The Torah describes the journey of the Jewish People to Har Sinai in the following words: “They departed from Rephidim and arrived in the Sinai Desert, camping (vayahanu) in the wilderness. And Israel camped (vayehan) opposite the mountain” (Shemos 19:2).
Chazal (Mechilta on the Pasuk) note the apparent inconsistency between the plural form used for camping in the wilderness, and the singular form for the encampment upon reaching Sinai. As cited by Rashi, they resolve this by explaining that when they reached Sinai, the Jewish people reached a remarkable degree of unity, so that they were “as one person with one heart.”
It was only thus, united as a single person, that the Torah could be given at Sinai. The realization of the Torah among the Jewish People requires their absolute unity. As a set of individuals, the realization cannot be complete.
The need for unity in the nation of Israel raises the issue of mutual responsibility—the fact that we are as one person raises the question: to which degree are we responsible for one another with regard to Torah observance? What are the Torah sources of arvus? Which halachic ramifications derive from this responsibility? Does the mutual responsibility include women? And does it apply to rabbinic obligations?
These questions, among others, are discussed below.
Sources for Mutual Responsibility
Two basic sources can be found in Chazal for the concept of mutual responsibility among the citizens of Israel, generally referred to as arvus.
Commenting on the words of the Pasuk, “The hidden are for Hashem, our G-d, and the revealed are for us and our children” (Devarim 29:28), Rashi explains that the verse refers to communal responsibility for Torah transgressions. Hidden sins, those we are unaware of, are for Hashem—the community is not held accountable for them. But revealed sins, those transgressions that the public is aware of, are for us to prevent, and the community is held accountable if it fails to do so.
The source for this interpretation is a passage of the Gemara (Sanhedrin 43b), in which Tanaim dispute when the concept of mutual responsibility among Israel was initiated, and whether the concept applies even to hidden transgressions. As the Meiri explains, the opinion that extends communal responsibility even to hidden sins requires us to devise means by which to unearth iniquity and vice wherever it might be.
In addition to the verses in Nitzavim, the principle of mutual responsibility is also learned from a different Pasuk, which states that a person will “stumble over his brother” (Vayikra 26). Chazal (Toras Kohanim) interpret this to mean that a person will stumble from his brother’s sinfulness, “for the entire nation of Israel is responsible, one for each other.”
As we will see below, the concept of arvus has many halachic ramifications.
Rebuke and Mutual Responsibility
One of the basic tenets deriving from the arvus concept is the idea of rebuke.
There is a Torah mitzvah of tochecha, to rebuke transgressors, as the Pasuk states: “You shall surely reprove your friend” (Vayikra 19:17). The obligation of tochecha is discussed by the Rambam: “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” (Hilchos De’os 6:7).
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 reprimand, 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, who writes that the final words of the Pasuk, “and you shall not bear him a sin,” mean that one who fails to reprove another has a share in the sin itself.
The reason a person who does not reprove a sinner shares in the sin itself is an expression of arvus, the mutual responsibility in the nation of Israel. The idea of arvus is that the entire nation is considered one body, “as one man, with one heart.” The Midrash (Tana de’bei Eliyahu Rabbah, chap. 11) states that because of this concept, one who fails to rebuke another shares his sin, likening the nation of Israel to a ship: “If one chamber of the ship is punctured, the entire ship is punctured.”
We find that at the Destruction of the Mikdash, the righteous were the first to be punished. The Gemara relates (Shabbos 55a), that they were punished because they should have protested, but failed to do so.
A person’s transgressions thus extend beyond the realm of the personal, including even the entire collective. For the “hidden,” sins that we are unable to prevent, there is no collective punishment. However, one who was able to prevent a sin yet failed to prevent it, is also punished for the transgression. The Gemara (Shevuos 39b) explains that the punishment for not objecting and not reprimanding is less than the punishment of committing the actual transgression. Yet to a certain degree, the sin is considered his own.
Confession of Sins Never Transgressed
As an extension of the mitzvah of tochecha, another consequence of arvus is found in the recitation of the vidui, whose words are on our tongues throughout the year, and most intensely during the Ten Days of Repentance. Among the transgressions mentioned, a person is liable to find many sins that he knows he has not transgressed either intentionally nor inadvertently. Should he recite them, or perhaps it is better to leave them out, so as not speak falsehood?
Addressing this question, the Ben Ish Chai (First Year, Ki Tisa, sec. 1) writes in the name of Chesed Le’Alafim: “The entire vidui should be recited, including even those transgressions that a person knows he has not violated, because all of Israel is a single body, and all are responsible for one another.”
The Ben Ish Chai adds that this is especially true for cases in which a person could have prevented a sin yet failed to do so. However, implicit in his explanation is that even without this addition, the very concept of mutual responsibility is sufficient to recite the entire vidui service.
The instruction to rebuke a sinner is expressed in the Torah with the words, “you shall surely rebuke your friend (amitecha).” The wording implies that the mitzvah applies only to those who are defined as amitecha, which Chazal in a number of places (Bava Metzia 59a; Shevuos 30a) interpret as “one who is together with you in Torah and mitzvos.”
In the light of this interpretation, the mitzvah of rebuke seems inapplicable to those who are not “with you in Torah and mitzvos,” and thus excludes those who are purposely non-observant. This, indeed, is the halachic ruling with respect to the prohibition against onaas devarim, harmful and hurtful speech (see Shulchan Aruch, Choshen Mishpat 228:1, and Sema 3), and the obligation to judge others favorably (see Sefer Chafetz Chaim, 7:5 and 8:5); both are limited to “one’s friend” (amitecha).
Yet, many authorities who mention the obligation of rebuke do not mention this exclusion. It is noteworthy that the Mishnah Berurah (Biur Halachah 608) does mention the qualification, yet it remains notably absent from many authorities, and even the Mishnah Berurah concludes by leaving open the question of whether one must rebuke individuals who do not keep mitzvos, if this is le’teavon (out of desire for physical pleasure rather than out of spite). This observation has been raised by the Maharam Shik (mitzvah 240), who only concludes that the matter is difficult.
In answer to this question, it is worthwhile to note that several commentaries interpret the word amitecha as having a unique meaning in the context of tochecha. The Maharsha (Yevamos 65b), for instance, writes as follows: “We can explain that the word amitecha refers to somebody who is your friend in mitzvos and ready to accept rebuke, as opposed to the contrary—one who is not ready to accept rebuke.” He thus understands that the word is interpreted not in accordance with its standard meaning, but as excluding those who will not accept rebuke. This is the ruling of the Shulchan Aruch (608, 2): that if one knows that his rebuke will not be accepted he should rebuke only once. The Mishna Berurah (608, 9) explains that there are two reasons to rebuke once:1-There is a slight chance that his words will have an impact; and 2-Otherwise the sinner may falsely conclude that he condones the behavior.
Based on the arvus concept, perhaps even somebody who does not perform the mitzvos of the Torah remains within the mutual responsibility of “all members of the nation of Israel are responsible for one another.” Similarly, the principle that a person who has performed a mitzvah is nonetheless able to perform it again for another—as explained below—applies to all Jews, even those generally distant from mitzvah performance.
Because all members of the nation are responsible for each other’s well-being, it follows that the word amitecha cannot be interpreted in its usual, limiting sense. Rather than qualifying the obligation of rebuke to those who keep Torah and mitzvos, we exclude only those who are unprepared to accept rebuke.
Note that the issue of rebuking somebody who will certainly not accept the rebuke is a matter of dispute among authorities, and we have expounded on the question in a previous article on the subject.
Mutual Responsibility for Mitzvos
The most frequent application of the principle of arvus is not to transgressions, but rather to mitzvah performance. On account of the principle of mutual responsibility, it follows that even after a person has fulfilled a given mitzvah, he can still perform it on behalf of somebody who has not yet fulfilled it. This is in distinction to a mitzvah that a person is entirely exempt from, which he cannot fulfill on behalf of others (as the Mishnah teaches, Rosh Hashanah 3:8).
This principle does not apply to a mitzvah that a person must perform with his own body; a person cannot put on Tefillin on behalf of somebody else. However, it applies to mitzvos related to speech, such as Kiddush on Shabbos. Even after a person has made Kiddush for himself, he can still recite it on behalf of another person who has not yet made or heard Kiddush.
This principle is delineated by the Gemara (Rosh Hashanah 29a-b), which explains that while a person cannot recite regular berachos on behalf of others if he is not reciting the beracha for himself (see Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 167:19), when it comes to a beracha that involves a mitzvah—a beracha that discharges an obligation—a person can recite a beracha for somebody else even if he has already discharged his obligation.
Rashi explains that a person can do this because all members of Israel are mutually responsible for each other concerning mitzvah obligations. The Ran adds that since we are all responsible for each other, a person has not fully fulfilled his own obligation as long as somebody else has not yet fulfilled it, even if he did personally fulfill it. Therefore, he may perform the mitzvah and recite a beracha on behalf of a second person.
Thus, a person may recite Kiddush or Havdallah several times, on behalf of many people. A concrete example of this is in hospital wards, in which one person often makes a round, reciting Kiddush for patients. The same applies for reading the Megillah, for sounding the Shofar, and so on.
It is noteworthy that for rabbinic mitzvos, we find that the Tzelach (Berachos 48b), among others, states that the principle of arvus does not apply. He apparently understands that the mutual responsibility of arvus is only with regard to Torah law, and not on the lower level obligation of rabbinic law. Alternatively, perhaps rabbinic mitzvos are fundamentally directed at the individual, rather than at the collective, so that the principle of mutual responsibility does not apply.
However, most Poskim agree that the arvus principle applies even to rabbinic mitzvos, as ruled by the Birchei Yosef (Orach Chaim 124:3), who proves his point from the mitzvos of Hallel and Megillah. Rav Moshe Feinstein (Shut Iggros Moshe, Orach Chaim 1:190) defers the proof from these mitzvos, explaining that a person can discharge another’s obligation for these mitzvos for a different reason, unrelated to arvus. Since their core is to publicize the miracle, it follows that one can do this on behalf of others.
Arvus for Women
An important halachic question is the status of women: Are women included in this aspect of arvus, or not?
In discussing whether women are obligated by Torah law to recite birkas hamazon (or whether their obligation is only rabbinic), the Gemara (Berachos 20b) states that if their obligation is only rabbinic, women would be unable to fulfill the mitzvah on behalf of men. Explaining this principle, the Rosh (Berachos chap, 3, sec. 13) writes that women would be unable to perform the mitzvah for men because they are not included in the concept of arvus.
Dwelling on the statement of the Rosh, the Dagul Mervavah (Orach Chaim 271) questions how, in view of the exclusion of women from mutual responsibility, can a man recite Kiddush on behalf of his wife on Friday night. The obligation of the husband, according to the Magen Avraham (271:2), might only be rabbinic, since he has already fulfilled his Torah obligation in his Arvis prayer. The obligation of the wife, in turn, is a full Torah obligation. This being the case, the only way in which the husband can fulfill the mitzvah for his wife is by reliance on the arvus principle—yet the Rosh states that women are not included in the concept!
The answer offered by the Dagul Mervavah is that although women are not responsible for men, men are fully responsible for women. Therefore, a husband can perform the mitzvah of Kiddush for his wife even after he has performed it for himself.
Rabbi Akiva Eiger (Glosses to Shulchan Aruch, ibid.) takes an altogether different approach. According to his understanding, the Rosh never meant to exclude women from the general concept of arvus. The only exclusion was with respect to the specific obligation of birkas hamazon, in cases where a woman is exempt from the Torah mitzvah. The reason for this is that if a special mitzvah does not apply to women, they cannot be responsible for men fulfilling the mitzvah.
Arvus, according to this understanding, is not a general concept, but a particular concept for each and every mitzvah. If the mitzvah does not apply to a particular person, the specific halachah of arvus does not apply for that particular mitzvah.
As the Maharit (Kiddushin 70b) and others have highlighted, the verses of Parashas Nitzvavim, which make explicit mention of women as being part of the covenant, seem to imply that women are part of the general concept of arvus, affirming the above opinion of Rabbi Akiva Eiger.
The idea of arvus, mutual or collective responsibility among the Jewish People, is a central idea both in halacha and on the conceptual level. In a halachic sense, we have seen how the concept is expressed both in the fulfilment of positive mitzvos, by which a person can perform certain mitvzos on behalf of others even after discharging his own mitzvah, and for transgressions, for which we are all mutually responsible.
On a conceptual level, it is always important to bear in mind that we are one people, with a common identity, mission, and relationship to Hashem. Our destiny, from the giving of the Torah to the ultimate end, requires the participation of us all, with the fullness of our individuality expressed as part of our communal being.