"We didn't start the fire!" Responsibility (Achrayut) in the Jewish tradition

“…morally speaking, there is no limit to the concern one must feel for the suffering of human beings, that indifference to evil is worse than evil itself, that in a free society, some are guilty, but all are responsible.” –Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel

"Being human means being conscious and being responsible. By becoming responsible agents for social change we actualize not only our humanity but also our mission as Jews." Viktor Frankl

Responsibility as a positive commandment.

תנינא להא דת"ר האב חייב בבנו למולו ולפדותו וללמדו תורה ולהשיאו אשה וללמדו אומנות וי"א אף להשיטו במים רבי יהודה אומר כל שאינו מלמד את בנו אומנות מלמדו ליסטות ליסטות ס"ד אלא כאילו מלמדו ליסטות:
The Gemara comments: According to this interpretation, we learn in this mishna that which the Sages taught in a baraita: A father is obligated with regard to his son to circumcise him, and to redeem him if he is a firstborn son who must be redeemed by payment to a priest, and to teach him Torah, and to marry him to a woman, and to teach him a trade. And some say: A father is also obligated to teach his son to swim. Rabbi Yehuda says: Any father who does not teach his son a trade teaches him banditry [listut]. The Gemara expresses surprise at this statement: Can it enter your mind that he actually teaches him banditry? Rather, the baraita means that it is as though he teaches him banditry. Since the son has no profession with which to support himself, he is likely to turn to theft for a livelihood. This baraita accords with Rav Yehuda’s interpretation of the mishna.
ולכל מילי מי בעינן י"ב חדש והתניא שלשים יום לתמחוי שלשה חדשים לקופה ששה לכסות תשעה לקבורה שנים עשר לפסי העיר אמר ר' אסי אמר ר' יוחנן כי תנן נמי מתניתין שנים עשר חדש לפסי העיר תנן:
The Gemara asks: And do we require that one live in a city for twelve months for all matters? But isn’t it taught in a baraita: If one lives in city for thirty days, he must contribute to the charity platter from which food is distributed to the poor. If he lives there for three months, he must contribute to the charity box. If he lives there for six months, he must contribute to the clothing fund. If he lives there for nine months, he must contribute to the burial fund. If he lives there for twelve months, he must contribute to the columns of the city [lepassei ha’ir], i.e., for the construction of a security fence. Rabbi Asi said that Rabbi Yoḥanan said: When we learned twelve months in the mishna, we learned that with regard to contributing to the columns of the city, money used for protecting and strengthening the city, but not for other matters.

Responsibility to others in need

(טז) לֹא־תֵלֵ֤ךְ רָכִיל֙ בְּעַמֶּ֔יךָ לֹ֥א תַעֲמֹ֖ד עַל־דַּ֣ם רֵעֶ֑ךָ אֲנִ֖י יְהוָֽה׃

(16) Do not deal basely with your countrymen. Do not stand by the blood of your fellow: I am the LORD.

“If there is a poor person within your gates” (Deuteronomy 15:7). Sifrei [an ancient collection of legal midrash on the book of Deuteronomy] expounds this verse saying, “When one is starving, the one who is starving takes precedence,” and then expounds, “The poor of your city take precedence over the poor of another city.” That is to say, this applies if both poor people need food or clothing. However, if the poor of your city have what they need to live, but just don’t have any extra money [and the poor of the other city don’t have food or clothing], then the poor of the other city take precedence over the poor of your city, for the neediest takes precedence. Chatam Sofer (19th C).

In the case of a wellspring that belongs to the people of the city: [in a choice between] them and others [from another city], they come before the others. [In a choice between] the others and the animals [of the people of the city], the life of the others come before the animals. Rabbi Yosi says that the animals of the people of the city come before the life of others.

[In a choice between] their animals and the animals of others, their animals come before the animals of others.

[In a choice between the life of] others and the laundry of the people of the city, the life of others comes before the laundry [of the people of the city]. [But] Rabbi Yosi says that the laundry of the people of the city comes before the life of others.

(Tosefta, Bava Metzia 11:33–37)

Responsibility for uncertain consequences

אמר להן אי הכי אימא לכו מלתא דשויא לתרוייכו (שמות כב, ה) כי תצא אש ומצאה קוצים תצא מעצמה שלם ישלם המבעיר את הבערה אמר הקב"ה עלי לשלם את הבערה שהבערתי
Rabbi Yitzḥak Nappaḥa continued and said to them: If so, I will say to you a matter that is appropriate to both of you, which contains both halakha and aggada. In the verse that states: “If a fire breaks out, and catches in thorns” (Exodus 22:5), the term “breaks out” indicates that it breaks out by itself. Yet, the continuation of the verse states: “The one who kindled the fire shall pay compensation,” which indicates that he must pay only if the fire spread due to his negligence. The verse can be explained allegorically: The Holy One, Blessed be He, said that although the fire broke out in the Temple due to the sins of the Jewish people, it is incumbent upon Me to pay restitution for the fire that I kindled.
ועוד תניא אין מוכרין להם לא זיין ולא כלי זיין ואין משחיזין להן את הזיין ואין מוכרין להן לא סדן ולא קולרין ולא כבלים ולא שלשלאות של ברזל אחד עובד כוכבים ואחד כותי מ"ט אי נימא דחשידי אשפיכות דמים ומי חשידי האמרת ומייחדין עמהן אלא משום דאתי לזבונה לעובד כוכבים וכי תימא כותי לא עביד תשובה ישראל עביד תשובה והאמר רב נחמן אמר רבה בר אבוה כדרך שאמרו אסור למכור לעובד כוכבים כך אסור למכור לישראל החשוד למכור לעובד כוכבים רהיט בתריה תלתא פרסי וא"ד פרסא בחלא ולא אדרכיה א"ר דימי בר אבא כדרך שאסור למכור לעובד כוכבים אסור למכור ללסטים ישראל ה"ד אי דחשיד דקטיל פשיטא היינו עובד כוכבים ואי דלא קטיל אמאי לא לעולם דלא קטיל והב"ע במשמוטא דזימנין דעביד לאצולי נפשיה

And furthermore, it is taught in a baraita: One may not sell weapons to gentiles or the auxiliary equipment of weapons, and one may not sharpen weapons for them. And one may not sell them stocks used for fastening the feet of prisoners, or iron neck chains [kolarin], or foot chains, or iron chains. This prohibition applies equally to both a gentile and a Samaritan. Abaye analyzes this baraita: What is the reason for the prohibition against selling these items to Samaritans? If we say that they are suspected of bloodshed, that is difficult: But are they suspected of this? Didn’t you say that one may seclude oneself with them, which indicates that they are not suspected of bloodshed? Rather, it is prohibited to sell these items to Samaritans because they will come to sell them to a gentile. According to this reasoning, it should likewise be prohibited to sell a donkey to a Jew who is suspected of selling animals to gentiles. And if you would say that there is a difference between a Jew and a Samaritan, as a Samaritan will likely not repent and will sell to a gentile, whereas a Jew will likely repent and not sell these items, this reasoning is incorrect. But doesn’t Rav Naḥman say explicitly that Rabba bar Avuh says: Just as the Sages said that it is prohibited to sell to a gentile, so too it is prohibited to sell to a Jew who is suspected of selling to a gentile? When Rabba heard this and realized that Abaye was correct, he ran three parasangs after the buyer who purchased his donkey to revoke the sale, as the Jew was suspected of selling to gentiles; and some say that he ran one parasang through sand. But he did not succeed in overtaking him. Apropos the baraita that discusses the prohibition against selling weapons, the Gemara relates that Rav Dimi bar Abba says: Just as it is prohibited to sell to a gentile, it is prohibited to sell to an armed bandit who is a Jew. The Gemara clarifies: What are the circumstances of this prohibition? If the thief is suspected of killing, isn’t it obvious that it is prohibited? After all, he is the same as a gentile. Providing a Jew who might kill with weapons is no different from giving a weapon to a gentile, as in both cases one violates the prohibition: Do not place a stumbling block before the blind. And if he is a bandit who does not kill, why not sell to him? The Gemara answers: Actually, Rav Dimi bar Abba is referring to a bandit who does not kill, and here we are dealing with a bandit who steals, as sometimes he makes use of his weapon to save himself when he is caught. Consequently, it is prohibited to sell him weapons in case he kills with them in self-defense.

(שמואל ב כג, טו) ויתאוה דוד ויאמר מי ישקני מים מבור בית לחם אשר בשער ויבקעו שלשת הגבורים במחנה פלשתים וישאבו מים מבור בית לחם אשר בשער [וגו'] מאי קא מיבעיא ליה אמר רבא אמר ר"נ טמון באש קמיבעיא ליה אי כר' יהודה אי כרבנן ופשטו ליה מאי דפשטו ליה רב הונא אמר גדישים דשעורים דישראל הוו דהוו מטמרי פלשתים בהו וקא מיבעיא ליה מהו להציל עצמו בממון חבירו שלחו ליה אסור להציל עצמו בממון חבירו אבל אתה מלך אתה [ומלך] פורץ לעשות לו דרך ואין מוחין בידו ורבנן ואיתימא רבה בר מרי אמרו גדישים דשעורין דישראל הוו וגדישין דעדשים דפלשתים וקא מיבעיא להו מהו ליטול גדישין של שעורין דישראל ליתן לפני בהמתו על מנת לשלם גדישין של עדשים דפלשתים שלחו ליה (יחזקאל לג, טו) חבול ישיב רשע גזילה ישלם אע"פ שגזילה משלם רשע הוא אבל אתה מלך אתה ומלך פורץ לעשות לו דרך ואין מוחין בידו
§ The Gemara continues with another statement of aggada on a related topic: The verse states: “And David longed, and said: Oh, that one would give me water to drink of the well of Bethlehem, which is by the gate! And the three mighty men broke through the host of the Philistines, and drew water out of the well of Bethlehem, that was by the gate, and took it, and brought it to David; but he would not drink it, but poured it out to the Lord” (II Samuel 23:15–16). The Sages understood that David was not simply asking for water, but was using the term as a metaphor referring to Torah, and he was raising a halakhic dilemma. What is the dilemma that David is raising? Rava says that Rav Naḥman says: He was asking about the halakha with regard to a concealed article damaged by a fire. He wanted to know whether the halakha is in accordance with the opinion of Rabbi Yehuda, who holds that one is liable to pay for such damage, or whether the halakha is in accordance with the opinion of the Rabbis, who hold that one is exempt from liability for damage by fire to concealed articles. And the Sages in Bethlehem answered him what they answered him. Rav Huna stated a different explanation of the verse: There were stacks of barley belonging to Jews in which the Philistines were hiding, and David wanted to burn down the stacks to kill the Philistines and save his own life. He raised the dilemma: What is the halakha? Is it permitted to save oneself by destroying the property of another? They sent the following answer to him: It is prohibited to save oneself by destroying the property of another. But you are king, and a king may breach the fence of an individual in order to form a path for himself, and none may protest his action, i.e., the normal halakhot of damage do not apply to you since you are king. The Rabbis, and some say that it was Rabba bar Mari, give an alternative explanation of the dilemma and said: The stacks of barley belonged to Jews, and there were stacks of lentils belonging to the Philistines. David needed barley to feed his animals. And David raised the following dilemma: What is the halakha? I know that I may take the lentils belonging to a gentile to feed my animals, but is it permitted to take a stack of barley belonging to a Jew, to place before one’s animal for it to consume, with the intent to pay the owner of the barley with the stacks of lentils belonging to the Philistines? The Sages of Bethlehem sent the following reply to him: “If the wicked restore the pledge, give back that which he had taken by robbery, walk in the statutes of life, committing no iniquity; he shall surely live, he shall not die” (Ezekiel 33:15). This verse teaches that even though the robber repays the value of the stolen item, he is nevertheless considered to be wicked, and is described as such in the verse, and a commoner would not be allowed to act as you asked. But you are king, and a king may breach the fence of an individual in order to form a path for himself, and none may protest his action.

Responsible for one another, whether or not we are culpable.

וכל עבירות שבתורה מכל העולם לא והכתיב (ויקרא כו, לז) וכשלו איש באחיו איש בעון אחיו מלמד שכל ישראל ערבים זה בזה
The Gemara asks: And with regard to all of the other transgressions in the Torah, is punishment not exacted from the entire world? But isn’t it written: “And they shall stumble one upon another” (Leviticus 26:37)? This verse is homiletically interpreted to mean that they shall stumble spiritually, one due to the iniquity of another, which teaches that the entire Jewish people are considered guarantors for one another. Apparently, any transgression makes the entire world liable to be punished.
רב ורבי חנינא ורבי יוחנן ורב חביבא מתנו בכוליה דסדר מועד כל כי האי זוגא חלופי רבי יוחנן ומעייל רבי יונתן כל מי שאפשר למחות לאנשי ביתו ולא מיחה נתפס על אנשי ביתו באנשי עירו נתפס על אנשי עירו בכל העולם כולו נתפס על כל העולם כולו
It was related that Rav, and Rabbi Ḥanina, and Rabbi Yoḥanan, and Rav Ḥaviva taught the statement cited below. The Gemara comments: Throughout the order of Moed, wherever this pair of Sages is mentioned, exchange Rabbi Yoḥanan and insert Rabbi Yonatan in his place. In any event, they said: Anyone who had the capability to effectively protest the sinful conduct of the members of his household and did not protest, he himself is apprehended for the sins of the members of his household and punished. If he is in a position to protest the sinful conduct of the people of his town, and he fails to do so, he is apprehended for the sins of the people of his town. If he is in a position to protest the sinful conduct of the whole world, and he fails to do so, he is apprehended for the sins of the whole world.
אמר רב פפא והני דבי ריש גלותא נתפסו על כולי עלמא כי הא דאמר רבי חנינא מאי דכתיב ה׳ במשפט יבא עם זקני עמו ושריו אם שרים חטאו זקנים מה חטאו אלא אימא על זקנים שלא מיחו בשרים רב יהודה הוה יתיב קמיה דשמואל אתאי ההיא איתתא קא צווחה קמיה ולא הוה משגח בה אמר ליה לא סבר ליה מר אוטם אזנו מזעקת דל גם הוא יקרא ולא יענה אמר ליה שיננא רישך בקרירי רישא דרישיך בחמימי הא יתיב מר עוקבא אב בית דין
Rav Pappa said: And the members of the household of the Exilarch were apprehended and punished for the sins of the whole world. Because their authority extends across the entire Jewish world, it is in their hands to ensure that nobody commit a transgression. As indicated by that which Rabbi Ḥanina said: What is the meaning of that which is written: “The Lord will enter into judgment with the Elders of His people and its princes, saying: It is you who have eaten up the vineyard; the robbery of the poor is in your houses” (Isaiah 3:14)? The question arises: If the princes sinned by committing robbery, what did the Elders, i.e., the Sages of that generation, do that was considered a sin? Rather, say: God will enter into judgment with the Elders because they did not protest the sinful conduct of the princes. The Gemara relates: Rav Yehuda was sitting before Shmuel when this woman came and cried before Shmuel about an injustice that had been committed against her, and Shmuel paid no attention to her. Rav Yehuda said to Shmuel: Doesn’t the Master hold in accordance with the verse: “Whoever stops his ears at the cry of the poor, he also shall cry himself, but shall not be heard” (Proverbs 21:13)? He said to him: Big-toothed one, your superior, i.e., I, your teacher, will be punished in cold water. The superior of your superior will be punished in hot water. Mar Ukva, who sits as president of the court, is responsible for those matters.