Mitzvah Misinformation

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by R. Moshe Kurtz

Lomdus on the Parsha: Matos

Based on the Acclaimed Sefer Chavatzeles HaSharon

Q: Should we be concerned about how people perceive our personal observance of mitzvos?

And Moshe said to them, If you will do this thing, if you will go armed before the Lord to war, and will go all of you armed over the Yarden before the Lord, until he has driven out his enemies before him, and the land be subdued before the Lord: then afterwards you shall return, and be clean before the Lord, and before Israel; and this land shall be your possession before the Lord. (Numbers 32:20-22)

There is a general imperative derived from this verse to remain clean in the eyes of God and in the eyes of one’s fellow Jews. The Mishnah in Shekalim (3:2) applies this principle regarding how one should be careful when collecting funds that were donated to the Temple treasury:

…The one who collects must not enter while wearing a cuffed garment,, and not with a shoe, and not with a sandal, and not with phylacteries, and not with an amulet – perhaps he will become poor, and people will say that it is because of the sin of [stealing the shekalim of] the chamber that he became poor. Or perhaps he will become rich and people will say that he became rich from stealing the funds of the chamber. As a person must appear justified before people just as he must appear justified before the Omnipresent, and it is stated: “And you shall be guiltless before the Lord and before Israel” (Numbers 32:22). And the verse states: “So shall you find grace and good understanding in the sight of God and man” (Proverbs 3:4).

Thus, we see that even when we are engaged in a mitzvah we must remain sensitive to the optics and ensure that our deeds do not lend themselves to suspicion – in Hebrew this is called maris ayin or chashad. Another classically cited instance of this concern is codified in the Shulchan Aruch (Y.D. 13:2; and see Chullin 75a) regarding a ben pakuah, a calf fetus whose mother was ritually slaughtered, but was not slaughtered itself:

One who slaughters an animal and finds it kosher, then found inside a fetus of eight (months), whether alive or dead, or a fetus of nine (months) dead, it may be eaten and does not require slaughter. And if he finds inside a fetus of nine (months) that is alive: if it stood on the ground, it requires slaughter, but other treifos do not prohibit it. If it did not place its hooves on the ground it does not require slaughter. And if its hooves are fused even though it stood on the ground, it does not require slaughter. And some are in doubt.

Since the common person will not be able to discern whether a calf was a ben pakuah, he will think that this animal is actually not kosher. Therefore, we require a perfunctory act of ritual slaughter on this calf in order to obviate any misperceptions.

R. Akiva Eiger (s.v. Shechitah) refers us to an interesting question regarding whether one recites the blessing for ritual slaughter in such a case. (A) The Rashba (Responsum 1:525) reasons that once our Sages mandated that a ben pakuah requires ritual slaughter it is, by definition, classified as a formal Rabbinical commandment, thereby requiring a blessing. (B) However the Responsa Besamim Rosh (responsum, no. 283) and Pri Toar (19:1) argue that since this measure is being done for pragmatic, optical purposes it bears no inherent significance and does not qualify for the recitation of a blessing. (It should be noted that the Besamim Rosh was discovered to be a later work falsely attributed to the Rosh.) 

A similar debate manifests in the case of lighting candles for Chanukah. The Talmud (Shabbos 23a) instructs a person who has a front and back entrance to his household to light candles on both sides in order to avoid any misperception of him neglecting to fulfill the mitzvah. (A) The Rashba would presumably mandate a blessing in this case just like he does for a ben pakuah. (B) However the Ran here propounds that no additional blessing is necessary.  

While we may be tempted to portray the case of Chanukah as analogous to a ben pakuah, it is possible that they are not completely comparable. The Sefer Michtam L’Dovid (O.C., no. 23) points out that the act of slaughtering a ben pakuah is a distinct mitzvah from the initial act of slaughtering the mother cow. Whereas regarding the additional Chanukah lighting there would be not impetus to recite a second blessing since the blessing on the initial menorah would count for lighting in the other entrance taking place shortly thereafter. Thus, while the Rashba maintains that a deed performed due to maris ayin requires a blessing, there are scenarios in which the extra act can piggyback off of the blessing made on the initial mitzvah, such as in the case of lighting Chanukah candles. (See also the Pelaisi and Birchei Yosef Y.D. 13:4 regarding another potential reconciliation between the Rashba and Ran that distinguishes between the terms maris ayin and chashad.)

From what we have reviewed thus far, it would almost seem unfair that a Torah-observant Jew who meticulously observes halachah is still not doing enough as he needs to constantly account for how onlookers might be misconstruing his every move. The Chasam Sofer (Vol. 6, Likkutim, no. 59) lamented that it is much easier to remain pure in the eyes of Heaven than it is vis-a-vis human beings who are easily prone to misjudgement and error. R. Moshe Feinstein himself was accused of acting improperly by taking a car to synagogue within the 18 minutes between candle-lighting for Shabbos and sunset, when the prohibitions of Shabbos automatically commences. R. Feinstein responded (Responsa Igros Moshe, O.C. 1:96) that just because some people have a misunderstanding of halacha and think that Shabbos begins for everyone at the onset of the 18 minutes does not mean that we should have to account for their misinformed opinion. (However, he said that he would endeavor to go beyond the call of duty and travel before the 18 minutes.)

While our discussion has focused on the imperative to ensure that we avoid doing anything that could arouse suspicion, we should also remember that as onlookers we are charged to judge everyone favorably (Avos 2:5), since every Jew, by default, possess a chezkas kashrus, a presumption of innocence and integrity.

Note: This series is not intended to dispense practical halachic conclusions. The Torah presented here is but a small extraction from the breadth of the sefer Chavatzeles HaSharon and is not affiliated with the author in any official capacity. Translations are adapted from Sefaria, Chabad.org, Mechon Mamre, and my  own. Contact: [email protected] 

About Moshe Kurtz

Rabbi Moshe Kurtz is Assistant Rabbi at Congregation Agudath Sholom of Stamford, CT. He welcomes questions, feedback and speaking requests at: [email protected].

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