (avoiding behaviours that may lead observers to reach incorrect halachic conclusions) is often explained in schools and reinforced in homes, the concerns about acting in ways that are מיחזי כרעבתנותא, or מיחזי כיוהרא or מיחזי כשיקרא seems to be under-emphasised both in schools and homes. Yet, as Rav Kook writes in his Mussar Avicha (3:5), ‘our Sages established rules and boundaries of מראית עין for middot.. such as we find the concern for מיחזי כרעבתנותא… and rules out of concern for מיחזי כיוהרא. In fact, this concern for [the middot dimension of] מראית עין that a person should not be haughty [is treated with greater severity than מראית עין actions that may lead observers to reach incorrect halachic conclusions] because it is even invoked to justify passively foregoing the fulfilment of a positive Torah commandment!’. Simply put, Rav Kook is teaching us that מראית עין for middot should be avoided at all costs.
Ultimately, each of us should be concerned that our actions do not appear to be מיחזי כרעבתנותא, or מיחזי כיוהרא or מיחזי כשיקרא. At the same time we must never forget that sometimes it is the smallest of actions – such as taking a larger piece of bread for ourselves – that speaks volumes about our character.