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The Mitzva of Rebuke

  • Rav Yair Kahn

Translated and adapted by Rav Eliezer Kwass


            Fulfilling the mitzva to rebuke one's friend, "Hokhei'ach tokhiach et amitekha" (Vayikra 19:17), frequently becomes complicated when the party being rebuked does not want to change his behavior.  Not everyone is enthusiastic about hearing how his or her life can be improved.  Some might be annoyed, or even become violent when told about their wrongdoings.  Must one rebuke those who do not want to listen?  How persistent must one be when giving rebuke?  If one senses that rebuke will ineffective, is it legitimate to avoid the situation entirely?

            Two groups of basic talmudic sources relating to this central issue seem to contradict each other.


Erkhin 17B:

"From where do we derive that one who sees something wrong about his friend should rebuke him?  It is said, 'One should surely rebuke.'  How do we know that one should continue to rebuke [if his first attempt does not achieve the desired results]?  We are taught this from the [emphasis expressed through the] word 'tokhiach' (the Hebrew expression is doubled: "hokhei'ach tokhiach"), [indicating to rebuke] no matter what.  To what extent must one rebuke?  Rav says, 'Until one is hit;'  Shemuel says, 'Until one is cursed;' and Rabbi Yochanan says, 'Until one is scorned.'

Shabbat 55a:

"Rav Zeira said to Rav Simon, 'The master should rebuke the household of the Reish Galuta (the exilarch, political head of Babylonian Jewry).'  He replied, 'They will not listen to me.'  He (Rav Zeira) answered, 'Even if they will not accept rebuke from you, rebuke them nevertheless.'"

            According to the simple reading of these sources, one should continue to rebuke even though there is no possibility that his words will be accepted, even to the extent that he is physically assaulted or cursed.


Beitza 30a:

"Ignore [these errant] Jews.  Better that they should be sinners unknowingly ('shogegin') than be willful sinners ('meizidin')...  Whether it involves a biblical or a rabbinic commandment, we should not say anything to them."

            It seems from here that one should not rebuke someone  who unknowingly transgresses, if there is no possibility that rebuke will be accepted.

            On Yevamot 65b, the same message is stated in a more general way:

"Said Rav Ila'a in the name of Rav Elazar son of Rav Shimon, 'Just as there is a mitzva to say something that will be accepted, so there is a mitzva for a person not to say something that will not be accepted.  Rabbi Abba referred to this as an obligation ('chova', not just a mitzva), based on the verse, 'Do not rebuke a scoffer lest he hate you; rebuke a wise man and he will love you (Mishlei 9:8).'"

            Once again, it sounds like one should not rebuke if what he says will not be accepted.


            Two basic approaches to resolving this difficulty appear in the Rishonim; they reflect two fundamentally different ways of understanding the essence of the mitzva of rebuke.


            The Smag (Sefer Mitzvot Gadol, by Rav Moshe of Coucy, mitzva 11) maintains that one is forbidden to rebuke if what he says will not be accepted, in line with the passage in Yevamot.  The Sefer Ha-chinukh likewise writes (mitzva 239):

"Nevertheless, the sages also said that if one sees that his rebuke will not have any effect ... he is not obligated in this mitzva towards such a person.  This is what [the sages] meant when they said, 'Just as it is a mitzva to say something that will be accepted, so it is a mitzva to stay silent if his words will not be accepted,' because such a situation brings about shame to the one rebuking and no benefit to the one receiving rebuke."

            According to them, the passage dictating that one should give rebuke until one is hit, cursed, or scorned, must be referring to a situation where there is still a possibility that the listener will eventually pay attention to the rebuke.

            Even though the above-mentioned anecdote in massekhet Shabbat (giving rebuke to the household of the exilarch even though they will not listen) seems to directly contradict this approach, the passage following it implies otherwise:

"The attribute of Justice said before God, '...They should have protested and they did not.'  He replied: 'It is clear to me ("galui ve-yadu'a lefanai") that had they protested, it would not have been heeded.'  Justice replied back: 'Even though it is clear to You, it was not clear to them.'"

            In other words, one must only rebuke if his message will be heeded.  However, when there is DOUBT about whether one will be listened to, the obligation still stands.  If it is clear that one's rebuke will not have a positive effect, one is obligated to refrain from speaking.  According to this, the goal of the mitzva of rebuke is KEEPING ANOTHER PERSON ‎‎‎FROM SINNING AND HELPING HIM TO REPENT.  When that goal cannot be attained, there is no longer any mitzva to rebuke.

            Some Rishonim agree that the goal of the mitzva of rebuke is to help others better themselves, implying that it only applies if what he says will have an effect, but argue that a person can NEVER know for certain that his rebuke will be  ineffective.  This is what was meant by the words of the Attribute of Justice, "Is it clear to them?"  Is it clear to the sages that the sinners will not pay attention to what they say?  [This seems to be the Rambam's opinion - see Hilkhot De'ot Chapter 6.]

            Others argue that although the sinner will not be convinced, he can nevertheless be controlled through rebuke and punishment.  (See the Rosh, Beitza 4:2, quoting the Sefer Ha-Ittur.)


            Other Rishonim have a different approach to the essence of the mitzva of tokheicha.  The Sefer Yerei'im (223) writes:

"If it is clear to the one giving rebuke that they will not listen to him, then if they are those who sin unknowingly, it is better to keep quiet, as we say in [tractate] Beitza...  But as for those that sin willingly ("be-meizid") - even though you increase his culpability [through rebuking him], for he now sins after being forewarned, ... one must rebuke him even though he will not be receptive."

            If the goal of the mitzva of rebuke is to help one's friend better himself, why rebuke if it is clear that he will not listen?  Apparently, according to the author of the Sefer Yerei'im, the mitzva of rebuke obligates man NOT TO REMAIN APATHETIC TO SIN.  One who sees sin must react.  The Ritva (Yevamot 65b and Shabbat 55a) further explains that when the sages said that "It is a mitzva not to say something that will not be heard," they were referring to addressing a group, not an individual; in such a case, after protesting once, one should refrain from rebuking again if it will not be accepted.  (However, according to the Ritva, one must rebuke an individual until he hits or curses you.)


            There are a number of differences between these two understandings of rebuke.


            Ostensibly, according to the Yerei'im's opinion, seeing a sin being committed is that which obligates one to rebuke (i.e., one should not remain apathetic to sin).  This is in line with the language of the passage in Erkhin, "How do we know that one who SEES his friend sin..."  However, if the goal of tokheicha is to keep one's fellow away from sin, then there should be no need to actually see him sin before giving rebuke.  The wording of the gemara in Shabbat is, "if one has the ability to protest."


            The gemara in Berakhot (31a) reads: "'He said to her: How long will you be drunk...' (I Shemuel 1:14) - Rabbi Elazar said: From here we know that when one sees something improper about his friend he should rebuke him." [See also Tosafot there.]  If the obligation of tokheicha is to react to sin, it might only apply to an act that has the status of an actual sin.  If, however, we are obligated by this mitzva to set our friends on the right path in life, we must even help another correct improper behavior (like drunkenness) and improve  his character.


            The gemara in Beitza states, "Ignore [these errant] Jews.  Better they should be sinners unknowingly ('shogegin') than be willful sinners ('meizidin')."  If the mitzva of tokheicha is geared towards helping one's friend's spiritual advancement, it obviously does not apply if the opposite happens - if rebuke facilitates his friend's becoming a more intense sinner.  However, if the mitzva of rebuke demands reacting to sin, a sin performed unknowingly should also demand a reaction; why not rebuke if one witnesses a sin committed unknowingly?  Apparently, a sin performed unknowingly is not intense enough to demand a reaction.


            It seems reasonable that the Sefer Yerei'im accepts that there are two goals to rebuke: 1. reacting to sin; and 2.  helping one's friend better himself, even if the sin was committed unknowingly.  If one's words will not be accepted, one must react only to a sin performed purposely ("be-meizid").  But if the sin was unknowing, and the friend will not change his behavior because of the rebuke, it is better to refrain from rebuking so that he will remain merely an unknowing sinner.  The continuation of the passage in the Yerei'im supports this reading:

"The passage in Shabbat (55a),... 'Is it revealed to them [that their rebuke will not be accepted]?' implies that if it would be clear to them that their rebuke will not be accepted, they would not have to rebuke.  Even if the sinners were transgressing purposely, it seems that they would still not be obligated [to rebuke]!  [Rather, we must understand] that passage [as] referring only to PUNISHMENT for not rebuking, but they are not absolved of the OBLIGATION of 'You should surely rebuke.'"  [See also the Smak (Sefer Mitzvot Katan by Rav Yitzchak of Corbeille), 112.]

            It sounds as if the OBLIGATION to rebuke exists even though the rebuke will not be received and acted upon.  PUNISHMENT for not rebuking, however, comes only for not rebuking in a way that his words will have an effect.

            The Sdei Chemed quotes the Ma'arkhei Lev, who also seems to maintain that there are two types of rebuke (i.e. aiding repentance and reacting to sin):

"It seems to me that, unlike other mitzvot that one has to "chase after," one does not have to go to a place where sinners congregate in order to fulfill the mitzva of tokheicha and protest them until they hit him...  One is obligated to pursue this mitzva only if it is clear that his words will be heeded.  If it is not clear to a person whether others will listen to his rebuke, one only rebukes upon encountering sinners.  One does not have to go to a place of evildoers."

            Thus, according the Ma'arkhei Lev's dual concept of tokheicha, if one is sure that others will listen and better themselves as a result of his rebuke, he must "run after" this mitzva like he runs after  others.  He is considered one who "has it within his power to protest."  Otherwise, one only has an obligation to react to sin if he happens to encounter it.

SUMMARY - We have seen two conceptions of the mitzva of tokheicha: 

a. the obligation to react to sin - this applies even if his message will not be accepted, and might only apply when a sin is done purposely;

b. the obligation to help another better himself - this applies even to sins done unknowingly and "improper" acts, and applies as long as his words will be accepted.

            Though some sources seemed to emphasize one aspect and some another, we found, in the writings of the Yerei'im and the Ma'arkhei Lev, that both conceptions can coexist, applying in different situations.


            The Rema rules (OC 608):

"This applies to all prohibitions - we say, 'Better they should sin unknowingly rather than purposely.'  This only applies to sins that are not explicit in the Bible, even though they are derived from the Torah.  But one should protest sins that are explicit in the Torah.  If he knows that his words will not be accepted he should only make one public statement.  He should not rebuke repeatedly since he knows that they will not listen to him.  In private, though, one is obligated to rebuke until he is hit or cursed."

            The Rema seems to rule in accordance with the Yerei'im, that the mitzva of tokheicha obligates reacting to sin if it was done purposely, even if the rebuke will not be heeded.  He adds that this also applies to an unknowing transgression of a mitzva which is explicit in the Torah, "for they are definitely not sinning unknowingly" (Darkhei Moshe).  According to the above, this might apply only when the sin is actually witnessed.  Then one is obligated to rebuke the individual until he is berated (Sha'ar Ha-tziyun 608:13), while the masses should be rebuked only once.

            Rabbi Akiva Eiger, however, qualifies this ruling such that it does not seem to follow the Yerei'im.  He refers us to the book "Orim Gedolim" and writes:

"It seems that this refers to when we are able to protest.  If, however, it is clear to us that there will not be a positive response, the gemara in Yevamot instructs us, 'It is a mitzva not to say that which will not be heeded.'"

            It seems that he rules that the goal of the mitzva of tokheicha is to keep the sinner from sinning.  Therefore, it is forbidden to rebuke if there is no possibility that the rebuke will be heeded.  The Bi'ur Halakha quotes the Birkei Yosef who takes a similar position but also quotes the Smak who differs.

            The Magen Avraham adds an additional factor which limits the obligation of rebuke.  He quotes the Sefer Chasidim who rules that rebuke "refers specifically to a man and his 'brother'... but one should not rebuke another who will come to hate and take revenge from him as a result of his rebuke."  The Bi'ur Halakha writes:

"Those who have totally cast off the yoke of the commandments, such as those who publicly desecrate the Shabbat or eat unkosher meat rebelliously, are no longer included in the category of ['You shall surely rebuke'] 'your friend' and one is not obligated to rebuke them.  So too is written in the Tanna De-vei Eliahu (18) ... that the Gra briefly quotes in Aderet Eliahu.  It is unclear how to rule with regard to those who eat nonkosher food or desecrate the Shabbat for pleasure [and not out of rebelliousness]."  [See also the Arukh Ha-shulchan and the Minchat Chinukh (mitzva 239).]

            Rav Elchanan Wasserman z"l suggests that this consideration only absolves one from the obligation to react to sin.  However, those who have left the faith are still Jews whom we are responsible for; therefore, if there is a possibility that one can be effective, he must even rebuke apostates (see Kovetz Shiurim, Beitza 30a).

            In summary, if one's rebuke will not be effective, the obligation only exists when actually witnessing a sin done on purpose.  In that situation one should react once publicly to a group but continue to rebuke an individual until he scorns you.  According to R. Akiva Eiger, one should not rebuke if one does not have it within his power to protest and the Chafetz Chayim adds that one is not obligated to rebuke those that have left the faith.


            Even if the mitzva of tokheicha vis-a-vis the sinner does not apply, there might be an obligation to rebuke that stems from another source.  The Shitta Mekubetzet (Beitza) writes:

"The Ritva z"l said in the name of one of the great Ashkenazic rabbis who testified that his rabbis in France, among them the Ri and the Maharam Me-Rottenburg, said that [the rules of tokheicha] only applied in the generation of the rabbis of the Talmud.  However, in this generation where we are lenient in many matters, it is fitting to make a fence for the Torah.  [Therefore] we should protest and exact fines even for transgressing rabbinic mitzvot so that people should not commit either unknowing or willful sins."

            The Chokhmat Shelomo (605) writes:

"If [the sin was committed] in public and there is a possibility that others will learn from the sinner, one should protest the transgression of even a rabbinic law."

            Sometimes one should rebuke even if the individual who sinned will not benefit, because there will be benefit for a wider audience.  This is the function of rabbinic leaders, writes the Chatam Sofer, as long as there will be real benefit.


            A caution that applies to all rebuke: Even in a situation where rebuke was not received as it should have been, one is forbidden to embarrass the sinner.  According to the gemara in Erkhin 16b, one who embarrasses a sinner while rebuking, transgresses the biblical mitzva, "[You shall surely rebuke your neighbor] and you should not bear sin because of him."  [See the Rambam Hilkhot De'ot 6:8 and the Yerei'im 195 and 223.]


"Rabbi Tarfon said, 'I swear that there are none in this generation who are able to rebuke;' Rabbi Elazar son of Azaria said, 'I swear that there are none in this generation who can receive rebuke;' Rabbi Akiva said, 'I swear that there are none in this generation who know how to give rebuke.'"  (Torat Kohanim)


[Daf Kesher, Shvat 5749, #163, vol. 2, pp. 186-188.]

This article was not reviewed by the author.