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Mitzvot Bein Adam La-chaveiro (3) - The Mitzva of Rebuke

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

After having dealt with the mitzva to love one's fellow Jew and the prohibition to hate him, we come now to discuss the mitzva to rebuke one's neighbor. One of the primary questions regarding this issue is whether the mitzva of rebuke falls into the realm of mitzvot between man and his fellow or into the category of mitzvot between man and God? Does it stem from the fact that a person must desire his neighbor's welfare, so that if he sees him sinning, he must help him mend his ways? Or perhaps a person is obligated to defend God's honor and rebuke his neighbor the moment he sees him violating His word. In the Torah (Vayikra 19:17-18), this mitzva is nestled between the prohibition to hate one's fellow Jew and the mitzva to love him:

You shall not hate your brother in your heart; you shall certainly rebuke your neighbor, and not suffer sin on his account. You shall not avenge, nor bear any grudge against the children of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself; I am the Lord.

This formulation intimates that the mitzva of rebuke falls into the category of mitzvot between man and his fellow, but is this first impression confirmed when we examine the contents of the mitzva? Perhaps, the obligating factor is actually God's honor, and the interpersonal aspect enters into the picture not as the source of obligation, but merely as a factor that influences the form of the rebuke, as it would seem from Rashi (ad loc., s.v., velo tisa alav chet):

"And you shall not suffer sin on his account" - You shall not expose him to shame [lit., pale his face] in public.

Rashi derives from this verse the prohibition to humiliate a person in public, a prohibition which finds expression in the manner in which a person must rebuke his neighbor. Similarly, we find in Torat Kohanim (ad loc.):

I might have thought that he may rebuke him until his face changes [colors]? Therefore the verse states: "And you shall not suffer sin on his account."

          A second possibility is that the interpersonal aspect of the mitzva should in fact be seen as the obligating factor. This may be understood in one of two ways:

According to the simple understanding, when a person sees his neighbor committing any type of sin, he is obligated to rebuke him. But the obligation may be understood differently. When does the mitzva of rebuke apply? Some Rishonim write that the mitzva must be understood in its context. The Ramban (ad loc.) writes:

The correct interpretation appears to me to be that the expression "you shall certainly rebuke" is similar to "And Avraham rebuked Avimelekh" (Bereshit 21:25). The verse here is thus stating: Do not hate your brother in your heart when he does something to you against your will, but instead you are to reprove him, saying: "Why did you do thus to me?" And you will not bear sin because of him by covering up your hatred of him in your heart and not telling him, for when you will reprove him, he will justify himself before you [so that you will have no cause to hate him], or he will regret his action and admit his sin, and you will forgive him.

The Ramban implies that the mitzva of rebuke does not apply to all types of sin, but only to a case where one person sinned against his fellow. In such a situation, the injured party is obligated to inform the sinner of his wrongdoing, so that the offender might appease him and allay his anger. According to this understanding, "you shall certainly rebuke," does not imply an obligation to show one's fellow the proper path, as is commonly understood, but rather the duty to rebuke him for the personal offense committed against him.

          The Rambam appears to have understood that this is the basic meaning of the verse. Thus he rules in Hilkhot De'ot 6:6:

When a man sins against another, the injured party should not hate the offender and keep silent, as it is said concerning the wicked: "And Avshalom spoke to Amnon neither good nor evil, for Avshalom hated Amnon" (II Shemuel 13:22). But it is his duty to inform the offender and say to him: "Why did you do this to me? Why did you sin against me in this matter?" As it is said: "You shall certainly rebuke your neighbor (Vayikra 19:17).

          In the next halakha (7), however, the Rambam relates also to the other aspect of the mitzva of rebuke:

If one observes that a person committed a sin or that he is walking in a way that is not good, it is a duty to bring the erring man back to the right path and point out to him that he is wronging himself by his evil actions, as it is said: "You shall certainly rebuke your neighbor."

          It is not clear from the Rambam whether the mitzva of rebuke falls into the category of interpersonal mitzvot or that of mitzvot between man and God.

          We come now to the question – from a purely halakhic perspective – what is the obligating factor in the mitzva of rebuke? Regarding the element between man and God, this question is difficult to answer. Regarding the interpersonal element, we must basically address two points:

  1. What is the measure of the encounter with the negative phenomenon that obligates rebuke?
  2. What is the measure of misdoing that obligates rebuke?

As for the first question, the Gemara in Berakhot 31a states:

"And Eli said to her, How long will you be drunken?" (I Shemuel 1:14). Rabbi Eliezer said: From here we learn that one who sees in his neighbor something improper must reprove him.

And similarly we find in the Gemara in Arakhin 16b:

From where do we know that one who sees in his neighbor something unseemly that he is obligated to rebuke him? As it is stated: "You shall certainly rebuke him."

The various talmudic passages state that the obligating factor is when a person "sees in his neighbor." What is defined as "seeing in his neighbor"? Does this also include a case where a person heard about or is aware of a certain phenomenon? Is a person obligated to roam the streets in order to witness negative behavior? Such questions arise also in other areas, e.g., regarding the restoration of lost property, about which the Torah states, "If you see, etc." What is meant by "if you see"? The Rambam writes in Hilkhot Gezela ve-Aveda 11:1:

One who sees the lost property of a Jew and hides himself from it and leaves it violates a negative precept. As it is stated: "You shall not see your brother's ox… and hide yourself from them" (Devarim 22:1).

          [The question concerning the definition of "seeing" also arises in connection with the mitzva of charity.]

          As for the second point relating to the severity of the wrongdoing that obligates rebuke, the Rambam and Tosafot appear to disagree. The Gemara in Arakhin speaks of unseemly behavior. What is unseemly behavior? It may similarly be asked about the passage in Berakhot: what is improper conduct? It would seem that we are not dealing with the actual violation of a prohibition, but rather with unbefitting conduct. Tosafot in Berakhot (s.v., davar she'eino hagun) write:

This means: Even where there is no violation of a Torah prohibition, for where there is a violation of a Torah prohibition, [the law] is obvious – it is written: "You shall certainly rebuke [your neighbor]."

According to Tosafot, the Gemara is not talking about a case where there is a clear violation of Torah law, for regarding such a case there is no need to learn anything from the incident involving Eli and Chana. Such a situation is governed by the obligation, "You shall certainly rebuke your neighbor." It is not entirely clear from Tosafot what is the situation after the law has been derived from Eli and Chana. Is improper conduct considered an obligating factor regarding the mitzva of rebuke, or perhaps it creates a separate obligation of reproach that is learned from this specific case?

          In the passage from the Rambam cited above, no distinction is made between an actual sin and "walking in a way that is not good." What is "a way that is not good"? The Rambam seems to be referring to behavior that is connected and leads to sin. Indeed, the Gemara in Berakhot speaks of a woman whom Eli took for a drunk, and while there is no explicit prohibition against getting intoxicated, drunkenness is certainly a situation that leads to sin.

          Returning to the question raised at the beginning of this lecture, it may be suggested that if the mitzva of rebuke falls into the realm of mitzvot between man and his fellow, there is no reason to limit the obligation of rebuke to a case of outright sin. If, however, we posit that the mitzva falls into the category of mitzvot between man and God, it may certainly be argued that the obligation exists only in a case of actual sin. This distinction, however, is by no means necessary.

          What is expected of the person offering rebuke in such circumstances?

          The Rambam mentions two things: bringing the erring man back to the right path and pointing out to him that he is wronging himself by his evil actions. Are these two separate missions, so that there is an obligation to inform the sinner about his transgression even if it will not cause him to return to the right path? Or perhaps there is one primary goal, returning the sinner to the right path, and pointing out his transgression serves only as a means to restore him to good.

          This question brings us to the issue of the limits of rebuke, about which there seems to be a contradiction between the various talmudic passages.


          We find in tractate Arakhin (16b) a dispute regarding the limits of rebuke:

How far does rebuke extend? Rav said: To the point of hitting. And Shemuel said: To the point of cursing. And Rabbi Yochanan said: To the point of reprimand.

In contrast, the Gemara in Yevamot 65b states:

Rabbi Ile'a further stated in the name of Rabbi Elazar son of Rabbi Shimon: Just as one is commanded to say that which will be heeded, so is one commanded not to say that which will not be heeded. Rabbi Abba said: It is an obligation. As it is said: "Reprove not a scorner, lest he hate you; reprove a wise man and he will love you" (Mishlei 9:8).

It follows from this Gemara that there are certain situations in which rebuke is forbidden, i.e., when the rebuke will not be heeded. The reason is that in such a case rebuke will lead to hatred on the part of the reprimanded party, and also that rebuke will arouse a feeling of opposition, causing the sinner to repeat the very same transgression merely for the sake of defiance.

          Another talmudic passage dealing with this issue is found in Betza 30a:

We have learned: One may not clap the hands or slap the thighs or dance. And yet today we see people doing this and we do not take them to task!… Here also [I say]: Let Israel go their way; it is better that they should err in ignorance than deliberately.

The Gemara continues there with a discussion regarding the cases to which this principle applies:

This, however, applies only to a rabbinical prohibition, but not to a biblical injunction. But it is not so; whether it is biblical or rabbinical we do not tell them anything; for the additional time to Yom Kippur is a biblical injunction, yet people eat and drink until dusk and we do not say anything to them.

This law is obviously limited to the case where a person sins unintentionally. We say in such a case that if he will not heed the rebuke, it is better that he not be reprimanded at all, than to bring him to intentional sin.

          In any event, there seems to be a contradiction between the various passages, whether a person is obligated to rebuke his neighbor to the point of hitting, or the like, or whether he is forbidden to issue a reprimand when it is clear that it will not be heeded by the sinner.

          The Ritva in Yevamot deals with this contradiction, citing the Gemara in Shabbat 55a:

Rabbi Zera said to Rabbi Shimon: "Let the Master rebuke the members of the Exilarch's household." [Rabbi Shimon] replied: "They will not accept it from me." [Rabbi Zera] countered: "Even though they will not accept it, the Master should still rebuke them."

Tosafot (ad loc., s.v., af al gav) write:

This is where there is a doubt as to whether or not they will accept [rebuke]… But where they will certainly not accept it, let them go their way; it is better that they should err in ignorance than deliberately.

Tosafot's explanation is based on the Gemara in Betza, and therefore limited to cases of inadvertent sinning. Other Rishonim limit this law to those things that are not explicitly stated in the Torah. Why should this make a difference? It may be suggested that regarding something that is stated explicitly in the Torah, there is no such thing as inadvertent sinning. Rather, it is always defined as intentional sinning. This distinction, however, need not be based on the Gemara in Betza. It can be based on the Gemara in Yevamot, in which case there should be no distinction between inadvertent and intentional sinning.

          Alternatively, the Ritva confronts the Gemara in Shabbat with the Gemara in Yevamot, and proposes two distinctions:

  1.  The Gemara in Shabbat refers to a case where the rebuke may possibly, though not certainly, be heeded, whereas the Gemara in Yevamot deals with a situation in which the rebuke will certainly go unheeded.

2) In all cases, there exists an obligation to offer rebuke one time. The Gemara in Yevamot discusses when must one continue to give rebuke following the initial reprimand.

          This is also the ruling of the Rema in Orach Chayyim 608:2:

The same applies to all forbidden matters, we say that it is better that they should err in ignorance than deliberately. But this is only when [the violated prohibition] is not stated explicitly in the Torah, even though it is by Torah law. If, however, it is stated explicitly in the Torah, we must object. If a person knows that his words will not be heeded, he should, in the case of community-wide wrongdoing, offer rebuke only one time, but he should not rebuke many times, since he knows that he will not be heeded. In the case of an individual, however, he is obligated to reprimand until he is struck or cursed.

The Rema distinguishes between the case of an individual and that of the community, understanding that the Gemara in Yevamot applies only to reproach of the community. There is, however, a certain difficulty with this distinction in that the Gemara does not distinguish in this manner.

What is the rationale underlying this distinction? It may be suggested that the initial rebuke relates to that element of the mitzva of rebuke between man and God, whereas the subsequent rebuke stems from the interpersonal aspect of the mitzva. Since rebuke will not help, there is no reason to continue reprimanding after the initial rebuke. The Gemara in Shabbat deals with an obligation to object to unseemly behavior that is unconnected to the mitzva of rebuke. Objection must be voiced so as not to remain silent in face of negative phenomena. According to this, we may suggest that the initial rebuke is not intended to change and reform the sinner, but rather that a person should not remain silent in the face of the sinful behavior that surrounds him.

The Semag combines the Gemara in Yevamot with the Gemara in Arakhin. He understands that the Gemara means to say that if a person rebuked his neighbor, and then was reprimanded by him, in such a case he is forbidden to continue with his rebuke.

It may be possible to distinguish between the Gemara in Yevamot and the Gemara in Arakhin in a different manner. The Gemara in Arakhin says: "To the point of hitting." What is meant by "to the point of"? It would seem that this defines the personal obligation falling upon the person offering rebuke. The Gemara is not dealing here with the question when is it good to rebuke the sinner and when not. But granted that in a certain situation it is a good and positive thing to rebuke one's neighbor, the question arises how far is one obligated to go in offering that rebuke. Is a person required to continue with his rebuke even when he is being caused injury? Regarding this question, the Gemara answers: "To the point of hitting." But if a person is willing to continue with his rebuke, even though he is being caused injury, he continues to fulfill the mitzva of rebuke. The Gemara in Arakhin limits the personal obligation falling upon the person offering the rebuke. The Gemara in Yevamot, on the other hand, deals with the strategy of rebuke and discusses when rebuke should or should not be continued, taking into consideration the rebuker's welfare and the general good that might result from the rebuke.

(Translated by David Strauss)


* This lecture was not reviewed by HaRav Lichtenstein.

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