Shakespeare and Halacha

By BJLIfe/Rabbi Yair Hoffman

Posted on 02/12/18

“All that glisters is not gold;

Often have you heard that told:

Many a man his life hath sold

The truth revealed for all to behold:

Shakespeare’s words do worms enfold.”

The above, of course, was plagiarized from Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice, but that’s mida k’neged mida.

Yes, it’s true.  Last Thursday, the New York Times reported that Shakespeare, has once again been caught at going on the 16th century version of the internet and cutting and pasting into his own literary works. 

It was reported that Dennis McCarthy and Professor June Schlueter used software that was designed to catch students who plagiarize, to catch Shakespeare himself.  Apparently, he took both language and ideas from an obscure courtier named George North.  North wrote a manuscript in 1576 that served as Shakespeare’s source for the “Now is the winter of our discontent” soliloquy in Richard III, some scenes out of Macbeth, King Lear and Henry V.

It's not the first for him, of course.  “King Lear,” as Harvard English professor Stephen Greenblatt and others have shown, takes much from a 1603 Montaigne essay. Shakespeare also took ideas from Chaucer, Spenser and Plutarch, whose ideas Shakespeare took from a translation. 

The difference between the new find and the old ones is that this time the original author was a nobody – the others were famous.  


The point of all this is that those in the field of education should use this as ateaching moment -  an opportunity to teach an important Torah value.  It perhaps should even be introduced as a unit in the Language Arts curriculums of our schools.  Doing so could not only get us more in line with Torah values – it could even improve our writing.  What follows is a brief overview of plagiarism in Torah sources. 


King Solomon tells us (Mishlei 22:22) the following words:  “Rob not from a poor person – for he is poor.” Chazal tell us (Yalkut Shimoni Mishlei 560; Midrash Tanchuma BaMidbar 27) that Shlomo HaMelech is actually referring to plagiarism – to reciting a statement without attributing it to its source.

Just as a poor person has no protector – no guardian to right wrongs and injustices, the same is true with intellectual property. An earlier thinker came up with an idea. Just as the poor person has no protector, so too does the thinker have no protector. Shlomo HaMelech is appealing to our conscience – do not steal from a poor person – for he is poor – he has no protector. Do not cheat or plagiarize for they too -  have no protector.

We skip now to Queen Esther (Megilas Esther 2:22). Two guards, Bigson and Seresh, had plotted a coup d’etat. Mordechai, proficient in seventy languages, overheard and told the Queen.

Queen Esther didn’t take credit for the information.

She told the King that she had actually obtained the information from Mordechai.

Esther was amply rewarded. It is, in fact, for this action that she merited to be the conduit of the salvation of Klal Yisroel. Because of Esther it is said, “Whoever says something in the name of its originator brings salvation to the world.”

What was really going on here? Esther certainly was a righteous woman. Can’t we assume that if she thought it better for the king to have assumed that the information came from her, then surely she would have been fully justified?


It would seem not. It would seem that even though, it may have been in the Jewish interest that Esther gain the king’s favor, there is something inherently wrong in not attributing the information to the true source. She knew this. Esther could not stoop to do something that is inherently wrong. It was for this realization - that we are but mere foot soldiers, in a campaign and our primary responsibility is to follow Hashem’s bidding in what is right and wrong that she was so amply rewarded.


We now move on to Pirkei Avos 6:5. Naming the original source of the information. Avoiding plagiarism. It is, in fact, in a list of one of the 48 ways in which Torah is acquired.


The Yalkut Yoseph (Kivud Av VoAim chapter 9) cites a few more sources. The Shla in Meseches Shvuos says that it is an enormous sin – and should be looked at as if one kidnapped human life.  Kidnapping is a serious crime, but it seems that it is the parallel emotion that authors feel when their work has been taken from them without attribution. 

An illustration might be in order.  A number of years ago, authors Michael Baigent and Richard Leigh had sued publishers Random House claiming that Dan Brown's famous book, the Da Vinci Code was a ripoff of their work, The Holy Blood Holy Grail.”  They claimed that Brown has appropriated “ the architecture of their book which was previously published in 1982.

Baigent and Leigh said that Mr. Brown had "hijacked" and "exploited" their book, which had taken them five years to write.  The words are clearly indicative of the pain of a kidnapping.

 A mathematical comparison of the parallels in the two books are very revealing and striking.  In order to avoid the appearance of plagiarizing, a plagiarist must change the words in the parallel passages.  If the changes are so far beyond the boundaries of general usage, then it is clear that a plagiarizing has taken place.  The claimants had overwhelming evidence to this effect.  The judge, however, inexplicably tossed the lawsuit, leaving the claimants very distraught. 


The Yalkut Yoseph further cites the Sefer Chasidim (224): Whoever says something in the name of a deceased Tzaddik earns his favor and is prayed for by that Tzaddik.

Conversely, the Chida writes (Bris Olam) that if one writes a book from Torah that was stolen from others – they curse him and he dies halfway through life.


As the holiday of Purim approaches, Esther’s actions are a model for all of us to implement.  It brings salvation to the wolrd and to Klal Yisroel. 

The author can be reached at yairhoffman2@gmail.com