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Mitzvot Bein Adam La-chaveiro (2) - The Mitzva To "Love Your Neighbor As Yourself"

Harav Aharon Lichtenstein
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Based on a Shiur given by HaRav Aharon Lichtenstein*


The Torah commands us to love our neighbor ("re'a"). This commandment raises a question as to the definition of "neighbor." Does the term come to include every member of the Jewish people or to limit the commandment to specific individuals? We do not find special obligations directed at one's "neighbor" in any other realm of Halakha; we cannot, therefore, infer from what we know in other areas of Halakha to the matter under discussion.

Rambam writes in Hilkhot De'ot 6:3:

There is a mitzva falling upon every one to love each individual Jew as himself, as it is stated: "And you shall love your neighbor as yourself" (Vayikra 19:18).

There is no mention here of any restriction or limitation to particular people; it would seem rather that the mitzva applies to every individual member of the Jewish people. Moreover, the Gemara in Sanhedrin 45a speaks explicitly of a condemned criminal sentenced to capital punishment, who must be given the "most beautiful" (i.e., humane) death possible, based on the obligation of "loving your neighbor as yourself." This Gemara clearly implies that the obligation of loving one's neighbor applies to every Jew, even criminals who have been sentenced to death.

The Gemara in Pesachim 113b, however, implies otherwise:

The Holy One, blessed be He, hates three kinds of men: One who speaks with his mouth and thinks otherwise in his heart; one who can testify in a man's favor and does not do so; and one who alone saw another man engaged in unseemly behavior and testifies against him in public.

The Gemara in the continuation discusses the law applying to that person whose unseemly behavior was witnessed by only one person:

Rabbi Shemuel bar Rav Yitzchak said in the name of Rav: It is permissible to hate him, as it is stated: "If you see the ass of him that hates you lying under its burden" (Shemot 23:5). What type of hater?… Rather, it obviously refers to a Jewish hater? But is it permissible to hate [another Jew]? Surely it is written: "You shall not hate your brother in your heart" (Vayikra 19:17)! Rather, where there are witnesses that he violated a prohibition. [In that case] everybody hates him; how [then] is he different? Rather, in such a case where he [alone] saw him engaged in unseemly behavior.

This Gemara implies that there are situations in which it is permissible and, perhaps, even obligatory to hate a fellow Jew. This would seem to contradict the commandment to love every individual member of the Jewish people.

This question arises also with regard to Rambam. We already saw what Rambam writes in Hilkhot De'ot. In Hilkhot Rotze'ach u-Shemirat ha-Nefesh 13:14, however, he writes as follows:

The "hater" mentioned in the Torah is not a member of the gentile nations, but rather a Jew. How can a Jew be hated by [another] Jew? Surely, it is written: "You shall not hate your brother in your heart"! The Sages said: For example, where he alone saw him committing a transgression, and he admonished him, but he did not turn away from sinning. [In such a case] there is a mitzva to hate him until he repents and turns away from his wickedness.

How then can we reconcile the commandment of love that applies to every Jew with the prohibition of hate that does not apply in those circumstances where there is a mitzva to hate?

It may be suggested that there are different criteria for the mitzva of love and the prohibition of hate. As for the prohibition to hate, the Torah forbids a person to hate "his brother." In contrast, regarding the mitzva of love, the Torah commands a person to love his "neighbor." It may certainly be argued that there is a certain gap between these two terms. We find a gap of this sort in other mitzvot as well. For example, the mitzva of returning lost property mentions "your brother," giving rise to an extensive discussion regarding the law applying in a case where the lost property belongs to an apostate or the like. Rambam in Hilkhot Gezela ve-Aveda 11:2 writes:

Even if the owner of the lost property is a wicked man who eats of unslaughtered meat to satisfy his appetite or the like, there is a mitzva to return his lost property. However, one who eats unslaughtered meat in defiance is an apikorus, and to an apikorus, an idolater, and one who desecrates Shabbat in public, it is forbidden to return lost property, as in the case of a gentile.

Rambam differentiates between different classes of heretics. Regarding the most severe heretics, there is no obligation to return their lost property, for the Torah commanded only that lost property be returned to "your brother." This point finds expression in several other areas of Halakha, e.g., the prohibition against taking interest, the obligation to perform levirate marriage, and others.

It may be suggested that here too a distinction should be made between the positive commandment and the negative precept. The negative precept is limited to "your brother," whereas the positive commandment applies to everyone. What is the practical significance of this distinction? What is the law applying to one who falls into the category of "your neighbor," but is not included in the category of "your brother"? On the one hand, there is a mitzva to love him, while on the other hand, there is an obligation to hate him. Are we not faced here with an internal contradiction? Several different resolutions of this difficulty may be proposed:









  1. There is a mitzva to hate a person's wickedness, but not the person himself. This distinction is similar to the Gemara's comment which differentiates between sins and sinners in connection to the verse, "The sinners/sins will be consumed out of the earth" (Tehilim 104:35).
  2. There are certain situations, recognized by modern psychology as well, in which love and hate may co-exist. Such situations are limited, but they do exist.
  3. The prohibition against hate relates to the hated person himself, whereas the mitzva of love is formulated in terms of "to your neighbor," that is to say, one must aspire towards the welfare of one's neighbor. The Torah does not use the direct object and say "ve'ahavta re'akha," but rather the indirect object, "ve'ahavta lere'akha." Thus, it is possible to hate a person, but still desire his well-being.
  4. It is possible to proceed in another direction that does not rely on any of the assumptions posited above, and argue that the mitzva of love is also limited to "your brother," as is the prohibition of hate.

Another question rises from the Gemara in Pesachim cited above: Even if we say that one who fails to observe the mitzvot is not regarded as "your brother in mitzvot," should this classification be imposed upon a person whom was seen violating a prohibition only once? Is it imaginable to say that if a person was once seen committing a transgression, as stated by the Gemara in Pesachim, he can already be excluded from the category of "your brother in mitzvot"? A similar question arises in other contexts. There are several laws which the Gemara restricts to one "who does the deeds of your people," e.g., the prohibition, "And a prince among your people you shall not curse" (Shemot 22:27). Who is defined as "not doing the deeds of your people"? The Gemara in Bava Metzia 48b designates a person who reneges on a business transaction as one who does not do the deeds of your people; such a person may therefore be cursed, because the prohibition "And a prince among your people you shall not curse" does not apply to him. Tosafot (ad loc., s.v., be'ose ma'ase amkha) were troubled by this law, about which they write:

Such a person is not classified as "one who does not do the deeds of your people" so that it would be permissible to curse him for no reason. All that it means is that with regard to transaction, the "Who has punished" curse may be pronounced upon him.

Tosafot understand that the Gemara is not saying tit is permissible to curse such a person. Rather, the prohibition to curse him remains in place. But in light of the fact that he has reneged on a business transaction, people will nonetheless talk about and curse him. In other words, we are dealing here with a description of reality, rather than a halakhic ruling.

This implies that we can distinguish between two situations: In one case the person himself is excluded from the category of "your brother in mitzvot" or "one who does the deeds of your people." In a second case, we relate specifically to the transgression that the person has committed; we do not relate to the person as a whole, removing him from the category of "your brother in mitzvot."

We can now, perhaps, better understand the position of Rambam. It is possible that, according to Rambam, there is no general allowance to hate another person who once committed a transgression; rather the person must be hated for the specific issue of the transgression he committed. This point may be seen in another Halakha as well. Rambam writes in Hilkhot Avel 10:1:

As for those who deviated from the practices of the congregation – that is, men who cast off the restraint of the commandments, did not join their fellow Jews in the performance of the mitzvot… – for these no mourning is observed. In the event of their death, their brethren and other relatives don white garments, and wrap themselves in white garments, eat, drink, and rejoice, because the enemies of the Lord have perished. Concerning them, Scripture says: "Do not I hate them, O Lord, that hate You?" (Tehilim 139:21).

Without question we are dealing here with hate directed at the person as a whole and not at some specific aspect of his person. This hatred, however, applies only to people who have totally divested themselves of the yoke of the mitzvot, and not to people who were once seen violating a particular prohibition. The question may be raised, however, why does Rambam not explicitly spell out this distinction.

[Other questions arise in the context of this discussion on the practical level. What is the law in various types of problematic situations regarding all the different types of non-believers, regardless of whether or not the person is responsible for the present situation. For example, regarding being counted for a minyan, or the like. Moreover, there is the question of "an infant who fell into captivity" and the idea of "love of Israel," versus the necessity to cry out in protest against all the sinners of the Jewish people.]


Another limitation on the mitzva of loving your neighbor as yourself relates not to the scope of the mitzva, but to its practical application. Regarding the obligation to give the condemned criminal the most beautiful death possible, the Rishonim note that the law is derived from the words "as yourself." This applies only when the person doing the loving suffers no harm from the love being extended, for he suffers no harm when the condemned criminal is given the most beautiful death possible. This raises a question regarding the scope of the law that "your life takes precedence over the lives of others."

The famous passage dealing with this question relates to the dispute between Rabbi Akiva and Ben Petura about two people walking in the desert, one being left with an amount of water that will not suffice for the two of them, but for one of them alone. Ben Petura rules that it is better that the two should drink and die, whereas Rabbi Akiva rules that "your life takes precedence over the life of your friend." The one with the water should therefore drink all that he has and save his own life. Attention should be paid to two points. First of all, we are dealing here with an extreme case of life and death. And second, this is a case of all or nothing – either the two of them will die or only one of them will die. There is no room for compromise or middle ground of any sort. The Gemara does not discuss the law applying in a less extreme case, one not involving life and death, life being beyond man's control. The law, however, may be different in a monetary case, since money is in man's control.

The Gemara in Bava Metzia 30a states:

Our Sages taught: "And you shall hide yourself" (Devarim 22:1). Sometimes you hide yourself and sometimes you do not hide yourself. How so? If he was a priest and it [the lost property] is in a cemetery, or if he was an elder and it was not in keeping with his honor, or if his own work was more than that of his fellow – for this it was said: "And you shall hide yourself from them."

The last-mentioned case is where a person's own loss must be weighed against the loss of his fellow. The Gemara states that if the finder's loss will be greater than that of his fellow, he is not required to pick up the lost object and thus incur a financial loss.

The Gemara there on p. 33a clarifies the source of the law mentioned in the Mishna that a person's own lost object takes precedence over the lost object of his fellow:

From where are these things derived? Rav Yehuda said in the name of Rav: The verse says: "Except that there shall be no poor among you" (Devarim 15:4) – yours comes before that of every man.

This Gemara raises the question regarding the scope of this ruling. Are people being advised here that in general they should worry first and foremost about themselves, and only afterwards to their fellow man? In this context, it is important to consider the continuation of the Gemara:

And Rav Yehuda said in the name of Rav: Whoever fulfills this in himself [= thinking of himself first] ultimately comes to this [= poverty].

The Gemara is unequivocal: A person must be concerned not only with his own personal needs, but with the needs of others as well.

Another passage dealing with our issue is found in Nedarim 80b. The Gemara deals with a city that has a well. The question arises as to who has priority regarding the water in the well:

Regarding a spring belonging to the residents of a particular town, [if the choice is between] their own lives or the lives of others – their own lives take precedence over the lives of others. [If the choice is between] their own cattle and the cattle of others – their own cattle take precedence over the cattle of others. [If the choice is between] their own laundry and the laundry of others – their own laundry takes precedence over the laundry of others. [If the choice is between] the lives of others and their own laundry, the lives of others take precedence over their own laundry.

This Gemara implies that regarding the principle of "your life takes precedence over the lives of others," consideration must be given to varying needs. A person's laundry needs cannot be compared to his needs affecting his very life, e.g., his need for drinking water and the like.

In conclusion, let us note that the author of Tanya writes that the principle that "your life takes precedence" only applies when a person's standard of living is more or less the same as the standard of living enjoyed by the rest of the community. This principle, however, does not give a person license to live a life of luxury and extravagance while those in the surrounding society are hungry for bread.

(Translated by David Strauss)


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