Educational Programming Which Can Lead to Shabbat Desecration

  • Harav Aharon Lichtenstein

Based on a sicha of Harav Aharon Lichtenstein zt"l

Translated and adapted by Rav Eliezer Kwass


            Informal Jewish educational work often demands dealing with situations that are complex halakhically, spiritually and socially.  A common problem arises when arranging Shabbat educational programs for participants who are not Shabbat observant.  Arranging programming on Shabbat itself is of prime educational importance for obvious reasons, but can easily bring about Shabbat desecration when participants drive or are driven to activities.  A similar dilemma arises in social situations; when invited for a Shabbat meal, friends or relatives who are not Shabbat-observant may very likely arrive by car during Shabbat.  Although the problem is multi-faceted, we will focus mainly on the halakhic issues involved.


            Rav Moshe Feinstein relates to our issue in Igrot Moshe OC vol.I, responsa #98 and #99 (pp. 159-160).  Rav Moshe writes [in response to a question (#98) posed by Rav Aryeh Kaplan] that one who invites people who drive on Shabbat to participate in a minyan, transgresses the prohibition "Lifnei iveir lo titein mikhshol" (Do not place a stumbling block in front of the blind) because of his involvement in their Shabbat desecration.  He goes a step further in responsum #99 and claims that besides transgressing lifnei iveir, one who invites another to do something that inevitably involves desecration of Shabbat is defined as a "meisit" (one who incites another to sin - see below for a discussion).

            The Torah prohibits facilitating a transgression by one who is obligated to keep the Torah's laws but does not realize this, or who is temporarily "blinded" by the inclination not to follow the Torah's laws.  The main talmudic source on this transgression is a passage in Avoda Zara 6b:

"How do we know that one should not pass a cup of wine to a nazirite (who has vowed against drinking it)?... The Torah teaches us [that this is prohibited] when it says, 'Do not place a stumbling block in front of the blind'....  When does this prohibition apply?  When you and the nazirite are standing on two opposite sides of a river."

            "Lifnei iveir", according to the gemara, does not apply when the nazirite does not need any assistance to commit his transgression ( = the nazirite and the cup of wine are on the same side of the river).  Only facilitating another's transgression by exposing him to a new, previously non-existent possibility is considered "lifnei iveir."

            There are, though, two limitations to the "same side of the river" clause:

1.  The Mishneh La-melekh in Hilkhot Malveh Ve-loveh claims that it is only permissible if the transgressor could have accomplished his goals without any assistance at all.  If, however, the nazirite cannot commit a sin without assistance, but there are two Jews available to give him his cup of wine from the other side of the river, it is prohibited for both of them to hand it to him.  Lifnei iveir still applies when the sinner needs help and the only question is WHO will provide it; it is forbidden to be the person who provides the help.  Some Acharonim claim that the Bach argues with the Mishneh La-melekh's principle.

2.  The "same side of the river" clause might only be applicable when the transgressor has a LIVE OPTION to achieve his goals without assistance, not when he just has the POTENTIAL to transgress by himself.

            However, it is clear that in our situation the biblical prohibition of lifnei iveir does NOT apply, because the non-observant Jew does not need any assistance in order to drive on Shabbat and his ability to do so is a live option.  Inviting him to come to a minyan may prompt him to drive and this would be a problem of meisit according to Rav Moshe.  However, lifnei iveir is not a problem, since the invitation does not open him up to any new options of Shabbat desecration that were not open to him beforehand.


            There are those who question whether it is PERMISSIBLE to aid another in going against the Torah's laws, even though the transgressor can readily sin without any assistance.  The Tosafot (Shabbat 3a) say:

            "Nevertheless, [even on one side of the river] there is still a RABBINIC PROHIBITION [to hand him the cup of wine,] for we must distance others from transgressing."

            This prohibition can be explained in three different ways:

A.  There is no biblical prohibition of lifnei iveir "on one side of the river," but Chazal extended the prohibition on a rabbinical level.

B.  Lifnei iveir is totally inapplicable, but there is a rabbinic prohibition related to tokhacha, the mitzva of REBUKE.

C.  There is no prohibition of lifnei iveir, but a rabbinic prohibition of "mesayei'a biydei ovrei aveira," HELPING ANOTHER SIN.  "Lifnei iveir" and "mesayei'a" differ in nature.  Lifnei iveir prohibits setting up a situation where a sin will be easily committed.  Mesayei'a means participating in another's sin.  A group of Acharonim, based on Rashi in Gittin 61a, maintain that mesayei'a only applies at the time of the sin, whereas lifnei iveir applies even beforehand - its whole essence is "placing a stumbling block" before the blind man trips.

            Our situation, where arranging programming or inviting guests will probably result in Shabbat transgression, now becomes particularly problematic.  Even though I do not hand the participant or guest his car keys, might there not still be a rabbinic prohibition involved in inviting him?

            Whether our case is prohibited might depend on which of these three possibilities we accept.  A rabbinic level of LIFNEI IVEIR (A) should still apply to our case; so would a rabbinic mitzva of REBUKE (B).  However, if participation in the sin, "mesayei'a" (C), only applies at the time of the sin, our case would not be included in the prohibition since no sin is committed at the time of the invitation.  Two out of three approaches would view organizing programming that involves participants' Shabbat desecration as rabbinically prohibited.


            Do later halakhic sources cite Tosafot's idea of a rabbinic prohibition applying even to "on one side of the river?"  The Rema (YD 151:3) records a dispute among the poskim about whether it is permissible to sell Gentiles items that will likely serve as part of idolatrous religious services.  He rules leniently, but writes that one who is pious, a "ba'al nefesh," should act stringently.  The Rema's leniency can be understood in several ways:

I.  The Shakh (YD 151:3, note 7) quotes the Rema's own Darkei Moshe (notes on the Tur) who explains that when modern day Gentiles refer to God, they are referring to the real God.  Based on this, the prohibition against doing business with a Gentile because he might, in the heat of an argument, swear in the name of his god does not apply nowadays.  [A Jew causing him to do this transgresses the verse "The names of other gods should not be heard on (here, because of) your mouth."]  If this is the source of the Rema's leniency, it does not have universal application, but is rather limited to idolatry prohibitions, leaving other cases still rabbinically prohibited.

II.  The Shakh adds that if the prohibition mentioned by the Tosafot is based on the mitzva of rebuke it is not applicable to non-Jews.  Lifnei iveir is applicable to everyone; the classic case quoted by the gemara is handing a limb taken from a live animal (prohibited by the seven Noachide laws) to a non-Jew.  Rebuke, based on "hokheiach tokhiach et amitekha (your compatriot)," does not apply to a Gentile or an apostate Jew, according to the Shakh.  However, it would be difficult to consider people participating today in "kiruv" programs as apostates, thereby making it permissible to bring about their desecration of the Shabbat.

III.  Many Acharonim, though, claim that according to the Rema's ruling, lifnei iveir never applies in a "one side of the river" case.  Only facilitating a transgression that was previously not a live option is prohibited.


            A new perspective on situations like ours emerges from Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach's Minchat Shlomo, responsum #35.  Does lifnei iveir apply, he asks, to presenting someone with a lesser opportunity to sin in order to prevent him from another inevitable graver sin?  Is it permissible to serve food to a non-observant (but sympathetic to Torah) guest because he will inevitably not make a blessing over it?  True, this brings about his eating without making a blessing.  On the other hand, refusing to treat him like a normal guest might very likely result in angering him to the degree that he will develop an antagonistic attitude to Torah.

            Rav Shlomo Zalman answers that one should serve such a guest (although at the very end of the responsum he declines coming to a final decision).  He says, furthermore, that if one sees another Jew drinking a cup of wine made from orla, a serious biblical transgression, it is permissible to switch it for a cup of stam yeinam (wine made by non-Jews), a rabbinic prohibition, if that is the only way to stop him from committing the graver sin. (Ed. - It is permissible to place a stumbling block in front of a blind man if that is the only way to prevent him from falling into a more dangerous pit.)

            Rav Shlomo Zalman's understanding of lifnei iveir is revolutionary.  He points out that, although normally one may not himself transgress in order to save his fellow from a sin, a case of lifnei iveir is qualitatively different.  When dealing with a lifnei iveir situation, one has to take into account what is the best strategy for contributing to the other's overall good.  "Do not place a stumbling block before the blind" only refers to causing a fall that is, on the whole, destructive to the person.  This approach relies on the assessment that a much more destructive situation might develop if one does not facilitate the lighter transgression.  Therefore, in total perspective, an act which immediately decreases the severity of the impending aveira is NOT by definition lifnei iveir.

            We can further see from Rav Shlomo Zalman that a person's present assessment, albeit somewhat speculative, is what determines whether lifnei iveir applies, even if eventually it turns out to have been mistaken.  Applied to our case, it would be permissible to set up a situation where a person would desecrate Shabbat because the educational gains of his experience will help bring him to fuller observance of the Torah.  If your assessment is that this programming will very likely bring this person closer to observing the Torah, especially since he is presently desecrating Shabbat in any event, it would not be defined as lifnei iveir.



            Perhaps Rav Shlomo Zalman's approach should be limited. 

1.  Lifnei iveir applies both to facilitating a person's committing a halakhic transgression as well as to giving misleading advice (e.g. on a monetary matter).  The Acharonim make a distinction between the two.  The prohibition against giving bad advice to one's fellow is predicated on his fellow's not desiring the negative results of the advice.  If, theoretically, he would want to lose money, it would not be prohibited to advise him improperly.  Causing another to sin, though, is prohibited whether the other wants to sin or not; it is forbidden to give a nazirite a cup of wine even if he wants to drink it.  This distinction arises from the following problem in Tosafot.

            The Tosafot claim that if one person gives another chicken and milk to eat (a rabbinic prohibition), he only transgresses lifnei iveir on a rabbinic level.  At first glance, this opinion is very difficult to maintain; wouldn't this be classified in the least as bad advice - and thus lifnei iveir on the Torah level?  The Acharonim are forced to say Tosafot are dealing with a situation in which the sinner wants to transgress, and so lifnei iveir is limited by the nature of the halakhic transgression; in this case, lifnei iveir is on the rabbinic level, since it refers to a prohibition that is itself rabbinic.  Encouraging another to do a rabbinic transgression could fall under the biblical lifnei iveir only if the other does not want to sin; it then would be of the nature of 'misleading advice.'

            It is easier to apply Rav Shlomo Zalman's ruling to a case of misleading advice, where the prohibition stems from the perspective of the individual (i.e. he subjectively does not desire the outcome).  However, in the case of causing a sin, it is more difficult to enter the individual's "big picture" into the equation, since, in the end, Halakha is being transgressed.

2.  Whether to adopt Rav Shlomo Zalman's approach might also be dependent on which side one takes in a dispute between the Ba'al Ha-ma'or and the Ramban.  They take opposing positions about how independent lifnei iveir is from the sin that is eventually committed.  They ask: is lifnei iveir a transgression in itself, or is it a lesser form of the sin one is causing the other to commit?  Rav Shlomo Zalman's question, whether one can substitute bringing about a minor sin for bringing about a major one, might be a practical ramification of their dispute.  If lifnei iveir is an independent prohibition, it is possible that we should take into account the long-term spiritual outlook for the person.  If, however, lifnei iveir is a facet of the sin being committed, then the nature of lifnei iveir is focused more on the specific transgression and less on the person.  Rav Shlomo Zalman's approach is then less plausible.


            In the footnotes to the Minchat Shlomo, the Chazon Ish is quoted as only permitting bringing about another's DOUBTFUL sin in order to avoid a DEFINITE sin.  The mishna in masekhet Shevi'it records that it is prohibited to sell utensils whose only use is prohibited work to those who do not follow the laws of the Shemitta year.  However, it is permissible to sell them utensils which have BOTH permitted and prohibited uses.  The Chazon Ish explains the distinction; it is doubtful whether one transgresses lifnei iveir through selling such a utensil and therefore, in order to prevent the am ha-aretz from coming to hate the shemitta-observant storekeeper (thereby definitely transgressing "You should not hate your brother in your heart"), it is permitted to sell it.  Being stringent in order to avoid a situation where he MIGHT sin would bring about another DEFINITE sin.

            The footnote in the Minchat Shlomo claims that the Chazon Ish argues with Rav Shlomo Zalman's ruling in a case where one definite prohibition is substituted for another definite one.  It should be pointed out that there might be a relevant distinction between the different cases that the Chazon Ish and the Minchat Shlomo are speaking about.  Rav Shlomo Zalman rules that one can harm a person spiritually in order to help him spiritually (i.e. you can cause him to eat without a berakha in order to prevent him from severing his connections to Torah).  Both the harm to the person and the good caused him are on the same plane.  The Chazon Ish, on the other hand, rules that it is permitted to sell an "am ha-aretz" a doubtful shemitta-work utensil if not selling it will bring a state of hate and general ill-will.  For social reasons, the mishna rules that it is permissible to possibly (but not definitely) harm another spiritually.  Rav Shlomo Zalman, though, says that we must look at whether in the overall view we are harming or helping another spiritually.  He might agree that it is not permitted to cause another to commit a definite sin in order to avoid a negative social mood, and the Chazon Ish might agree that in defining a "stumbling block" for the law of lifnei iveir, one must take into account the total picture - whether you are essentially helping or harming the person.


            Rav Moshe Feinstein (OC vol.I, #99) not only argues on Rav Shlomo Zalman's lenient ruling, but claims that one who invites another to do something that involves sinning is in the category of a meisit, one who incites another to sin.  He claims that meisit applies not only to idolatry but to all sins.  [His proof for this from the snake in the Garden of Eden (who incited Chava to eat of the tree, which was not idolatry) might raise objection since that was the only sin existent at the time.  However, the Rambam in Moreh Nevukhim supports Rav Moshe's contention about meisit.]

            Rav Moshe distinguishes between meisit and lifnei iveir. If a non-observant Jew lives within walking distance of a synagogue, encouraging him to come to services even though it is likely he will drive does not fall under the category of meisit, but it is still lifnei iveir.  Offering prizes to children in order to encourage participation in an informal educational program also is not meisit, but could possibly involve lifnei iveir.  Rav Moshe therefore says that the organizers should make it clear that prizes are only available to children who will not arrive by car.  Meisit applies when the only way to achieve the suggested activity is through a transgression, whereas lifnei iveir applies even if there is a permissible way of accomplishing it.

            Practically, especially in our modern context, Rav Moshe's responsum is very difficult to apply.  Putting it into effect would have far-reaching and deleterious effects on many synagogues in the diaspora.

            Even if one is not willing to accept Rav Shlomo Zalman's leniency with regard to lifnei iveir, it is much more plausible to apply it to meisit.  The meisit is guilty of trying to force another to stray from the proper path in life.  It is difficult to call one who is basically interested in someone else's spiritual betterment a meisit.  Here, it is sensible to take into account the larger picture when assessing whether incitement to sin has taken place.         


            Even though Rav Shlomo Zalman's ruling is quite innovative and radical with regard to biblical-level lifnei iveir, there is more room to be lenient when, because of the "one side of the river" clause, it is only a rabbinic prohibition.  We must examine this in light of the three possibilities quoted earlier:

1.  If there is a rabbinic-level lifnei iveir, our question remains - can Rav Shlomo Zalman's ruling be applied on a rabbinic level?

2.  A rabbinic-level prohibition against participating in another's sin ("mesayei'a") only applies at the time the sin is committed.

3.  If the commandment to rebuke entails preventing another from sinning, the overall picture should definitely be taken into account.  Even though with regard to lifnei iveir one might say, against Rav Shlomo Zalman, that it is never permissible to facilitate any sin, calculating whether a particular act contributes to another's overall spiritual life or not should be acceptable with regard to rebuke.  The Torah says, "Surely rebuke your friend and do not bear sin on his account."  As the Sages say, it is just as much of a mitzva not to say an unheeded word of rebuke as it is to say a heeded one.  The results of rebuke are crucial to determining whether the mitzva applies.  Rav Shlomo Zalman's leniency is certainly applicable here.

            [The Ritva's comments in Avoda Zara may also contribute to formulating a lenient ruling in our case.  According to the Ritva, lifnei iveir does not apply to someone who in any case transgresses repeatedly.  Facilitating one more sin for a person who does it time and again is not considered lifnei iveir.  Even though the poskim do not quote this Ritva, it can be added to the weight of one side of the argument.]


            When another would not be able to sin without help (the nazirite is on one side of the river and the wine and facilitator are on the other - biblical level lifnei iveir), it is difficult to apply Rav Shlomo Zalman's ruling.

            When another could sin without outside help (the nazirite is on the same side of the river as the wine), there is much more room to be lenient.  Many hold that lifnei iveir does not apply at all according to the Rema.  Even if there is a rabbinic prohibition, there is room to permit EDUCATIONAL programming that will help bring the participants closer to God (even if it is clear that they will not become fully observant halakhic Jews)‎.  Non-educational activities that would involve others' Shabbat desecration would certainly be prohibited.

            There are, of course, additional elements of this problem besides the formal and legal questions of lifnei iveir involved.  This question raises, for example, the communal issue of participation in activities that are against the halakha.  Scheduling programming which will involve Shabbat desecration might be construed as a stamp of approval.  Other issues must clearly be taken into account besides lifnei iveir.

            Rav Shlomo Zalman rules that an individual is permitted to invite non-Shabbat-observant guests for a Shabbat meal, provided that he explicitly offers sleeping arrangements in the neighborhood that will enable them to avoid desecrating Shabbat.  This is permissible even if the guest eventually refuses that aspect of the invitation.  One should be careful to apply this only when there are educational objectives in mind.  This relates to a private situation that arises.

            In the public sphere, the problem is very serious because of two conflicting goals: on the one hand, the educational frameworks are very important; on the other hand, it is problematic for an institution like a synagogue to appear to lend a hand to Shabbat desecration.  To take a specific example: I was asked about this issue with regard to Jewish communities in Russia.  Taking into account the desperate educational needs of these communities, I ruled that it is desirable to retain these very valuable educational programs.  However, every effort should be made to arrange for all participants sleeping arrangements within walking distance of the synagogue.  It is crucial that a situation does not come about within which Shabbat desecration is implied to be something that one is at peace with.  It should be made clear that Shabbat desecration is not approved of and that ideally participants should arrive by foot.

(Originally appeared in Daf Kesher #325, Adar 5752, vol. 4, pp. 42-44.)