The Sins of the Great, Part I
Chapter 7 Laws 1-2(a)
"One who 'spies' on his fellow [in order to find negative information to
report] transgresses a negative prohibition as it is stated, 'You shall not
go spying in your nation' (Leviticus 19:16). Even though one does not
receive lashes for [transgressing] this prohibition it is a very grave sin
and it causes the death of many souls in Israel. Therefore, [it is stated]
adjacent to it, 'Do not stand on your fellow's blood' (ibid.). See for
example (lit., 'go out and learn [from]') that which occurred to Do'eg the
Edomite (see I Samuel 21-22)."
Law 2 (start)
"What is [the prohibition of] spying? It is when one bears words and
brings them from one [person] to the other, saying 'This is what so and so
said; this is what I heard about so and so.' Even though he is telling the
truth, behold he is destroying the world."
We are now beginning the seventh and final chapter of the Rambam's Laws of
De'os. Here the author discusses various prohibitions relating to proper
behavior and cultivating healthy relationships. He begins with the
prohibitions of gossiping and maligning and in particular the prohibition of
"spying" on one's fellow.
There are a lot of important ideas here -- in this chapter as a whole and
this law in particular. There are several general concepts to discuss as
well as surface issues requiring clarification. I would also like to look a
little more closely at the Rambam's telling illustration of Do'eg -- one of
the greatest Torah scholars of his time yet one of the few listed in the
Mishna as receiving no share in the World to Come. I'll attempt below to
divide the discussion between these three areas, no doubt doing justice to
none of them in the process.
The first prohibition the Rambam discusses is snooping or "spying". It
involves keeping tabs on one's fellow in order to find something juicy to
report about him. The simple reading of the Rambam is that the primary
prohibition is the snooping (and reporting) itself, that clearly being a
lowly sort of behavior. The commentators, however, based on the Talmud and
the Rambam's example, understand the prohibition more specifically to be
reporting to others information which breeds hatred among men: "Guess what
he said about you behind your back?" "Guess what he did to you when you
weren't looking?" etc. In other words, the issue is not just generally
digging up some dirt on one's fellow -- that will be included in future
prohibitions in this chapter, but bringing up the sort of information which
Based on this, we can well appreciate the Rambam's comment that such a
prohibition "causes the death of many souls" and "destroys the world." Such
animosities, with a little gratuitous fanning by a meddlesome go-between,
can let loose hatreds and feuds beyond the ability of anyone to control.
Friends, families, relations can get involved and be destroyed as well --
all because someone "volunteered" to spread a little information which
should have never been let out. We all say things we regret later. We all
say things behind another's back to let off a little steam, allowing the
matter to blow over peacefully. There was a reason why we didn't say such to
our fellow's face. This busybody, however, who was "generous" enough to
volunteer such extra juicy information has literally destroyed souls which
would have otherwise recovered and been reconciliated.
We can also understand based on this a related point in Jewish law. The
classic work on the laws of forbidden speech, _Chofetz Chaim_ (lit.,
"desires life;" www.artscroll.com/Books/ladh.html), rules that it is
forbidden to repeat to A that which B said behind his back even if A already
knows about it (Laws of Rechilus 4:1). We might have thought that once no
new information is conveyed, nothing is accomplished telling A what he's
already heard. But in truth the repetition itself may fan up the same old
animosities. A may have gotten over the whole affair -- or he never really
took it seriously to begin with. One more repetition may open up the same
old sores and tick A off once more.
(A fellow once mentioned to me that he was once in a particularly foul mood,
and he woke up the next morning feeling angry over incidents which occurred
to him years in the past. Often past feuds and hatred have simmered down but
were never fully put to rest. All it sometimes takes is the wrong sort of
provocation to set it off once more.)
Let us now turn to the example of Do'eg the Edomite. He was one of King
Saul's chief advisers. Scripture refers to him as the king's "mightiest
shepherd" (I Samuel 21:8) -- which the Sages understand to mean the head of
the Sanhedrin (high court) (Yalkut Shimoni Ezekiel 341). In other words, he
was one of the generation's greatest scholars. Yet the Mishna also includes
him in the list of individuals who did not receive a share in the World to
Come -- one of the rare exceptions to the rule "All of Israel has a share in
the World to Come" (Sanhedrin 10:1-2). How could so great a man, no doubt
expert in all G-d's laws, not even merit the World to Come -- which every
simple Jew by default receives?
Let us begin by examining Do'eg's sin, referenced here in the Rambam. In I
Samuel 21 the young David was on the run from King Saul, whose hatred for
him was beginning to come out in the open. In flight he stopped at the
priestly city of Nov, feigning to be on a secret mission for the King. They
supplied him with food and arms (Goliath's sword happened to have been
deposited with them) and sent him on his way. Do'eg happened to be present
to witness this all.
In the next chapter, when King Saul accused his men of siding with David,
Do'eg stepped forward to volunteer what he saw. He offered the king a simple
revelation -- that the priests of Nov aided David in flight. Saul
immediately went to the city, accusing its pious inhabitants of treason.
Even though they rightly argued they had no idea that David -- Saul's
longtime faithful servant -- had fallen into disfavor, Saul, in his
depressed and paranoid state, assumed malicious intent and ordered them
killed. When even his hardened soldiers refused to commit such an atrocity,
Do'eg himself stepped forward to slay them all (save one who escaped).
According to the Talmud this infraction was so serious that the threat of
punishment for it hung over the Jewish people for generations to come (see
Now Do'eg appears to be offering a simple revelation. And in fact, the
commentator Kesef Mishne observes based on this that the prohibition of
"spying" is equally forbidden when A tells B what C did even if C really did
nothing wrong -- so long as it piques A's ill will. The priests of Nov were
acting perfectly respectably in their own minds. Yet since their actions
angered Saul (and look at the tragedy which resulted -- perpetrated by none
other than Do'eg himself), it was forbidden for Do'eg to convey his report.
So again, Do'eg's action appears fairly innocuous, even if technically it
was forbidden. But there was a history behind it. As we will see G-d willing
next week, Do'eg had it in for David ever since he stepped onto the scene.
David's very popularity made him the target of other greats' jealousies. And
as a result, Do'eg opposed him tooth and nail, forfeiting his own share in
the World to Come in the process.We will explore this whole tragic episode
G-d willing next week.
Text Copyright © 2009 by Rabbi Dovid Rosenfeld and Torah.org