Parshat Acharei Mot/Kedoshim 3

“Do not curse the deaf, nor put a stumbling-block before the blind, and you shall fear your G-d: I am Hashem.” (VaYikra 19:14)

The passage above prohibits placing a stumbling-block before a blind person. What activity or activities are prohibited by this mitzvah? The Talmud discusses this prohibition in a number of contexts. Maimonides summarizes the Talmud’s conclusions. He explains that this mitzvah prohibits two activities. First, it prohibits willfully misleading a person by providing the individual with poor advice.[1] Maimonides does not provide specific examples. However, presumably this aspect of the mitzvah prohibits giving a person harmful financial or personal advice. Maimonides summarizes this aspect of the mitzvah by rephrasing the prohibition as a positive requirement. When someone seeks your advice you are required to provide a response that is appropriate for the person seeking your help. The second element of the mitzvah is a prohibition against “strengthening the hands” of those who violate the Torah. In his code of law, Mishne Torah, Maimonides does not provide a specific example of an activity that would be prohibited by this aspect of the mitzvah. However, in his Sefer HaMitzvot he does provide an example. The Torah prohibits both borrowing money and lending money with interest between Jews. The borrower and lender violate a specific mitzvah prohibiting their participation in this loan. In addition to the violation of these mitzvot, the borrower and lender violate the prohibition against placing a stumbling-block before a blind person.[2] Each enables the other’s participation in the prohibited loan. Therefore, each is responsible for “strengthening the hands” or enabling a person’s violation of the Torah.

It is notable that in his discussion of the various means by which this mitzvah is transgressed, Maimonides does not mention the most obvious means. He does not indicate that the mitzvah is violated by performing the activity identified by the literal translation of the passage. He does not say that one violates the commandment by placing a stumbling-block in front of a blind person. Of course, that does not mean that Maimonides maintains that it is permitted to place obstacles in the path of blind people. But, he does not indicate that this activity is a violation of this mitzvah.

Most authorities contend that Maimonides does not include within the mitzvah a prohibition against placing an obstacle before a blind person. Minchat Chinuch provides an interesting proof for this interpretation of Maimonides’ position. The most common punishment administered by the courts for the violation of a mitzvah is lashes. In general, this is the default punishment in instances in which the Torah does not indicate an alternative punishment. Maimonides provides a detailed list of commandments for which the punishment for their violation is lashes. He does not include the mitzvah of placing a stumbling-block before a blind person.[3] The apparent reason for the exclusion of this mitzvah from the list is that lashes are only administered for a violation that is committed through an action.[4] In halacha, an action is defined as a concrete, specific performance. Providing misleading advice or enabling the violation of mitzvah does not meet this standard. Therefore, the court does not administer lashes for the violation of this mitzvah. Minchat Chinuch argues that the activity of placing an obstacle before a blind person certainly meets halacha’s standard for an action. Therefore, if this activity is included in the prohibition, it is an instance in which lashes would be administered. The exclusion of this mitzvah from the list of mitzvot that are subject to lashes indicates that, according to Maimonides, the activity of placing an obstacle before a blind person is not included in the prohibition. [5]

Minchat Chinuch expresses numerous reservations regarding this argument. Torah Temimah summarizes the objections. He explains that although it is common for the Sages to attribute to a passage of the Torah a meaning that is not literal, it is very uncommon for the Sages to disregard the literal implications of the passage. He explains that in this instance, the Sages interpret the passage to include a prohibition against misleading advice and enabling the violation of a mitzvah. However, this interpretation is not intended to exclude the literal meaning of the passage. Instead, the Sages intend to include activities within the prohibition, in addition to the activity prohibited by the literal meaning of the passage. He adds that if one placed an obstacle before a blind person he would receive lashes for the violation of this commandment.[6]

Is there some indication in the passage that it should not be interpreted in the literal sense? There are two elements of the passage commonly suggested as the possible basis for not interpreting the passage literally. First the passage ends with the phrase “and you should fear your G-d.” This phrase is often used by the Torah as an admonition against the violation of certain commandments. These are commandments whose violation is not easily observable. Rashi explains that in this instance, the phrase is used because whether a person has violated the command is often determined by intent. For example, if a person gives someone poor advice, he can claim that his intentions were pure but he himself was mistaken. He intended to provide appropriate advice but committed an honest error. Similar claims can be made in an instance in which a person enabled an individual to violate the Torah. Therefore, the Torah admonishes us to fear Hashem. We may be able to deceive others regarding our true intentions but we cannot fool Hashem![7] Gur Aryeh argues that placing an obstacle before a blind person is an observable action and not subject to interpretation. Therefore, if this activity is included in the mitzvah, the phrase “you should fear your G-d” would not be appropriate. The passage does include this phrase. This implies that the activities prohibited by the phrase are only those activities that cannot be easily and objectively verified – providing misleading advice and enabling the commitment of a violation of the Torah.[8]

Second, the specific word in the Hebrew text for the term used is notable. The Torah uses the word tetain. This word generally implies giving or delivering. If the intention of the passage is to prohibit providing misleading advice, this word is appropriate. However, if the pasuk intends to prohibit the placement of an obstacle before a blind person, the appropriate word is tasim.[9]

Torah Temimah acknowledges that these nuances of the passage are an adequate basis for attributing to the passage a non-literal meaning. However, they are not a justification for rejecting the literal meaning of the verse. In other words, these considerations do not justify rejecting the general practice of the Sages to accept the literal meaning of a passage.[10]

In summary, the Sages clearly indicate that the mitzvah prohibiting placing a stumbling-block before a bind person includes providing a person with inappropriate advice and enabling the violation of the Torah. However, the authorities differ over whether the activity indicated by the literal meaning of the pasuk is prohibited by the mitzvah. Maimonides contends that it is not included. Others argue that the Sages do not intend to exclude this activity from the mitzvah. They merely intend to include these activities among the behaviors prohibited by the passage.[11] These authorities argue that in general the Sages do not reject the literal meaning of a pasuk and there is no reason to assume that our passage is an exception to this practice. This would seem to be a compelling argument. Why should the literal meaning of the passage be rejected?

There is a fascinating contradiction in the translation of Rabbaynu Yonatan ben Uziel to the Torah that seems to resolve this issue. In his treatment of our passage, Rabbaynu Yonatan ben Uziel seems to provide a literal translation.[12] In Sefer Devarim, the Torah outlines a number of activities that are accursed. One of these activities is providing misleading directions to a blind person. Rashi interprets this passage as referring to the mitzvah in our passage. In other words, the Torah is pronouncing a curse upon a person who provides misleading advice.[13] Rabbaynu Yonatan ben Uziel translates the passage in Sefer Devarim as referring to misdirecting a traveler.[14] In other words, both passages refer to taking advantage of a person’s blindness to mislead and harm him. Presumably – as conformed by Rashi – both passages refer to the same prohibition. Yet, Rabbaynu Yonatan ben Uziel translates our passage as referring to a blind person. But he translates the passage in Sefer Devarim as referring to a traveler.

Rabbaynu Yonatan ben Uziel inserts an important comment into his translation of the passage in Sefer Devarim. He comments that the traveler is figuratively blind.[15] This brief comment resolves the apparent contradiction in his translations. He is explaining that the Torah uses the figure of a blind person as an idiomatic reference to a person who is ignorant. In his translation of our passage, Rabbaynu Yonatan ben Uziel preserves the Torah’s idiom. He translates the passage literally. This is not because he is suggesting that the literal translation of the passage is its true meaning. As he explains in Sefer Devarim, the phrase’s reference to a blind person is idiomatic. The simple – if not literal – meaning of the passage is that we are not to mislead the ignorant.

This resolves our question. Maimonides contends that our passage does not include placing an obstacle before a blind person. He is not suggesting that the Sages reject the simple or plain meaning of the text. Instead, he argues that the Sages maintain that the passage employs an idiom. It describes the ignorant person who is in need of advice as being blind.

Maimonides makes a strange comment that supports this interpretation. He explains that the commandment outlined in our passage includes two elements. It is prohibited to provide misleading advice. It is also prohibited to enable a person to violate the Torah. He then adds that although both of these prohibitions are included in the mitzvah, the plain meaning of the passage only refers to the first element of the commandment – providing misleading advice.[16] On the surface, this seems to be an outlandish claim. The plain meaning of the passage is that it is prohibited to place an obstacle before a blind person! However, the above interpretation of Rabbaynu Yonatan ben Uziel’s comments explains Maimonides assertion. According to Maimonides, the passage employs a common idiom. The plain meaning is not the literal meaning. The plain and simple meaning is that it is prohibited to provide misleading advice to a person who is ignorant.

[1] Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Mishne Torah, Hilchot Rotzeach U’Shmirat HaNefesh 12:14.

[2] Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Sefer HaMitzvot, Mitzvat Lo Ta’Aseh 299.

[3] Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Mishne Torah, Hilchot Sanhedrin 19:1-4.

[4] Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Mishne Torah, Hilchot Sanhedrin 18:2.

[5] Rav Yosef Babad, Minchat Chinuch, Mitzvah 232, note 4.

[6] Rav Baruch HaLeyve Epstein, Torah Temimah on Sefer VaYikra 19:14.

[7] Rabbaynu Shlomo ben Yitzchak (Rashi), Commentary on Sefer VaYikra 19:14.

[8] Rav Yehuda Loew of Prague (Maharal), Gur Aryeh Commentary on Sefer VaYikra 19:14.

[9] Rav Baruch HaLeyve Epstein, Torah Temimah on Sefer VaYikra 19:14.

[10] Rav Baruch HaLeyve Epstein, Torah Temimah on Sefer VaYikra 19:14.

[11] Rabbaynu Levi ben Gershon (Ralbag / Gershonides), Commentary on Sefer VaYikra, (Mosad HaRav Kook, 1997), pp. 296-297.

[12] Rabbaynu Yonatan ben Uziel, Tirgum on Sefer VaYikra 19:14.

[13] Rabbaynu Shlomo ben Yitzchak (Rashi), Commentary on Sefer Devarim 27:18.

[14] Rabbaynu Yonatan ben Uziel, Tirgum on Sefer Devarim 27:18.

[15] Rabbaynu Yonatan ben Uziel, Tirgum on Sefer Devarim 27:18.

[16] Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Sefer HaMitzvot, Mitzvat Lo Ta’Aseh 299.