Mitzvot Bein Adam La-chaveiro Interpersonal Laws

  • Harav Aharon Lichtenstein

Translated by David Silverberg

The fundamental question we must ask when approaching the realm of mitzvot bein adam la-chaveiro (mitzvot involving interpersonal relations) is, wherein lies the significance of this classification? Meaning, when we classify certain mitzvot under this category of mitzvot bein adam la-chaveiro, do we refer to merely a technical classification, or do we ascribe unique properties and significance to this category of mitzvot?

We find a number of references in Chazal to this realm as a separate category. The most famous reference in this sort appears towards the end of Masekhet Yoma:

"Rabbi Elazar Ben Azarya expounded [upon the following verse]: 'from all your sins before the Lord you shall be purified.' For sins between man and God – Yom Kippur atones; for sins between man and his fellow – Yom Kippur does not atone until he [the sinner] appeases his fellow [and receives his forgiveness]."

On this basis alone, however, we cannot necessarily conclude that sins committed against one's fellow are deemed more severe, thus requiring a more demanding process of teshuva to achieve atonement. For one could easily argue that since the sin involved not only God, but the other individual, as well, the process of teshuva and correction of the wrong must include him, as well. This does not necessarily reflect a fundamentally different nature of these laws.

Another context – also related to teshuva – where we find this classification appears earlier in Masekhet Yoma (86b). The Gemara there addresses the seeming contradiction between two verses regarding the issue of whether or not one should publicize his misdeeds. One verse exclaims, "Fortunate is he whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered over" (Tehillim 32:1), indicating that one's sin should remain concealed, while another verse asserts, "He who covers up his faults will not succeed" (Mishlei 28:13). One view in the Gemara resolves these two verses by distinguishing between sins committed solely against God and those committed against other people. The Gemara does not explain, however, the underlying rationale behind this distinction. Rashi comments that one should publicize wrongs he committed against his fellow so that people will hear about the incident and urge the victim to forgive. According to Rashi, then, this distinction is purely technical, rather than fundamental.

The Rambam, however, perhaps held differently:

"It is very praiseworthy for the repentant person to confess in public and inform them of his wrongdoing, and reveal to others the sins he committed against his fellow. He should say to them, 'Indeed, I have sinned against so-and-so and did to him such-and-such, and I now repent and feel remorse'… To what does this apply? To mitzvot between man and his fellow. Regarding, however, sins between man and the Almighty, one need not publicize himself, and he is considered impudent if he reveals them." (Hilkhot Teshuva 2:5)

Here the distinction involves not the assistance he will receive from the public in achieving reconciliation, but rather the inherent deficiency of teshuva that does not include telling others of the sin. This distinction, according to the Rambam, perhaps stems from the particular severity of mitzvot bein adam la-chaveiro. Alternatively, however, one might argue that even the Rambam does not ascribe a higher level of severity to this category, only he felt that one must correct the wrong committed against one's fellow in the same manner in which the wrong occurred, and must therefore include others in his repentance.

Yet another source relevant to this discussion is a passage in Masekhet Sanhedrin (27a) dealing with the grounds for disqualifying a potential witness. The Gemara cites the view of Rabbi Meir that a witness who testifies falsely in a case involving dinei mamonot (monetary matters) is disqualified for subsequent testimony in any context, even dinei nefashot (matters of life and death). Initially, the Gemara suggests that Rabbi Meir would likewise disqualify a "mumar le-hakh'is" – a sinner who violates the Torah out of rebellious, theological conviction. Since Rabbi Meir disqualifies a false witness from testifying even under more stringent circumstances than his initial perjury, he would likewise – at first glance – disqualify a heretic of this sort from serving as a witness. Ultimately, however, the Gemara distinguishes between the two: "Rabbi Meir stated this [opinion] only with regard to a false witness, who committed a wrong against God and a wrong against people; here, however, when he [the heretic] commits wrongs against God but not against people – no." This would suggest that one who sins against both God and man is deemed worse than one who sins "only" against God. The former, therefore, is disqualified from testimony, whereas the latter retains his validity to testify.

One may, however, explain this Gemara differently. Earlier on that page in Sanhedrin, the Gemara cites a debate between Abayei and Rava regarding this issue of a "mumar le-hakh'is." Abayei disqualifies such a person from testimony due to his status as a "rasha" (sinful person), whereas Rava maintains that Halakha disqualifies from testimony only a "rasha de-chamas" – a person who sins in money-related matters. Both Abayei and Rava agree, however, that a "mumar le-tei'avon" – one who sins for gratification or convenience, rather than out of religious conviction, is disqualified. Why does Rava disqualify a "mumar le-tei'avon" while accepting the testimony of a "mumar le-hakh'is"? A person who generally eats only kosher, but on occasion will purchase and eat non-kosher to save money, demonstrates that he is prepared to forego on his principles for money, and we therefore cannot trust him as a witness. One who eats non-kosher due to his heretical beliefs, by contrast, stands firmly by his principles and we thus have no reason to mistrust him on the witness stand.

According to this explanation of Rava's position, we might arrive at a different understanding of the Gemara's comments concerning Rabbi Meir's view. That Rabbi Meir disqualifies a person who sins against both God and man while accepting the testimony of a sinner against only God, does not necessarily mean that he considers the former objectively more sinful than the latter. When it comes to the issue of qualification for testimony, Halakha concerns itself only with the question of trustworthiness. Quite reasonably, then, Rabbi Meir disqualifies a false witness for subsequent testimony in any case, since we cannot trust his testimony. A "mumar le-hakh'is," by contrast, has given no indication of proclivity to falsehood, and we therefore should not disqualify him due to his apostasy.

This point emerges quite clearly from the Rambam's comments in Hilkhot Eidut (chapter 10). In halakha 3, the Rambam adopts Abayei's position, disqualifying any sinner who violates a Torah prohibition punishable by malkot (lashes). In halakha 4, however, he codifies Rava's rule of "rasha de-chamas," disqualifying a person who committed a violation against another for which he must pay compensation. The Rambam thus speaks of two categories of disqualification. In his view, a "rasha de-chamas" is disqualified because of the evil involved in the transgression, rather than because of our suspicion of falsehood. A transgression falling into the category of "chamas" is seen as an objectively more stringent violation even if it does not carry the punishment of malkot. This stringency could be explained by the fact that "chamas" is inherently a violation bein adam la-chaveiro.

In other sources, we find a somewhat different perspective. In Masekhet Kiddushin (40a), the Gemara discusses two adjacent verses in Sefer Yeshayahu (3:10-11): "Tell the righteous man, who is good… Woe unto twicked man, who is bad… " The Gemara notes the vers's superfluity in describing a righteous man as "good" and a wicked man as "bad," implying that the righteous are not all "good" and not all the wicked are "bad." The Gemara answers, "One who is good to God and good to people – he is a 'good' tzadik; good to God and bad to people – this is a tzadik who is not 'good'… One who is bad to God and bad to people – he is a 'bad' rasha; bad to God but not bad to people – he is a rasha who is not 'bad'."

Clearly, when the Gemara describes a tzadik as "not good" because he is "good to God and bad to people," it does not refer to someone who does not observe mitzvot bein adam la-chaveiro at all. Rather, it speaks of a person who indeed involves himself in both categories of mitzvot, but settles for a mediocre standard of observance when it comes to mitzvot involving interpersonal relations.

The Rosh, in his commentary to the first mishna in Masekhet Pe'a, asserts that we receive reward in this world only for mitzvot bein adam la-chaveiro, "because the Almighty desires the mitzvot through which one fulfills also the will of people, more so than the mitzvot that are solely between the person and his Creator." The Rosh here makes a clear statement of relative value, that God ascribes greater importance to mitzvot bein adam la-chaveiro. Obviously, the Rosh does not speak here of a person who entirely neglects one of the two areas. He rather deals with a person who involves himself in both groups of mitzvot, and asserts that God affords greater worth to mitzvot that involve man's relations with other people.

This category of mitzvot bein adam la-chaveiro may be divided into two groups of laws: activities from which we must refrain ("sur mei-ra"), and those which we are bidden to perform ("asei tov"). This classification appears to correspond to the classic distinction between mitzvot asei and mitzvot lo ta'aseh, but in truth, the parallel is not precise. Several mitzvot lo ta'aseh actually belong to the category of "asei tov" – that which we are bidden to do. For example, the Torah commands, "do not shut your hand against your needy kinsman" (Devarim 15:7). Although formally this mitzva falls under the category of mitzvot lo ta'aseh, it clearly requires performing an action – giving charity – rather than abstaining from a certain action. Similarly, in the context of hashavat aveida (the obligation to return lost items to their owners), the Torah warns, "You must not remain indifferent" (Devarim 22:3). Although some Rishonim interpreted these mitzvot lo ta'aseh as intended merely as warnings to perform the relevant mitzvat asei, not all Rishonim agree.

Regarding some mitzvot bein adam la-chaveiro, one might claim that there exists no aspect of "bein adam la-Makom" whatsoever. This would depend on the status of mitzvot bein adam la-chaveiro before the receiving of the Torah. The seven Noachide laws, which were incumbent upon all mankind before Matan Torah, includes several mitzvot bein adam la-chaveiro. Several Rishonim addressed the question of whether gentiles are obligated in the mitzva of tzedaka despite its not being included among the seven Noachide laws. The Ran, in his chiddushim to Sanhedrin, writes that gentiles indeed bear an obligation of tzedaka. It was not included in the list of the Noachide laws, the Ran explains, because, as the Gemara there comments, the list of seven mitzvot includes only the prohibitions that apply to gentiles, not the active obligations incumbent upon them. The Ran draws evidence to his view from the destruction of Sedom and Amora, which served as a punishment for their inhabitants' refusal to give charity and perform acts of kindness. It turns out, then, that there are, indeed, certain obligations to which the Torah never refers but are nevertheless incumbent upon people. This would yield several interesting ramifications, including the possibility of an obligation for a Jew to give tzedaka to a gentile. One might easily claim that although the formal Torah obligation of tzedaka would not require giving charity to a non-Jew, the general obligation upon all mankind that applied even before Matan Torah would, indeed, require Jews to offer financial assistance to non-Jews.

The Rambam, in his commentary to the final mishna in the seventh chapter of Masekhet Chulin, establishes a fundamental principle which perhaps points to a different direction:

"Take note of the important principle incorporated within this mishna… The reason why we do not eat eiver min ha-chai [meat taken from a live animal] is not because the Almighty forbade it to Noach, but rather because Moshe forbade eiver min ha-chai upon us by commanding us at Sinai that the prohibition of eiver min ha-chai remains in force. Similarly, we do not circumcise because Avraham Avinu a"h circumcised himself and his household, but rather because the Almighty commanded us through Moshe Rabbenu that we should be circumcised just as Avraham Avinu a"h was circumcised. The same applies to gid ha-nasheh [the prohibition against eating the sciatic nerve]: we do not follow the prohibition [issued to] Yaakov Avinu, but rather the command of Moshe Rabbenu a"h."

The Rambam here emphasizes that all the mitzvot originate – as far as our obligation is concerned – from the Torah's command, rather than from earlier commands. Significantly, however, he mentions as examples only "mitzvot shim'iyot" – mitzvot that are not necessarily intuitive. It is unclear what the Rambam would say about intuitively logical mitzvot.

Yet another perspective emerges from the Torah's narrative of Benei Yisrael's encampment in Mara. We read that there in Mara, "He made for them a fixed rule and statute, and there He put them to the test" (Shemot 15:25). Rashi explains this to mean that at Mara Benei Yisrael were given a number of mitzvot to study – Shabbat, para aduma and civil laws. According to Rashi, Benei Yisrael's stay at Mara should be viewed as part of Ma'amad Har Sinai, the nation's receiving of the Torah. The Ramban elaborates a bit further on the mitzvot taught to Benei Yisrael at Mara:

"According to the straightforward reading, when Benei Yisrael first came to the great, awesome desert, which was arid, without water, they established for purposes of their sustenance and needs certain practices they would follow until they would arrive in an inhabited land, for a practice is called 'chok' [fixed rule]… and that they would deal peacefully with those who come to the camp to sell them an item, and [they heard] moral admonitions that they should not act like camps of pirates who commit all types of abominations without shame."

The Ramban speaks on the one hand of the specific laws and statutes, and on the other, of general policy-making outside the framework of Torah law. It is unclear, however, whether these laws were ultimately incorporated into the laws of the Torah.

Lastly, the Gemara in Sanhedrin mentions that a prophet is empowered to introduce a "hora'at sha'a" – an extraordinary measure necessitated by a particular circumstance, such as Eliyahu's sacrifice on Mount Carmel, so long as it does not involve idolatry. The Radbaz, in one of his responsa, writes that this rule applies only to mitzvot bein adam la-Makom. Regarding interpersonal laws, however, a prophet does not have the authority to change any mitzva, even as a temporary hora'at sha'a. This clearly implies that this distinction between mitzvot bein adam la-Makom and bein adam la-chaveiro is not merely technical, but rather reflects a fundamentally different status of the category of interpersonal laws.