Parshat Achrei Mot – Kedoshim אחרי מות – קדושים: The Obligations and limitations of rebuking a sinner

In this week’s Torah reading is stated very succinctly the commandment to rebuke a sinner:

Thou shalt not hate thy brother in thy heart; Thou shalt certainly rebuke thy neighbor and not suffer sin on his account, I am the L-rd. (Lev. 19: 17)

In the above mentioned verse from Leviticus, the word “rebuke” is written twice in succession: Hoche’ach Tochi’ach. This is a common usage of Hebrew in the Torah and is used to designate emphasis. The Babylonian Talmud interprets this emphasis as showing that if the person doesn’t listen the first time that you must repeat the rebuke (Arachin 16b), and even up until one hundred times (Baba Metzia 31a), and even a student is obligated to rebuke his teacher (Baba Metzia 31a). In commenting on the next part of the verse: nand not suffer sin on his accountfl the Talmud says that this means that one is not allowed to rebuke his fellow to the point where his face will be flushed from humiliation. (Arachin 16b)  The Talmud discusses further:

Rabbi Tarfon said: “I would be surprised if there is anyone in this generation that accepts rebuke. If one says to his fellow, ‘Take a chip out of your eye’ the other will retort, ‘take a beam out from between your eyes!'” Stated Rabbi Elazar ben Azaryah: “I would be surprised if there is anyone in this generation that knows how to rebuke.” (B.T. Arachin 16b)

From this it would seem that today everyone is exempt from the commandment of rebuke because there is no one capable of doing it properly. However, the Talmud goes on to discuss the following question:

Up to what point is the obligation of rebuke? Rav said, “Until he (the rebuker) is beaten”; Shmuel said, “Until he be cursed”; and Rabbi Yochanan said, “Until anger be elicited (Nezifah)”. (B.T. Arachin 16b)

From these sources in the Talmud, Rambam learns:  (The rebuker) needs to rebuke (the sinner) in private, and speak to him gently with soft words, and tell him that he is only saying this for his (the sinner’s) own good to bring him to life of the world to come. If he accepts the rebuke, all is well; and if not he should rebuke him a second and third time. And anyone who is able to object and doesn’t do so is included in those sins since he had the ability to object. The one who rebukes his friend should not at first speak harshly to humiliate the sinner as it says: “and not suffer sin on his account. 11 (Hilchos Deos 6:7, 6:8)

From this discussion we see that there is an obligation to rebuke the sinner repeatedly unt il he accepts the rebuke. However, Rambam points out that all of this needs to be one privately so as not to publicly humiliate the sinner. On this last point Rambam lists an exception:

But in matters pertaining to man’s relationship to G-d if the sinner does not repent as a result of the rebuke in private, the rebuker humiliates him in public and publicizes his sin and defames him in his presence and disgraces and curses him until he repents, just like all of the prophets did in Israel. (Hilchos Deos 6:8)

Rambam is clear that there is an obligation to rebuke, and one who fails to do so will be included in the sin. The rebuke should be done privately and with soft words. If it is ineffective the first time he should do it again. Only in exceptional cases should he rebuke publicly. However, in a different place the Talmud records the following:

Rabbi Ile’a stated in the name of Rabbi Eleazer son of Rabbi Shimon: Just as one is commanded to say that which will be listened to, so is one commanded not to say that which will not be listened to. Rabbi Abba stated: It is an obligation, for it is said in Scripture, “Rebuke not a scorner lest he hate thee; rebuke a wise man and he will love thee.” (Proverbs 9:8) (B.T. Yevamos 65b)

Rashi comments that the commandment of not to say that which will not be listened to is based on the doubling of the word in the verse Hoche’ach Tochi’ach (you shaIl certainly rebuke) which implies “rebuke only where rebuke will be effective”. It is interesting to note that in the sources brought above this doubling of the word was interpreted as an obligation to continually rebuke if the first attempt is ineffective. Here this same doubling of the word is interpreted to mean that one is commanded to rebuke only where it will be effective. This indicates that the repetition of rebuke can only be carried out when there is a possibility that it would have been heeded the first time.  If it is clear that the rebuke will be ineffective then the proper action is to remain silent.

Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagan, the Chafetz Chaim, writes (Biur Halachah 608) that a Jew who completely throws off the yoke of Torah and Mitzvos, for instance those who publicly desecrate the Sabbath or eat non-Kosher food out of spite, are no longer included in the biblical term “thy neighbor”. The verse delineating the commandment says that “Thou shalt certainly rebuke thy neighbor”. Since this person is no longer considered a neighbor as far as religious observance is concerned, there is no obligation to rebuke him for being amiss in observance.

The Aruch HaShulchan (Orach Chaim 608) agrees with this, that there is no possibility to rebuke a Jew about religious observance if he is totally non-observant. He adds that when the Talmud says, “one is commanded not to say something that will not be heard,” it is referring to a Jew who is observant but willfully transgresses a particular commandment out of uncontrollable lust. The Malbim (on the verse in Leviticus) also concurs with this opinion and gives three conditions necessary in order to give rebuke: (I) That the rebuker is clean from sin (2) that the one being rebuked is ready to hear it and both persons (rebuker and rebukee) are Torah observant (3) that the rebuke be given in such a way so as not to embarrass the person being rebuked, as it says, “and not suffer sin on his account”.

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