I. False Goodwill
A common feature of social media interaction, the “hat tip,” has strong backing in Jewish law and an unlikely connection to the Purim story. The Internet is awash in material on every subject. Finding information you want, filtering out undesired, is a non-trivial task. An important part of web interaction is providing guidance to friends of followers, sharing links and articles. When someone points you to something interesting and you share it in turn, you acknowledge and thank that favor with a “hat tip,” a link or name of your guide. Social media like Twitter and Facebook make this much easier than blogs. Halakhah provides three reasons why a hat tip is appropriate, possibly obligatory.
R. Aaron Levine, of blessed memory, discusses an analogous situation in the first chapter of his Moral Issues of the Marketplace in Jewish Law. R. Ari Samson, a fictional character, teaches a weekly lecture on the laws of ribbis, interest on loans, based mainly on the book Beris Yehudah. R. Levine analyzes whether R. Samson is obligated to tell his congregants that he did not conduct all of that scholarship on his own but rather used a book of someone else’s scholarship. Does R. Samson create false goodwill by implying he has engaged in greater scholarship than he really did?
Mordechai’s saving the life of Achashverosh, which was rewarded by Haman leading Mordechai in the king’s clothing and publicly declaring the king’s gratitude, could have been Esther’s glory. Mordechai told Esther about the plot on Achashverosh’s life. However, Esther relayed the information in Mordechai’s name: “And Esther said to the king in the name of Mordechai” (Esther 2:22). This act of honesty eventually led to the salvation of all the Jews in the Persian empire.
The Sages derive from Esther’s act a principle of attribution. “Whoever repeats a thing in the name of the one who said it brings redemption to the world” (Avos 6:6). It is not clear to me whether this is an obligation or a praiseworthy behavior. However, it seems to be a value on its own, even without the other underlying reasons we will discuss shortly.
Significantly, the Gemara (Nazir 56b) states that when there is a long line of attribution, you need only mention the first and last. R. Levine expands on this idea. You are required (or encouraged) to always list your first teacher, the source from which you know your information. If R. Samson gains all his knowledge from Beris Yehudah, then the book is his first teacher. However, if he looks up the sources quoted by Beris Yehudah, then the underlying texts are his first teacher and the book is his second. In such a case, the rule of attribution may not require mentioning use of Beris Yehudah.
None of the 613 laws of the Torah obligates acting with gratitude. However, the entire Torah is based on this requirement (see Emunos Ve-Dei’os 3:1; Chovos Ha-Levavos, Shaar Avodas Hashem, intro). R. Yitzchak Hutner argues that the obligation for gratitude precedes, and exists independently of, the revelation at Sinai (Pachad Yitzchak, Rosh Hashanah, pp. 121-123; cited by Dr. David Shatz in R. Michael Broyde ed., September 11th in Jewish Tradition, p. 211). Gratitude is a fundamental mandate of Judaism. Indeed, Haman’s defeat began with Achashverosh’s belated gratitude to Mordechai (Esther 6).
R. Levine points to the statement in Avos (6:3): “He who learns from his fellow a single chapter, a single halakhah, a single verse, a single Torah statement, or even a single letter, must treat him with honor….” A rabbi who gains sources and insights from a book must display proper gratitude to, must honor, the author. The author becomes your teacher. Failing to properly cite him shows a lack of appreciation for this new relationship.
Also important is the lie R. Samson perpetrates by failing to cite the recent book he uses for preparation. By quoting from a variety of texts, he demonstrates an expertise that is not his but that of the author of Beris Yehudah. However, if his audience assumes he uses secondary sources to prepare lectures, then he is not guilty of deception. His failure to quote Beris Yehudah does not create a false impression.
Therefore, it all depends on the assumption of the reasonable listener. R. Levine insists that R. Samson may not rely on his intuition about what people assume. Rather, he must conduct a survey to evaluate their views. He must ascertain whether a significant minority, a mi’ut ha-matzuy which R. Levine places at 15-20%, assumes he was aware of the sources on his own. Absent such a survey, R. Samson must reveal his usage of Beris Yehudah. Or, I suggest, at least reveal that he frequently consults secondary sources.
V. Hat Tips
Let us attempt to apply these ideas to the hat tip. The hat tip is clearly required as a show of gratitude to someone who directs you to a website of interest. The other issues are less clear cut. Once you see the website itself, you might not be obligated due to attribution because the website becomes your first teacher.
Additionally, deceit may not be a concern. Every Internet user regularly receives links via e-mail, blog readers see links on other blogs and social media users discover articles and websites on Twitter, Facebook, etc. Does anyone really assume that you find all the links by yourself? I have not conducted a survey so I cannot rely on this intuition. But my intuition tells me it is not a problem.
Personally, I am terrible with hat tips and I feel bad about it. I save my links on Instapaper as I encounter them. When I compile my daily list in the morning, I often do not remember where I first saw an article. Sometimes my source is a website that I feel is improper to link to.
My current plan is to change how I post links is to include a disclaimer on every link post explaining that I often find articles and links through the efforts of others. Additionally, I will add to each link post a hat tip list giving appropriate recognition.