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The Torah contains all the wisdom we need for life; it is our guidance from Hashem as to what we have to do. But often the question of interpretation is raised: how do we interpret the Torah? We know that G-d gave us a written Torah – what we call the Torah Shebichtav – and He also gave us an oral Torah – the Torah Sheb’al Peh. The oral Torah, contained in the Mishnah and the Gemara, enables us to understand what Hashem has conveyed to us in the written Torah.
This relates poignantly to a verse in the second parsha of this week’s double portion, Acharei Mot-Kedoshim, which says, Lifnei ivver lo tittein michshol, “do not put a stumbling block before the blind.”
The Gemara tells us that there were groups, called the Kutim and the Kara’im (the Karaites), who did not accept the Oral tradition. These sects interpreted this verse literally, maintaining rather simply that the prohibition is against placing an obstacle in the path of a blind person.
But the oral tradition, given by G-d at Mount Sinai together with the written Torah and passed down from generation to generation, has given us a tradition to interpret this verse more broadly. Rashi quotes one such interpretation and explains that this verse is a prohibition against knowingly giving a person bad advice. Someone who doesn’t know what to do and is seeking advice is “blind” in that respect. We are prohibited from misleading people by giving advice which is to their detriment.
Another application which the Gemara discusses in a number of places is a case where one causes or facilitates another to sin, when the person would otherwise be unable to commit it. For example, the Gemara discusses a case of two people on either side of a river, one of them a Nazir, who is prohibited from drinking wine. The Nazir can’t reach a wine bottle which is on the other side of the river and so he asks the other person to pass it to him. To pass the wine to the Nazir would be a transgression of the prohibition of “do not put a stumbling block before the blind.” The Gemara gives the specific example of a Nazir, but the principle equally applies to any other prohibited item – for example, non-kosher meat. If one passes non-kosher meat to another, he has transgressed this prohibition because in effect these people are blinded by their desires to eat non-kosher food.
This prohibition is applicable only in a case where the person would otherwise not be able to obtain the forbidden item. The Gemara explains that in a situation where the person could get it himself and another person is just helping him – for example, if the Nazir asks someone to pass the bottle of wine even though he could fetch it himself – then this prohibition has not been transgressed because the Nazir could technically get the wine even without assistance. However, it is important to note that in such a situation, although one hasn’t transgressed the Biblical prohibition of not putting a stumbling block before the blind, there is a rabbinic decree known as mesayeia lidvar aveira, which says one may not be an accomplice to sin.
Thus we have an erroneous, literal interpretation of the Karaites of “do not put a stumbling block before a blind person,” and the correct, broader understanding based on the oral tradition, which says the verse is referring to giving bad advice or causing another to sin.
The link between the oral Torah and the written Torah
This discussion goes to the heart of the question of how to understand the Torah. When we talk about the Torah, we are not only talking about the Five Books of the Chumash but about the oral tradition as well, which was given by G-d at Mount Sinai and passed down from generation to generation till eventually it was codified in the Mishnah and the Gemara. From the perspective of authentic Judaism, the Torah Sheb’al Peh and the Torah Shebichtav – the written and the oral – cannot be separated. They can only be understood in combination. For example, regarding the mitzvah of tefillin, the Torah says Ukshartem otam le’ot al yedchem vehayu letotafot bein eineichem, “you must tie them as a sign on your arm and letotafot between your eyes.” The word totafot does not appear anywhere else in the Torah, and the Torah itself does not explain what it means. But the oral tradition does. It tells us what tefillin look like and which portions of the Torah go inside them; it tells us that they have to be square, that they have to be black and that the leather straps have to be black as well. All of this is not found in the written Torah, only in the oral tradition. This is but one more example of many which demonstrate that the written Torah can only be understood together with the oral tradition.
Throughout history there have been many sects which sought to undermine authentic Judaism. We saw this very prominently in the 19th century with the Haskalah, the so-called enlightenment movement, whose proponents attacked many aspects of authentic Judaism. One of the aspects they attacked was the oral tradition. In their heresy they viewed the Bible as a form of Jewish “literature,” disconnected from G-d, and completely disregarded the Divinely given oral Torah as recorded in the various works of the Talmud, including the Mishnah, Gemara and Midrash. They sought to sever the connection between these two bodies of wisdom – the written and oral Torah – that Hashem gave us at Mount Sinai. In reaction to this movement, a group of authentic Torah scholars rose up to defend the link between the written Torah and the oral Torah. Among these were Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch; the Netziv, Rav Naftali Tzvi Yehuda Berlin of Volozhin; and the author of the Ketav Vehakalaba, Rav Yaakov Tzvi Mecklenberg, all great commentators who came to defend and demonstrate the inextricable link between the written Torah and the oral tradition.
Rabbi Hirsch explains, by way of analogy, that the relationship between the written Torah and the oral Torah is like a lecture. The written Torah is like the shorthand notes of the lecture, which are not understandable unless one has been in the lecture. They are there to serve as a frame of reference, but the full lecture can only be understood by having the broader perspective, namely, knowing the oral Torah. The one cannot be understood without the other and therefore to sever the two is to challenge what authentic Judaism is all about.
Moral and spiritual blindness
Another one of the great commentators who defended the connection between the written Torah and the oral tradition is the Malbim. He explains on the verse “do not put a stumbling block before the blind” that whenever the word ivver, “blind,” appears in Tanach it always refers not only to physical blindness but to moral and spiritual blindness as well. He brings as a proof-text the verse in Parshat Shoftim, which says a judge may not accept a bribe, ki hashochad ye’aver einei chachamim, “because bribery makes the wise blind.” Thus we see that blindness refers not only to physical blindness, but connotes a spiritual or moral blindness.
Furthermore, says the Malbim, if the prohibition was against placing a physical obstacle before a blind person, it would have said lo tassim, “you may not place a stumbling block before a blind person,” and not lo tittein. Tittein means to “give” something, while tassim means to “place” something. If the verse were simply talking about not putting a stumbling block before a blind person, it would have said tassim and not tittein. From the fact that the Torah uses the word tittein we see that the verse is referring to something that one gives – namely, advice. This further proves the connection between the oral tradition and the written Torah, and demonstrates that the oral tradition was not just imposed on the written Torah, but is an inseparable part of it and in fact is alluded to in it.
The commentaries on Rashi – the Siftei Chachamim and the Gur Aryeh – explain that we know this verse refers to the prohibition against giving bad advice because the ending of the verse is Veyareita meElokecha Ani Hashem, “and you shall fear your G-d, I am the Lord.” Rashi explains on the latter part of this verse that the mandate to fear G-d is mentioned in the context of prohibitions against sins of the heart, for which one can’t get caught because no one but G-d knows the truth. When you give others advice which is to their detriment, you can’t get caught because even if the advice turns out to be bad, there is no way to prove that that was your intention Advice given in good faith can still turn out to be the wrong advice; there is no way of knowing whether your intentions were genuine or not. Only G-d can know, and this is why the verse concludes “and you shall fear your G-d, I am the Lord.” The commentaries on Rashi explain that from the fact that the verse concludes with the mandate to fear G-d we see that it cannot be referring literally to putting a stumbling block before the blind, because that is something others can see. Rather, the verse is referring to a broader meaning, namely, the prohibition of giving bad advice.
What emerges from the Malbim and the other commentaries is that the oral tradition is not something which is external to the text, but rather is an integral part of it. If one looks carefully through the text of the written Torah, one can see allusions to the oral tradition; it is indeed the shorthand of the broader lecture. Unfortunately still today there are people who twist the meaning of the Torah, and superimpose their own philosophy on it. But this is precisely why we have the oral tradition – to clarify exactly what the text means and to give us the parameters of G-d’s words.
Responsibility toward our fellow human beings
Taking this one step further, if we look at the difference between the literal interpretation and the one based on the oral tradition, we will see that the oral tradition on this verse of not putting a stumbling block before the blind gives us a much broader perspective as to our responsibility toward our fellow human beings. We are responsible not only for their physical welfare, namely, not to put a stumbling block in their way – that’s obvious; the Torah is teaching us a far more sophisticated lesson, and that is that we are obligated to look after each other’s spiritual and moral welfare as well. Kol Yisrael areivim zeh la’zeh, we are all connected and are responsible for each other. We need to help each other do mitzvahs and help prevent each other from sinning; and certainly we must not be accomplices to sin in any way.
Lastly, we learn from this verse what a high level of ethical conduct and integrity the Torah requires of us. In his classic work Mesilat Yesharim, the Ramchal, Rav Moshe Chaim Luzzatto of 18th-century Italy, says that this prohibition refers not only to wilfully giving bad advice but even to situations where one gives sound, good advice yet where one’s personal interests are involved. We can understand the prohibition against wilfully giving someone bad advice in order to take advantage of them – for example, advising someone to sell his house because you want to buy it; that is obviously unethical. However sometimes you give a person advice which is intended for the good, but you also have a vested interest in it. The Ramchal writes that if someone comes to you for advice and you give them advice which you honestly believe is for their benefit but you also have a vested interest in the outcome, you have to declare that personal interest. Furthermore, says the Ramchal, if you feel you can’t declare your interest because the information is too personal, then you are not allowed to give the advice. One cannot appear to be a neutral, objective outsider when in fact one has a vested interest.
One might ask, is giving sound, good advice – albeit with a personal gain in mind – such a serious offence? The Sefer Hachinuch answers this question. He discusses the importance of this mitzvah and explains that civilization functions based on the fact that we are social beings. We regularly look to other people for confirmation, for ideas, for advice about what we should or should not do. In fact, most industries and businesses are based on giving advice: the financial services industry, insurance brokerage, legal firms, accounting firms, medical professionals, mechanics, salesmen and many other business relationships are all based on giving advice in some way. If we are in a position of giving advice, not only does our advice have to be with the client’s best interest in mind, we have to declare our own interest upfront.
But who will ensure that the service provider operates with integrity? No one can police that, and this is why the verse concludes Veyareita meElokecha Ani Hashem, “you shall fear your G-d.” Only G-d can know what is in our hearts.
Thus the ancient debate regarding how to interpret this verse – in its literal, simplistic form or in its figurative, ethical sense – teaches us about the fullness of the Torah – the written and the oral – and the importance of integrity, ethical conduct and our responsibility toward our fellow human beings.
Acharei Mot-Kedoshim – Stumbling Blocks To Integrity (Edited Transcript)
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