What is considered leitzanus? How does the Torah view it? What is the halachic definition of leitzanus and what does it include? Is every joke considered leitznus? What is the punishment for leitzanus? How is fake news classified? What is the difference between Amalek and Yisro, since both were involved in paganism? How can we discern truth from falsehood? Of this and more, in the coming article.
Ancient Fake News
False and distorted news material isn’t exactly a new thing. It’s been a part of history long before any organized media even existed, and even before the printing press was invented. There are lots of examples of false news throughout history, but the earliest known example appears in this week’s parasha: “And these are the generations of Yitzchak the son of Avraham; Avraham begot Yitzchak” (Bereshis 25:19). The Midrash (Toldos 1) quoted in Rashi explains the double phrase. Why does the Torah have to repeat the fact that Avraham bore Yitzchak? “Because the scorners of the generation were saying that Sarah had conceived from Avimelech, for she had lived with Avraham for many years and had not conceived from him. What did the Holy One, blessed be He, do? He shaped the features of Yitzchak’s face to resemble Avraham’s, and everyone attested that Avraham had begotten Yitzchak. This is the meaning of what is written here: “Yitzchak, the son of Avraham,” because there is proof that ‘Avraham begot Yitzchak’.”
The Chida (Chaim Sha’al 2:38) quotes Rabi Avraham Brody’s question: Sarah was abducted by Avimlelech on Pesach night (see the end of the Pesach Haggadah). Yitzchok was born the following Pesach. The year Sarah was pregnant was a leap year. If Yitzchok was born a full thirteen months after Sarah was abducted by Avimelech, how could the scorners have invented this piece of ‘news’? It was simply impossible!
The Chida, though, does not understand the question. Fake news, by definition, does not have to make sense. Sensationalism creates a great news item, regardless of facts or truths. The scorners (who some say was Yishmael himself) claimed that Yitzchok was born of both Pharaoh and Avimelech, despite being utterly impossible. Yitzchok was born too long after Sarah was abducted by both. But scorners and fake news peddlers don’t need proof or truths to make their farfetched claims. The fact that Avraham bore Yishmael at age 86 was ignored when claiming he was sterile. Why? Because making wild claims doesn’t require proof.
Chazal dub these cruel rumor mongers ‘scorners’. In this week’s article we will examine the term and how the Torah relates to it. Next week we will explore what can be done to combat it.
Rav Tzadok Hakohen of Lublin (Tzidkas Hatzadik 259) writes that the root of everything good in the world is faith and awareness of G-d. Therefore, when Hashem revealed Himself to the Jewish people at Sinai, He began with the first commandment: “I am the Lord, Your G-d” (Shemos 20:2) – the obligation to believe in G-d’s existence. The Zohar tell us (introduction 7b) that emunah is the gate through which the righteous pass to connect with Hashem.
And the opposite of G-d, is evil. Leitzanus, or scorn, serves evil, and is the polar opposite of faith in G-d as it poisons the mind, preventing faith from penetrating.
Faith in G-d is attainable even by those born far from it, provided they sincerely search for meaning and truth. Some must examine all pagan religions and superstitions before finding G-d, but this sort of seeker is serious and sincere, and once realizing what he believes is false, drops it and moves on. This person will find the truth in the end, even if it takes a long time. On the other hand a scorner or letz, is hopelessly lost in a slippery world of lies and half-truths, because nothing is important.
This explanation is used by Rabbi Tzadok Hakohen to explain the pasuk (Mishlei 19:25): “Beat a scorner, and a simple man will gain cunning; reprove a man of understanding, and he will understand knowledge.” Chazal interpreted this pasuk as referring to Amalek, forever mired in scorn and mockery. With him, there’s nothing to do but beat him – he is beyond reform. Yisro, on the other hand, is called “a simple man” who will eventually “gain cunning”. Yisro worshipped every idol in the world until he reached the conclusion that only Hashem is the truth, but then he cleaved to it with all his might.
Amalek, on the other hand, represents the scorners. When the miracles G-d preformed during the Egyptian Redemption became known, Amalek spread their scorn to all, so to speak “cooled the bath.” Amalek doesn’t let facts confuse his narrative – he wants to wipe out Yisroel, and nothing can change his mind about it. This makes him hopeless.
What is scorn, or leitzanus? How is leitzanus defined?
Rabbenu Yona (Sha’arei Teshuva 3, 174-177) lists the following five behaviors as forms of leitzanus:
1) Mocking others for no other reason but cruelty.
2) Mocking others because of pride, when one’s self esteem is based on putting other’s down.
3) Mocking morals and wisdom, especially that of others’ – either of Chazal, or others’.
4) Involving in activities that bring no benefit to the world – i.e. engaging in the entertainment industry.
5) Mocking things falsely, when one actually believes in them. This includes engaging in all mind-numbing activities – whether by substances, alcohol, or other methods.
Chazal tell us that leitzanus is a terrible thing, the source of all evil with a horrible outcome, prohibited on all occasions except when mocking Avoda Zara (Megillah 25b). Is engaging in it an actual prohibition, or is it only a strongly discouraged activity?
While mentioned in the prophecies as something to distance from, the first to use the term letz is King David, in the first pasuk in Tehilim: “The praises of a man… nor sit in the company of scorners.” His son, Shlomo Hamelech, condemns leitzim in Sefer Mishlei numerous times. Yeshayahu the prophet, also, reproaches the mockers; and the prophet Hoshea (7:5) prophesized about their outcome.
Leitznus includes many aspects and numerous details. Some involve direct Torah prohibitions; others are simply negative actions, which while not directly counted among the 613 mitzvos, are strongly discouraged. Giving one blanket definition here won’t answer this question. Instead, we will explore three sources, each which refers to a different aspect of leitznus.
The Meiri (Chibur Hateshuva, Meshiv Nefesh, ma’amar I, chapter 4) writes that leitznus itself is not a prohibition, but most sins are caused by it. Therefore, one who engages even slightly, in this mode of behavior will be lost from the world and will not greet the Shechina.
The Maharam Galanti (chapter 33) was asked if Beis Din is obligated to denounce one who engages in leitznus. The Maharam answers that while this sin does not appear in the list of 24 transgressions for which Beis Din excommunicates the transgressor, it is a severe sin, and every G-d fearing person is obligated to publicly reprimand one who engages in it. One who does not put an end to his activities after seeing the public reaction is treated with lashes for transgressing the prophets’ and sages’ instructions, as it is written: “And now, do not scorn, lest your pains become strong, for a complete destruction have I heard from the Lord G-d of Hosts upon the entire land” (Yeshayahu 28:22). The scorner causes destruction, suffering, and exiles the Shechinah. The Mahram adds that one who behaves this way only once or twice is simply a fool, but behaving that way regularly should be punished harshly.
The Tanya (Igros, page 137) reprimands his adherents for engaging in frivolity as a means to achieve happiness, writing that this method will not lead to real joy and avodas Hashem. He adds that even suspected letzanus may involve a Torah prohibition, therefore one must be stringent and stay away from anything suspected of leitzanus.
Of how the destructive force of leitznus is mobilized Chazal tell us (Derech Eretz Zuta, chapter 6): “Sin begins with thinking about it, and its second is leitznus.”
What does this mean? How does the process work?
Shlomo Hamelech writes (Mishlei 24:9): “The counsel of folly is sin, and what makes man an abomination is scorn.” The Midrash (Midrash Rabbi Eliezer 10) proves from this pasuk the severity of leitzanus, which arouses four characteristics that lead people astray. How?
People don’t wake up in the morning with the decision to be bad. Becoming bad is a gradual process. It starts with the yetzer hara making light of everything, “There’s no need to take it so seriously. Lighten up a bit.” It might convince people to even take something to help him lighten up – even just to read or watch something entertaining. Entertainment blocks the brain and conscience, leaving one vulnerable to any action, even sin. All the activities and behaviors that yesterday were abominations, become possibilities, because “lightening up a bit” causes people to lose their basic charachteristics.
The Mishna writes: “Rabbi Akiva would say: Jesting and frivolity accustom a person to promiscuity” (Avos 3:13). The Rashbatz explains (Magen Avos) that one who engages in frivolity is naturally attracted to the lower elements in society. On the other hand, one who retains constant awareness of the Shechina’s presence behaves respectfully. This is why Chazal tell us (Brachos 43b; Kiddushin 31a) that irresponsibility and modesty are the two polar opposites. And they also say (Nedarim 20a): one who gazes at women will come to sin.
A frightening study was conducted by Dan Arieli (Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions, 2008). He notes a change in college-age students’ willingness to engage in dangerous or even criminal behaviors. Asked if they would willingly engage in them, they answered negatively, but after watching immodest content and light entertainment, a large percentage answered in the affirmative.
Midrash Rabbi Eliezer (chapter 10) maintains that the Torah does not require chasing away a sinner, but a letz should be cut off from humanity, as Shlomo Hamelech writes (Mishlei 24:10) “If you have become lax, on a day of trouble your strength will be weak indeed.” If you don’t chase away the letz he will sow argument and discord, and troubles will just multiply. As the Ralbag explains (ibid) the letz hates humanity, mocks it, and sows rife and discord among people.
Rabbi Chim of Volozhin (Ruach Chaim, Avos 3:13) points out that in addition to the natural explanation how normal people can suddenly become criminals, there is a spiritual explanation as well. The Torah tell us: “For the Lord, your G-d, goes along in the midst of your camp, to rescue you and to deliver your enemies before you. [Therefore,] your camp shall be holy, so that He should not see anything unseemly among you and would turn away from you” (Devarim 23:15). Once he allows his eyes to gaze at immodest things or speaks immodestly, the Shechinah disappears (as it does in every case of frivolousness), and then one succumbs to his debased, lower forces.
Why is there nothing to do to correct the leitz? The Iben Ezra (Mishlei 9:7), Rabbenu Yona (Sha’arei Teshuva 3:176), and others write that a leitz is hopelessly lost because he locks himself away from receiving rebuke of any kind. His leitznus prevents him from allowing anything of content to enter his brain. (This is not to say repenting is impossible; it just means to illustrate how far removed one who engages in frivolously is from anything of value and content.)
The Meiri (Chibur Hateshuva, Meshiv Nefesh, Maamar 1:4) adds that people who have the habit of speaking lashon hara and jokes derive pleasure from it, and letting go of it is difficult. This is besides those who think that what they’re doing is a mitzva.
The Ramchal (Mesilas Yesharim 5) goes even further. He lists scorn and mockery as an inhibitor of caution and progress and compares one who engages in it to a drowning man who is very difficult to save. Laughter and mockery chase away thoughtfulness and consciousness, causing one to behave like a drunkard or fool with whom one cannot speak sense. This is in addition to the uninhibited behavior which causes people to engage in dangerous and wrongful activities.
Wariness of sin requires an active consciousness, contemplation, and responsibility, which are the polar opposites of frivolousness, laughter, and mockery.
This, explains the Ramchal, is the reason leitzim are punished with suffering, as the pasuk writes (Yeshayahu 28:22): “And now, do not scorn, lest your pains become strong”. Since rebuke slides right off of a jester, the only way to get through to him is through pain and suffering. Then, he stands a chance of coming to his senses.
Letz vs. Jokester
Rabbenu Yona points out to a fundamental difference between a letz and a jokester. A letz is one to whom nothing serious can be said, to whom everything is a joke, and the whole world is a game. One who occasionally cracks a joke to make people smile is not a letz – he might have a talent for causing people to smile, but as long as he has boundaries which he won’t cross, and takes these responsibilities seriously, he does not fall in with the leitzim.
The Chaffetz Chaim (Shmiras Halashon, Sha’ar Hatevuna 13) writes that the way to repent for leitznus is by contemplating how detrimental leitznus is. He lists the harm leitzanus causes:
- The leiitz will not merit greeting the Shechinah and will be forever lost (Sota 42a).
- Since mockery causes others to treat serious concepts dismissively, one who engages in it is considered a source of public sin. The punishment for this is difficulty in repenting.
- Spending time in unproductive activities is a waste of one’s life and especially time that is taken from Torah study.
- Gehenom is the punishment for frivolity (Avoda Zara 18b). The Chofetz Chaim quotes the Gra as saying (Mishlei) that there are forbidden physical pleasures such as forbidden foods and women. Forbidden spiritual activities, such as lashon hara and leitzanus draw their power from negative spiritual powers – powers which will eventually come back to punish him in Gehenom.
- Suffering is the punishment for a scorner (Avoda Zara 18b).
- His parnossah suffers.
- He brings destruction to the world (Avoda Zara 18b)
- Even sitting in their company is punishable, as it is written: “Nor sit in the company of scorners” (Tehilim 1:1).
Next week’s article will delve further into the topic of leitznus, and examine questions such as when leitzanus is permitted or even a mitzva.