Wednesday, August 24, 2011

When is it better for a rabbi to hold his tongue?

A common rabbinic question: When is it better to speak up, and when is it better to say nothing? If you know that people are doing something incorrectly, is it better to sermonize on it and get some to listen, knowing that others will then ignore your counsel and break the law knowingly?

Rav Moshe Feinstein dealt with this question in terms of calling for silence before shofar blowing, and I have translated the bulk of his responsum (Igrot Moshe Orach Chaim 2:36) below. I particularly like his last suggestion here – that there is a third choice, separately notifying those who will listen. This requires more work, of course, but that's an important point: Often a rabbi can do better for his community by putting in the extra work.

Herewith the translation:

Regarding the matter of whether to announce before shofar blowing that one may not interrupt verbally until after the "standing blasts" [the second set of 30 blasts, blown during Musaf], in a shul where many simple people daven and it is known that they will not listen to the announcement, and they will interrupt. One person contends it would be better not to announce this, so that the people would sin accidentally rather than intentionally. His honor [the letter-writer] responds: Should we fail to teach the general population any laws because of such a concern, saying regarding them, 'Better that they sin accidentally'?

The principle of 'better that they sin accidentally' applies specifically where people definitely will not accept, as seen in Tosafot Bava Batra 60 and Rosh to Beitzah 30. We should not teach such people. The question of how we could refrain from teaching is not difficult; since they definitely would not adhere even were they to learn it, there would be no benefit in teaching them.

However: If it is unclear that they will not accept the law, we definitely are obligated to protest their conduct, and all the more so to teach them outside of the time when this violation is occurring.

It also appears obvious that when someone comes to learn, we definitely teach him everything according to the law, even if it is clear that he will not accept it. One should not teach incorrectly just because the listener will not practice it. It is only when they do not ask, that we do not independently protest. But in this case [where they ask], there is no issue of 'better accidental than intentional.'

It also appears obvious that if the population includes people who will listen, one must inform them of the prohibition – even if it is known that some will not listen and will violate intentionally. We do not harm those who would accept the instruction in order to avoid harming those who will violate the law intentionally and be punished as intentional sinners. Were we not to inform these people, they would violate accidentally, which would also be a legal violation, causing harm.

Therefore: In a shul which may include people who do not know the prohibition against interruption, and who will interrupt [the shofar blowing] and accidentally break the law, but who would listen if it were announced and would not interrupt, we must announce the law unless there is a way to convey the information to those people individually. If it is known that no one is present who will accept it, or if there is some way to inform only those who might listen, then we should not announce it.

Note: For lack of time I didn't translate his last paragraph, which includes a separate, fascinating point on the problem inherent in teaching a chumra as though it were law. Here it is:

וקצת יש להסתפק בדין זה דאסור להפסיק גם אחר תקיעות דמיושב עד שיגמור תקיעות דמעומד שלא ברור האיסור דהר"ן בשם בעה"מ סוף ר"ה הקשה ע"ז דמידי דהוה אמדבר באמצע הסעודה והובא בט"ז סימן תקצ"ב סק"ב והתירוצים דחוקים והר"ן מסיק דרק משום דהביא זה הרי"ף בשם הריש מתיבתא צריך ליזהר בזה עיי"ש, ונמצא שאף אם במזיד יפסיק בדבור לא יעבור באיסור ממש אפשר ליכא בזה משום מוטב שיהיו שוגגים וצריך להכריז. או אדרבה כשיכריזו שאסור ויעבור יהיה עובר יותר מצד מחשבתו שהוא יסבור שהוא איסור ממש, שיש ע"ז עונש אף שבעצם אינו איסור ממש כדדריש ר"ע בקידושין דף פ"א וכשלא יכריזו הרי יהיה רק שוגג בדבר שהוא רק חומרא בעלמא שאולי לא יענש ע"ז ואין להכריז, ואין בידי לע"ע הכרעה בספק זה. ולכן יש לעשות כדלעיל שאם אפשר שיקבלו איזה מהשומעין צריך להכריז שאסור להפסיק ואם ידוע שכל האין יודעין הדין לא יקבלו אין להכריז. ידידו מברכו בחג שמח, משה פיינשטיין.


  1. There is a whole Shlah (Shnei Luchot HaBrit) which says essentially the same thing as Reb Moshe.
    But I would like to suggest that rebuke should not be given. Never.
    My reason:
    That Rebbi Nachman considered his lectures that he would give on Rosh Hashanah and other times to be of great significance. That means to say that if he said something as part of a Torah lesson, it takes on a whole new meaning as opposed to if he just said something in passing conversation. And even in these Torah lessons the most significant thing is the first sentence. And Rebbi Nachman saw his whole life as leading up to the moments he spent on Rosh Hashanah in Uman. And the one and only last Torah lesson he gave in Uman starts with the word "Even though rebuke is a mitzvah, not everyone is fitting to give rebuke, as Rabbi Akiva said (brought down in the Gemara): 'I would be amazed if there is anyone in this generation who is fitting to give rebuke.' And if Rabbi Akiva said this in his generation all the more so in this generation."
    From the whole context it seems like Rebbi Nachman put his whole life into these few words.
    I almost never saw Reb Shmuel Berenabum give rebuke. When it came to this type of thing she was unbelievably cold. As is the custom in Israel to go out to make protests against one thing or the other i saw a protest once in the Mir about the Eruv in Brooklyn. Reb Shmuel would have no part of it.
    To Reb Shmuel learning Gemara is the purpose of life and one must guard this goal with utmost self sacrifice. With the fires and flames of world war two around hi he sat in Shanghai and learned Gemara. I believe this experience shaped and formed his personality. I think he felt that even if the whole world would be reduced to subatomic particles, if there would be found even one person that would sit and learn, then world would still come to its purpose.

  2. So according to R. Moshe it would perhaps be better to not make it in the form of an announcement (usually we hear something like "everyone should not talk until after final tekiyot"), but rather in the form of an informational note of what the practice is.

    But neither is giving rebuke in my opinion. A rebuke would be telling the kahal at the end of davening that even though we said you should have stayed quiet; I'm disappointed that it was still noisy.

  3. The rebukes in the shorter and longer versions of the Tochachah take the form of advance warnings. However, these also state penalties. If they didn't, would they still be warnings in the sense we're discussing here?

  4. Rosten-
    What do you mean by "rebuke"? Do you mean what Michael indicates? What about Bob's point?
    I don't think Rav Moshe was referring to what I would consider "rebuke" at all.

  5. I mean by rebuke what the person on the scene sees it to mean. That means you. I mean if you think you can say something that would be helpful then fine and if not not. In Avidor Miller's shul, no one talked--period. I don't know how he did it but that was just how it was.
    Maybe no one dared? It was a modern orthodox crowd in every sense of the word.
    (I had to go there for Megilah because at the Mir even during the Megilah it was noisy and the guy reading it read very softly.
    And even there I remember people complained to Reb Shmuel but he would never tell the guy to read louder and never change who was reading it. He never told anyone why.

  6. R.Henkin in Bnei Banim volume 4:17 (2) here in the paragraph beginning "Ve-al kein..."
    says a rabbi should know
    1. when to say assur
    2. when to say it's not seen favorably
    3. when to keep quiet.