by R. Yisrael Herczeg
The Rambam states in Hilchos Teshuvah 3:14:
All the wicked and the transgressors and the apostates and the like who did teshuvah, whether in the open or in secrecy, are accepted, as it says, “Come back, unruly children” (Yirmiyah 3:14, 22). [This implies,] even though he is unruly, for he repents furtively and not in the open, they accept him in repentance.
The commentators on the Rambam have noted that the source for this halachah is a baraisa in Avodah Zarah 7a:
The Rabbis taught: If any of them repent, they never accept them. These are the words of Rabbi Meir. Rabbi Yehudah says: If they repented in secrecy, they do not accept them. If they repented publicly, they do accept them. Others say [that Rabbi Yehudah said]: If they committed their [sinful] matters in secrecy, they accept them. If they committed them in public, they do not accept them. Rabbi Shimon and Rabbi Yehoshua ben Karchah say: In either case they accept them, as it says, “Come back, unruly children.”
There is a dispute among the commentators as to what this baraisa refers to. According to Rashi, it refers to robbers and to amei haaretz, those whose ignorance of Torah renders them unreliable when it comes to certain matters of Torah law. The baraisa speaks of how they can attain trustworthiness. Tosafos says it refers specifically to an ignorant person who attained the status of a chaver, a knowledgeable Jew who may be relied upon for tithing, but reverted to his ignorant and sinful ways. Rabbeinu Chananel and the Rif had a version of the baraisa that says that it refers to all transgressors. The Rambam agrees with virtually all of the Rif’s positions, as he writes in his introduction to his Commentary on the Mishnah. Accordingly, in the halachah quoted above, the Rambam follows the opinion of Rabbi Shimon and Rabbi Yehoshua ben Karchah and says, as the Rif understands it, that the repentance of any wicked person is accepted, even if it is done secretly.
Rav Yisrael Yosef HaKohen Rappaport in LiSeshuvas HaShanah finds this version of the baraisa difficult. Rabbi Yehudah’s opinion is that repentance in the open is accepted while secret repentance is not. This makes sense according to Rashi and Tosafos who say that the acceptance spoken of is done by human beings for the sake of considering the penitent reliable. If someone conceals his repentance, we have doubts about its sincerity and do not accept it. But according to the Rif and the Rambam, the baraisa speaks of the acceptance of repentance by the Heavenly Court. Why then should it make a difference if the repentance was done in public or in private? The Heavenly Court knows if the repentance was sincere even if it was done privately. Why should they then not accept it?
To answer this question, let us take a look at a gemara in Yoma (86b):
They bring the hypocrites1 to light because of chillul Hashem (desecration of the Holy Name), as it says, “When the righteous one will turn away from his righteousness and commit injustice, I will put a stumbling block before him” (Yechezkel 3:20).
They bring the hypocrites to light. For they are wicked yet present themselves as righteous. If there is someone who recognizes [the true quality of] their actions, it is a mitzvah to bring them to light because of chillul Hashem, for people learn from their actions because they are under the impression that they are righteous. Furthermore, when punishments befall them, people say, “Of what benefit was their virtue to them?”
What is the Rambam’s opinion on this matter? Does he say that it is permitted to expose a hypocrite because of chillul Hashem?
The Ein Mishpat in his notes to Yoma 86b directs us to the words of the Rambam in Hilchos Deios 6:8. The Rambam there says:
If someone rebukes his fellow Jew, he should not speak harshly to him at first. The Sages have said the following: “One might think that it is permitted to make him turn pale when you rebuke him. To teach us otherwise, the Torah says, ‘You shall rebuke your friend, but you shall not bear sin on his account’ (Vayikra 19:17).” From here we see that it is forbidden to embarrass a Jew, and even more so in public. Even though a person is not punished by flogging for embarrassing another, it is a great sin. So have the Sages said: “One who makes another turn pale in public has no portion in the World to Come.” Therefore a person must take care not to shame another in public, whether he is a child or an adult. He must not call him by any name that he is ashamed of. He must not relate to him anything that causes him embarrassment.
What does this apply to? To matters concerning interpersonal relationships. But with matters between man and God, if he does not desist from his sin when he is rebuked privately, we embarrass him in public and bring his sin to light. We insult him to his face, disgrace, and curse him until he reverts to virtuous conduct, as did all of the prophets among Israel.
The Rambam here does indeed say that “we embarrass him in public and bring his sin to light.” Nevertheless, this does not appear to be based on the gemara in Yoma quoted above. For it is clear from these words of the Rambam that he permits bringing a sinner’s transgressions to light in certain situations in order to rebuke the sinner and bring him to repentance. The Rambam here does not say, however, that it is permitted to do this in order to avoid chillul Hashem as the gemara in Yoma does.2 That statement of the gemara is not a subject of dispute. Why does the Rambam not cite it in Mishneh Torah?
The Gemara’s source for the statement “they bring the hypocrites to light because of chillul Hashem” is Tosefta Yoma 4:12. The statement in the Tosefta immediately preceding this phrase is, “Whoever brings the public to worthiness – they [that is, the Heavenly Court] do not give him the opportunity to sin…and whoever brings the public to sin – they do not give him the opportunity to repent…” The statement in the Tosefta immediately following the phrase we are discussing is, “Rabbi Yose says: If a person sins once, twice, or three times, they forgive him. The fourth time they do not forgive him.” It appears that the Rambam interpreted “we bring the hypocrites to light because of chillul Hashem” in the context of these adjoining statements. The Tosefta’s “they do not give him the opportunity to sin,” “they do not give him the opportunity to repent,” “they forgive him,” and “they do not forgive him” all refer to the Heavenly Court. By the same token, the Rambam understands that the subject of the Tosefta’s “they bring the hypocrites to light” is also the Heavenly Court. The Tosefta quoted by Gemara teaches us that it is God’s way to expose the misdeeds of hypocrites. Indeed, this is how Rav Yehudah bar Berechiah (Rivav, brother of the Baal HaMaor) explains this gemara explicitly in his commentary to the Rif (5b in the pages of the Rif).
We now understand why the Rambam omitted this point in the Mishneh Torah. The Mishneh Torah is a code of laws that apply to man. It need not include all the patterns of Heavenly judgment.
Midrash Shocher Tov (52) also clearly understands the Tosefta this way:
Rabbi Chiya taught: They bring the hypocrites to light because of chillul Hashem, as it says, “When a righteous person turns away from his righteousness [and does injustice, I will place a stumbling block before him]” (Yechezkel 3:20). Why does the Holy One, Blessed is He, bar the way in front of him? In order to expose his deeds to people, so that a situation should not arise in which something happens to him because of his sins, and people will claim that the Divine attribute of judgment is unfair. Because of this, the Holy One, Blessed is He, wishes to expose the deeds of one who acts hypocritically toward others.
With this in mind, we can answer the question of LiSeshuvas HaShanah on Rabbeinu Chananel, the Rif, and the Rambam. LiSeshuvas HaShanah asks why, according to these rishonim, does Rabbi Yehudah make a point of saying that the teshuvah of the wicked is accepted even if they repent in secrecy. To the Heavenly Court, why should secrecy or openness be a factor? The Heavenly Court can judge the sincerity of repentance no matter what the circumstances.
However, according to the Rambam’s understanding of “they bring the hypocrites to light because of chillul Hashem,” sincerity is not the issue. The issue is people’s view of Divine justice. If someone who is known to be a sinner repents in secrecy, we may have thought that his repentance would not be accepted, for if he is spared punishment, people are liable to say that God overlooked his sins. Indeed, the Tosefta quoted above says of a related situation, “Whoever brings the public to sin – they do not give him the opportunity to repent” lest people who are under the impression that he is still a sinner think that God did not give him the punishment he deserved. Rabbi Yehudah teaches us that this is not true of a wicked person who has not brought the public to sin. If he manages to repent his teshuvah is accepted, even if it is done privately and has not affected his public image.3
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Sefer Meishiv Nefesh4 points out a difficulty with Rabbeinu Chananel’s, the Rif’s, and the Rambam’s version of the baraisa in Avodah Zarah which views it as speaking of all sinners. As we have mentioned, the Rambam in Hilchos Teshuvah 3:14 follows the opinion of Rabbi Shimon and Rabbi Yehoshua ben Karchah in that baraisa, who say that all sinners who repent are accepted, even if they repent in secrecy. The first opinion cited there, however, is that of Rabbi Meir, who says that transgressors who repent are never accepted. Meishiv Nefesh notes that according to this, Rabbi Meir appears to contradict himself. Rabbi Meir was a student of Elisha ben Avuyah, one of the greatest Torah sages of his generation, who became a heretic and abandoned Torah observance. The Gemara (Chagigah 15a-b) recounts that Rabbi Meir tried to inspire his teacher to repent. Why would Rabbi Meir do this, given that he is of the opinion that transgressors who repent are never accepted?
In order to answer the Meishiv Nefesh’s question, we must first deal with the simple meaning of Rabbi Meir’s words as they are understood by Rabbeinu Chananel. How could Rabbi Meir hold that transgressors who repent are never accepted? Does he hold that teshuvah is solely the domain of the righteous?
Let us note here that the word the baraisa uses for transgressors in Rabbeinu Chananel’s and the Rif’s version is פושעים. This word is generally applied to sinners of the most serious type, who violate the Torah with the specific intent of showing their disregard for it. This is in line with the Rambam’s paraphrase of the baraisa quoted above in which he includes פושעים with “the wicked” and “apostates,” indicating that it does not refer to all sinners, but only to those who have sinned gravely. Nonetheless, how can Rabbi Meir consign them to doom? Why should they not repent if they are motivated to do so?
But careful examination of Rabbi Meir’s language shows that he does not doom the transgressors at all. He does not say that transgressors who repent are not forgiven, nor does he say that their repentance is not accepted. He says that they are not accepted.5 Surely even the most wicked are commanded to repent and their repentance is precious to God. But Rabbi Meir’s is concerned with the impression that God’s immediate acceptance of one who was known to be evil might make. If someone who was an apostate or was flagrantly evil in some other manner does teshuvah, that person’s sins are forgiven, and he will receive his due reward in the World to Come. Nevertheless, he will not be accepted by God and will have to suffer in this world lest people not recognize that he repented and question Divine justice.
Thus, it was surely reasonable for Rabbi Meir to have encouraged Elisha ben Avuyah to repent. Although Rabbi Meir held that repentance would not have spared Elisha ben Avuyah the suffering due him in this world, it would have been the fulfillment of a commandment and would have gained him forgiveness in the World to Come.
The term the gemara uses which we have translated as “hypocrites” is חנף. Ibn Ezra to Yeshayah 34:30 writes, חנף אין תוכו כברו, “A chaneif is not the same on the inside as on the outside. Malbim to Yeshayah 10:6 elaborate a bit. חנף אין תוכו כברו אבל לא יעשה רע בלוי, “A chaneif is not the same on the inside as on the outside, but he will not do anything bad openly.” ↩
Rav Chaim Heller in his edition of Rambam’s Sefer HaMitzvos, p. 74, note 14, brings several other places where the Ein Mishpat is in error. This is not to imply that this work is not of great value. ↩
It is clear that Rashi was familiar with the Midrash Shocher Tov quoted above from his commentary to Yechezkel 3:20. Why he does not explain the gemara in Yoma accordingly remains to be clarified. ↩
Rav S. T. Shapira, 5746, p. 115. ↩
This nuance of wording is also reflected in the language of the Rambam quoted at the beginning of this discussion where he states the opinion of those who disagree with Rabbi Meir. He speaks of the wicked being accepted rather than their being forgiven, or having their repentance accepted. ↩