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Talmudic Treasures by Rabbi Ziona Zelazo is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

Friday, July 27, 2012

Who needs criticism? TB Arachin 16b

Who likes criticism? Who enjoys hearing judgmental comments and faulty finger-pointing?

     One thing is for sure; I resent criticism, especially if it is harsh. I hate it when people put a mirror in my face and say: “Look at yourself… and see how wrong you are”. To be honest, it is often painful and difficult to take, even constructive criticism and correction.

     The act of criticism from a Jewish perspective, when offered among Jews in order to correct wrong behavior, is a Mitzvah, called tochecha in Hebrew or rebuke. Its origins are found in the Bible; “You shall not hate your brother in your heart; you shall surely reprove your fellow; and not bear sin because of him.” (Leviticus 19:17) But we need to be aware of the fact that there are situations in which offering criticism does not help but only shames the person. So, how and when should we offer criticism? What kinds of risks are we taking?

     Based on this Biblical verse, the rabbis in the Babylonian Talmud, Arachin 16b explore the notion of rebuke. There is a similar principle in BT Shabbat 55a;

1. To rebuke is to fulfill a social obligation even if one refuses to accept the rebuke;

      From the repetition of the word 'rebuke' in the verse “rebuking you shall rebuke” or “you shall surely rebuke” we learn that there is an obligation to repeat the reproof, even though it was not accepted when administered first. Thus, rebuke is a social obligation.

         Our Rabbis taught: …Whence do we know that if a man sees something unseemly in   his neighbor, he is obliged to reprove him? Because it is said: ‘You shall surely rebuke’.
If he rebuked him and he did not accept it, how do we know that he must rebuke him again? The text states: ‘surely rebuke‘ anyway. One might assume [this to be obligatory] even though his face blanched, therefore the text states: ‘You shall not bear sin because of him’.

     When the rabbis discuss how and when to rebuke another person they acknowledge the fact that there are people and contexts in which offering rebuke does not help. Here, we find a number of principles;

2. Human beings have a hard time taking criticism;

     R. Tarfon said, “I wonder whether there is anyone in this generation who can accept reproof, for if one says to him, ‘Remove the mote from between your eyes,’ he would reply, ‘Remove the beam from between your eyes!’ ”

     Rabbi Tarfon observed that people no longer accepted criticism as an act of love. Instead of listening openly to a description of how they had acted inappropriately and then working to modify their behavior to remove that flaw, the object of rebuke would respond defensively by either ignoring or insulting the person who had highlighted the error.

3. It is an art to know how to criticize in the right way;

      R. Eleazar ben Azariah said, “I wonder if there is anyone in this generation who knows how to rebuke!”

     Rabbi Eleazer ben Azaria begs us to think about the right way to criticize another person. Even if we do not mean to insult or hurt, we do offer words that push buttons. What words should we use or avoid?

One who wants to improve oneself will want to hear criticism because he/she knows that it will make him/her better, and will consequently love the one who criticism him/her.

      R. Yochanan ben Nuri said, “I call heaven and earth to witness for myself that Akiba was often rebuked by me, for I used to complain against him before Rabban Gamliel, and he showered love upon me all the more, fulfilling what has been said, Do not rebuke a scoffer, for he will hate you; reprove a wise person and he will love you (Proverbs 9:8).”

     However, contrary to Arachin 16b, the Talmud commentator Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Yitzhaki, 1105), emphasizes a different principle; that one should not offer criticism if it will not be heard or obeyed, and no rebuke should be addressed to one who is sure to ignore it, as the Babylonian Talmud in Yevamot 65b puts it; 

     R. Ile'a further stated in the name of R. Eleazar son of R. Simeon: As one is commanded to say that which will be obeyed so is one commanded not to say that which will not be obeyed. R. Abba stated: It is a duty; for it is said in Scripture (Proverbs 9:8); Do not reprove a fool, as he will hate you; reprove a wise man and he will love you. 

     Now, let’s face it. It is so much nicer to be praised, so why would anyone accept rebuke? But since criticism is a social control - mechanism and a fact of reality, perhaps the question is not why people should accept rebuke, rather I suggest the question – in what way we should offer rebuke. A rebuke properly offered, without anger or attitude, for example, could become an act of affirmation and love, not resentment. It shows that we care enough about this person and want to help correcting wrong doing. In addition, my colleague Hune Margulies from the "Martin Buber Institute Dialogical-Ecology" offered another important question:

"Who can consider himself qualified enough to offer truly useful rebuke? or morally worthy? are we rebuking someone for sinning differently than we do? we cannot learn how to fly because we are not meant to, and likewise it so hard to learn how to rebuke because maybe we shouldn't".
Friends, colleagues and family who are willing to point out our errors offer us a gift. How else will it be possible to correct wrong doing? By looking at the mirror that they place in front of us we can understand that the way we act depends on how others perceive our actions, and we need to respect that as well.

     Yes. There is a lot we can learn from criticism even though it may appear negative. If we wish to improve and develop we should invite constructive criticism and appreciate their suggestions.

© Rabbi Ziona Zelazo


  1. I agree: who wants a nasty criticism that gets your back up? That just doesn't work. I recently listened to a presentation by a Chabad rebbitzin on holding grudges. During the lecture she mentioned the story of Joseph who didn't really hold a grudge and didn't really rebuke his brothers. But when they delivered the made-up message from Jacob, Joseph's reaction to this implied criticism was to reassure the guilt-ridden brothers that they had done him and the future Jewish people a great favor by selling him into slavery. The point the rebbitzin made is taken from the Rebbe, of course: if someone criticizes you, first think if there's something in the criticism (not just a crazy person speaking). Then figure out how it is to make you grow, even if your first reaction is to refute or counterblame. Easier said than done, but worth aspiring to.--Peg

  2. Easier said than done is correct. Should we have some spiritual classes for people to help them become 'qualified rebukers'? Is there such thing? We often fall in the mistake thinking that what WE consider right or wrong is the only truth...but there are so many ways to percieve the right or wrong concepts. As I stated before, I believe that if we show someone an error, only than we bring it to their awarness. The rest is their responsibility.
    The Joseph's story as offered by the rebbe is a facinating take. Thanks for this.