Responding to Accusations

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by R. Gil Student

I. Silence in the Face of Accusations

Silence implies guilt. If we refuse to deny an accusation, we give it credibility. Does that mean that we are obligated to respond to every insult and accusation against us? In theory, we can easily deny a charge. However, often responding to it gives it credibility. Some mischievous people might constantly manufacture new and creative accusations to force us to play their game. Malicious people might try to divert our attention from our missions by throwing accusations at us and forcing us to address them.

In Kesubos (14b), R. Yochanan concludes that if someone accuses you of any invalid lineage, such as being a mamzer, and you remain silent, the accusation is accepted. In other words, you always have to respond to accusations of that nature. Significantly, Rambam (12th cen., Egypt; Mishneh Torah, Hilkhos Issurei Bi’ah 19:22) rules this way without any caveats.

Rav Ya’akov (Mahari) Weil (15th cen., Germany) addressed the question of Shimon who hit Reuven with a stick on the head and caused serious bleeding. Reuven turned Shimon into the Medieval German police, who did not treat Jews well. Instead, Jews tried to maintain justice without resorting to secular authorities. The police visit forced Shimon to pay bail and a little extra as a bribe. Shimon publicly confronted Reuven about turning him into the police and Reuven responded with something ambiguous. While Shimon obviously must pay for his sin, does Reuven also have to reimburse Shimon for the police expenses?

Mahari Weil (Responsa, 28) quotes the above Rambam and says that if Reuven had said nothing, he would have been presumed guilty of turning Shimon into the police. Now that he responded ambiguously, rather than clearly denying it, it is even worse. However, since the police would have investigated this crime anyway, Reuven did not have to pay for Shimon’s police bribe. For our purposes, it is important to see that Mahari Weil follows Rambam on the need to respond clearly to accusations or be presumed guilty.

II. Limitations on the Need to Respond

However, there are three other views that limit this power of strangers. Ramban (13th cen., Spain) and Rashba (13th cen., Spain), in their respective commentaries to Kesubos (ad loc.), say that this entire discussion revolves around someone whose family has serious lineage questions. For example, if a definite or possible mamzer married into the family and someone accuses you of being a mamzer also, then you have to deny the charge. There is a basis to the accusation. Otherwise, your silence does not support an otherwise baseless charge.

Rabbenu Nissim (14th cen., Spain), in his commentary to the Rif on Kesubos (5a), quotes an opinion that silence only implies guilt if you are responding to other accusations. If someone says that you are both a chalal (desanctified kohen) and a mamzer, and you reply that you are not a chalal, then you imply that the mamzer charge is correct. However, if you do not respond at all then your silence does not imply agreement.

Ra’avad (12th cen., Provence), in a gloss on Rambam’s ruling, offers a broad statement on the limitations of this Talmudic rule. There is a competing concern to that of responding to an accusation. Yes, clearing your name is important. But so is humility and avoiding fights. Elsewhere, the Talmud (Shabbos 88b) praises those “who are insulted and do not insult, who hear their shame and do not respond.” When should you be silent and when should you respond?

Ra’avad says that there is an important difference between our (his) times and those of the Talmud. In Talmudic days, a religious court would impose fines or otherwise punish someone who publicly insulted another. If you fail to respond, your silence implies agreement and exempts the accuser from a fine. However, when there is no affect to the legal outcome, it is better to suffer insults in silence.

III. Choose When to Respond

Rav Yosef Karo (16th cen., Israel), in his Shulchan Arukh (Even Ha-Ezer 2:4) follows Rambam if someone accuses a family of having problematic lineage and they do not respond, you should be wary of marrying into that family. However, Rav Moshe Isserles (Rema, 16th cen., Poland; Gloss, ad loc.) disagrees. He quotes approvingly the three dissenting views mentioned above. He also quotes a responsum from his respect older cousin, Rav Meir Katzenellenbogen (Maharam) of Padua, Italy.

Maharam Padua (16th cen., Italy; Responsa, 14) addressed a young kohen who betrothed a girl and then learned that her father — also a kohen — was accused of remaining with a wife who was forbidden to him. This would render the daughter forbidden to marry a kohen. The father never responded to the accusation. Should the young man end the betrothal with a divorce? Maharam Padua discusses the views above and other avenues for leniency. This is why his younger cousin, Rema, quotes this responsum. However, Rav Moshe Lima (17th cen., Lithuania; Chelkas Mechokek, Even Ha-Ezer 2:7) correctly points out that Maharam Padua still recommends divorce since the couple never fully married. After the fact, he would allow them to remain married but since they were only betrothed, that is not considered bedi’eved.

However, Maharam Padua’s younger contemporary, Rav Shmuel de Modena (Maharshdam, 16th cen., Greece; Responsa, Even Ha-Ezer 236) follows the lenient views even before the fact (lechatchilah). Maharshdam insists that today you need two witnesses to testify about an accusation against a family’s lineage before it is believed.

More recently, Rav Yisrael Meir Kagan (20th cen., Poland; Chafetz Chaim, Lashon Ha-Ra 7:2 and in footnote 3) writes that you may not believe an accusation merely because the accused responds with silence, even if the accusation is repeated to his face. Maybe the accused chose the path of humility and overcame his desire to defend himself. Or maybe he believes that it is pointless to respond because people prefer to believe a juicy accusation rather than a defensive response. The Dirshu edition of Chafetz Chaim (ad loc., n. 6) adds that maybe any defense requires him to point out someone else’s guilt, which might be inappropriate or even forbidden in that specific case. Or maybe he is embarrassed to even address a baseless accusation of that nature.

Generally speaking, you have the right to choose your battles. No one has the right to force you to respond, to pull your strings and make you act according to their desires. If they take you to court, then both the accuser and the accusation will be subject to proper scrutiny. Otherwise, it is up to your best judgment when and whether to respond to an accusation. In such cases, silence does not imply agreement and might be the best response.

About Gil Student

Rabbi Gil Student is the Editor of, a leading website on Orthodox Jewish scholarly subjects, and the Book Editor of the Orthodox Union’s Jewish Action magazine. He writes a popular column on issues of Jewish law and thought featured in newspapers and magazines, including The Jewish Link, The Jewish Echo and The Vues. In the past, he has served as the President of the small Jewish publisher Yashar Books and as the Managing Editor of OU Press. Rabbi Student currently is serving his third term on the Executive Committee of the Rabbinical Council of America and also serves as the Director of the Halacha Commission of the Rabbinical Alliance of America. He serves on the Editorial Board of Jewish Action magazineand the Board of OU Press. He has published four English books, the most recent titled Search Engine volume 2: Finding Meaning in Jewish Texts -- Jewish Leadership, and served as the American editor for Morasha Kehillat Yaakov: Essays in Honour of Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks.

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