Bo: Reproof

January 5, 2011

One of the 613 commandments of the Torah is to give reproof: “Don’t hate your brother in your heart; surely reprove your fellow, and don’t bear sin towards him” (Vayikra 19:17). The next verse tells us “Don’t be vengeful or bear a grudge towards the members of your people; love your fellow as yourself, I am HaShem”.

Ramban explains the commandment of reproof in context as referring especially to sins between people. If someone sins against you, don’t keep it secret, hating him in your heart; don’t bear a grudge towards him. Rather, explain to him how you were hurt by his actions; give him an opportunity to justify his actions or seek amends. The result will be to restore friendly relations: “Love your fellow as yourself”.

However, the commandment also applies to sins between man and G-d, and as Ramban points out these also can lead to hatred. Rather than hating the transgressor, we should communicate with him and try to explain why his actions are improper; again, this gives him an opportunity either to justify his actions or repair them.

One of the most important principles of reproof is that it must always be given in a gentle and non-judgmental way (Rambam Deot 6:7). This is learned in the gemara (Arkhin 16b) from the words “don’t bear sin towards him”; if you shame a person, then you bear sin.

Another principle is that the person giving reproof must be perceived as someone who is himself committed to righteousness. A cynical and hypocritical reproof will be counterproductive. “If one said to the sinner, take the splinter out of your eye, he will reply, first take the beam out of your eye!” The requirements for effective reproof are so demanding that Rebbe Elazar ben Azaria states, “I wonder if there is anyone in this generation who knows how to reprove”.

Rebbe Elazar’s statement is not meant to exempt us from the mitzva of reproof. However, it has two implications: first of all, we need to be very careful before giving reproof, to consider if it will be productive. “Just as it is a mitzva to say something which will be heard, so it is a mitzva to omit something which willnot be heard” (Yevamot 65b). Second of all, it means that a person is seldom considered “after reproof” from a halakhic point of view (i.e. he is considered fully responsible for his transgression in the eyes of the community).

Rav Nachman of Breslav adds another reason to be circumspect in giving reproof. When we reprove someone, we remind them of their transgressions. This may cause them to become discouraged. It’s true that complete repentance requires a person to come to terms with all of his past misdeeds, but very often the first steps requirethe opposite: that a person should temporarily put aside his misdeeds and concentrate on his positive traits.

It follows that it is not enough that the person giving reproof be righteous; he must also be inspirational, someone who fills the transgressor with hope and confidence in his basic goodness and his potential for righteousness. Rav Nachman describes reproof as something that stirs up the stench of a person’s sins; this can be constructive only if the person giving reproof simultaneously knows how to fill the person with the fragrance of righteousness (Likutei Moharan II 8).

Rabbi Natan Zvi Koenig in his commentary “Torat Natan” extends this idea to self-reproof. A person is required to take periodic account of his deeds and examine how he can improve them. The Zohar states that a person should be an “accountant” (“mara dechushbana” – Zohar Korach, III 178a). Yet this accounting can be counterproductive. It may lead, as Rabbi Koenig points out, to excessive absorption in our negative character traits, leading to a discouraging self-image as a confirmed sinner. A related problem is that it may lead a person to be inured to his sins; every day he reminds himself that he has certain shortcomings, and in this way he becomes reconciled to them. (We have written in the past that this is one good reason for the Ashkenaz prayer custom in which the viduy (confession) is not twice a day, but rather at most twice a week.)

Therefore, our self-reproof should also be undertaken in a positive and inspirational spirit, with full confidence in our basic goodness and potential for improvement.

Rabbi Asher Meir is the author of the book Meaning in Mitzvot, distributed by Feldheim. The book provides insights into the inner meaning of our daily practices, following the order of the 221 chapters of the Kitzur Shulchan Aruch.

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.