Did you know that according to the U.S. Postal Service, willfully and knowingly reading someone else’s mail is a federal offense. That’s right, even that department store bill addressed to your spouse! If it isn’t addressed to you, it isn’t yours to open. (Of course, most families have an understanding that either spouse may open such mail.)

What, you might ask, does the federal privacy statute have to do with Judaism? Around the year 1000 C.E., Rabbeinu Gershom of Mainz, the Ashkenazic legal authority at the time, issued a takanah, a legal decree, for all Ashkenazic Jews (which was eventually accepted by Jews worldwide) forbidding a person from reading the private correspondence of another.

The purpose of this ruling was twofold. First and foremost, it reflected the prevailing business ethic. In an era without telephones or fast modes of travel, business was often transacted through couriers and messengers. However, the takanah was also issued to protect Jews from lashon harah and re’chee’lut – two forms of gossip. If you mind your own business, you won’t have any juicy “news” to share with the world.

Most people today would never think of reading another person’s mail – it breaks many of our accepted social mores. Ahh, but what about reading your friend’s e-mail over his shoulder…

This Treat was last posted on November 5, 2008.

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