Some may mistakenly think that the basis of Judaism is religious ritual – prayer, kosher, Shabbat. While those are indeed vital, a person's behavior vis-à-vis others occupies a perhaps greater role.1
When the Talmud speaks of Jewish characteristics, it does not do so in terms of ritual observance. Rather, it adopts humane criteria: "The [Jewish] people possess three characteristics: they are merciful, modest and perform deeds of kindness."2 Maimonides goes so far as to declare that cruelty is reason to be suspicious of one's Jewish lineage.3
Consider the "Al-Chet" confessional which occupies a central place in the Yom Kippur service. It consists primarily of ethical-moral transgressions – dishonesty, deception, slander and unkindness – rather than ritual ones.
In emphasizing the Divine priority of values, the Talmud teaches that the very first question a person is asked when he is brought to final judgment is: "Have you dealt honestly in business?"4
A religious person who is honest in business and speaks pleasantly to people will inspire others to deepen their own respect and commitment to Torah.5 This is a great sanctification of God's Name. By contrast, for a religious person to behave dishonorably is regarded as a desecration of the Divine Name (Chillul Hashem), a transgression of the severest spiritual magnitude.6
Interestingly, the Jews' greatest enemies have recognized that ethics are our greatest heritage. Adolph Hitler hated the Jewish message of helping the needy, because it totally contradicted what he wanted the world to become. As Hitler said:
"Providence has ordained that I should be the greatest liberator of humanity. I am freeing man from the restraints of an intelligence that has taken charge, from the dirty and degrading self-mortifications of a false vision called conscience and morality... Conscience is a Jewish invention; it is a blemish like circumcision."7
Now let's examine some of the ways to maximize our ethical behavior. For as King Solomon said: "You shall find favor and understanding in the eyes of God and mankind."8
Love Your Neighbor
The Talmud tells of a non-Jew who came to the great sage, Hillel, and offered to convert if he'd be taught the entire Torah while standing upon one foot. Hillel acquiesced to this strange request by saying: "Do not do unto your friend that which is hateful to you. That is the entire Torah; the rest is commentary. Now go and study."9
God commands us to "Love your neighbor as yourself."10 Yet this appears to be an absurd demand. Does anyone really love others as much as they love themselves? Is such a thing really possible?
Further, the Talmud rules that if you are traveling in the desert with only enough water for one person to survive, rather than give it to someone else, you should drink it yourself.11 The Torah does not expect us to place someone else's survival before our own. In fact, it is usually forbidden to so.12 So there must be some other understanding of the mitzvah to "Love your neighbor as yourself."
The true meaning of "Love your neighbor as yourself" is to get beyond your personal mindset and appreciate where others are coming from. Understand the needs and sensitivities of people whose backgrounds are different than your own, and recognize that in such a case you would also have those needs. We all take our own predicaments very seriously. "Love your neighbor as yourself" instructs you to empathize and relate to another person's situation objectively, as if you are in the same boat.13
The trick is to balance this obligation with your own very important needs.
Consider this example: Two people are sitting down for a meal, and there are three pieces of bread. Each takes one piece, leaving one left over. Who gets it?
The answer is not as simple as "split it." The concept of "love your neighbor as yourself" says to be as objective as possible. There are many factors to consider: Who is hungrier? Whose metabolism requires more food? Who is more likely to have an opportunity to eat again soon?
As you see, each situation requires genuine thought and sensitivity to the needs of others, while considering your own needs as well.
Focusing on Needs
The story is told of two drunken peasants speaking late one night:
One said, "My friend, do you love me?"
"Of course I love you," replied the second one.
"Then tell me what's missing from my life."
"How should I know?!" said his friend.
"If you don't know what's missing in my life," said the first drunk, "then you don't really love me."14
To "love your neighbor as yourself" is to empathize with another's needs.
But what happens if we don't feel that empathy? How do we develop these sensitivities? The antidote is to give to others. The more we go out of our way to do kindness for others, the more we will develop empathy.15
Rabbi Zelig Pliskin, in his book "Love Your Neighbor" lists 41 ways to fulfill the mitzvah. The underlying theme is to make a proactive effort to find people in need, and provide for them:16
- visit the sick17
- comfort mourners18
- bury the dead19
- cheer up someone who is sad or lonely
- protect others from injury20
- work not only for income, but because it will help others
- show concern for other's financial needs21
- meaningfully praise others
- feel joy at the good fortune of others
- share good news
- welcome guests22
- contribute to the joy of those getting married23
If You Are Wronged
What if a relative makes a snide remark, or a neighbor is being particularly annoying, or a business associate takes advantage of you? Should you simply turn the other cheek and allow yourself to be taken advantage of?
That is not the Jewish approach. The Torah provides practical solutions for interpersonal predicaments, and does not expect us to simply tolerate getting hurt.24 If you are able to simply ignore the comment, that is the ideal approach. But if not, it is forbidden to hold your negative feelings inside.25
If someone slights us, we should approach them in a non-confrontational manner, and never in front of other people.26 This will produce surprisingly positive results. Often, the offensive act was the result of a misunderstanding, or the offender had been going through a particularly challenging situation. By approaching him in a soft-spoken manner, you'll be able to repair the relationship. Had you held it inside, it would cause a strain in the relationship, or worse, at some point you'd probably burst.
In the event of a financial dispute, don't harbor a grudge and don't shout at the other party. Try to negotiate a compromise. If you can't peacefully resolve it among yourselves, seek the mediation of a beit din (rabbinical court). This is the Torah's way of dealing with conflicts.
Click the play button on the right to listen to a 3-minute audio lesson: "The clever way to react to insult" by Rabbi Zelig Pliskin.
Whom Should We Love?
The mitzvah to love others applies to all of humanity.27 A Jew has a special responsibility to love other Jews.28
Further, it is especially important to love sincere converts to Judaism.29 Converts are particularly cherished in God's eyes,30 and we must be careful not to hurt or offend them in any way.31
The Torah also requires us to be especially sensitive to the needs of widows and orphans.32 They have suffered tragedy and tend to be particularly sensitive. Speak with them gently and be extremely careful not to hurt them. 33
In general, the Torah expects us to show extra sensitivity to those who are especially needy.34 We must relate to them as we would want to be taken care of, were we in such a situation.
The Torah forbids causing undue pain to others.35 This is prohibited even if the pain is minor and even if it was unintentional. Any hurtful comment is a violation of this commandment. For example, one may not remind a person of his past misdeeds,36 or point out his faults.37 It also wrong to call someone by a denigrating nickname,38 even if he does not object.
Given this idea of not harming others, you should not enter a store and pretend to be interested in purchasing an item when you know for sure that you will not buy it.39 Doing so is akin to "stealing another's thoughts," as it falsely raise the hopes of the seller. (Of course, if you are sincerely interested in an item, you are not obligated to buy it.)
Embarrassing someone is regarded as a terrible crime – akin to murder!40 In fact, the Sages teach that one who causes undue embarrassment to another loses his portion in the World to Come.41 The severity of embarrassing someone is compounded when it is done in the presence of others.42
A husband must be extremely careful not to cause any pain to his wife,43 and especially not to make her cry.44
It is forbidden to take revenge or to bear a grudge.45
Mark is building some shelves in his basement and asks to borrow his neighbor Sam's electric screwdriver. Sam says "no." The next week, Sam asks to borrow Mark's extension ladder. Mark recalls that Sam was unwilling to lend the screwdriver. If Mark says "no" on that basis, it is a forbidden act of "taking revenge."
Now let's change the scenario slightly:
Sam asks to borrow Mark's extension ladder, and Mark recalls that Sam was unwilling to lend an electric screwdriver the week before. If Mark says, "Sure, I'll lend you my ladder, because I'm not tight-fisted like you" – that is a forbidden act of "bearing a grudge."
Think back to the last time you were accused falsely. How did it make you feel? The Torah does not allow us to accuse others based on circumstantial evidence. In fact, one who falsely accuses another of a crime may sometimes be subject to corporal punishment.47 If you do mistakenly blame someone, you should ask forgiveness and confer upon him a meaningful blessing.48
It is not merely forbidden to accuse falsely; you may not even mentally attribute guilt to an innocent person.49 This does not mean we should be naive and assume that everyone is well-intentioned in everything that they do. On the contrary, the Torah wants us to be realistic in evaluating other people. But we should look for mitigating circumstances and not jump to negative conclusions.50
How far are we required to judge favorably? That depends on the ethical and moral status of the supposed offender.51
For example, if you see an observant Jew entering a non-kosher restaurant, don't assume that he is a hypocrite. For all you know, he may need to use the bathroom or the telephone. On the other hand, if you see a Jew unwrap a McDonald's cheeseburger and eat it, you need not assume anything different than the way it appears. In both cases, we may conclude the most realistic possibility.
Still, even in the most extenuating circumstances, it is best to lean toward the approach that suggests the goodness of people.52
Click the play button on the right to listen to a 3-minute audio lesson: "Judging Favorably" by Rabbi Shraga Simmons.
If one sees another making a mistake or going astray, it is a duty to try to set him straight53. Of course, this must be done privately and with gentle words.54 One should offer this reproof only if it is motivated for the benefit of the other person.55 If one knows that his words will fall on deaf ears, then it is equally incumbent not to say anything at all.56
One who has the ability to influence others and does not do so, shares the responsibility for the others' misdeeds.57 Similarly, one who positively influence others, shares the merit of their mitzvot.58
- Mitzvot between man and God are termed “bein adam la'Makom.” Those dealing with man's relationship to his fellow man are “bein adam l'chavero.”
- Yevamot 79a
- Isurei Bi’ah 19:17
- Shabbat 31a
- Talmud – Yoma 86a
- Talmud – Yoma 86a
- Hitler Speaks by Herman Rauschning
- Proverbs 3:4
- Talmud – Shabbat 31a
- Leviticus 19:18
- Baba Metzia 62a
- See Rambam (Yesodei HaTorah 5:4)
- As heard from Rabbi Yitzchak Berkovits.
- Story by Rabbi Moshe Leib of Sassov
- Chazon Ish (Kovetz Igros 1:123)
- see Sha'arey Teshuva 4:11
- Talmud – Shabbat 127b with Rashi
- Rambam (Aivel 14:7)
- Genesis 47:29 with Rashi
- Talmud – Baba Kama 30a
- Rambam (Deyot 6:3)
- Rambam (Aivel 14:1)
- Talmud – Avot 1:2 with Bartenura
- However, taking revenge is forbidden. (Rambam – Deyot 7:7)
- Rambam (Deyot 6:6-7)
- Rambam (Deyot 6:6-7)
- Sefer HaBrit 2:13:5, Tosefet Bracha (Kedoshim 19:18); Torah Sh’leimah (miluim to Parshat Yitro 20). This is also the implication of Menorah HaMeor (vol. 4, pg. 305b) and of Rabbi Chaim Vital’s Sha’arei Kedusha (pg. 504 in Kushta ed.). Some authorities limit the technical obligation to only loving other Jews. See Rambam (Deyot 6:3 and Aivel 14:1) and Yad Ramah (Sanhedrin 56a).
- Mesilat Yesharim (ch. 19)
- Deut. 10:19; Rambam (Deyot 6:4)
- Deut. 10:18
- Exodus 22:20, 23:9
- Exodus 22:21; Rambam (Deyot 6:10)
- Rambam (Deyot 6:10)
- Rashi (Exodus 22:21)
- Leviticus 25:17 – Ona’at Devarim (lit: hurting with words)
- Choshen Mishpat 228:4
- Rambam (Deyot 6:3)
- Choshen Mishpat 228:5
- Choshen Mishpat 228:4
- Sha’arei Teshuva 3:139
- Talmud – Baba Metzia 59a
- Talmud – Baba Metzia 58b; Kol Bo 66 (s.v. V'Al Asher)
- Choshen Mishpat 228:3
- Talmud – Baba Metzia 59a
- Leviticus 19:18; Talmud – Yoma 23a
- Two fascinating collections of true stories that demonstrate the importance of judging favorably are Courtrooms of the Mind by Hanoch Teller (NYC Publishing), and The Other Side of the Story by Yehudis Samet (ArtScroll/Mesorah)
- Talmud – Shabbat 87a; Yoma 19b
- Talmud – Brachot 31b
- Talmud – Shavuot 30a
- Leviticus 19:15
- Chafetz Chaim
- As heard from Rabbi Yitzchak Berkovits
- Leviticus 19:17
- Rashi (Leviticus 19:17); Rambam Deyot 6:7
- Chafetz Chaim 1:10:2 with Be'er Mayim Chaim
- Proverbs 9:8; Talmud – Yevamot 65b
- Talmud – Sanhedrin 27b
- Talmud – Avot 5:18