Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Right Answer, Wrong Question

“To be able to ask a question clearly is two-thirds of the way to getting it answered.”
― John Ruskin


The following is a story that is told in almost all yeshivas. It is shortly before Pesach and a widow comes to the Rabbi of the town. The widow asks the Rabbi if she is able to fulfill her daled kosos obligation by drinking milk. The Rabbi then gives this widow enough money to purchase both wine and meat for the upcoming holiday. The Rabbi’s logic is quite simple. Since she is asking about drinking milk, it is obvious that not only does she not have wine, but she also doesn't have meat.

When I first heard this story as a 7th grade student, it really didn’t have much of an impact on me. What’s the big deal? It doesn’t take a tremendous genius to realize that she doesn’t have meat. So why was this a story that gets told at all, let alone so often? As I grew older, I started realizing that there are tremendous lessons one can learn about sensitivity. The Rabbi could have easily just answered this woman’s question, instead he went out of his way to help her. A number of years ago, I realized the story is not just about sensitivity, it is about a special skill within communication. This is a skill that I call what are they really trying to say?.

Using the above story as the example, the words the woman used were “Can I use milk for daled kosos?” but what she was really saying was “Rabbi, I am really desperate for money, I have no wine, I have no meat, and I am too embarrassed to ask for help in a direct manner”. In the story, the Rabbi is able to decipher the actual request.

There are many examples of such questions, but there are two specific examples that I have seen repeated more than others. There are stories of victims of domestic abuse who claim that months prior they told their clergy of their situation. They were then advised that they, the victim, need to be more happy, more positive, more upbeat. The only problem is, they didn’t actually tell their clergy about the domestic abuse. They couldn’t bring themselves to say those words. Instead they went to their clergy and said “My spouse is always so angry”. The clergy didn't ask about the anger and didn't press for more details. They answered what they perceived to be the question, a question about anger, when they were actually speaking with a person who was asking for assistance with a domestic violence situation.

When I was 16 years old, one of my classmates publicly asked the teacher “Is suicide muttar?”. As a 16 year old, I thought I knew the answer to that question; suicide is forbidden. We all knew that by that age. So why was he wasting everyone’s time with a question that we all knew the answer to? But that wasn’t his question. His question wasn’t about the knowledge of the halacha, his question was a cry for help. He was considering ending his life and he chose this route as a way of letting his intentions be known.

Let’s use the following hypothetical. Your child is 11 and they take the school bus back from school. One day your child asks if they can walk home from school and not take the bus. Do you right away start telling them that it is too far a walk, too dangerous of a walk for them? Or do you start asking your child why they don’t want to be on the bus and why they’d prefer to walk? If the child is having an issue on the bus, whether it be bullying, abuse or anything else, the child is much less likely to say more about this issue they are having if you immediately start telling them why they can’t walk home. Ask your child, speak with your child, learn about your child.

One mustn’t assume that they understand the question. Don’t be afraid to ask why the question is being asked. Children and adults alike have a hard time saying certain things. Abuse in either physical, sexual or emotional form are especially difficult for many to discuss in a direct manner. Take the extra minute or two to make sure that you really know what you are being asked. While you might be getting the answer 100% correct, you got the question very wrong.

Yisroel Picker is a Social Worker who lives in Jerusalem. He has a private practice which specializes in working with people of all ages who are looking to improve their awareness and their social skills. He also lectures on the topics of communication and child safety.  You can email Yisroel at YMPicker@gmail.com


  1. Very good article. Food for thought - and practice. Thank you!

  2. Very good point you bring out in this article. This is especially applicable to therapists who need to listen to what's going on with the client between the lines of what is said, but not said outright. A typical example of this is when clients ask us personal questions and we need to explore where those questions are coming from.