Plagiarism is a major no-no in the academic world, one that can ruin a person’s career and forever taint other accomplishments.

The Torah, too, is quite clear in telling us that we are to credit received wisdom to those who shared it with us, and that failure to do so is tantamount to stealing. But does this apply in all cases?

To probe the depths of this question, the Rebbe begins with a story from the Zohar:

Rabbi Yose and Rabbi Chiyya were traveling together, when Rabbi Chiyya shared an exposition on a verse from Isaiah. Impressed, Rabbi Yose declared, “This journey truly merited to benefit from this thought.” Rabbi Yose then inquired of Rabbi Chiyya, “From whom did you hear this thought?” Rabbi Chiyya responded that once he was walking along the way and he heard Rav Hamnuna the Elder1 teach this verse to Rabbi Acha.2

If Rabbi Chiyya was aware that he had derived this teaching from another sage, why did he not make the correct attribution from the outset? After all, surely he was aware of the tradition recorded in Ethics of the Fathers, “Anyone who delivers a teaching in the name of the one who said it brings redemption to the world, as it is written: ‘Esther informed the King in the name of Mordechai.’”3 In the Purim story, it came to Mordechai’s attention that some advisors were plotting to have the king killed, and Esther passed along the information in Mordechai’s name. This led to the king acting in gratitude towards Mordechai, which became an important part in the salvation of the entire nation.

Knowing this, surely Rabbi Chiyya should have acknowledged from the outset where his inspiring thought originated.

Rabbi Levi Yitzchak Schneerson, father of the Rebbe, explains that in the case of Esther the information was directly passed to her by Mordechai.4 This made it imperative that Esther give the appropriate attribution when informing the king, retracing the steps of how the information was shared. Not so in the case of Rabbi Chiyya, who merely overheard the Torah thought. As the idea had never been intentionally shared with him, he could not say that this was information given to him. It seems that Rabbi Yose sensed this, which is why he asked Rabbi Chiyya, “From where did you hear this?” and not “Who told you this?”

A significant difficulty remains with this story, as the rabbis also regarded giving correct attribution to one’s sources a halachic imperative. According to the Midrash, “Anyone who fails to state a teaching in the name of the one who said it, the verse says about him, ‘Do not rob the poor on account of his being poor.’5 Thus when a person hears something, he must always repeat it in the name of the one who said it.”6 Halachah thus rules that “One who does not repeat a teaching in the name of the one who said it transgresses a prohibition.”7

This seems to apply equally to overheard teachings as well as those intentionally transmitted.

Since Rabbi Hamnuna was not necessarily aware that his teaching was overheard by Rabbi Chiyya, it could be argued that the lack of attribution could have been a sin. How could Rabbi Chiyya fail to provide credit where credit was due?

The Rebbe supplies a new perspective by drawing attention to something quite glaring: there are veritably hundreds of teachings in the ancient texts that are never attributed to their original sources. How can this be?

This is particularly striking in relation to Rabbi Eliezer the Great, who said about himself that he “never taught a teaching that he had not heard from his own teacher.”8 Yet many of Rabbi Eliezer’s teachings are not attributed.

This provides the turning point for a new understanding. The obligation to credit one’s learning to one’s teachers only applies if the person is “holding onto” the learning of another. In many cases, however, the knowledge becomes fully integrated into the mind of the one who studies it. It is no longer another person’s idea that he has acquired, but an authentic part of his own mind. By sharing the teaching, he is no longer passing along someone else’s idea, but instead giving of his own self. At that point, the idea is as much his own as it is his teacher’s.

We see this from the way the Talmud permits a teacher to forgo his honor:

By what right can the teacher forgo his honor as a Torah scholar, when the honor is not due to him but to the Torah that does not belong to him? It very much is his Torah, as it is written regarding the righteous ‘His only desire is in G‑d’s Torah and in his Torah he delves day and night.’9 As if to say that the Torah starts out G‑d’s Torah, but by virtue of the toiling of the righteous it can now be called ‘his Torah.’10

The teaching shared by Rabbi Chiyya was one he had devoted himself to with such deep intensity it had become firmly part of his own repertoire, evidenced by how inspired his colleague, Rabbi Yose, was from hearing it.

The point of Torah study is not to accumulate knowledge and become better educated. The goal is to absorb what we learn so deeply that it enriches our very soul and can be truly called our own. We may not necessarily attribute to others, not for lack of politeness but because the learning has become a part of ourselves. We are not passing on information we gathered elsewhere, but giving from our inner core. When we give the proper attribution, we do so in order to pay homage to the tradition, not because we don’t feel attached to the idea which is now etched into our mind.

Adapted from Likkutei Sichot vol. 36, Ki Tisa II (pg. 180-186)