“Why should you steal?”
BT Bava Batra 133a
Credit is a fascinating intangible commodity. We don’t get enough of it. We deny we want it. And we get resentful if we don’t get it. But giving credit is a fundamental Jewish value, and the animus behind the above Talmudic statement. One scholar was indignant when another cited an opinion without proper attribution. He accused him of no less than stealing. Intellectual property lawyers take note. These opinions were delivered orally, and yet even so, they were regarded as treasured ideas that “belonged” to someone.
During a heated debate about the intricate rules of inheritance, the Talmudic sage Rabbi Nahman said to Rabbi Huna, “Why should you steal?” He was not accusing him of a taking an object that belonged to someone else but taking someone else’s idea without proper attribution. He continued to remonstrate his colleague that if he sided with a particular sage then he must state his name. Naming the masoritic line – the link of scholars who hold a position down to its originator- is a standard feature of virtually every page of the Talmud. For those unacquainted with Talmud study who encounter these name lists, it may seem frustrating or extraneous, but, in reality, who you learn something from is a sacred aspect of the teaching.
Amy Gallo in her HBR article, “What to Do When Someone Takes Credit for Your Work?” (April 29, 2015), discusses the niggling problem of being forgotten when it comes to getting credit. Why should that matter, she asks? It matters very much: “That all goes into the bank account of how much value you bring to the organization and plays into promotion decisions, raises, and assignments. And you can’t assume that people will notice the time and effort you put in,” she writes, quoting Brian Uzzi, professor of leadership and organizational change at Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management.
She offers some advice to those who are sitting at their desks seething because someone took the pat on the back while they strained to make it happen. Take time to calm down and don’t call out a colleague in front of others. The goal is not humiliation. Assume positive intent. It’s likely an oversight and not deliberate. What will you gain by outing this mistake? Instead ask the person why it happened rather than accuse. Talk about how to right the wrong if the person acknowledges it. If not, Gallo suggests a more focused conversation with a supervisor about good working partnerships, modeling giving credit and being proactive about articulating who has worked on what in a collaborative project so that the contributors are clearly identified.
Ethics of the Fathers shares many observations about credit – giving it and not creating the impression that your work is your own. For example, Rabban Yohanan the son of Zakkai who received the tradition from Hillel and Shammai said: “If you have learned much Torah, do not take credit for yourself---it is for this that you have been created.” (2:8) Don’t take credit even for your own accomplishments because this is what you were put in the world to do – to learn, to study, to grow. In a later chapter, we are adjured to treat with respect and recognition, anyone who has taught us anything: “One who learns from his fellow a single chapter, or a single law, or a single verse, or a single word, or even a single letter, he must treat him with respect.” (6:3). Later in the same chapter, in a lengthy mishna, we learn that Torah is acquired with 48 qualities. These include: study, listening, verbalizing, comprehension of the heart, awe, fear, humility, joy, purity and “precision in conveying a teaching, and saying something in the name of its speaker.”
This particular aspect of learning acquisition is the only one with a biblical proof-text: “One who says something in the name of its speaker brings redemption to the world, as is stated: "And Esther told the king in the name of Mordechai" (Esther 2:22). Mordechai discovered a plot against the king. When Esther relayed this message to the king, she did so in Mordechai’s name. It would have been easy enough to take the credit and promote herself inside the palace. Mordechai would never have known. But she knew.
We can understand the powerful seduction of taking credit for someone else’s brilliant idea to look brilliant ourselves. But stealing their shine to augment our own prizes making a good impression over being a person of impressive virtue. And that should be enough.