Talmidav Shel Aharon
3-5768: Mitzvah 72
October 22, 2007
Mitzvah 72 – It is a positive commandment to upbraid a sinner
Hafetz Hayim: As Scripture says, “you shall surely rebuke your fellow.” (Lev. 19:17). He is to inform him that he does himself a wrong by his evil acts; and he is to inform him that he is telling hi this only for his own benefit, to bring him to life in the world-to-come. It is his duty to reprimand him until he listens to him, or until he strikes him and says “I will not listen to you.” There are some early authorities who are lenient about this, holding that it is enough until there is an angry retort [that the other gives us in rejecting our efforts]. But even the first view applies specifically when the person violates a prohibition by Torah law, and when he estimates that it will be effective for the future, that the other person will not do this thing again. Even a person of lower stature is duty-bound to rebuke a person of higher stature. Whoever has it in his power to oppose a sinner in his act and does not do so, fall victim to the guilt of is sin. Now, even though it is a religious duty to rebuke him [a sinner], he should not shame him first. It is a religious requirement to accept rebuke and to bear the chastiser affection. We find in the teachings of the Sages “that even if a person willfully violates a prohibition enacted by the Sages, it is permissible to call him a transgressor. It applies everywhere and in every time for both men and women.
This is a very difficult Mitzvah to perform because it has so many problems that can become attached to it. Let me first deal with the mechanics of the Mitzvah and then try and explain the problems.
This Mitzvah, on the surface is very straightforward. If we find someone whom we see is engaged in a violation of a Torah commandment, we have the obligation (not choice) to rebuke the actions of the person sinning and to try and get that person to do the right thing and not sin. It is so easy to sin and think that everyone is doing the same. When someone rebukes a sinner, that sinner can no longer think that his actions do not really matter. The idea is not to make anyone mad, but to get that person to contemplate his or her actions and to get them to do what is right. Such a person should really thank the one rebuking for saving his portion in the world to come. Additionally, it is possible to do a Mitzvah by mistake, but one must have intention to perform a sin. Rebuking a sinner forces that person to either change his or her ways or to affirm that it is his or her intention to sin, and thus they can no longer plead ignorance or error for their actions.
The first problem we detect with this Mitzvah is the intentions of the one who is doing the Rebuke. The rules of rebuking demand first of all, that the rebuke will have some effect on the Sinner. If the correction will be ignored, reviled or cause anger, than it is better to keep quiet and not rebuke. All the more so if the sinner is known to react violently to rebuke and could injure the one rebuking. Second, the one rebuking should have no vested interest in the sinner either continuing to sin or in changing his ways. If there is a hint of self-interest in the rebuke, someone else should do the rebuking. We don’t build ourselves up by tearing someone else down.
Not every sin is worthy of a rebuke. While we don’t try to rank one Mitzvah as being more important over another, note that the Hafetz Hayyim limits to rebuke to a violation of a Mitzvah from the Torah. Remember there is clear disagreement between Sages as to what some Mitzvot include. One does not rebuke another for following a different authority in Jewish law. So if a person does not hear the Shofar on Rosh Hashana one can “remind” that person that it is a Mitzvah to hear the Shofar. One should not, however, rebuke someone who is listening to the Shofar on Rosh Hashana, because he heard the Shofar in a synagogue where the one rebuking would not pray. Similarly one can rebuke someone who is eating forbidden meat, but not one who is eating food supervised by a Kashrut authority that the one who is rebuking does not accept.
There are authorities today, who feel that the whole rebuking process seems to be a very self-righteous way to act. There are many sinners today and rather than rebuke them, they should be treated as if they are someone who never had the chance to study and practice Jewish law. In other words, they are not sinners, just not fully aware of the complexities of Jewish law. Finally, no matter if one meets all the restrictions above and feels that, in this case, rebuke may help lift a person to live a better life, than rebuke may be given but always beware to give rebuke respectfully, honestly, sincerely and with great kindness. It should be a learning experience for the sinner and not ever be a source of embarrassment or shame. To shame a fellow human being is as close to committing murder as one can get without actually spilling blood. When we rebuke, we must carefully weigh and watch our words.