The prohibition of “lifnei iver,” or “placing a stumbling block before the blind” (Vayikra 19:14), is understood by Chazal as going far beyond the literal reading of the words. Although it is certainly wrong to actually trip up a blind person, the prohibition is principally understood as forbidding assisting another person to violate Torah law.

This halachic principle raises many important practical questions: May one give food to another Jew who will clearly not recite a berachah before eating, or sell food to somebody who does not recite berachos? Is it permitted to invite somebody for Shabbos, knowing that he will most likely come by car? Is it permitted for a rabbi to officiate at the wedding of a couple who will not observe the laws of family purity? How should a person relate to Jewish drivers on Shabbos who ask for directions, or who will be forced to stop when he crosses the road?

In this first of two articles on the subject, we will introduce the principles that underlie the Torah prohibition of lifnei iver. In the coming article we will complete this analysis, discuss the connected prohibition of mesaye’a, and discuss various practical ramifications involved in the matter.

Bad Advice and Causing Sin

As noted, the simple reading of the verse is that it forbids placing a physical stumbling block before a blind person.  However, Chazal (in Toras Kohanim) understand it as a reference to offering bad advice: If somebody consults with you, you must offer him the best possible advice. The Rambam writes (Sefer Ha-Mitzvot, Negative Commandment 299):

“It warns against any of us leading anyone else to stumble when we offer advice. Meaning, if someone asks you for advice in some matter… the prohibition is issued against tricking him and leading him to stumble. You should rather lead him straight to the matter as you feel is good and correct, and this is what is meant when He said, `You shall not place a stumbling block before the blind’… They said that this prohibition also includes one who assists in committing a sin or who brings one about… But the simple meaning of the verse is what we mentioned first.”

According to the Rambam, the simple meaning of the verse refers to bad advice, and the prohibition also includes assisting others in committing a sin. The Rambam maintains that placing a physical stumbling block before a blind person is included in a  different prohibition of “you shall make a parapet for your roof, so that you do not bring bloodguilt on your house if anyone should fall from it” (Devarim 22:8; see Sefer Ha-Mitzvos 298).

The Gemara (Niddah 57a) records that the Tzeddukim insisted that the verse should be interpreted according to its simple meaning alone; Chazal, however, understood that the instruction applies to giving bad counsel and to causing others to sin.

Talmudic Sources for the Prohibition        

The Gemara notes the prohibition of lifnei iver in a number of contexts: It is forbidden for a person to hit his grown-up son, for this will cause the son to retaliate against his father and transgress the obligation of honoring his parents (Mo’ed Kattan 17a and commentary of Rashi). It is forbidden to lend money without witnesses, because this can lead to the borrower forgetting about the loan and denying it ever took place (Bava Metzia 75b).

One who lends or borrows money with interest transgresses the prohibition of lifnei iver (because he causes the other party to transgress the prohibition; Bava Metzia 75b) in addition to the direct prohibition involved in lending or borrowing money with interest.

Another situation which involves the issue of lifnei iver is commerce with idolaters, within three days of one of their festivals (Avoda Zara 6a-6b). The Mishnah teaches that such commerce is forbidden, and the Gemara adds that it is likewise forbidden to give an animal to an idolater during the three-day period. One reason for the prohibition is that the idolater will offer thanksgiving to his god as a result of his gain, and the Jew will thus be considered as participating in the festival. A second reason is lifnei iver: The idolater will use the animal for pagan sacrifice, and by facilitating idol worship the Jew thus violates lifnei iver.

A practical difference between the two approaches arises in a case where the idolater already owns other animals suitable for sacrifice. The concern about the idolater’s thanksgiving still applies, but the issue of lifnei iver doesn’t apply because the idolater could have offered sacrifices from his own animals irrespective of his dealing with the Jew.

The Gemara concludes that the prohibition of lifnei iver applies whenever the potential transgressor could not have independently transgressed the prohibition, a principle known as “two sides of the river” (“terei ivri denahara”). It is forbidden to hand a person standing on the “other side of the river” food that is forbidden for him to eat, if the person cannot obtain the food independently. However, if the person has, or can obtain, the food on his own (a case of “one side of the river”) the prohibition does not apply.

What Constitutes Two Sides?

A possible simple reading of the Gemara is that if the potential transgressor can commit the sin without assistance, even if this requires considerable effort or expenditure on his part, the prohibition of lifnei iver will not apply. This understanding appears to emerge from Rashi, who makes no qualifications to the limitation of “two sides of the river.”

The Meiri, however, writes that if the forbidden food cannot be accessed by the transgressor “without great effort,” it is forbidden to make it easily accessible to him.

The Kesav Sofer (Yoreh De’ah 83) goes a step further, and writes lifnei iver does not apply only if the given object is near and accessible to the potential violator. If he must exert himself even to a small extent, such as go to the market and purchase the item, the prohibition against facilitating the violation might apply.

Although this entails a significant limitation on the definition of “two sides of the river,” a similar position appears in Shut Chavot Yair (no. 185). Following similar lines, the Pischei Teshuva (151:2) cites the Emunas Shmuel that the concept of “one side of the river” only applies when the sinner can obtain the object on his own, and not when he must purchase it from others. However, the Rema (151:1) writes that the principle applies even when he must purchase the object.

Ability to Transgress by Means of Another Jew

As mentioned above, the Mishnah (Bava Metzia 75a-75b) notes that in a forbidden interest bearing loan, both borrower and lender violate the prohibition of lifnei iver, because each causes the other party to transgress (see Rambam, Malveh Veloveh 4:2).

The Mishneh Lemelech (loc. cit.) cites the Penei Moshe (Yoreh De’ah 108) who limits this provision: The borrower violates lifnei iver only if the lender cannot lend to anyone else at the same rate of interest. If other lending opportunities exist, this situation falls under the category of “one side of the river,” and no prohibition of lifnei iver applies.

The Mishneh Lemelech disagrees with this ruling, arguing that the situation is still considered as “two sides of the river.” In his opinion, only if a potential sinner can achieve his goal either independently or by means of a non-Jew is the case considered “one side of the river.” In other words, when a transgressor requires the assistance of another Jew to commit the given sin, such as in the case of usury (where the prohibition applies only to lending to Jews), then whoever assists him violates lifnei iver. Only the ability to transgress without the aid of a Jew removes the prohibition.

Many authorities side with the ruling of the Mishneh Lemelech (see Minchas Chinuch 232:3; Toras Chesed (Lublin) 5:7; Benei Chayei, Choshen Mishpat 34:7; among others). Although a number of poskim side with the Penei Moshe (see Kenesses Ha-Gedolah, Yoreh De’ah 159, Annotations to Tur 13 and Choshen Mishpat 34:36; Kesav Sofer, Yoreh De’ah 83), in view of the fact that lifnei iver is a Torah transgression one should be stringent in this matter.

Based on the Mishneh Lemelech, it is forbidden to sell non-kosher food to a Jewish buyer, even if the food is available only in other Jewish stores which is sometimes the case, especially in Israel.

Lifnei Iver for a Rabbinic Prohibition

Does the Biblical injunction of lifnei iver apply even to rabbinic prohibitions?

Tosafos (Avodah Zarah 22a) write that lifnei iver forbids even facilitating a rabbinic prohibition, proving the point from the fact that lifnei iver applies to forbidden labor on Chol Ha-Moed, which they assume to be a rabbinic prohibition.

The Ramban, on the other hand, uses the same passage of the Gemara to prove that labor on Chol Ha-Moed is a full Torah prohibition, implying that lifnei iver does not apply when helping others violate rabbinic prohibitions. The Ran (in his chiddushim) agrees in principle with the Ramban, though he claims that there might also be a rabbinic level of lifnei iver that applies to facilitating rabbinic prohibitions such as labor on Chol Ha-Moed.

We can explain the dispute based on the definition of the lifnei iver transgression: Is lifnei iver a separate, distinct transgression, or does it mean taking part in the transgressor’s final sin? According to the Ran, it appears that lifnei iver is taking part in the final sin. Therefore if the final sin is rabbinic, the lifnei iver transgression will also be rabbinic. According to Tosafos, however, the lifnei iver transgression is distinct from the sin caused, and therefore even a rabbinic prohibition can lead to a Torah level transgression of  lifnei iver.

In the context of lifnei iver we must also discuss the prohibition of mesaye’a li-dvar aveirah. Please G-d we will complete our analysis, discuss the issue of mesaye’a, and note a number of halachic ramifications of the two issues, in next week’s article.

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