Skip to main content

Mutual Responsibility in the Jewish State

Text file

Based on a Shiur by HaRav Aharon Lichtenstein*



            Without a doubt, the simplest application of mutual responsibility – arevut - is found in realms related to acts of charity and assistance to others.  References to mutual responsibility appear, however, in purely halakhic realms as well.  In this shiur, I wish to discuss some of the halakhic contexts in which the idea of mutual responsibility arises.




            One of the most prominent contexts in which mutual responsibility constitutes a halakhic, and not only a moral factor, is the well known statement of Rashi.  The Gemara (Rosh Ha-shana 29a) states that "Even though he fulfilled his own obligation, he can discharge the obligation of others," and Rashi (ibid., s.v. Chutz), explains:  "For all of Israel are responsible for one another regarding mitzvot."


            According to Rashi, one can discharge another person's obligation regarding blessings and mitzvot based on the principle of mutual responsibility.  This novel idea of Rashi assigns clear halakhic content to the principle of responsibility, connecting each individual Jew to his fellow Jew's fulfillment of mitzvot.


            In the Gemara, the concept of mutual responsibility is explicitly mentioned in Sota 37b as part of the discussion of the various covenants that God has made with Am Yisrael, the nation of Israel.  Rabbi Shimon ben Yehuda, leader of Kefar Akko, quotes the idea of Rabbi Shimon that for every mitzva in the Torah, each Jew makes a covenant for every other member of the nation.  Rabbi Yehuda Ha-nasi takes this further, arguing that the true number of commitments of each Jew must be multiplied not only by the total population of the nation — but by that number squared!  The Gemara asks:


What is the issue between them?  Rav Mesharsheya said: "The point between them is a guarantor (arva in Aramaic, arev in Hebrew) versus a guarantor's guarantor."


Rashi comments (ad loc.):


Rabbi Shimon ben Yehuda maintains that each person becomes a guarantor with respect to his fellow only that he will observe the mitzvot. It turns out then that each and every person is a guarantor…


According to Rabbi Yehuda Ha-nasi, one must count


six hundred thousand for every one, and in each one of these, there are [another] six hundred thousand.  They are all guaranteeing each other, not only for their [personal] obligations, but for their guarantees. 


            According to this, the Tanna'im disagree whether every Jew is responsible solely for his fellow's observance of the mitzvot, or perhaps also for the guarantee that his fellow accepts for the observance of every other member of the Jewish people.  An example of this would be if we take three random Jews, Reuven, Shimon and Levi.  If Reuven recites Kiddush on Friday night, while Shimon and Levi do not, Reuven has failed as a guarantor, according to Rabbi Shimon ben Yehuda, twice, once each for Shimon and Levi.  However, according to Rabbi Yehuda Ha-nasi, he has failed four times, since he holds the "guarantee" not only for Shimon and Levi themselves, but also for Shimon's responsibility to see that Levi makes Kiddush, and Levi's commitment to do the same for Shimon.  How does this work?


            Rashi (ad loc.) explains the logic of the guarantee under discussion and concludes:


"To learn and to teach, to observe and to do" – All the mitzvot require these four: "And you shall learn them, and you shall observe them, to do them" (Devarim 5:1); and it is written, "And you shall teach them to your children" (ibid.  11:19), etc.  Thus, there are four commands for every mitzva.  (Sota 37a, s.v. Li-lmod)


            That is to say, if one has not been careful about "And you shall teach them," and therefore a fellow Jew fails to fulfill a certain mitzva, there is also a certain shortcoming in one's own "and you shall observe them, to do them" and one's own fulfillment of the mitzvot!


            It is important to note two different elements in the words of Rashi:


1)         Every person has a certain responsibility based on the law of arevut to help his or her fellow Jew fulfill the commandments.


2)         This responsibility is not only towards the other, but rather it impacts upon the very nature of one's own fulfillment of the mitzvot.




            Even though we have seen that there exists a principle of mutual responsibility with respect to the fulfillment of mitzvot, the assertion that "all of Israel are responsible (arevim) one for the other" appears in rabbinic writings in a very negative context.


            The Gemara in Shevuot 39a-b states:


Regarding all sins in the Torah, a person is punished for what he did, and here [regarding an oath taken in vain], he is punished for what he did and for what the whole world did…

And regarding all the sins in the Torah, this is not so?  But surely it is written: "And they shall fall, each upon his brother" (Vayikra 26:37) – each person because of the sin of his fellow.  This teaches that all of Israel are responsible one for the other!

That is where they can object, but they failed to do so.  


            According to the Gemara, a person is liable to be punished for a sin involving an oath taken by his fellow, whereas in the case of all other sins committed by his fellow Jew he is only liable for punishment if he could have objected but failed to do so.  What is special about the sin of a false oath that its punishment is always collective?  An answer to this question may be found in the words of the Rambam (Hilkhot Shevuot 12:1-2), which explain why Chazal categorize the sin of taking a false oath as a "severe" transgression:


This transgression is among the more severe ones, as we explained in Hilkhot Teshuva, because even though it does not carry the punishment of excision or judicial execution, it involves a desecration of God's sanctified Name, which is the greatest of sins.


            We see then that an oath taken in vain involves the desecration of God's Name.  This may also be the reason that the penalty for this sin is collective — that is to say, punishment for each and every element of the system called Keneset Yisrael — in the wake of whose actions God's Name has been desecrated.


            We thus see another halakhic dimension of the concept of mutual responsibility, which casts responsibility upon each and every individual for the sins committed by his or her fellow Jew.




            After having seen that mutual responsibility exists both in the realm of positive commands and in the realm of prohibitions, let us try to understand upon whom this responsibility rests.


            It follows from the gemara in Sota cited above that the responsibility that mandates protest rests on each and every individual member of Am Yisrael.  Nevertheless, the gemara in Shabbat 54b implies that the obligation of objection falls first and foremost on the elders and the leaders of the congregation:


Whoever can prevent his household [from sinning] but does not, is seized for [the sins of] his household; [if he can prevent] his townspeople, he is seized for [the sins of] his townspeople; if the whole world, he is seized for [the sins of] the whole world…

This is as Rabbi Chanina said: "Why is it written (Yeshayahu 3:14): 'God will enter into judgment with the elders of His people and its princes' - if the princes sinned, how did the elders sin?  

Say instead: [He will bring punishment] upon the elders, because they do not prevent the princes.


            This passage implies that the greater a person's influence upon his environs, the greater the responsibility that falls upon him to object to those who would listen to what he says.  It therefore appears that even though the obligation to protest falls upon each and every individual, each person's obligation is determined according to his or her own level and standing.


            However, beyond the individual responsibility about which we have spoken thus far, there is also a more general responsibility falling upon each individual member of Am Yisrael: societal responsibility.  This responsibility should arise in every society, but it seems that it becomes sharpened when we are dealing with Jewish society in Eretz Yisrael, the land of Israel.  In order to understand this responsibility more precisely, let us examine the concept of arevut that is familiar to us from civil law.


            The Rishonim and the Acharonim note that there are two kinds of monetary arevut:


1)         A guarantor who accepts upon himself to pay a debt in the event that the debtor himself fails to pay, even though he himself has no essential connection to the debt.

2)         A guarantor who plays an active role in the transaction transpiring between the borrower and the lender.  Such a guarantor is seen as if he had received the money from the lender and then given it to the borrower, and this is the reason that he becomes liable for the debt (see Tosafot, Bava Metzia 71b, s.v. Matzo, who suggest such an approach; other Rishonim agree).


Parallel to these gradations, it seem that also with respect to the arevut in mitzvot and sins discussed above, there is room to distinguish between two levels:


1)         Individual arevut that results from the obligation of each member of Am Yisrael by force of the assembly at Mount Gerizim and Mount Eival (Devarim 27; Yehoshua 8:30-35).


2)         Collective arevut for the spiritual state of the Jewish people that stems from its status as a single nation and entity; it is unconnected to any obligation that the people of Am Yisrael accept upon themselves.


This distinction regarding the nature of arevut explains the Talmudic passage in Sota cited above.  The Sota passage concludes that the mutual arevut of Am Yisrael includes arevut for keeping the covenants that we accepted upon ourselves at the assembly at Mount Gerizim and Mount Eival, and in the continuation it tries to clarify exactly how many covenants obligate each member of Am Yisrael.  It seems that if mutual responsibility stems from the personal obligation that each member of Am Yisrael has accepted upon himself at Mount Gerizim and Mount Eival (arevut of the first type), we should open the contract, examine the details of the obligation, and see precisely how many covenants each person of Am Yisrael accepted.  Were the mutual responsibility a collective responsibility, stemming from the very fact that that Am Yisrael constitute a single national organism (arevut of the second type), then the number of covenants that were entered into at that assembly should be irrelevant to the discussion about the nature of the mutual responsibility.




            We noted earlier that the level of communal responsibility that is cast upon each member of Am Yisrael goes up when we are dealing with Am Yisrael living in Eretz Yisrael.  It seems that the reason that the level of arevut is higher in Eretz Yisrael is threefold: first of all, living in Eretz Yisrael creates many new needs and missions (development of society, the state and the like), and thus the need for mutual responsibility grows; second, the ability to create mutual responsibility grows when the Jewish people are living in their own land and in their own state, and thus in such a situation the demand for this grows accordingly; and third, Eretz Yisrael, because of its nature and sanctity, demands a higher level of arevut.


            It seems that the third element rises from the passage in the Book of Vayikra (18:26-30):


You shall therefore keep My statutes and My laws, and you shall not commit any of these abominations: neither any of your own nation, nor any stranger that sojourns among you.  For all these abominations have the people of the land, who were before you, done, and the land is defiled.  Then the land will not vomit you out also for defiling it, as it has vomited out the nations that were before you.  For whoever shall commit any of these abominations — the persons that commit them shall be cut off from among their people.  Therefore shall you keep My commands, that you not commit any one of these abominable customs, which were practiced before you, and that you not defile yourselves by them; I am the Lord, your God.  (18:26-30)


            These verses teach us that there is a special dimension to the observance of mitzvot in Eretz Yisrael, and so too, le-havdil, to the commission of sins in Eretz Yisrael.  As we saw earlier, sins involving the desecration of God's Name bear collective punishment.  Thus, it might be suggested that all sins committed in Eretz Yisrael involve a desecration of God's Name (and not just the transgression of taking a false oath), and thus the punishment for sins committed in Eretz Yisrael is collective.  Le-havdil, mitzvot performed in Eretz Yisrael involve a sanctification of God's name, and thus they give rise to collective reward.


            The gemara in Sanhedrin 43b cites a disagreement about what changed in the wake of the crossing of the Jordan with respect to the punishment meted out for sins committed by an individual Jew, but according to all opinions cited there, something essential changed regarding punishment after Am Yisrael entered Eretz Yisrael:


Rabbi Yochanan said in the name of Rabbi Elazar the son of Rabbi Shimon… "For [God] did not punish for hidden ones until Am Yisrael crossed the Jordan."

Like the Tanna'im: "'"The secret matters belong to the Lord our God; but those that are revealed belong to us and to our children forever" (Devarim 29:28).  Why are there dots over "to us and to our children," and over the ayin in "forever"?  This teaches that He did not punish for hidden ones until Am Yisrael crossed the Jordan;' [these are] the words of Rabbi Yehuda.  Rabbi Nechemya said to him: 'Did He ever punish for hidden sins?  But surely it was already said: "forever"?  Rather, just as He did not punish for hidden sins, so, too, He did not punish for sins committed publicly until they crossed the Jordan.'"


            The Maharal addresses this point:


The explanation seems to be that when Am Yisrael entered the Land, they became one nation in totality.  The proof for this is that as long as Am Yisrael had not crossed the Jordan and had not come to the Land, they were not punished for hidden ones; this did not occur until they crossed and became responsible for each other.  We see then that Am Yisrael did not become responsible one for the other – an arev is one who is involved (me'urav) with another person – and they did not become connected as one nation in totality, until they came to the Land.  Then they were together in the Land, and they had one place, namely Eretz Yisrael; through Eretz Yisrael, they became one nation in totality.  Therefore it is also written: "[To give to you the land of Canaan,] to be for you a God" (Vayikra 25:38) – because they have one God.  (Netiv Ha-tzdaka, Chap. 6, s.v. U-mizzeh)


            The Maharal adopts the approach found in the Talmudic passage in Sanhedrin, which maintains that once they crossed the Jordan and entered the Land, Am Yisrael as a whole were punished for sins committed by individuals in private (as opposed to the situation outside of Eretz Yisrael, where Am Yisrael were only punished for sins committed by individuals in public).  It may be suggested that arevut outside of Eretz Yisrael stems from the obligation to protest based on the personal arevut that is cast upon each and every individual, as we saw above.  Hence, this obligation is limited to sins committed in public, against which one has the capacity to raise objections.  In contrast, the entry into the Land of Israel creates an organic nation, where the mutual responsibility of each of its members stems from the fact that the entire people constitute a single body.  In such a situation, each individual in Eretz Yisrael is bound by a collective responsibility for the sins of the nation, even those that are committed in private.[1]




            Thus far, we have related to the uniqueness of Eretz Yisrael owing to its sanctity.  However, it might be inferred from the Talmud Yerushalmi in Sota (7:5) that the collective responsibility depends on another aspect of Eretz Yisrael:


Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish said: "At the Jordan they accepted upon themselves hidden ones…"

Rabbi Levi said: "In Yavneh, the strap was untied.  A Heavenly Voice issued forth and said: 'You have no business with hidden ones.'"


            According to Rabbi Levi, despite the fact that at the crossing of the Jordan Am Yisrael accepted upon themselves mutual responsibility for the sins committed by individuals in private, in Yavneh "the strap was untied," canceling this heavy responsibility.  In other words, that special mutual responsibility which had been given to us when we entered into Eretz Yisrael was cancelled in Yavneh.


            It seems that it is not by accident that the Yerushalmi relates to Yavneh as the place where the broad mutual responsibility was cancelled, because the establishment of the center in Yavneh reflects not only the spiritual destruction of the Jewish people at the time of the destruction of the Second Temple, but also the political and national destruction of the Jewish people.  According to what I have said, the cancellation of arevut regarding private individual sins stems from the destruction of Jewish sovereignty.


            According to our understanding of the Talmud Yerushalmi, there is room to say that mutual responsibility for hidden sins will be restored when the Jewish sovereignty is renewed, even before we merit the full redemption.  That is to say, broad mutual responsibility arises whenever there is a state in Eretz Yisrael.  Of course, this understanding places on our shoulders a heavy burden of collective responsibility.


            It should be noted that it is possible that the collective obligation that we have been discussing is connected not only to Eretz Yisrael.  In this connection, there is a professor at Yeshiva University who distinguishes between totalitarian governments and democratic governments.  According to this distinction, the fact that a person lives in a democratic country, in which every citizen is a significant factor in the political system, turns him into an "interested party" regarding everything that takes place in his country, and thus it raises the level of his responsibility toward the people who surround him, even outside of Eretz Yisrael.  Hence, it is possible that the democratic system heightens the mutual responsibility that exists among the country's citizens.


            To summarize, it follows from what we have said that since the establishment of the State of Israel the mutual responsibility of the people living in Zion has grown and intensified.  This casts a heavy responsibility on all of us, and our mission is not simple.  May God help us to succeed in our task.


(Translated by David Strauss) 


* This shiur was delivered by HaRav Lichtenstein during Chanukka 5768; it was summarized by Uri Schwartz and edited by Shaul Bart.  It was not reviewed by HaRav Lichtenstein. 

[1] It should be noted that according to Rabbeinu Tam (Sefer Ha-yashar, Chiddushim, No.  662), the gemara in Sanhedrin rejects the opinion that in Eretz Yisra’el people are punished even for the sins of an individual, against which objections cannot be raised: "Surely both according to Rabbi Yehuda and according to Rabbi Nechemya, we require that it be within his capability to object." Rabbeinu Tam's position is clear, but it seems to contradict the simple meaning of the passage, and indeed, as we already saw, the Maharal understands it differently. 







, full_html, Israel

This website is constantly being improved. We would appreciate hearing from you. Questions and comments on the classes are welcome, as is help in tagging, categorizing, and creating brief summaries of the classes. Thank you for being part of the Torat Har Etzion community!