When We Don’t Give Reproof

Sometimes people do averos without realizing it.
They’re just doing what they’ve always done and what everyone’s always
done (as far as they know). Anyone who reproves them will just be accused of
being excessively strict. They won’t listen, and it will just make matters
worse.

For once they are informed that what they are doing is wrong,
they lose the relative innocence of the person who sins without thinking that he
might be doing an avera. They won’t change their ways, but they also
won’t forget that someone once reproved them. With every repetition of their
once innocent activity they must confront the possibility that they are doing
something wrong. And if, rather than checking it out, they ignore that
possibility, that introduces an element of intentional sin. So the Gemora says,
leave them alone! They’re not going to change. Better to leave them in the
relative innocence of the shogeg (unintentional sinner). After
all, the purpose of reproof is to diminish wrongdoing and make people better.
Here, it would just make them worse.

The Gemora raises the possibility— and rejects it—that we
withhold reproof under such circumstances only when people are violating a
rabbinical commandment. If they are violating a commandment from the Torah we
reprove them nevertheless.

Why would the Gemora think of making such a distinction
between rabbinical and Torah commandments? First of all, some hold that the
concept of shogeg doesn’t apply to rabbinical commandments. So when
people violate a rabbinical commandment unknowingly, they are not culpable, and
to reprove them simply turns them into avarianim (sinners).
Besides that, we reprove people for doing averos. If no avera can be attributed
to a person who is truly unaware that he is violating a rabbinical commandment,
then we have no
business reproving him! If we reprove him when we know that he won’t change
his ways, we are just creating an avera when there was none.

But the violation of a Torah commandment beshogeg is an
avera, so there is a basis for rebuking a person who violates a Torah
commandment beshogeg. Even if he doesn’t change his ways, the reproof
will make his avera more severe, but it won’t turn him into an avarian.
He was already an avarian.

Another way of understanding the distinction that the Gemora
proposed between rabbinical and Torah commandments is that there is a
fundamental difference between them. When the Torah prohibits something, it
means that it is intrinsically wrong. But there’s nothing intrinsically wrong
with actions that are prohibited by the rabbis. The avera of violating
rabbinical law is disobedience. We are commanded in the Torah to do as the
rabbis tell us. So if a person has no intention of disobeying, he hasn’t done
anything wrong. But if a person violates a prohibition in the Torah, he’s done
something wrong regardless of his innocent intention because the Torah prohibits
things that are intrinsically wrong and spiritually destructive. So we can
understand that the Gemora thought that we can dispense with reproof where it
won’t be heeded when people are unknowingly violating rabbinical commandments
because they aren’t really doing anything wrong. But when they are violating
Torah commandments, because they are doing something wrong, we cannot withhold
reproof.

But the distinction between rabbinical and Torah commandments
is not so clear cut. Some hold that, with respect to the laws of reproof, any
mitzvah in the Torah which is not explicit is called rabbinical because without
the guidance of the rabbis we would not realize that the Torah had commanded it.
We would withhold reproof for “rabbinical” commandments, but for
commandments that are explicitly written in the Torah, we wouldn’t because we
would assume that everybody knows such commandments and that anyone who violates
them is sinning intentionally. The rational for withholding reproof, that it is
preferable for people to remain shogegim, simply doesn’t apply.
They’re not shogegim. They’re mazidim (intentional sinners)
so we reprove them.

Another opinion is that a prohibition that is explicit in the
Torah is more severe than a prohibition which is not explicit in the Torah. The
Rambam , for example, refers to the laws which are learned by applying the 13
ways that the Torah is interpreted as Divrei Sofrim, and, according to
the Rambam, they do not have quite the same force as laws that are written
explicitly in the Torah. It is still considered to be Torah law, but it is Torah
law of a lesser magnitude. So when people are violating a law that is explicit
in the Torah, since it is so severe, we reprove them even if they are likely to
reject the reproof. But if they are violating a law that is not explicit in the
Torah, we do not reprove them because it is better that they should be shogegim,
violate the law out of ignorance, rather than violate the law after having been
told that they were doing an avera.

In practice, there is a difference between these two
opinions. If we know that the person who is violating a prohibition that is
explicit in the Torah is so ignorant that, even though it is explicit he
doesn’t know about it, then, according to the first opinion, we would not
reprove him because, in this case, he is acting out of ignorance. He is not
aware that he is doing an avera. He is not a mazid. The rational of
“better be a shogeg than be a mazid” applies. But according to
the second opinion, that we reprove the violation of a Torah prohibition that is
explicit because it is more severe than a prohibition that is not explicit, we
would reprove him. However ignorant and innocent he may be, he is still
violating a serious prohibition and we are obligated to make him realize it.