Chapter 6, Law 7(b)
By Rabbi Dovid Rosenfeld
"If one sees his fellow sin or following an improper path, he is obligated
to return him to the better [path], and to inform him that he is sinning to
himself with his evil ways. [This is] as it is stated, 'You shall surely
rebuke your fellow' (Leviticus 19:17).
"When one rebukes his fellow, whether in matters between the two of them or
in matters between him [the sinner] and G-d (lit., 'the Omnipresent'), he
must rebuke him privately (lit., 'between him and himself'). He should speak
to him gently, in a soothing (lit., 'soft') tone, telling him that he is
only saying this to him for his benefit and to bring him to the life of the
World to Come.
"If his fellow accepts his words, it is good. If not, he should rebuke him a
second and third time. And so too, he is continuously obligated to rebuke
his fellow until the sinner hits him and says to him 'I will not listen.'
"Anyone who has the ability to prevent [others from sinning] and does not
prevent [them] is held to blame (lit., 'grabbed') for the sins of all those
he could have prevented."
Last week we discussed one of the key concepts of this law -- that we must
rebuke our fellow with kindness and compassion, so as to make it clear to
him we mean his best. We saw that this too is G-d's way in dealing with
mankind -- that even while punishing us He tempers His justice with
compassion, sending us clear messages that He's still there watching over
us.. And this is His way of telling us that although He is now dealing with
us harshly, He is doing so mercifully, as a means of leading us to
repentance, rather than venting His own Divine wrath.
As an important aside, this principle is discussed in Jewish law.
Theoretically whenever you see a Jew doing something wrong -- even a
complete stranger -- "You shall surely rebuke your fellow" would seem to
obligate you to step forward and inform him of his error. However, most
people would not take kindly some stranger coming along and butting into
their affairs. Thus, practically, we generally only rebuke those with whom
we have some sort of relationship, who we know will be amenable to
constructive criticism (see Be'er Halacha 608, s.v. "chayav l'hochicho").
The Rambam continues (based on Talmud Erchin 16b), that if one's fellow does
not accept his rebuke, he must continue to tell him off, basically until the
sinner strikes him or the situation otherwise gets utterly out of hand. This
seems a little strong. I could imagine getting up the guts to rebuke my
fellow once -- and that in itself is not easy -- but if he brushes it off
with some non-answer as most people do, I can't really imagine trying again
-- and again and again. I mustered up the courage to politely and passingly
mumble something to him once . If he doesn't want to take up on my
suggestion, it's now his own problem.
(By the way, I've had occasions in which people criticized me and I brushed
it off at the time -- only to reconsider later and improve on account of it.
Most people will respond with a reflexive defensiveness when challenged
(usually accompanied with some stupid deflective or self-deprecating
wisecrack) but may very well come to their senses shortly after.)
I believe, however, an important distinction is in line here. The Talmud, in
obligating us to rebuke our fellow, was assuming our fellow knew full well
he should be behaving better. He knows G-d is watching over him and judging
his every act. He knows he is sinning and should not be -- just that he
either cannot control himself or is not allowing himself to think.
(Alternatively, our fellow may be sinning out of ignorance, but would be
more than happy to have another enlighten him and correct his error.) All
such a person needs is a caring friend to basically give him a swift kick in
the pants, knocking him back to his senses.
Such a person will actually probably be grateful to his fellow for forcibly
helping him out of his rut. Even if he's kicking and screaming the entire
way and seems totally unreceptive to your words, he knows deep down his
behavior isn't appropriate. He knows he should break away. And if you bang
him on the head enough times, he'll be *happy* that you brought him back to
(See also for example Mishna Erchin 5:6 and Gittin 9:8 that if a husband
refuses to grant his wife a divorce (when he is obligated to), "we force him
until he says he wants." According to Jewish law, a bill of divorce must be
granted willingly by the husband. Yet if we beat him senseless until --
Viola! -- he all of a sudden realizes he does too want to give it, that is
acceptable -- because deep down a Jew really wants to do G-d's will. It just
sometimes takes a little prodding to get him in touch with his true wants.)
Needless to say, the situation is very different today. We could hardly say
every Jew we meet really wants to keep the Torah to the letter but just
cannot restrain himself -- and just needs a little tough-love medicine to
bring him back to his senses. Tragically, the vast majority of Jews have
virtually *no idea* what Judaism is and what they're missing. (And even if
they have *heard about* traditional Judaism, we would hardly say that they
really know what it's all about. They might have heard that there are these
archaic winter-clothes-wearing "Ultra-Orthodox" Jews in Jerusalem who throw
stones at cars on the Sabbath and beat up women who dress immodestly -- it
hardly helps having PR about as good as the Taliban.) Forceful persuasion
would hardly benefit the situation but would likely turn off the
unaffiliated even further.
As an interesting aside, the Talmud cannot even envisage Jews who know
virtually nothing about Judaism -- who have never even *heard* of the
Sabbath, holidays and dietary laws in any serious way. How can a Jew -- no
matter where he lives and whom he was born to -- not even *know* that we
don't eat seafood or open our stores on the Sabbath? The Talmud occasionally
discusses such a case theoretically, referring to such a person as a "baby
who was taken captive." Must have been someone who was kidnapped by pirates
as an infant, to be whisked off to some exotic island in the South Pacific.
Thus, practically speaking, the mitzvah (obligation) to rebuke as the Sages
envision it is far less relevant today than it once was. In fact, the
scholars of the Talmud themselves commented that few in their generation are
up to receiving rebuke -- and few are sincere enough to properly administer
it (Erchin 16b). It takes a great person to admit to his faults and yet
another great one to truly and genuinely point them out. I believe it was R.
Yisrael Salanter (great scholar and ethicist of 19th Century Europe) who
commented that his teacher, the holy R. Zundel of Salant, was one who could
sincerely tell people off, but that he could not see himself doing the same.
And so, rebuke, done properly, is relegated to the domain of a chosen few.
We can do it only to those we know and love, and only to those who are both
amenable to constructive criticism and who know we truly care about them. I
will conclude though, that I hope we all have such people in our lives.
There is nothing more instructive and enlightening than having a close
friend tell you what's wrong with you -- and your being such a close friend
for another. As we get on in life, we realize that our friends are not the
fellows we joked with in the back of the class in college. (As I heard R.
Motty Berger (www.aish.com) once comment, if we so much as remember their
names a year later, we're doing better than most.) The friends that stick
with us in the long run are the ones we opened up to, we developed true
relationships with, and we shared and grew with. Those are the type who can
both see our faults and who care enough to tell us about them. If we have a
few such in our lives, we must cherish them. For they are our best hope for
Text Copyright © 2009 by Rabbi Dovid Rosenfeld and Torah.org