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A lot of opinion follows:

Here at Mi.Yodeya, we place a strong emphasis on sourced questions and answers. New users, who are unfamiliar with this, often ask unsourced but otherwise decent questions (or at least they could be with a little work).

The common practice is to leave a comment that says something like: "How do you know _?" or: "Do you have a source for __?"

The problem is that comments like this feel combative and accusatory, without explaining to the new user what we're looking for. The user is instantly put on the defensive and gets the feeling that his participation is not welcome.

By explaining to the user what it is we feel is lacking in their question, and what they can do to improve it, we turn an accusatory comment into a welcoming one.

I have put together a rough draft of something we can use to explain to the new users what we're looking for, and how their question could be improved. I'm posting it as an answer below. Don't hesitate to edit it in any way, I'm not married to any of it. For example, it may be too long.

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Welcome to Mi.Yodeya, a Question and Answer site for people who base their lives on Jewish law and tradition. Like any Q&A site, improving the quality of your question will almost always improve the quality of the answer you receive.

Here is an example:

If witchcraft has no power when the practitioner is not connected to the ground, how could Bilaam fly?

This may be a perfectly valid question, but there are several problems with it:

  1. Classic "Begging the Question":

    • Witchcraft has no power when the practitioner is not connected to the ground. How do you know this?
    • Bilaam flew? When? Where? Why?
  2. Unless someone already knows what you're talking about, they have no way of understanding your question.

Both these points can be addressed by adding sources to your question. This improves your chances of getting an answer because:

  1. It shows you've put some time and effort into the question
  2. Many times, people won't know the answer to your question. However, the question intrigued them, and they'd like to know the answer themselves. Or maybe they weren't even aware of something you brought up (e.g. who knew witches had to be on the ground? I always thought witches could fly). They can look up the sources you used, and maybe find an answer for you.

In our example, here is how the question could be improved:

There is a story told about how Shimon ben Shetach killed the 80 witches of Ashkelon (The story is brought in Rashi to the Talmud Sanhedrin 44b, as well as a couple places in the Talmud Yerushalmi (one of them being Talmud Yerushalmi Sanhedrin Chapter 6 Halacha 6)). From that story, it is clear that witches have no power when they are not connected to the ground.

The Midrash (Bamidbar Rabba, 20:20) tells us that Bilaam used sorcery to make himself and 5 kings fly. How were they able to fly using sorcery if the spell-caster must be on the ground?

This question has been improved. Someone unfamiliar with the subject matter can understand what you're asking, and even has some sources they can use to research the subject. However, the question can still be improved further. While you added sources, the reader will have to make an effort to find and study those sources. The less work you leave for the reader to do, the more likely it is that they will look into it and perhaps give you an answer.

So, this question can be further improved by linking to places where the source material can be found online. In our example:

There is a story told about how Shimon ben Shetach killed the 80 witches of Ashkelon (The story is brought in Rashi to the Talmud Sanhedrin 44b, as well as a couple places in the Talmud Yerushalmi (one of them being Talmud Yerushalmi Sanhedrin Chapter 6 Halacha 6 - 29A here)). From that story, it is clear that witches have no power when they are not connected to the ground.

The Midrash (Bamidbar Rabba, 20:20) tells us that Bilaam used sorcery to make himself and 5 kings fly. How were they able to fly using sorcery if the spell-caster must be on the ground?

But what if I don't know all that?

Maybe you don't know the source for something you've heard -- you learned it in school a long time ago, or you heard somebody mention that Rashi said such-and-such but you don't know where, or you're asking a question based on observed behavior, not a written source at all. That's ok; you can still ask your question.

I remember learning in cheder that witchcraft doesn't work if the witch isn't standing on the ground. But I just saw in Bamidbar Rabbah 20:20 that... (Bilaam part of question goes here). How do we reconcile this?

Or, for a less text-driven question:

I daven in an Ashkenazi-nusach shul and they always repeat Kaddish Yatom at the end. I always thought everybody did it this way, but I recently heard that Sefardim do not. What is the Sefardi practice, and what is the reason for the difference?

(This last is based on the evolution of this question.)

In conclusion:

  1. When writing your question, it helps to imagine someone who is not familiar with the concepts reading it. Will they understand what you are asking? Will it be easy for them to look into it, should they be interested?

  2. The easier you make it for someone to find an answer, the more likely you are to get an answer

  3. This is usually what is intended when people comment on your question asking for a source. Don't leave the source in the comment, edit your question, include the source, and turn it into a better question.

  4. If you don't have a written source, tell us where you know the information from. Maybe you heard it in a lecture, maybe it is a story you were told in your youth. That's a perfectly valid, if not necessarily the most reliable, source. Even 'weaker' sources are useful to others when they are included in the question.


By the way, this is based on an actual question asked on our site: Flying and sorcery

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    Exactly! Perhaps include a bit about why even 'weaker' sources are useful to others when they are included – Double AA Jun 10 '13 at 21:42
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    Begging the question is (roughly) answering it in a way that leaves the same question unanswered. I don't understand the reference here to begging the question. – msh210 Jun 11 '13 at 5:30
  • @msh210: From the page I linked to: ""Begging the question" is a form of logical fallacy in which a statement or claim is assumed to be true without evidence other than the statement or claim itself." – Menachem Jun 11 '13 at 12:51
  • Ye-es... but I think it's used specifically where a second statement is offered as proof to a first (but amounts to just a restatement of it), not where (as in the answer here) a first statement is offered without any second statement as proof at all. As the linked-to page says: "A simple example would be 'I think he is unattractive because he is ugly.'" – msh210 Jun 11 '13 at 16:33
  • @msh210: When one begs the question, the initial assumption of a statement is treated as already proven without any logic to show why the statement is true in the first place. That seems to sum up what I'm trying to say perfectly. If it doesn't apply here, let's change it to something else. – Menachem Jun 11 '13 at 18:06
  • I still think the acceptability and the benefit of "weaker" sources (can we get a better term than that?) could be better clarified, as the people who need to understand that best are likely the easiest to be discouraged by requests for sources. (See the very related links on the question as well for related ideas to include.) – Double AA Jun 11 '13 at 20:09
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    I wish there were a way to link to this answer from "How to Ask". – msh210 Jun 12 '13 at 19:17
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Feel free to copy the following boilerplate comment:

Welcome to [judaism.SE] and thanks for your question! Like any Q&A site, improving the quality of your question will almost always improve the quality of the answer you receive. You can really improve on this question if you could XYZ. (See http://meta.judaism.stackexchange.com/a/1715 for some more tips.)

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