One of the early sources pertaining to the concept of rebuke is found in our parashah, Parashas Vayigash. The Torah describes Yosef’s revelation to his brothers with the following words: “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.”
When Rabbi Eliezer reached this verse, he would cry, saying (Chagigah 4b): “If such is the effect of human rebuke, how much more so concerning the rebuke of Hashem.”
The mitzvah of rebuking—tocheicha—is among the hardest mitzvos to perform. On the one hand, the mitzvah involves a Torah obligation (Vayikra 19:17): “You shall surely rebuke your friend.” On the other hand, giving a person rebuke, and reproaching him for his misdeeds, is not something that comes easily to most people.
In particular, we often feel that “who am I to rebuke my fellow?” This feeling was present even in times of Chazal, as Rabbi Tarfon stated (Erchin 16b): “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,’ then the other will answer him, ‘First remove the beam from between your own eyes.'” If this was true of the generation of tana’im, it is all the more true of our own generation.
Yet, in spite of the difficulty involved, the mitzvah of tocheicha has not become null, and it continues to apply today. In the present article we will discuss the parameters and details of this mitzvah.
Failure to Rebuke
As noted, the Torah instructs us in the mitzvah of rebuking with the words “You shall surely rebuke your fellow.” The Gemara (Erchin 16b) derives from here that “one who sees something awry concerning his friend must rebuke him.”
The Rambam cites the mitzvah in his Sefer Ha-Mitzvos (205), and rules its halachos in his Mishnah Torah (De’os 6:7): “One who sees his friend transgressing, or going in ways that are not good, must bring him back to goodness, and inform him that his is transgressing with his evil deeds.”
The Rambam adds that one who fails to reprove another bears part of the burden of the sin his fellow commits: “Whoever is able to rebuke, yet fails to do so, is ensnared by the same sin, because he was able to prevent it.” This is also implied by Targum Unkelus’s translation of the final words of the verse: “and you shall not bear him a sin”—one who fails to reprove his fellow takes a share in the sin itself.
A person who fails to rebuke his fellow shares in the other’s sin because of the concept arvus, the mutual responsibility inherent to Israel. 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.”
We thus find that in the time of the Destruction of the Temple, the tzaddikim of the generation were the first to be punished for the iniquity of the nation. As the Gemara explains (Shabbos 55a), they were punished because they should have protested, but failed to do so.
In addition to the collective mitzvah of tocheicha, which is related to the concept of arvus, the Minchas Chinuch (239:6) writes that somebody who does not rebuke his friend also transgresses the negative commandment of lo ta’amod al dam rei’acha (“standing on another’s blood”).
Unintentional Sin is better than Intentional Sin
The Gemara rules (Beitza 30a) that one should not rebuke sinners who offend unintentionally. It is better, according to the ruling of Chazal, for them to remain ignorant of their wrongdoing, than that they should be aware of it and continue to sin intentionally.
Initially, the Gemara explains that this refers to rabbinic laws, and not to Torah laws. The conclusion of the Gemara, however, is that the principle applies even to Torah laws: 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 explicit in the Torah. Where there is an explicit prohibition, the obligation of rebuke always applies.
Some point out that a Gemara (Shabbos 55a, and Tosafos loc. cit.) indicates the contrary—that exemption from rebuke applies even to explicit mitzvos (see Biur Halachah). However, the Rema cites the ruling of the Ba’al Ha-Ittur, and this is the principle halachah.
An important point to note is that the exemption from rebuke, out of concern that the rebuke will only cause the person to 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).
The Rashba (Beitza loc. cit.; cited in Mishnah Berurah 5) explains the reason why there is a difference between a mitzvah that is explicit in the Torah, and a mitzvah that is only implied. For a mitzvah that is only implied, we can assume that the transgressor is not aware of the prohibition, and only transgressed unintentionally. If he will not accept the rebuke, it is preferable to refrain from reproaching him, lest his sin become intentional. For a mitzvah that is explicit, however, we must assume that he transgresses intentionally, and there is therefore a mitzvah to reproach him and try to prevent the sin.
It thus emerges that concerning intentional sin, there is an obligation to rebuke the sinner, even if one knows that the rebuke will not be accepted. This halachah is ruled by the Mishnah Berurah (5).
This raises a question: Surely the Gemara (Yevamos 65b) states that “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 one knows that the rebuke will be refused?
The Parameters of Rebuke
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 according to the first opinion (Rav), whereby the obligation to reproach a sinner continues until he lashes out at the person giving rebuke—though the Chinuch (239) explains that this refers to reaching the point where he is “close to hitting back.”
The Nimmukei Yosef 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, until the point where the subject is prepared to hit you?
The Nimmukei Yosef responds that the statement of the Gemara whereby one must refrain from saying something that won’t be accepted applies specifically to the community. With regard to an individual, one must reproach the sinner to the point of hitting or cursing. He adds, however, that even with regard to an individual, 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 that even when the person will certainly (in an onlooker’s view) not accept the rebuke, there remains an obligation to reproach him.
Reproach of Sinners
In spite of the principles outlined above, which are ruled by the Rema (608:2), not every sinner must be reproached until he hits back—a principle that would make our lives somewhat difficult!
One reason for this is given by the Mishnah Berurah (Biur Halachah, s.v. mochin), who writes (in the name of the Birkei Yosef) that the obligation of obligation even where it won’t be accepted applies only when we possess the power of enforcement. When we have not power to enforce the rebuke, there is no obligation to reproach a sinner if one knows that he won’t accept it.
An additional reason, which is also found in the Mishnah Berurah (Biur Halachah s.v. aval), is that there is no mitzvah of reproaching those who have entirely rejected the yoke of Torah and mitzvos. The verse refers to “your fellow,” which Chazal render (in a number of places) as “one who is your fellow in mitzvos.” For somebody who is not “with us in mitzvos,” there is no obligation of rebuke for a specific misdeed.
In our times, the Chazon Ish classified irreligious Jews as tinokos she-nishbe’u, who sin out of not knowing any better. Although we cannot coerce them into fulfilling mitzvos, there is surely a mitzvah (as he writes) to “draw them close with bonds of love,” and bring them back to the path of Torah.
Method of 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 his 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 for 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.
As noted at the outset, the obligation of rebuking and reproaching is not easy. We have seen that the obligation does not always relevant, 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 mutual responsibility, and even out of love. Chazal (Bereishis Rabba 54:3) state that “any love that does not include rebuke, is not love.” When a person loves somebody else, truly caring about his wellbeing, it is inevitable that there will be points of rebuke and reproaching. When done out of love, rebuking is all the easier, and all the more acceptable for the subject.
If all those who offer rebuke would do so out of love, and with the tenderness that halachah demands, the world would surely be a better place.
 He also mentions that a sin that is committed in public should be publicly admonished.