Halachic Perspectives on "Shaming" and Social Media Karen Miller Jackson


Research has shown that social media use has advantages and disadvantages for people's psychological health and overall happiness1. It can draw people together or push them further apart due to emphasis on what divides them over what unites them2. Social media can be used to protest social issues; for instance, it has been used as an avenue to shame a get refuser, directly leading to the freeing of an agunah, or to shame a prominent rabbi to stop protecting a child abuser. Yet, when used repeatedly for criticizing others, spreading hatred and negativity, social media inevitably has unfavorable effects on individuals and the world.

This paper will explore the halachic categories and principles that guide people in the fine balance between constructive criticism and calling out injustice on the one hand and inappropriate "shaming" and contributing to sin'at chinam on the other. The value of criticism or rebuking people for their actions in the modern world is complex. As parents or educators, criticism alone can distance us from our children or students and create a negative feeling toward the subject of our rebuke. At the same time, our democratic ideals urge us to stand up and fight against injustice, through writing or protest. Where do the unique aspects of "shaming" or criticism on social media fall within this continuum of encouraged or discouraged rebuke?

This article will explore the mitzvah of tochecha (תוכחה)3, the prohibition of halbanat panim (הלבנת פנים) and some of the halachot of slander and gossip (רכילות ולשון הרע) to seek guidelines for healthy use of social media. Historically, these topics have been addressed in the context of interpersonal relationships in the physical world. This paper will explore how they can be applied in the contemporary virtual world.

A. Tochecha and Halbanat Panim

The Torah source for tochecha (rebuke) and halbanat panim (shaming) is found in Vayikra:

(יז) לֹֽא־תִשְׂנָ֥א אֶת־אָחִ֖יךָ בִּלְבָבֶ֑ךָ הוֹכֵ֤חַ תּוֹכִ֙יחַ֙ אֶת־עֲמִיתֶ֔ךָ וְלֹא־תִשָּׂ֥א עָלָ֖יו חֵֽטְא׃
(17) You shall not hate your kinsfolk in your heart. Reprove your kinsman but incur no guilt because of him.

The mitzvah of tochecha is sandwiched between the following two imperatives:

  1. Do not hate your brother in your heart.
  2. Do not incur guilt because of him.

The relationship between tochecha and not incurring guilt is clear from the "vav hachibur" – the connecting Hebrew letter vav. By rebuking one's fellow, one will not incur guilt because of him. This implies that by not rebuking one's fellow, by inaction, a person will incur guilt as a result of his fellow's actions. The relationship between rebuke and not hating one's brother in one's heart is not entirely clear.

The Gemara provides another explanation for the connection between the imperative to rebuke and the prohibition to not incur guilt:

הוכח תוכיח הוכיחו ולא קבל מנין שיחזור ויוכיחנו תלמוד לומר תוכיח מכל מקום יכול אפי' משתנים פניו ת"ל לא תשא עליו חטא4

“You shall rebuke [hokhe’aḥ tokhiaḥ] your neighbor.” If one rebuked him for his action but he did not accept the rebuke, from where is it derived that he must rebuke him again? The verse states: “You shall rebuke [hokhe’aḥ tokhiaḥ],” and the double language indicates he must rebuke in any case. One might have thought that one should continue rebuking him even if his face changes due to humiliation. Therefore, the verse states: “Do not bear sin because of him”; the one giving rebuke may not sin by embarrassing the other person.

The Gemara sets up the spectrum between the requirement to rebuke on one side and the limits of reasonable rebuke on the other side, namely, when the subject of rebuke becomes ashamed. Rashi, based on the Gemara, provides a more succinct interpretation:

ולא תשא עליו חטא. לֹא תַלְבִּין אֶת פָּנָיו בָּרַבִּים (עי' ספרא):
ולא תשא עליו חטא [THOU SHALT IN ANY WISE REBUKE THY COMPANION] AND NOT BEAR A SIN ON ACCOUNT OF HIM — i. e. though rebuking him thou shalt not expose him to shame (lit., make his face grow pale) in public, in which case you will bear sin on account of him (cf. Sifra, Kedoshim, Chapter 4 8; Arakhin 16b).

According to Rashi, "Do not incur guilt because of him" means that one must be careful not to publicly embarrass others. The following halachic sources will explore how and when one should rebuke others while not transgressing the prohibition against embarrassing them.

There are several other implicit and explicit references to tochecha in Tanach. The first instance of tochecha in the Torah appears in the story of Abraham and Avimelech, where Abraham admonishes Avimelech because his servants had seized wells which did not belong to them. The midrash views tochecha as bringing about love and peace and states that love or peace without some rebuke is not true love or peace.

וְהוֹכִחַ אַבְרָהָם אֶת אֲבִימֶלֶךְ וגו' (בראשית כא, כה), אָמַר רַבִּי יוֹסֵי בַּר חֲנִינָא הַתּוֹכַחַת מְבִיאָה לִידֵי אַהֲבָה, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר (משלי ט, ח): הוֹכַח לְחָכָם וְיֶאֱהָבֶךָּ, הִיא דַּעְתֵּיהּ דְּרַבִּי יוֹסֵי בַּר חֲנִינָא דְּאָמַר כָּל אַהֲבָה שֶׁאֵין עִמָּהּ תּוֹכָחָה אֵינָהּ אַהֲבָה. אָמַר רֵישׁ לָקִישׁ תּוֹכָחָה מְבִיאָה לִידֵי שָׁלוֹם, וְהוֹכִחַ אַבְרָהָם אֶת אֲבִימֶלֶךְ, הִיא דַּעְתֵּיהּ דְּאָמַר כָּל שָׁלוֹם שֶׁאֵין עִמּוֹ תּוֹכָחָה אֵינוֹ שָׁלוֹם.

And Abraham rebuked Avimelech: R. Yosi ben R. Hanina said: Rebuke leads to love, as it says, rebuke a wise man and he will love you. Such indeed is R. Yosi ben Hanina’s view, for he said: Love unaccompanied by rebuke is not love. Resh Lakish said: Rebuke leads to peace; hence, ‘And Abrhaman reproved Avimelech’. Such is his view, for he said: Peace unaccompanied by rebuke is not peace.

In modern terms the midrash is saying that the sign of a strong friendship or relationship is when each person can criticize the other, since when done properly, the criticism would lead to a deeper and stronger connection. Another time rebuke appears in Tanach is in the story of Hannah and Eli in I Samuel. There, Eli views himself as obligated to rebuke Hannah for behavior he mistakenly thinks is inappropriate. This case raises some interesting questions, since the rebuke was misplaced. How can one take back incorrect rebuke once it is out in the world? The story of Eli and Hannah will be discussed further below.

While some sources emphasize the requirement to give tochecha in the face of wrongdoing, chazal also underscored the drastic consequences when one crosses the line and shames another person publicly. The mishna clearly states that one who embarrasses his fellow man in public has no share in the world to come.

(יא) רַבִּי אֶלְעָזָר הַמּוֹדָעִי אוֹמֵר... וְהַמַּלְבִּין פְּנֵי חֲבֵרוֹ בָרַבִּים... אַף עַל פִּי שֶׁיֵּשׁ בְּיָדוֹ תוֹרָה וּמַעֲשִׂים טוֹבִים, אֵין לוֹ חֵלֶק לָעוֹלָם הַבָּא:

(11) Rabbi Elazar of Modiin said... and one who causes his fellow’s face to blush in public...even though he has to his credit [knowledge of the] Torah and good deeds, he has not a share in the world to come.

The gravity of shaming someone publicly is also expressed in the Gemara in Ketubot, where Tamar goes out of her way not to shame her father-in-law, Yehuda, in public.

א"ר יוחנן משום רבי שמעון בן יוחי נוח לו לאדם שימסור עצמו לתוך כבשן האש ואל ילבין פני חברו ברבים מנא לן מתמר דכתיב (בראשית לח, כה) היא מוצאת

Rabbi Yoḥanan said in the name of Rabbi Shimon ben Yoḥai: It is preferable for a person to deliver himself into a fiery furnace so that he not whiten the face of, i.e., embarrass, his friend in public. From where do we derive this? From the conduct of Tamar, as it is written: “And Judah said: Bring her forth, and let her be burnt. When she was brought forth, she sent to her father-in-law, saying: By the man, whose these are, am I with child” (Genesis 38:24–25). Although Tamar was taken to be executed by burning, she privately and directly appealed to Judah, rather than publicly identifying him as the father of her unborn children and causing him embarrassment.

Tamar risked being burned to death rather than shame her father in law in public.

B. The Scope of Tochecha and Halbanat Panim

The biblical sources lay the groundwork for the mitzvah of tochecha and the prohibition of halbanat panim. Yet, there are several questions which arise based on these sources, including:

  1. What behaviors require rebuke? Does tochecha apply only to mitzvot or to inappropriate behavior or speech as well?
  2. How many times must one rebuke? Is once enough or must one give tochecha repeatedly? How does one know when to stop rebuking?
  3. May everyone give rebuke or are there only certain people who are worthy of giving tochecha? Moreover, is there anyone who it is not permitted to rebuke?
  4. Are there times when it is best not to give tochecha?
  5. What if tochecha is given mistakenly? Can one retract or make up for this mistake?

A number of Talmudic sources expand on the scope of tochecha and halbanat panim and provide some answers to these questions.

1. Which Behavior Warrants Tochecha?

תנו רבנן (ויקרא יט, יז) לא תשנא את אחיך בלבבך יכול לא יכנו לא יסטרנו ולא יקלקלנו ת"ל בלבבך שנאה שבלב הכתוב מדבר מנין לרואה בחבירו דבר מגונה שחייב להוכיחו שנאמר (ויקרא יט, יז) הוכח תוכיח הוכיחו ולא קבל מנין שיחזור ויוכיחנו תלמוד לומר תוכיח מכל מקום יכול אפי' משתנים פניו ת"ל לא תשא עליו חטא

§ The Sages taught in a baraita: “You shall not hate your brother in your heart; you shall rebuke [hokhe’aḥ tokhiaḥ] your neighbor, and do not bear sin because of him” (Leviticus 19:17). Why does the verse specify “in your heart”? One might have thought that the verse means: Do not hit him, do not slap him, and do not ruin him due to hatred. Therefore the verse states “in your heart.” This teaches that the verse speaks of hatred in the heart. From where is it derived with regard to one who sees an unseemly matter in another that he is obligated to rebuke him? As it is stated: “You shall rebuke [hokhe’aḥ tokhiaḥ] your neighbor.” If one rebuked him for his action but he did not accept the rebuke, from where is it derived that he must rebuke him again? The verse states: “You shall rebuke [hokhe’aḥ tokhiaḥ],” and the double language indicates he must rebuke in any case. One might have thought that one should continue rebuking him even if his face changes due to humiliation. Therefore, the verse states: “Do not bear sin because of him”; the one giving rebuke may not sin by embarrassing the other person.

This Gemara states that one must not keep their hatred for another person in their heart. It interprets this hatred as resulting from seeing 'something detestable' (דבר מגונה) in another, and not rebuking him for this behavior. Rather than let the hatred fester, the Torah provides a way to channel this anger through releasing the tochecha outwards. However, one must not reach the point of shaming this person through the tochecha. The Gemara's formulation of davar meguneh (דבר מגונה) is vague and is further clarified in the Rishonim.

The Rambam discusses the mitzvah of tochecha in hilchot Deot and also refers to the question of whether tochecha applies only to mitzvot or also to inappropriate behavior.

(ז) הָרוֹאֶה חֲבֵרוֹ שֶׁחָטָא אוֹ שֶׁהָלַךְ בְּדֶרֶךְ לֹא טוֹבָה מִצְוָה לְהַחֲזִירוֹ לַמּוּטָב וּלְהוֹדִיעוֹ שֶׁהוּא חוֹטֵא עַל עַצְמוֹ בְּמַעֲשָׂיו הָרָעִים שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר (ויקרא יט יז) "הוֹכֵחַ תּוֹכִיחַ אֶת עֲמִיתֶךָ". הַמּוֹכִיחַ אֶת חֲבֵרוֹ. בֵּין בִּדְבָרִים שֶׁבֵּינוֹ לְבֵינוֹ. בֵּין בִּדְבָרִים שֶׁבֵּינוֹ לְבֵין הַמָּקוֹם. צָרִיךְ לְהוֹכִיחוֹ בֵּינוֹ לְבֵין עַצְמוֹ.

(7) He who beholds his fellow stooping to sin or following an unrighteous path, is obliged to return him toward the good, and to let him know that he is actually sinning against himself in pursuing wicked deeds for, it is said: "And thou shalt indeed rebuke thy neighbor" (Lev. 19.17). He who rebukes his fellow, whether it be regarding a sin committed between man and man, or whether it be regarding matters between man and God, it is essential that the rebuke be administered only between them both

The Rambam concludes that tochecha applies not only to mitzvot, but also to someone who is choosing a "bad path." The Rambam and other medieval sources present the mitzvah of tochecha alongside the prohibition of halbanat panim, similar to the Gemara in Erchin. In the next halacha, the Rambam discusses when shaming others is prohibited, and when it is permitted.

(ח) הַמּוֹכִיחַ אֶת חֲבֵרוֹ תְּחִלָּה לֹא יְדַבֵּר לוֹ קָשׁוֹת עַד שֶׁיַּכְלִימֶנּוּ שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר (ויקרא יט יז) "וְלֹא תִשָּׂא עָלָיו חֵטְא". כָּךְ אָמְרוּ חֲכָמִים יָכוֹל אַתָּה מוֹכִיחוֹ וּפָנָיו מִשְׁתַּנּוֹת תַּלְמוּד לוֹמַר וְלֹא תִשָּׂא עָלָיו חֵטְא. מִכָּאן שֶׁאָסוּר לָאָדָם לְהַכְלִים אֶת יִשְׂרָאֵל וְכָל שֶׁכֵּן בָּרַבִּים. אַף עַל פִּי שֶׁהַמַּכְלִים אֶת חֲבֵרוֹ אֵינוֹ לוֹקֶה עָלָיו עָוֹן גָּדוֹל הוּא. כָּךְ אָמְרוּ חֲכָמִים (גמרא סנהדרין קז א) "הַמַּלְבִּין פְּנֵי חֲבֵרוֹ בָּרַבִּים אֵין לוֹ חֵלֶק לָעוֹלָם הַבָּא". לְפִיכָךְ צָרִיךְ אָדָם לְהִזָּהֵר שֶׁלֹּא לְבַיֵּשׁ חֲבֵרוֹ בָּרַבִּים בֵּין קָטָן בֵּין גָּדוֹל. וְלֹא יִקְרָא לוֹ בְּשֵׁם שֶׁהוּא בּוֹשׁ מִמֶּנּוּ. וְלֹא יְסַפֵּר לְפָנָיו דָּבָר שֶׁהוּא בּוֹשׁ מִמֶּנּוּ. בַּמֶּה דְּבָרִים אֲמוּרִים בִּדְבָרִים שֶׁבֵּין אָדָם לַחֲבֵרוֹ. אֲבָל בְּדִבְרֵי שָׁמַיִם אִם לֹא חָזַר בּוֹ בַּסֵּתֶר מַכְלִימִין אוֹתוֹ בָּרַבִּים וּמְפַרְסְמִים חֶטְאוֹ וּמְחָרְפִים אוֹתוֹ בְּפָנָיו וּמְבַזִּין וּמְקַלְּלִין אוֹתוֹ עַד שֶׁיַּחֲזֹר לַמּוּטָב כְּמוֹ שֶׁעָשׂוּ כָּל הַנְּבִיאִים בְּיִשְׂרָאֵל:

(8) He who rebukes a friend, at the beginning, no hard words should be used against him to shame him, for it is said: "And thou shalt bear no sin upon him" (Lev. 19.17). Thus did the wise men say: "Understand it not by rebuking him thou mayest cause his countenance to change expression; for, it is said: 'And thou shalt bear no sin upon him'" (Ibid.; Arakin, 16b); herefrom we learn that it is forbidden to put an Israelite to shame, needless to say publicly. Although he who does put his fellow to shame is not flogged, it is a grievous sin. Even so did the wise men say: "He who publicly puts his fellow's countenance to shame has no share in the world to come" (Pirke Abot, 3.15). A man is, therefore obliged to guard himself against putting his fellow to shame publicly, regardless of whether he be young or old; not to call him by a name of which he feels ashamed, nor tell aught in his presence of which he is ashamed. However, all these refer to matters touching the relationship between man and man; but if it concern heavenly matters, if the sinner does not repent after being rebuked privately, he should be shamed publicly, and his sin should be proclaimed, and harsh words should be used in his presence, and he should be shamed and cursed till he repent and take up the good path, even as all of the prophets in Israel did with the wicked.

The Rambam differentiates between interpersonal mitzvot, where one must be careful about shaming others publicly, and mitzvot between man and God, where the Rambam permits shaming until the person repents. In the case of mitzvot bein adam le'makom, the Rambam likens one who rebukes others for their actions to the prophets of Tanach, who rebuked Israel to steer them back to the right path. This comparison to the nevi'im emphasizes the importance of the mitzvah to rebuke in mitzvot bein adam le'makom. This would support cases of shaming on social media when a person transgresses a mitzvah against God, and the shaming could be used as a deterrent.

The Sefer Hachinuch takes a similar approach to the Rambam on the mitzvat lo–ta'ase of halbanat panim:

שלא להלבין פני אדם מישראל - שלא לביש אחד מישראל, וזה העון יקראו רבותינו זכרונם לברכה (אבות ג טו) מלבין פני חברו ברבים. והלאו הבא על זה הוא מה שכתוב (ויקרא יט יז) הוכח תוכיח את עמיתך ולא תשא עליו חטא. ואמרו בספרא (קדשים ד ח) מנין שאם הוכחתו אפילו ארבעה או חמשה פעמים חזר והוכח שנאמר הוכח תוכיח. יכול אפילו פניו משתנות? תלמוד לומר ולא תשא עליו חטא. שרש המצוה ידוע, לפי שהבשת צער גדול לבריות אין גדול ממנו, ועל כן מנענו האל מלצער בריותיו כל כך, כי אפשר להוכיחם ביחוד ולא יתביש החוטא כל כך. מדיני המצוה. מה שאמרו זכרונם לברכה (יומא פו ב), שלא בכל הדברים הזהרנו בכך, אלא בדברים שבין אדם לחברו, אבל בדברי שמים אם לא חזר מן התוכחה שבסתר מצוה להכלימו ברבים ולפרסם חטאו ולבזותו ולקללו עד שיחזר למוטב, כדרך שעשו הנביאים לישראל.

To not whiten the face of an Israelite: To not embarrass an Israelite; and our Rabbis, may their memory be blessed, called this sin (Avot 3:15), "whitening the face of his fellow in public. And the negative commandment that comes about this [in the Torah] is that which is written (Leviticus 19:17), "you shall surely rebuke your compatriot, and you shall not bear a sin for him." And they said in Sifra, Kedoshim 4:8, "From where [do we know] that if you rebuked him four or five times [...] go back and rebuke [him again]? [Hence] we learn to say, 'you shall surely rebuke.' Perhaps, he should rebuke and his face change [color]? [Hence] we learn to say, 'and you shall not bear a sin for him.'" The root of the commandment is well-known - since embarrassment is very painful for the creatures - there is nothing greater than it. Therefore God prevented us from causing so much pain to His creatures, since it is possible to rebuke them in private and not to embarrass the sinner so much. From the laws of the commandment is that which they, may their memory be blessed, said (Yoma 86b) that we were not warned like this about all things, but rather [only] about things between a man and his fellow. But with Heavenly matters - if he does not return after the private rebuke - it is a commandment to shame him publicly, to publicize his sin and to disgrace and curse him until he returns to the good, as the prophets did to Israel.

Like the Rambam, the Sefer Hachinuch allows shaming for interpersonal commandments (בין אדם לחברו) to take place privately, whereas for divine obligations (בין אדם למקום), the Sefer Hachinuch not only encourages public shaming – he requires it, using the formulation, 'it is a mitzvah to embarrass him publicly' (מצוה להכלימו ברבים).

In a sense this distinction between types of mitzvot seems less logical. When it comes to mitzvot between man and God, we can assume God will decide fate or the transgressor, and his actions do not concern other people. But when it comes to interpersonal mitzvot, there is a real concern that the transgressor has hurt people and will continue to hurt others in the future. Hence, the Minchat Chinuch make the following point allowing public shaming in the case of interpersonal mitzvot.

שלא לבייש כו' מותר להכלימו כו'. כ"ה דעת הר"מ ובלחם משנה מקשה ע"ז ומ"ש הרב המחבר מותר להכלימו הוא ל"ד אלא חייב להכלימו וכן נראה מדברי הר"מ שם. ונ"ל דמה שחילק הר"מ והרב המחבר בדברים שבין אדם לחבירו דאסור להכלימו ובין דברים שבין אדם למקום ב"ה דמכלימין היינו דוקא אם איש חוטא לחבירו אין לחבירו לביישו דמוטב שימחול על החטא כמבואר שם בד' הר"מ [אבל] אם אדם רואה שחבירו חוטא לאנשים אחרים נראה דמותר ג"כ להכלימו אם אינו חוזר כי הנביאים ע"ה הוכיחו בפרהסי' גם על עבירות שב"א לחבירו וספרי הנביאים מלאים מזה אלא הבע"ד בעצמו אסור להכלימו ומוטב שימחול אבל אם חוטא לאחרים נ"ב לע"ד דמותר ג"כ להכלימו אם אינו מקבל בצנעה והשי"ת ישים חלקנו ממקבלי תוכחה:

The Minchat Chinuch concludes that the Rambam and Sefer Hachinuch are discussing issues between a person who is the offended party and the transgressor. In this case, the shaming should stay private, and better that the offended party forgive the transgressor than take the shaming public. However, if someone else was hurt by the transgressor, one most certainly has the right to take the shaming public (if private shaming fails). After all, the prophets spoke out many times against interpersonal issues, and social immorality! This of course has bearing on the use of social media, which is often utilized in cases of abuse or to raise awareness of social injustice. The Minchat Chinuch's reading opens up the potential of using a platform like social media to shame a wrongdoer when appropriate.

2. When is it Enough Tochecha?

Several sources discuss the time-limit on tochecha. The Gemara in Erchin reads:

עד היכן תוכחה רב אמר עד הכאה ושמואל אמר עד קללה ורבי יוחנן אמר עד נזיפה כתנאי רבי אליעזר אומר עד הכאה רבי יהושע אומר עד קללה בן עזאי אומר עד נזיפה
§ The Gemara asks: Until where does the obligation of rebuke extend? Rav says: Until his rebuke is met by hitting, i.e., until the person being rebuked hits the person rebuking him.And Shmuel says: Until his rebuke is met by cursing, i.e., he curses the one rebuking him. And Rabbi Yoḥanan says: Until his rebuke is met by reprimand. The Gemara points out that this dispute between these amora’im is like a dispute between tanna’im: Rabbi Eliezer says: Until his rebuke is met by hitting; Rabbi Yehoshua says: Until his rebuke is met by cursing; ben Azzai says: Until his rebuke is met by reprimand.

One should give tochecha until the subject of the rebuke either hits him, curses him or reprimands him, meaning one may push the person quite far. Once there is one of these reactions, the rebuker is exempt from the mitzvah to rebuke. Another Gemara addresses this question and gives wide berth to the limits of tochecha.

א"ל ההוא מדרבנן לרבא ואימא (ויקרא יט, יז) הוכח חדא זימנא תוכיח תרי זמני א"ל הוכח אפי' ק' פעמים

With regard to the mitzva of rebuke, the verse states: “You shall not hate your brother in your heart; you shall rebuke [hokhe’aḥ tokhiaḥ] your neighbor, and not bear sin because of him” (Leviticus 19:17). The Gemara understands that from the use of the compound form of the verb, “hokhe’aḥ tokhiaḥ,” the Sages derive that one must rebuke another multiple times if necessary. A certain one of the Sages said to Rava: Say that from hokhe’aḥ one derives the obligation to rebuke another once, and from tokhiaḥ one derives the obligation to rebuke another twice, and beyond that there is no obligation. Rava said to him: “Hokhe’aḥ” indicates that one must rebuke another even one hundred times.

According to the gemara in Bava Metzia, the dual formulation in the pasuk teaches that one must give tochecha even one hundred times. In ancient times this must have implied that one should not give up on a wrongdoer, and one should put in effort and try to change his ways many times. Here, the Gemara implies there is no limit on how many times a person should rebuke others. It is not clear how to apply this Gemara today, in a world where one text or tweet can be forwarded or shared a million times in a matter of seconds, without the slightest effort? How can one apply the lesson of this Gemara to the internet? What is the limit of rebuke or criticism on social media?

In addition to the question of how far one must take the mitzvah of tochecha, the Rishonim also focus on how to do it effectively. The Rambam states:

וִידַבֵּר לוֹ בְּנַחַת וּבְלָשׁוֹן רַכָּה וְיוֹדִיעוֹ שֶׁאֵינוֹ אוֹמֵר לוֹ אֶלָּא לְטוֹבָתוֹ לַהֲבִיאוֹ לְחַיֵּי הָעוֹלָם הַבָּא. אִם קִבֵּל מִמֶּנּוּ מוּטָב וְאִם לָאו יוֹכִיחֶנּוּ פַּעַם שְׁנִיָּה וּשְׁלִישִׁית. וְכֵן תָּמִיד חַיָּב אָדָם לְהוֹכִיחוֹ עַד שֶׁיַּכֵּהוּ הַחוֹטֵא וְיֹאמַר לוֹ אֵינִי שׁוֹמֵעַ. וְכָל שֶׁאֶפְשָׁר בְּיָדוֹ לִמְחוֹת וְאֵינוֹ מוֹחֶה הוּא נִתְפָּשׂ בַּעֲוֹן אֵלּוּ כֵּיוָן שֶׁאֶפְשָׁר לוֹ לִמְחוֹת בָּהֶם:

and he shall speak to him calmly, employing soft language, telling him that he does not speak of it to him, save for his own good, to bring him to a life in the world to come. If he receive it attentively from him, it is well; if not, he should rebuke him a second, even a third time. So is the constant duty of a man to continue to rebuke his fellow, even until the sinner strike him, and say unto him: "I will not listen". He in whose power it is to prevent sin and does not take the means to prevent it, he himself is ultimately overtaken by their sin, since it was possible for him to prevent them.

According to the Rambam, one must give tochecha until the other refuses to listen, yet, the Rambam emphasizes that a person must speak 'softly' – בְלָשׁוֹן רַכָּה. The Rambam is sensitive to the fine balance between trying to help a person return from his evildoing – מַעֲשָׂיו הָרָעִים, while not causing him/her to feel great shame. While these sources give significant space to the mitzvah of tochecha, they also acknowledge that there will be a time to give up and that their rebuke must not be too harsh.

3. Who is Worthy of Tochecha?

The Gemara in Bava Metzia continues and suggests another interpretation of the dual language of הוכח תוכיח:

א"ל ההוא מדרבנן לרבא ואימא (ויקרא יט, יז) הוכח חדא זימנא תוכיח תרי זמני א"ל הוכח אפי' ק' פעמים משמע תוכיח אין לי אלא הרב לתלמיד תלמיד לרב מנין ת"ל הוכח תוכיח מ"מ
With regard to the mitzva of rebuke, the verse states: “You shall not hate your brother in your heart; you shall rebuke [hokhe’aḥ tokhiaḥ] your neighbor, and not bear sin because of him” (Leviticus 19:17). The Gemara understands that from the use of the compound form of the verb, “hokhe’aḥ tokhiaḥ,” the Sages derive that one must rebuke another multiple times if necessary. A certain one of the Sages said to Rava: Say that from hokhe’aḥ one derives the obligation to rebuke another once, and from tokhiaḥ one derives the obligation to rebuke another twice, and beyond that there is no obligation. Rava said to him: “Hokhe’aḥ” indicates that one must rebuke another even one hundred times. “Tokhiaḥ teaches another matter: I have derived only the obligation of a teacher to rebuke a student. With regard to the obligation for a student to rebuke a teacher, from where is it derived? The verse states: “Hokhe’aḥ tokhiaḥ to teach that one is obligated to rebuke another in any case that warrants rebuke.

It seems obvious that a teacher is entitled to rebuke a student. But the Gemara's innovation is that the mitzvah of tochecha even applies to a student regarding his teacher. The Gemara introduces a new concept with regard to this mitzvah. Even a student, who knows less, may rebuke a teacher, a rabbi, in a position of authority, even though they are deserving of respect.

While Bava Metzia suggests that anyone can rebuke even those in positions of authority, the original Gemara in Erchin limits the scope of those who should give tochecha since not everyone is skilled at giving criticism and not everyone is capable of receiving criticism.

תניא א"ר טרפון (תמיהני) אני אם יש בדור הזה שמקבל תוכחה אם אמר לו טול קיסם מבין עיניך אמר לו טול קורה מבין עיניך אמר רבי אלעזר בן עזריה תמיהני אם יש בדור הזה שיודע להוכיח ואמר רבי יוחנן בן נורי מעיד אני עלי שמים וארץ שהרבה פעמים לקה עקיבא על ידי שהייתי קובל עליו לפני רבן (שמעון ברבי) וכל שכן שהוספתי בו אהבה לקיים מה שנאמר (משלי ט, ח) אל תוכח לץ פן ישנאך הוכח לחכם ויאהבך
It is taught in a baraita that Rabbi Tarfon says: I would be surprised if there is anyone in this generation who can receive rebuke. Why? Because if the one rebuking says to him: Remove the splinter from between your eyes, i.e., rid yourself of a minor infraction, the other says to him: Remove the beam from between your eyes, i.e., you have committed far more severe sins. Rabbi Elazar ben Azaria says: I would be surprised if there is anyone in this generation who knows how to rebuke correctly, without embarrassing the person he is rebuking. And Rabbi Yoḥanan ben Nuri says: I call the heavens and the earth as witnesses before me that Akiva was lashed, i.e., punished, many times on my account, as I would complain about him before Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel the Great. And all the more so I thereby increased his love for me. This incident serves to affirm that which is stated: “Do not rebuke a scorner lest he hate you; rebuke a wise man and he will love you” (Proverbs 9:8). A wise man wants to improve himself and loves those who assist him in that task.

The Gemara raises the possibility that not everyone knows how to rebuke or receive rebuke. Rabbi Tarfon is concerned that people in his generation don't know how to hear rebuke. The metaphor he gives shows the potential for criticism to rebound and become harsher: if I criticize the toothpick between your teeth, you will criticize me back for the beam between my eyes. The imagery is of something small in one's tooth to something large and more noticeable over one's eyes. Rabbi Eliezer ben Azaryah doubts whether there is one in his generation who knows how to give rebuke. This section of the Gemara concludes with the statement of Rabbi Yochanan ben Nuri that he caused his contemporary, Rabbi Akiva, to be rebuked many times by their teacher, and yet, Rabbi Akiva received rebuke with love. This reminds one of Rabbi Akiva's dictum: "ואהבת לרעך כמוך זה כלל גדול בתורה" ('Love thy neighbor as thyself – this is a great principle in the Torah') This source echoes the midrash about Abraham and Avimelech, which taught that tochecha, when given correctly, leads to spreading peace and love.

On the one hand, these sources democratize the way criticism can be given. Even those in positions of authority can and should be rebuked when warranted. This is something positive which has emerged from social media, where minorities and people who are suffering can speak up and find that they are not alone in their struggles. Yet, these sources also raise major questions about the criticism being thrown around today on social media. Who knows how to give good criticism? Who knows how to receive rebuke with love? How can one criticize in a way which does not spiral and rebound leading to further discord and alienation?

4. When is it Better Not to Give Tochecha?

Historically, many of the sources assume that people will want to be rebuked and correct their ways. This became more complicated after the Enlightenment movement was established, resulting in the beginning of secular Jewish culture. Yet, even the Gemara acknowledges that there are times when it seems best to keep silent and not give rebuke.

While the Gemara in Shabbat teaches that even if the subject of tochecha is the Exilarch, a position of great honor, one must rebuke him, even if he is not open to listening, other sources suggest there are times to be silent. The Gemara in Shabbat states:

אֲמַר לֵיהּ רַבִּי זֵירָא לְרַבִּי סִימוֹן: לוֹכְחִינְהוּ מָר לְהָנֵי דְּבֵי רֵישׁ גָּלוּתָא. אֲמַר לֵיהּ: לָא מְקַבְּלִי מִינַּאי. אֲמַר לֵיהּ: אַף עַל גַּב דְּלָא מְקַבְּלִי לוֹכְחִינְהוּ מָר.
With regard to the issue of reprimand, it was related that Rabbi Zeira said to Rabbi Simon: Let the Master reprimand the members of the house of the Exilarch, as Rabbi Simon had some influence over them. Rabbi Simon said to him: They will not accept reprimand from me. Rabbi Zeira said to him: Let my master reprimand them even if they do not accept it.

Two other Talmudic texts present a significantly more limited view on when tochecha should be given. The Gemara in Yevamot states:

ואמר רבי אילעא משום ר' אלעזר בר' שמעון כשם שמצוה על אדם לומר דבר הנשמע כך מצוה על אדם שלא לומר דבר שאינו נשמע רבי אבא אומר חובה שנאמר (משלי ט, ח) אל תוכח לץ פן ישנאך הוכח לחכם ויאהבך
The Gemara cites other statements made by Rabbi Ile’a in the name of Rabbi Elazar, son of Rabbi Shimon. And Rabbi Ile’a said in the name of Rabbi Elazar, son of Rabbi Shimon: Just as it is a mitzva for a person to say that which will be heeded, so is it a mitzva for a person not to say that which will not be heeded. One should not rebuke those who will be unreceptive to his message. Rabbi Abba says: It is obligatory for him to refrain from speaking, as it is stated: “Do not reprove a scorner lest he hate you; reprove a wise man and he will love you” (Proverbs 9:8).

A person needs to be sensitive to whether or not his friend is open to hearing rebuke, and only if that person is capable of hearing the rebuke does the mitzvah of tochecha apply. Here too, the pasuk from Mishlei is employed again, to show that tochecha is meant to spread love in the world, and not hate.

Furthermore, the Gemara in Beitzah discusses a case where women are violating a prohibition and they are not rebuked, because of another principle of מוטב שיהיו שוגגין ואל יהיו מזידין, better to be an unintentional sinner than an intentional sinner.

תְּנַן אֵין מְטַפְּחִין וְאֵין מְסַפְּקִין וְאֵין מְרַקְּדִין וְהָאִידָּנָא דְּקָא חָזֵינַן דְּעָבְדָן הָכִי וְלָא אָמְרִינַן לְהוּ וְלָא מִידֵּי אֲמַר לֵיהּ וּלְטַעְמָךְ הָא דְּאָמַר (רָבָא) לָא לֵיתֵיב אִינִישׁ אַפּוּמָּא דְלִחְיָא דִּלְמָא מִגַּנְדַּר לֵיהּ חֵפֶץ וְאָתֵי לְאֵתוֹיֵי (אַרְבַּע אַמּוֹת בִּרְשׁוּת הָרַבִּים) וְהָא הָנֵי נְשֵׁי דְּשָׁקְלָן חַצְבַיְיהוּ וְאָזְלָן וְיָתְבָן אַפּוּמָּא דִמְבוֹאָה וְלָא אָמְרִינַן לְהוּ וְלָא מִידֵּי אֶלָּא הַנַּח לָהֶם לְיִשְׂרָאֵל מוּטָב שֶׁיִּהְיוּ שׁוֹגְגִין וְאַל יִהְיוּ מְזִידִין הָכָא נָמֵי הַנַּח לָהֶם לְיִשְׂרָאֵל מוּטָב שֶׁיִּהְיוּ שׁוֹגְגִין וְאַל יִהְיוּ מְזִידִין

We learned in a mishna: The Rabbis decreed that one may not clap, nor strike a hand on his thigh, nor dance on a Festival, lest he come to repair musical instruments. But nowadays we see that women do so, and yet we do not say anything to them. He said to him: And according to your reasoning, how do you explain that which Rava said: A person should not sit at the entrance to an alleyway, next to the side post that has been placed at the edge of an alleyway in order for it to be considered a private domain, as perhaps an object will roll away from him and he will come to carry it four cubits in the public domain, thereby transgressing a biblical prohibition? But don’t these women take their jugs, and go, and sit at the entrance to an alleyway, and we do not say anything to them? Rather, the accepted principle is: Leave the Jews alone; it is better that they be unwitting sinners and not be intentional sinners. If people engage in a certain behavior that cannot be corrected, it is better not to reprove them, as they are likely to continue regardless of the reproof, and then they will be sinning intentionally. It is therefore preferable for them to be unaware that they are violating a prohibition and remain merely unwitting sinners. Here, too, with regard to clapping and dancing, leave the Jews alone; it is better that they be unwitting sinners and not be intentional sinners.

In sum, even in Talmudic times, there were clear voices which mitigated the mitzvah of tochecha. In the Gemara in Erchin, it was because not everyone knows how to give or receive tochecha. The Gemara in Yevamot emphasizes that one should only give tochecha to someone who is interested in receiving it, and the Gemara in Beitzah includes a case where the women are not going to change their behavior so it is best they break a prohibition unknowingly.

The Rishonim and Achronim grapple with the question of when it is appropriate to give tochecha, and when it is not. The Ran notes the differences between various Talmudic sources regarding how far one must go in the mitzvah of tochecha and provides a potential solution:

דבר הנשמע. למי שמקבל מצוה דכתיב הוכח תוכיח אפי' מאה פעמים אבל למי שאינו מקבל מצוה וחובה שלא להוכיחו והקשו ז"ל מהא דאמרינן במסכת ערכין (דף טז:) שחייב להוכיח עד שיכנו או יקללנו. התם ביחיד אבל לרבים לא והא דאמרינן במסכת שבת (דף נה.) לוכחינהו מר להני דבי ריש גלותא ואמר לא מקבלי מינאי ואמרינן אפילו הכי לוכחינהו מר התם הוא שלא הוכיחם כלל אלא שהיה מכיר בהם שלא ישמעו ומשום דאולי ישמעו או משום שלא יהיה להם פתחון פה היה חייב להוכיח לפחות פעם אחת:

The Ran tries to resolve a conflict between the Gemara in Erchin (where one may rebuke until it comes to blows) and Yevamot (where rebuke only applies if the person will listen) by saying that Erchin refers to a private case between two individuals and Yevamot refers to when the rebuke is happening in a public forum. This means that there would be more leeway to rebuke someone privately, while one must be especially careful about what they say in public.

The Hagahot Maimoniyot synthesizes the different Gemaras on when one should or should not rebuke and concludes:

הגהות מיימוניות הלכות דעות פרק ו אות ג

בפרק במה בהמה ופרק שבועת הדיינין ואפילו אם ספק בידו אם יקבלו דבריו צריך להוכיחו כדמשמע התם בבמה בהמה. אמנם אם ודאי לו שלא יקבלו אז נראה דפטור כדאמרינן התם שאמרה מדת הדין לפני הקדוש ברוך הוא אם לפניך גלוי לפניהם מי גלוי משמע שאם היה גלוי להם לא היו נענשים. וכן משמע בתוספתא בפרק חזקת הבתים, וכן כתב ספר המצות וכתב וטוב לו לשתוק דהנח להן לישראל שיהו שוגגין וכו'. ורא"מ כתב דמענש פטור אבל מעשה דהוכח תוכיח לא איפטר. אבל ה"ר משה מקוצי כתב בההיא דהבא על יבמתו כשם שחייב לומר דבר הנשמע כך חייב שלא לומר דבר שאינו נשמע שנאמר אל תוכח לץ פן ישנאך, ע"כ.

If one is open to accepting rebuke, then the mitzvah of tochecha applies, however, if a person will be unable to hear the rebuke, one must not rebuke them, especially since it is better for one to be an unintentional sinner than an intentional sinner, based on the Gemara in Beitzah. The Rema too, made distinctions between situations when tochecha would and would not apply:

אע"ג דהיא דאורייתא כמו תוספת ו"כ אבל דבר הכתוב בהדיא באורייתא צריך למחות דהא ודאי גם שוגגים וכן כתב הרא"ש בשם בעל העיטור וכתב בנימוקי יוסף בסוף פרק הבא על יבמתו הא דמצוה שלא לומר דבר שאינו נשמע ה"מ ברבים אבל ביחיד צריך להוכיחו עד שיכנו או יקללנו כדאיתא במסכת ערכין (טז:) והא דאמרינן בשבת (נה.) לוכחינהו מר להני דבי ריש גלותא ואמר לא מקבלי מינאי ואמרינן אפ"ה לוכחינהו מר התם דלא הוכיחם כלל אלא שהיה מכיר בהן ומשום דאולי ישמעו או שלא יהא להם פתחון פה היה חייב להוכיחם פעם א' לפחות עכ"ל:

According to the Rema:
It is best to give tochecha privately.
If the person is transgressing on a Torah mandated mitzvah then it is incumbent upon others to rebuke him/her.
If the transgressor is even possibly open to listening, a person must rebuke them at least once.

By the 19th century, in the time of Rabbi Yechiel Michel Epstein, author of the Aruch Hashulchan, the mitzvah of tochecha is re–examined in light of the rise of secularism. Rabbi Epstein further develops the approach to tochecha in a world with a growing number of Jews who reject rabbinic authority:

הרואה חברו שחטא, או שהולך בדרך לא טובה – מצוה להחזירו למוטב, ולהודיעו שהוא חוטא, שנאמר: "הוכח תוכיח את עמיתך". וצריך להוכיחו בינו לבין עצמו, וידבר לו בנחת ובלשון רכה. אם קיבל ממנו – מוטב, ואם לאו – יוכיחנו פעם שנייה ושלישית. וכן תמיד חייב להוכיחו עד שינזוף בו (סמ"ג וכר"י בערכין יז ב). והרמב"ם בפרק ששי מדעות פסק עד הכאה (כרב שם). וכל שאפשר למחות בידו, ואינו מוחה – הוא נתפס על אלו שיכול למחות בידם. ואפילו יש ספק אצלו אם יקבלו דבריו – צריך להוכיחם. אבל אם יודע וודאי שלא יקבלו דבריו – פטור מלהוכיחם, וטוב שישתוק. וזה לשון הסמ"ג מצות עשה י"א: ואם ברור לו למוכיח שלא יקבלו ממנו, והעוברין שוגגין – טוב לו לשתוק, כדאמרינן (ביצה ל א)… הנח להם לישראל, מוטב שיהיו שוגגין… אבל אם העוברין מזידין, וברור לו שלא יקבלו, אף על פי שפטור מעונש…, מכל מקום מהעשה ד"הוכח תוכיח" לא מיפטר… ואני אומר כי אף במזידין צריך לשתוק, כדאמרינן ביבמות (סה ב): כשם שחובה על האדם לומר דבר הנשמע – כך חובה שלא לומר דבר שאינו נשמע, שנאמר: "אל תוכח לץ פן ישנאך". עד כאן לשון הסמ"ג, ודעה ראשונה היא דעת רבינו אליעזר ממיץ בספר יראים. וכל שכן עתה שבעונותינו הרבים נתרבה האפקורסות ואין שייך כלל תוכחה. ואין להתווכח עם פוקר ישראל דפקר טפי, כמאמרם ז"ל בסנהדרין (לח ב).

The Aruch Hashulchan, based on the Gemara texts in Beitzah and Yevamot, rules that the mitzvah of tochecha does not apply to Jews who will not listen, who reject the leadership of the rabbis. The Aruch Hashulchan is an outgrowth of the Gemara in Erchin which suggested that not everyone can give or receive rebuke and other Gemara texts which suggest it is best to stay silent. Moreover, the Rishonim attempt to define which cases are worthy of rebuke, eliminating cases where one cannot hear or accept the criticism.

Today, when people are increasingly retreating into their own echo chambers socially, one wonders what purpose criticism serves, when there is an inability or refusal to read, listen or internalize other views. Sometimes it is better to keep quiet rather than contribute to further divide and enmity.

5. Mistaken Tochecha

One final Gemara we will discuss here addresses a case of mistaken tochecha. What happens if the person giving rebuke that is incorrect? Can they ever make up for this mistake, especially if it happens in public? The Gemara in Brachot learns from the story of Hannah and Eli in the book of Samuel. There, Eli rebukes Hannah mistakenly, thinking she is drunk, and the Gemara teaches that one who has been wrongly rebuked must speak out and correct the mistake. Moreover, the Gemara in Berachot addresses the question raised in Erchin about the type of behavior that should be rebuked. Here too, the Gemara uses a vague formulation, saying that a person must rebuke others for behavior which is indecent (אינו הגון), or inappropriate.

״וַיֹּאמֶר אֵלֶיהָ עֵלִי עַד מָתַי תִּשְׁתַּכָּרִין וְגוֹ׳״. אָמַר רַבִּי אֶלְעָזָר: מִכָּאן לָרוֹאֶה בַּחֲבֵרוֹ דָּבָר שֶׁאֵינוֹ הָגוּן, צָרִיךְ לְהוֹכִיחוֹ. ״וַתַּעַן חַנָּה וַתֹּאמֶר לֹא אֲדוֹנִי״. אָמַר עוּלָּא וְאִיתֵּימָא רַבִּי יוֹסֵי בְּרַבִּי חֲנִינָא: אֲמַרָה לֵיהּ: לֹא אָדוֹן אַתָּה בְּדָבָר זֶה, וְלֹא רוּחַ הַקּוֹדֶשׁ שׁוֹרָה עָלֶיךָ, שֶׁאַתָּה חוֹשְׁדֵנִי בְּדָבָר זֶה. אִיכָּא דְאָמְרִי, הָכִי אֲמַרָה לֵיהּ: לֹא אָדוֹן אַתָּה? לָאו אִיכָּא שְׁכִינָה וְרוּחַ הַקּוֹדֶשׁ גַּבָּךְ, שֶׁדַּנְתַּנִי לְכַף חוֹבָה וְלֹא דַּנְתַּנִי לְכַף זְכוּת? מִי לָא יָדְעַתְּ דְּאִשָּׁה קְשַׁת רוּחַ אָנוֹכִי?! ״וְיַיִן וְשֵׁכָר לֹא שָׁתִיתִי״. אָמַר רַבִּי אֶלְעָזָר: מִכָּאן לַנֶּחְשָׁד בְּדָבָר שֶׁאֵין בּוֹ, שֶׁצָּרִיךְ לְהוֹדִיעוֹ. ״אַל תִּתֵּן אֶת אֲמָתְךָ לִפְנֵי בַּת בְּלִיָּעַל״. אָמַר רַבִּי אֶלְעָזָר: מִכָּאן לְשִׁכֹּור שֶׁמִּתְפַּלֵּל, כְּאִילּוּ עוֹבֵד עֲבוֹדָה זָרָה. כְּתִיב הָכָא: ״לִפְנֵי בַּת בְּלִיַּעַל״, וּכְתִיב הָתָם: ״יָצְאוּ אֲנָשִׁים בְּנֵי בְלִיַּעַל מִקִּרְבֶּךָ״. מַה לְּהַלָּן עֲבוֹדָה זָרָה, אַף כָּאן עֲבוֹדָה זָרָה. ״וַיַּעַן עֵלִי וַיֹּאמֶר לְכִי לְשָׁלוֹם״, אָמַר רַבִּי אֶלְעָזָר: מִכָּאן לַחוֹשֵׁד אֶת חֲבֵרוֹ בְּדָבָר שֶׁאֵין בּוֹ, שֶׁצָּרִיךְ לְפַיְּיסוֹ. וְלֹא עוֹד, אֶלָּא שֶׁצָּרִיךְ לְבָרְכוֹ. שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר ״וֵאלֹהֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל יִתֵּן אֶת שֵׁלָתֵךְ״.
On the subject of Eli’s rebuke of Hannah, as it is stated: “And Eli said to her: How long will you remain drunk? Remove your wine from yourself” (I Samuel 1:14); Rabbi Elazar said: From here the halakha that one who sees in another an unseemly matter, he must reprimand him, is derived. “And Hannah answered and she said no, my master, I am a woman of sorrowful spirit, and I have drunk neither wine nor liquor, but I pour out my soul before the Lord” (I Samuel 1:15). Regarding the words: “No, my master,” Ulla, and some say Rabbi Yosei, son of Rabbi Ḥanina, said that she said to him, in an allusion: With regard to this matter, you are not a master, and the Divine Spirit does not rest upon you, as you falsely suspect me of this. Some say another version of her response. She said to him, questioning: Aren’t you a master? Aren’t the Divine Presence and Divine Spirit with you that you judged me to be guilty, and you did not judge me to be innocent? Didn’t you know that I am a woman of distressed spirit? With regard to Hannah’s explanation that “I have drunk neither wine nor liquor,” Rabbi Elazar said: From here the halakha is derived that one who is suspected of something of which he is not guilty cannot suffice merely with the personal knowledge of his innocence, but must inform the one who suspects him that he is innocent and clear himself of suspicion. “Do not take your maidservant as a wicked woman [bat beliya’al] for out of the abundance of my complaint and anger have I spoken until now” (I Samuel 1:16). Rabbi Elazar said: From here the halakha that when a drunk person prays it is as if he engaged in idol worship is derived as it is written here that Hannah, suspected of praying while drunk, defends herself and says: “Do not take your maidservant as a bat beliya’al”; and it is written there, with regard to a city that has been instigated to engage in idol worship: Benei beliya’al have gone out from your midst and have lured the inhabitants of their city, saying let us go and serve other gods which we have not known” (Deuteronomy 13:14). By means of this verbal analogy it is derived: Just as there, in the case of the idolatrous city, the term beliya’al indicates idol worship, so too here, in the case of one who prays drunk, beliya’al indicates idol worship. The verse continues: “And Eli answered and said: May you go in peace” (I Samuel 1:17). Rabbi Elazar said: From here the halakha is derived that one who suspects another of something that he has not done, he must appease him. Moreover, the one who suspected him must bless him, as Eli continued and offered Hannah a blessing, as it is stated: “And may the God of Israel grant your request that you have asked of Him” (I Samuel 1:17).

Hannah was required to correct Eli, even though he was the High Priest; Eli, on the other hand, was required to make up for his mistake and give Hannah a blessing. This final source points to the gravity of mistaken tochecha. Here too, there are lessons to be learned for contemporary times. It is easy to believe everything that is shared online, but we have a responsibility to make sure we are not spreading falsehoods or mistaken criticism.

C. "Shaming" and Hilchot Lashon Ha'ra

Another topic to consider in the discussion of public criticism and "shaming" is the prohibition against lashon ha'ra. Is it gossip and slander to publicize a get refuser online for the purpose of helping a woman who is an agunah? If the news of an injustice done by a rabbi has been made public is it permissible to continue sharing the story, or it is considered lashon ha'ra? The basis for this discussion is found in Vayikra 19:16:

(טז) לֹא־תֵלֵ֤ךְ רָכִיל֙ בְּעַמֶּ֔יךָ לֹ֥א תַעֲמֹ֖ד עַל־דַּ֣ם רֵעֶ֑ךָ אֲנִ֖י יְהֹוָֽה׃
(16) Do not deal basely with your countrymen. Do not profit by the blood of your fellow: I am the LORD.

The Rambam makes a connection between the two halves of the pasuk and explains that gossip leads to death. For this reason the Torah puts the mitzvah of "lo ta'amod" next to the prohibition of rechilut, to show that this prohibition should not be taken lightly.

(א) הַמְרַגֵּל בַּחֲבֵרוֹ עוֹבֵר בְּלֹא תַּעֲשֶׂה שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר (ויקרא יט טז) "לֹא תֵלֵךְ רָכִיל בְּעַמֶּיךָ". וְאַף עַל פִּי שֶׁאֵין לוֹקִין עַל דָּבָר זֶה עָוֹן גָּדוֹל הוּא וְגוֹרֵם לַהֲרֹג נְפָשׁוֹת רַבּוֹת מִיִּשְׂרָאֵל. לְכָךְ נִסְמָךְ לוֹ (ויקרא יט טז) "וְלֹא תַעֲמֹד עַל דַּם רֵעֶךָ". צֵא וּלְמַד מָה אֵרַע לְדוֹאֵג הָאֲדֹמִי:

(1) He who bears tales against his fellow violates a prohibitive commandment, saying: "Thou shalt not go up and down as a talebearer among thy people" (Lev. 19.16.); and although the punishment of flogging is not inflicted for violating this charge, it is a gross iniquity, and is the cause of the slaughtering of many souls in Israel; it is because thereof, that following this commandment is this Verse: "Neither shalt thou stand idly by the blood of thy neighbor" (Ibid.). Now, go ye and learn of that which happened to Doeg the Edomite.

The Chafetz Chaim is the first source to clearly discuss when it is permitted to speak publicly about another person's involvement in injustice or wrongdoing to save others from harm.

(א) אִם אֶחָד רָאָה אָדָם, שֶׁעָשָׂה עַוְלָה לַחֲבֵרוֹ, כְּגוֹן שֶׁגְּזָלוֹ אוֹ עֲשָׁקוֹ אוֹ הִזִּיקוֹ, בֵּין אִם הַנִּגְזָל וְהַנִּזָּק (ב) יוֹדְעִים מִזֶּה אוֹ לֹא. אוֹ שֶׁבִּיְּשׁוֹ, אוֹ שֶׁצִּעֲרוֹ וְהוֹנָה אוֹתוֹ בִּדְבָרִים. (ג) וְנוֹדַע לוֹ בְּבֵרוּר, שֶׁלֹּא הֵשִׁיב לוֹ אֶת הַגְּזֵלָה וְלֹא שִׁלֵּם לוֹ אֶת נִזְקוֹ (ד) וְלֹא בִּקֵּשׁ פָּנָיו לְהַעֲבִיר לוֹ עַל עֲוֹנוֹ, אֲפִלּוּ רָאָה דָּבָר זֶה בִּיחִידִי, יָכוֹל לְסַפֵּר הַדְּבָרִים לִבְנֵי אָדָם כְּדֵי לַעֲזֹר לַאֲשֶׁר אָשַׁם לוֹ וּלְגַנּוֹת הַמַּעֲשִׂים הָרָעִים בִּפְנִי הַבְּרִיוֹת, אַךְ יִזָּהֵר, שֶׁלֹּא יַחְסְרוּ אֵלּוּ הַשִּׁבְעָה פְּרָטִים, שֶׁנְּבָאֲרֵם בְּסָמוּךְ. וְאֵלּוּ הֵן: א (ה) שֶׁיִּרְאֶה זֶה הַדָּבָר בְּעַצְמוֹ, וְלֹא עַל יְדֵי שְׁמִיעָה מֵאֲחֵרִים, אִם לֹא שֶׁנִּתְבָּרֵר לוֹ אַחַר כָּךְ, שֶׁהַדָּבָר אֱמֶת. ב שֶׁיִּזָּהֵר מְאֹד, שֶׁלֹּא יַחְלִיט תֵּכֶף אֶת הָעִנְיָן בְּדַעְתּוֹ לְגְזֶל וְעשֶק אוֹ לְהֶזֵּק וְכַיּוֹצֵא בָּזֶה, (ו) רַק יִתְבּוֹנִן הֵיטֵב אֶת עֶצֶּם הָעִנְיָן, אִם הוּא עַל פִּי דִּין בִּכְלַל גֶּזֶל אוֹ הֶזֵּק. ג (ז) שֶׁיּוֹכִיחַ אֶת הַחוֹטֵא מִתְּחִלָּה (ח) וּבְלָשׁוֹן רַכָּה, אוּלַי יוּכַל לְהוֹעִיל לוֹ, וְיֵיטִיב עַל יְדֵי זֶה אֶת דְּרָכָיו, וְאִם לֹא יִשְׁמַע לוֹ, אָז יוֹדִיעַ לָרַבִּים אֶת אַשְׁמַת הָאִישׁ הַזֶּה, מַה שֶּׁהֵזִיד עַל רֵעֵהוּ. (וְאִם יוֹדֵעַ בּוֹ, שֶׁלֹּא יְקַבֵּל תּוֹכַחְתּוֹ, יְבֹאַר לְקַמָּן, אִם יִרְצֶה ה', בְּסָעִיף ז'). ד (ט) שֶׁלֹּא יַגְדִּיל הָעַוְלָה יוֹתֵר מִמַּה שֶּׁהִיא. ה (י) שֶׁיְּכַוֵּן לְתוֹעֶלֶת, וּכְמוֹ שֶׁנְּבָאֵר לְקַמָּן בְּסָעִיף ד', וְלֹא לֵהָנוֹת, חַס וְשָׁלוֹם, מֵהַפְּגָם הַהוּא, שֶׁהוּא נוֹתֵן בַּחֲבֵרוֹ, וְלֹא מִצַּד שִׂנְאָה, שֶׁיֵּשׁ לוֹ עָלָיו מִכְּבָר.

If a man saw someone harming his friend, whether robbing him, wronging him, or causing him damage, whether the one robbed or caused damage knew of it or not — or if he shamed him or aggrieved him, or wronged him with words — and it became known to him clearly that he did not return the theft or reimburse him for the damage and did not beseech him to forgive his transgression — even if he saw this thing by himself, he can relate it to others in order to help the one who was wronged and to condemn these evil deeds before men; but he must take care that there not be lacking the following seven details which we shall now explain: a) that he see the thing himself and not hear of it from others, unless it become clear to him afterwards that he thing is true. b) that he take great care not to immediately determine the thing to be theft, or wronging, or damage, and the like, without carefully analyzing whether it actually is theft or damage according to the din. c) that he reprove the sinner first, gently — perhaps it [the proof] will avail him and he will thereby rectify his ways. And if he does not listen to him, then he should apprise the people of this man's guilt — how he deliberately harmed his friend. (And if he knows that his reproof will not be accepted — this will be explained below, the L–rd willing, in section 7.) d) that he should not exaggerate the wrong beyond what it is. e) that he should intend the benefit [of others] and not, G–d forbid, to benefit himself from the taint he ascribes to his friend, and not out of hatred that he bears him from before.

The Chafetz Chaim outlines several conditions under which one may publicize information about a person's wrongdoing, including:
The person needs to make sure the information is correct (ideally, having seen it him/herself) and that it constitutes עוול.
The person should first try to rebuke the transgressor privately, and if this is not possible then he can go public with the information.

The person should be publicizing the information for a useful purpose, not because of hatred or personal gain.

Rav Ovadia Yosef in Yechave Daat5 further clarifies the halachic definition of when one may share information publicly about a person who commits injustice against others, which would not be considered lashon ha'ra. In a responsa about a man who is attempting to get a driver's license, even though he has a concealed disease which will affect his eyesight, Rav Ovadia is asked whether the motor vehicle license bureau should be informed of this man's bad decision, since it could lead to car accidents and others being harmed:

שו"ת יחוה דעת חלק ד סימן ס

למדנו מכאן שעון רכילות ולשון הרע הוא אפילו כשאומר אמת. ...ומכל מקום נראה שכל זה הוא באופן שמתכוין רק להשמיץ את חבירו ולבזותו, אבל אם מתכוין לתועלת מסויימת או להרחיק נזק מותר. וראיה לזה ממה שכתב הרמב"ם וזו לשונו: כל היכול להציל את חבירו ואינו מצילו, עובר על לא תעמוד על דם רעך…
והדברים מסורים ללב, אם כוונת המספר לחבירו רעה, הרי זה בכלל איסור לשון הרע, אבל אם כוונתו לטובה להזהיר את חבירו... מצוה רבה היא ותבוא עליו ברכה…
והגרא"י אונטרמן בהתורה והמדינה (כרך ט' עמוד כ"ג), הביא בשם שו"ת נתיבות שמואל (נתיב ט'), שכתב, רואה חשבון בשכר שהרגיש שהמזכיר של חברה יהודית מועל בכספים ומזייף הפנקסים לבל יוודע הדבר, וגם לאחר שהוכיחו על פניו והתרה בו שאם לא יחזור בו יפרסם את הדבר ברבים, הכל ללא הועיל, רשאי ומותר לרואה החשבון לפרסמו ולביישו ברבים...

Rav Ovadia Yosef clarifies:
It is not considered rechilut if the person is spreading the information about injustice for good cause, to save others. Spreading the information is actually a fulfillment of the mitzvah לא תעמוד על דם רעך – 'You shall not stand [idly] upon your fellow's blood.'
The person publicizing the injustice must be doing it for the right reason, with proper motives.

Based on Rav Unterman, if you know directly about another person committing injustice, you should first try to guide them in private to act justly and if that does not stop him, it is permitted to embarrass him in public.

Finally, Rav Asher Weiss makes it clear that lashon ha'ra in writing (such as on social media) has the same status as actual speaking.6


The question of shaming on social media touches on issues pertaining to: tochecha (תוכחה), halbanat panim (הלבנת פנים), lashon ha'ra (לשון הרע), and lo ta’amod (לא תעמוד).

It is clear that there are sources which support the "shaming" of people who are responsible for injustices against others. However, it is also clear that certain requirements must be met, such as: checking to be sure the information is correct, trying to affect change privately first, and checking for correct motives. Once these requirements are fulfilled, it is permitted to take the information into the public realm, which today would naturally be social media.

The mitzvah of tochecha throughout halachic sources is treated with some ambivalence. The Ran, the Aruch Hashulchan and several other sources ruled that tochecha is only relevant when the person who needs rebuking is open to listening. How open are people to listening to each other on social media? Evidence has shown that people generally are not open to hearing things they don't already agree with and that people mostly read material which reinforces their previous beliefs. If this is the case there is a lot of rebuking going on with very little effect.

Moreover, the Gemara questioned whether people are really capable of giving and taking rebuke in the correct way. Rabbi Akiva was said to have appreciated the tochecha so much that it increased his love of others. Research has shown that social media use has caused further polarization amongst people and online discussions about sensitive issues almost always rapidly decline into vulgar and hateful speech, the opposite of R. Akiva's experience. When הוֹכֵחַ תּוֹכִיחַ אֶת־עֲמִיתֶךָ leads to further hatred it is the opposite of the Torah's intention as it says explicitly, לֹא־תִשְׂנָא אֶת־אָחִיךָ בִּלְבָבֶךָ. While it is important to stand up against injustice and one may use shaming as a tool under the right circumstances, it is also important to pause and consider what benefits to an individual and to the world, and whether or not the rebuke increases peace and love.


  1. לעילוי נשמת מינדל בת חיים ושיינדל ושושנה בת משה אהרון ורבקה
  2. http://graphics.wsj.com/blue-feed-red-feed/
  3. The following articles were very helpful resources for my research:
    Rav Yehuda Amital, “Rebuking a Fellow Jew: Theory and Practice.” Jewish Tradition and the Non-Traditional Jew (The Orthodox Forum Series), edited by Rabbi J.J. Schacter and
    הרב יהודה זולדן, ״ביוש פומבי (שיימינג) ברשתות חברתיות,״ תחומין כרך לז, עמ 294.
    Additionally, I want to thank Rav Yuval Cherlow for taking the time to discuss this topic with me.
  4. The Torah Temimah rejects the alternate reading of the pasuk, in which ולא תשא עליו חטא would mean that by remaining silent in the presence of someone who is committing wrongdoing, he takes on the wrongdoing himself. Torah Temimah says if this were the true reading it would say לא תשא עליו חטאו
  5. Thank you to Rav Chen Sarig for bringing this source to my attention.
  6. Minchat Asher, Parshat Kedoshim.