“Yosef said to his brothers: I am Yosef! Is my Father still alive? But his brothers could not answer him, for they were greatly alarmed at his presence.” In addition to the incredible drama of the passage, in which Yosef reveals himself to his astonished brothers, we find the concept of rebuke.

The Gemara teaches that when Rabbi Eliezer reached this verse, he would cry, saying: “If such is the effect of human rebuke, how much more so concerning the rebuke of Hashem” (Chagigah 4b). Yosef rebuked his brothers: “Is my Father still alive?” After all the agony you put him through, does he still live? The brothers could not answer him back. They were alarmed by Yosef’s very presence, and also, we may assume, disgraced by their terrible deed.

The mitzvah of rebuking—tochecha—is among the hardest mitzvos to perform properly. On the one hand, it is a full Torah obligation, as the Torah states: “You shall surely rebuke your friend” (Vayikra 19:17). On the other hand, giving rebuke, reproaching somebody for his misdeeds, is not something that comes to us easily.

We often feel that it is inappropriate for us to rebuke others. As Rabbi Tarfon stated, “I wonder if there is anyone in this generation who is fit to offer rebuke; if a person says: Remove the splinter from between your eyes, the other will answer him: First remove the beam from between your own eyes” (Erchin 16b).  If this was true of the generation of tana’im, it is certainly true in our generation.

Yet, despite the difficulty involved, the mitzvah of tochecha continues to apply today. In the present article we will discuss the parameters and details of this mitzvah.

The Stringency of Rebuke

The stringency of failing to rebuke others goes beyond the obligation to give rebuke (where appropriate). If we fail to rebuke others, we bear a degree of responsibility for the misdeed they commit.

This is noted by the Rambam. The Rambam cites the obligation to rebuke where required (which is ruled by the Gemara in Erchin 16b), stating: “One who sees his friend transgressing, or going in ways that are not good, must bring him back to goodness, and inform him that he is transgressing with his evil deeds” (De’os 6:7; see also Sefer Ha-Mitzvos 205). He adds, “Whoever is able to rebuke, yet fails to do so, is ensnared by the same sin, because he was able to prevent it.”

This idea likewise emerges from the Targum Unkelus, who renders the words, “and you shall not bear him a sin,” as meaning that one who fails to reprove his fellow takes a share in the sin itself.

A person who does not rebuke his fellow shares in the other’s sin because of the concept arvus, the mutual responsibility inherent in the Jewish People. Based on the concept of mutual responsibility, the Midrash (Tana de’bei Eliyahu Rabbah, chap. 11) explains the severity of failure to rebuke others, likening the nation of Israel to a single ship: “If one chamber of the ship is torn, the entire ship is torn.”

When the Temple was destroyed, the Gemara teaches that the tzaddikim of the generation were the first to be punished for its great iniquity. As the Gemara explains, they were punished because they should have protested but failed to do so (Shabbos 55a).

In addition to the collective mitzvah of tochecha, which is related to the concept of arvus, the Minchas Chinuch (239:4) writes that by allowing him to fall, somebody who does not rebuke his friend also transgresses the negative commandment of lo ta’amod al dam rei’acha (“standing by when on another’s blood is spilled”).

Exceptions to the Rule: Unintentional Sin

The Gemara rules (Beitza 30a) that one should not rebuke sinners who offend unintentionally if they will not accept the rebuke. It is better, based on this ruling, to leave them ignorant of their wrongdoing, than that they should become aware of the sin and continue to transgress intentionally.

Initially, the Gemara explains that this refers only to rabbinic enactments and decrees, and not to Torah law. The conclusion of the Gemara, however, is that the principle applies even to Torah law: Women who transgress the (Torah) law of Tosefes Yom Ha-Kippurim (the mandatory addition of time to the fast of Yom Kippur) should not be reproved for the offense, because it will only exacerbate the sin.

Yet, the Ba’al Ha-Ittur (see Darkei Moshe, Orach Chaim 608:2) writes that the ruling is limited to mitzvos that are not written explicitly in the Torah. Where there is an explicit prohibition, the obligation of rebuke always applies. The Rema cites the ruling of the Ba’al Ha-Ittur, and this is the principle halachah, though some point out that a Gemara (Shabbos 55a, and Tosafos loc. cit.) seems to indicate the contrary.

An important point to note is that the exemption from rebuke out of concern that the rebuke will only make things worse because the person will sin intentionally, applies only when the rebuke will certainly be rebuffed. If there is a chance that the rebuke will be accepted, there is a full obligation to reprove the sinner, even for a rabbinic mitzvah (Mishnah Berurah 608:3; see Teshuvos Rashi 40).

Rebuke that Won’t be Accepted

The Rashba (Beitza loc. cit.; cited in Mishnah Berurah 6) explains the reason why there is a difference between a mitzvah that is explicit in the Torah and a mitzvah that is only implied. He explains that when what is being violated is a mitzvah that is implied but not explicit, we can assume that the transgressor is not aware of the prohibition, and therefore transgressing unintentionally. If he will not accept the rebuke, it is preferable to refrain from reproaching him, lest his sin become intentional. However, for an explicit mitzvah, we must assume that he is transgressing intentionally, and there is therefore an obligation to reproach him and to try to prevent the sin.

Based on this understanding, it emerges that there is an obligation to rebuke one’s fellow in the case of intentional sin, even if the rebuke will not be accepted. This halachah is ruled by the Mishnah Berurah (5).

This seems to be quite difficult to understand. If the sinner will not heed, what is the point of rebuking him in the first place? Moreover, the Gemara (Yevamos 65b) states, “Just as there is a mitzvah of saying something that is accepted, so there is a mitzvah not to say something that is not accepted.” How can there be an obligation to reproach somebody when it is known that the rebuke will be disregarded?

The Extent of the Obligation

This question can be resolved based on the rulings of the Nimmukei Yosef.

The Gemara (Erchin 16a) cites a dispute concerning the parameters of rebuke: “Rav says: Until he hits back; Shmuel says: Until he curses; Rabbi Yochanan says: Until he reprimands.” The Rambam rules like the first opinion (Rav): the obligation to reproach a sinner continues until he lashes back at the person giving rebuke. The Chinuch (239) explains that this refers to reaching a point where he is “close to hitting.”

The Nimmukei Yosef (Yevamos 21 B) raises the question: Surely there is a mitzvah to refrain from saying something that will not be accepted. If so, how can there be an obligation to continue giving rebuke, to the point where the subject is about to physically lash back?

He responds that the statement whereby one must refrain from saying something that won’t be accepted applies specifically to the community: One must not give a communal instruction that will go unheeded. Concerning an individual, however, one must reproach the sinner to the point of hitting or cursing. He adds, however, that even with regard to the community, one must offer reproach once, “…for perhaps they will hear, or, alternatively, so that they won’t have an excuse (of saying: the rabbi was silent!).”

Thus, we find indeed that even when the person will certainly (to the extent we can know) not accept the rebuke, there remains an obligation to reproach him.

Reproach of Sinners

Must we then reproach every sinner in town, even in the knowledge that he will not accept the rebuke, until the individual is ready to hit us? A reading of the Rema (608:2), who cites the above principles, gives the impression that this is the case. Yet, there are a number of reasons why the obligation to rebuke will not apply.

One reason is given by the Mishnah Berurah (Biur Halachah, s.v. mochin), who writes (in the name of the Birkei Yosef) that the obligation of rebuke even where it won’t be accepted only applies when we possess power of enforcement. When we have no power to enforce the rebuke, there is no obligation to reproach a sinner if one knows that he won’t accept it. He continues that others disagree and maintain that lack of enforcement power is not a factor.

An additional reason, also found in the Mishnah Berurah (Biur Halachah, s.v. aval), is that there is no mitzvah to reproach those who have entirely rejected the yoke of Torah and mitzvos, like those who publicly violate the Shabbos. The verse refers to “your fellow,” which Chazal render (in several places) as “one who is your fellow in mitzvos.” If somebody is not “with us in mitzvos,” there is no obligation of rebuke him for a specific misdeed.

We can add that in today’s times, when non-observance of mitzvos is the norm among many Jews, rebuke will not only be ineffective, but also damaging, distancing Jews from Judaism and breeding contempt for religious Jews.

The Chazon Ish classifies current irreligious Jews as tinokos shenishbu, people who sin because they do not know any better. While we cannot coerce them into fulfilling mitzvos, there is surely a mitzvah (as he writes) to “draw them close with bonds of love,” and to bring them back to the path of Torah.

How to Rebuke

The Torah instructs us: “You shall surely rebuke your fellow, and you shall not bear sin on his account.” Chazal (Erchin 17b) explain the last part of the verse as limiting the obligation of rebuke: Although we are obligated to reproach our fellow for his sins, it is forbidden to do so when the rebuke will cause him shame.

This halachah is ruled by the Rambam (De’os 6:7): “One who rebukes his fellow should not speak with him harshly, thereby causing him shame… the more so in public.” It is noteworthy that the Shulchan Aruch Ha-Rav (156:8) writes that this halachah applies only to sins that are “between man and man,” and not to sins “between man and G-d.” However, this distinction is not mentioned by other authorities.

The Rambam also teaches us the general method of rebuke: “One who rebukes another… should administer the rebuke in private, speak to the offender gently and tenderly, and point out that the rebuke is offered for the wrongdoer’s own good, to secure life in the World to Come.”

The requirement of speaking gently and tenderly should not be taken lightly. Rav Chaim of Volozin (Keser Rosh 143) goes so far as to write that somebody who knows that he will be unable to maintain his composure should entirely desist from offering rebuke.

Conclusion

As noted at the outset, the obligation to rebuke and reproach is not easy. We have seen that the obligation does not always apply, but we should be aware that there are times when the full Torah mitzvah applies.

Although still difficult, the mitzvah becomes somewhat easier to perform when it is done out of a feeling of responsibility, and certainly when done out of love. Chazal (Bereishis Rabba 54:3) state, “Any love that does not include rebuke, is not love.” When a person loves somebody else, truly caring about his well-being, it is inevitable that there will be points of rebuke and reproach. When done out of love, rebuking is all the easier, and all the more acceptable to the subject.

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