The Mitzvah of Giving Reproof

When Eli Hakohen saw Channah at prayer, he thought that she
was drunk and reproved her. From this the Gemora learns that when a person sees
someone doing something that is not proper, he should reprove him. Tosephos
indicates that the Torah itself obligates us to reprove a person who is
violating a Torah law. So there would be no need to infer the mitzvah of
reproving from this incident. It seems, rather, that the Rabbis cite the
incident as a foundation for a rabbinical obligation which extends the mitzvah
of reproving even to a person who is doing something that is “merely”

But if Eli thought that Channah was drunk, then, it seems,
that he thought that she was violating the Torah. It is forbidden to pray while
drunk. If a person prays while he is drunk, it is as if, with regard to his
obligation to pray three times a day, he did not pray at all. And if the
blessings he recited do not count as prayer, then every time he mentioned the
name of G-d he was violating the Torah prohibition (at least according to the
Rambam) of taking the name of G-d in vain. If Eli thought that Channah was
praying while she was drunk, he thought she was violating the Torah. So how can
the Gemora infer from Eli’s reproof that even improper conduct that is not
forbidden by the Torah should be reproved? The rabbis may have understood that
when Eli saw Channah mumbling under her breath, he thought that she was drunk
and didn’t suspect her of praying, so he reproved her for her drunkenness, not
for praying while she was drunk. Drunkenness is improper, but it’s not a
prohibition in the Torah.

According to Tosephos—others disagree—the Torah
obligation to reprove applies only when a commandment of the Torah is being
violated. The foundation of the mitzvah of reproof is the principle: all Jews
are responsible
(literally, guarantors) for each other. Some (not
all) poskim hold that the laws of reproof correspond to the civil law of
guarantors, and that a person is obligated to give reproof only under
circumstances analogous to those under which he could be a guarantor. In the Gemora
the question is raised whether a person can be a legal guarantor
for an unspecified amount of money. The Rambam concludes that he can’t. That
implies that Jews cannot be guarantors for each other (in the spiritual sense)
for spiritual obligations that are unspecified. The Torah has 613 mitzvos. The
mitzvos of the Torah are specific. They do not raise any problems, in this
respect, for the issue of guarantees. But the obligations that derive from
authority of the rabbis cannot be so easily listed. Rabbinical authority is more
diverse, and rabbinical law develops in response to the needs of the generation.
According to those who hold that a person is obligated to give reproof only
under circumstances analogous to those under which he could be a guarantor,
there can be no guarantee for rabbinical commandments. So the verse in the Torah
that commands us to give reproof could only apply to the commandments of the

The Rambam writes, “When a person sees another sin or act
in a way that is unworthy it is a mitzvah to set him on the straight path, as it
says (Vayikra 19:17) you shall reprove your fellow. According to the
simplest interpretation of the Rambam, the mitzvah of the Torah to give reproof
applies not only to rabbinical mitzvos, but even to unworthy behavior that is
not explicitly forbidden even by the rabbis. The Rambam would explain that the
verse in the Torah “…You shall reprove your fellow and do not bear a sin
because of him” (ibid) suggests that the mitzvah of reproof applies
only to a person that sins, and that the Rabbis learned from the incident of Eli
and Channah that it applies even to unworthy actions. That incident reveals the
full meaning of the verse. So the Rambam and Tosephos disagree. It could be that
they disagree in their fundamental understanding of the mitzvah of giving

Is the mitzvah of giving reproof a separate mitzvah alongside
all the others, or does it teach us that every mitzvah implies the obligation to
reprove a person who violates it? According to the second possibility, reproof
is an aspect or part of every mitzvah—not a mitzvah in its own right—so that
person who stands idly by and does not reprove his fellow who is violating a
commandment is also considered to have violated it. If giving reproof is an
aspect of every mitzvah, it shares the qualities of that mitzvah. For example,
the prohibition of worshipping idols requires martyrdom under certain
circumstances. Is that martyrdom also required of the person who should reprove
the idol worshipper? If reproof is a separate mitzvah, clearly not. But if it is
an aspect of every mitzvah, then perhaps it does.

Now, if the verse comes to teach us something about the
mitzvos in the Torah—that each mitzvah implies the obligation to reprove those
who violate it—then, clearly, it can only apply to the mitzvos in the Torah.
That’s the opinion of Tosephos. But if the verse teaches us a new mitzvah, a
mitzvah of giving reproof, then there’s no reason, in principle, to limit the
scope of the mitzvah. It can conceivably apply to rabbinical commandments or
even unworthy actions. That would be the opinion of the Rambam.

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