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:
The mitzvah of tochecha is sandwiched between the following two imperatives:
- Do not hate your brother in your heart.
- 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:
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:
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.
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.
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.
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:
- What behaviors require rebuke? Does tochecha apply only to mitzvot or to inappropriate behavior or speech as well?
- How many times must one rebuke? Is once enough or must one give tochecha repeatedly? How does one know when to stop rebuking?
- 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?
- Are there times when it is best not to give tochecha?
- 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?
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.
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.
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:
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.
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:
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.
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:
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:
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.
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:
Two other Talmudic texts present a significantly more limited view on when tochecha should be given. The Gemara in Yevamot states:
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.
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:
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:
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:
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
- לעילוי נשמת מינדל בת חיים ושיינדל ושושנה בת משה אהרון ורבקה
- 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.
- 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
- Thank you to Rav Chen Sarig for bringing this source to my attention.
- Minchat Asher, Parshat Kedoshim.