The Mitzva of Rebuking a Sinner

  • Rav Moshe Taragin

Parshat Kedoshim lists an extensive assortment of ethical mitzvot, culminating in the templar mitzva of "ve-ahavta le-reiakha kamokha" (you shall love your neighbor as yourself).  When Rebbi Akiva designated this mitzva as "a great principle of Torah," he alluded to both its primacy as well as its capacity to serve as the root of all other mitzvot (see, for example, the gemara in Shabbat (31) where Hillel offers this mitzva to a hasty convert as the gateway the rest of Torah).  The pasuk immediately prior to the verse containing the mitzva of ve-ahavata lists the mitzva of "hokheiach tokhi'ach et amitekha" – the mitzva of advising or rebuking someone who is sinning.  This shiur will attempt to outline the basic parameters of this mitzva, as well as assess its relationship to the mitzva which follows it, "ve-ahavta le-reiakha kamokha."


     The gemara in Yevamot (65b) claims that just as there is a mitzva to offer admonishment which will be accepted, similarly there is a mitzva to withhold statements which will be rejected.  The gemara concludes that not only is there a mitzva to refrain from comments which will be divisive, but there is also a "chova" (an "obligation," a term normally cited by the gemara as, in some ways, more extensive than merely a mitzva).  To back up this opinion, the gemara cites a pasuk in Mishlei: "Do not chide a scorner, for he will despise you; instead, rebuke a wise man, and he will value you" (9:8).  This gemara conditions the mitzva of rebuke upon the acceptance of the subject in question.  If he will refuse to heed the advice, not only does the mitzva no longer apply, but there is even an obligation to suppress your guidance. 


     A slightly different picture emerges from a gemara in Shabbat (55a) which tells of Rebbi Zeira, who instructed Rebbi Seemon to rebuke the household members of the Jewish governor for their behavior.  Rebbi Seemon responded that in all probability, they would not regard his words.  Rebbi Zeira responded to him that even so, he has an obligation to perform the mitzva of rebuke.  This gemara would seem to indicate an objective commandment which is in no way impacted by the projected response of the sinner.  Tosafot (s.v. ve-af al gav) attempt to redefine this gemara in order to align it with the gemara in Yevamot.  They claim that Rebbi Zeira was asking Rav Seemon to consider that despite his expectations to the contrary, the people in question MIGHT ultimately accept his rebuke.  Tosafot prove this from the ensuing discussion in the gemara (surrounding a pasuk in Yechezkeil), in which Hashem orders an angel to save the righteous during the destruction of the first Beit ha-Mikdash.  The angel protests, countering that their refrain from rebuke makes them no better than the wicked.  When Hashem defends the decision of the righteous not to actively reprimand their contemporaries, since it was "obvious" that their censure would not be embraced, the angel retorts, "To You (Hashem) it was clear that such efforts would be futile, but how could humans have reached such certain conclusions?"  According to Tosafot, one must consider even a remote possibility (even in the face of convincing circumstances otherwise) that rebuke might be accepted.  Hence, Rebbi Zeira instructed Rebbi Seemon to persist, even though in his eyes it was likely that he would be spurned.  Tosafot refuse to adduce from this gemara an objective mitzva of rebuke.


     A second gemara which might imply an absolute obligation to rebuke appears in Eruchin (15) and entails the most direct discussion of the actual halakhic mitzva.  The gemara explains that by iterating the term "hokhei'ach tokhi'ach" (a double language), the Torah mandates that one attempt at rebuke is insufficient.  As the gemara itself states, "A person must persist in rebuking."  This statement itself is not necessarily contradictory to the gemara in Yevamot.  This warrant to repeatedly rebuke might have been interpreted as efforts to ultimately persuade the sinner to heed the rebuke.  The continuation of the gemara, however, does seem to tilt toward a different understanding.  The gemara records a dispute regarding the extent to which a person must reprimand an obviously unresponsive or antagonistic individual.  According to Shmuel, the attempts must continue until the sinner begins to verbally abuse the rebuker.  According to Rav, the attempts must be pursued even until the sinner begins to physically attack the rebuker.  Don't these positions - especially the position of Rav which requires the rebuke to continue even after it has triggered verbal abuse in response – indicate that rebuke is an absolute mitzva which must be executed regardless of the effect it will have upon the recipient?


     Having discussed the primary gemarot, we might inspect some of the basic positions outlined in the Rishonim.  The dominant camp of Rishonim maintain that indeed, the mitzva of rebuke is meant to assist the sinner in improving.  This position is adopted tacitly by the Rambam and explicitly by the Sefer ha-Chinukh.  In mitzva 239 the Chinukh concludes that if the rebuker determines that his words will have no effect, he should refrain; persistence is futile and self-destructive.  The Chinukh relates particularly to a sinner who is a bully and might intimidate or even hurt the person offering the rebuke.  One can imagine similar deleterious results even when rebuking recalcitrant sinners who are not criminals. 


     The Rambam follows a similar position when he writes in his Sefer ha-Mitzvot (positive commandment #205) that the mitzva consists of "rebuking sinners or attempted sinners so as to prevent sin."  By imputing a practical purpose to the mitzva, the Rambam implies that when these hopes are unlikely, the mitzva no longer applies.  The Rambam is even more explicit in Hilkhot De'ot (6:7) when he claims that "one who witnesses his friend sinning or choosing an incorrect path must return him to the proper way."  That final phrase about "returning him to the proper way" also captures the utilitarian theme of the mitzva.  It seems as if this position rests squarely upon the gemara in Yevamot, which described a mitzva, or even a chovah, not to say things which won't be heeded.  Interestingly enough, this qualification of the mitzva seems to have little textual source.  The Torah issues a blanket statement to rebuke without proscribing the mitzva in any way.  Rashi in Yevamot addresses this issue when he writes that the double language indicates that we should only offer criticism to those who will embrace it. 


Indeed, this position must face the gemara in Eruchin, which, at least according to one opinion, required rebuke until the sinner begins to assault the rebuker.  Wasn't it clear even before this point that the words would not have any effect? Shouldn't this recognition absolve the rebuker from his responsibilities?  In truth, the Rambam himself, who adopts Rav's position (that the rebuke must continue until a fight erupts), seems to address the issue.  He writes that the rebuker must continue his efforts until the designee assaults him physically AND DECLARES "I WILL NOT LISTEN."  Evidently, the Rambam felt that even if the intended party begins to verbally abuse the rebuker, he still might ultimately absorb at least some of the reprimand and make some sort of repair.  Presumably, even if the person actually begins a physical response, as long as he doesn't couple that response with a declaration of his intransigence, we still harbor thoughts of his possible improvement.  Once such a declaration has occurred, our hopes are completely dashed, and the rebuke can and must stop.  Similar sentiments emerge from the statements of the Remakh cited by the Shita Mekubezet in Bava Metzia 31a: "Even though the recipient begins 'cursing' the rebuker, we still assume he might ultimately heed the censure." 



     A completely different picture as to the nature of the mitzva emerges from the statements of R. Eliezer mi-Mitz in his Sefer ha-Yerei'im in mitzva 223: "If it is clear that the criticism won't be accepted and the sin is committed out of ignorance, the rebuke should be withheld.  If, however, the sin is committed with impunity, EVEN IF IT IS CLEAR THAT THE REBUKE WILL HAVE NO EFFECT, IT STILL MUST BE ISSUED, even if by issuing the warning you intensify the severity of both the crime and the resulting punishment.  The distinction between sinning purposely and out of ignorance is drawn from a gemara in Beiza (30a) which urges us to withhold criticism from people who continually transgress certain types of sins out of ignorance.  (Halakhically, this gemara only applies to transgressions whose source is rabbinic and which are committed by people who are unlikely to change their behavior. See Shulchan Arukh Orakh Chayim 608.)  However, the obligation to reprimand an intentional sinner without any hopes for improvement underscores the fact that according to R. Eliezer mi-Mitz, the mitzva transcends the hope that the listener will repair himself.  When a person witnesses a sin, he has an absolute (and personal) responsibility to issue some sort of protest independent of the response of the sinner.  "Lovers of Hashem, despise evil," commands David ha-Melekh in Tehillim 97:10.  Part of our recognition of the proper form of behavior must be a rejection of errant behavior in order to send a message both to ourselves and to the society that witnesses this conduct.  Evidently, this absolute obligation only applies when witnessing sins committed intentionally.  In these instances rebuke must be offered regardless of the chances for success.  Inadvertent sins do not demand the same harsh response, and the criticism should only be dispensed if it will yield results and promote change.