By Rabbi Yair Hoffman for 5TJT.com
The comment was made on Monday night – on CNN by the Speaker of the House. It was in response to the president’s admission that he was taking the unproven drug “hydroxychloroquine” to prevent or minimize COVID-19 in a perhaps, self-medicating kind of way. The speaker said:
“He’s our president, and I would rather he not be taking something that has not been approved by the scientists, especially in his age group and in his, shall we say, weight group — morbidly obese.”
Yes, mordibly obese. The definition of it being – having a BMI of 40 or more. Trump’s is only 30.4 – at the lower end of obese and a mere .5 points of not being even classified as obese at all. And within 36 hours, her words made headlines in newspapers across the world – England, Australia, Germany, Russia and Albania. From the BBC to Al Jazeera, the fat-shaming spread throughout the world.
Our question is – what does halacha have to say about all of this?
The Chida in his commentary on Chumash (Parshas Yisro) writes concerning the commandment of “lo sirtzach” – it appears in the eyes of the masses that they are innocent of this transgression.. [This is not the case, however.] One who embarrasses his friend in public spills his blood..”
Plainly and simply – fat-shaming is wrong. It is a violation of an important Torah principle. It is also something for which one can lose their portion in Olam Haba. Aside from this, however, there are two issues that will be addressed in this discussion – 1] practical halacha of how far a person must go to prevent oneself from doing so and 2] Seeing the hand of Hashem in the whole bizarre incident.
As an important note, our Rebbeim in Yeshiva have taught us not to ignore the events of the world, but rather to look at these events from a Torah perspective. This is both from a halachic perspective as well as from a hashkafic perspective. World events attract interest – everyone wants to hear about them. World events are phenomenal teaching moments and should be seen as such.
RABBEINU YONAH’S VIEW – HALACHA
Rabbeinu Yona in his Shaarei Teshuvah (3:139) discusses explains that embarrassing someone is abizraihu of murdering. He refers to the incident of Tamar and Yehudah and explains that Tamar preferred to be burned with fire – rather than embarrass Yehudah publicly. He implies that this is an actual halacha. This is an important value that we should be passing on to our children and grandchildren – that everything that transpires in the world must be looked out through the eyeglasses and prism of Torah. And so we begin with the halachic perspective – how far should the speaker of the house have gone to avoid the fat-shaming of the president?
Rabbeinu Yonah, citing the Gemorah in Bava Metziah 59a, states, “L’olam yapil adam es atzmo l’kivshan haAish v’al yalbin pnei chaveiro berabim – a person should always throw himself into a pit of fire rather than embarrassing his friend in public.”
MEIRI’S VIEW – SUGGESTION
However, the text in our Gemorahs (both BM 59a and Sota 10b) is different than that which Rabbeinu Yonah quotes. Our text states, “Noach lo le’adam sh’yapil – it is preferable for a person to throw himself etc.” The wording of preferable indicates that doing so is a stringency – rather than a requirement.
Indeed, this seems to be the indication of the Meiri in his comments on the Gemorah in Sotah where he writes, “A person should always be careful not to embarrass” – the indication of his language and the fact that he refers to the throwing oneself as a “ha’ara” – a suggestion is indicative that he holds it is just an act of preference – a chumrah, so to speak.
The Baalei haTosfos in their comments on the Gemorah in Sotah, however, pose the question as to why this concept is not listed in the Gemorah in Psachim (25a) among the three sins that one must forfeit his life for. The Baalei Tosfos answer that this concept is not explicitly written in the Torah. The implication of Tosfos is that they agree with the position of Rabbeinu Yonah that it is a full halachic obligation.
THIRD POSSIBILITY – HYPERBOLE
There is perhaps a third possibility that we can suggest. Could it be said that our sages merely are indicating how very severe it is to embarrass someone and are speaking in hyperbole? We find that Chazal will occasionally speak in hyperbole in order to bring home the point that this is an action from which we should stay far away.
PRECEDENT IN HILCHOS BRACHOS
For example, the Gemorah in Brachos (33a) states that whomsoever recites a bracha levatalah has violated one of the ten commandments of taking Hashem’s name in vain. The Mishna Brurah (215:20) cites the Mogain Avrohom (215:6) who explains that the Gemorah is actually a debate between the Baalei Tosfos and the Rambam as to whether it truly is a violation of one of the ten commandments or whether the sages were merely speaking in hyperbole. The Baalei Tosfos, are of the latter view and the Rambam, ostensibly, is of the former view.
The Chazon Ish (OC 137:5), however, takes issue with the Mishna Brurah and explains that even according to the Rambam it is hyperbole. He explains that just as we understand the Gemorah to be hyperbole and for pedagogical purposes so that we stay away from such activity – we can inject that same logic in the Rambam. [As a parenthetic note, this author found the same reasoning of the Chazon Ish in the long-lost and rediscovered Makor Chaim – the commentary of Rabbi Yair Bacharach (1638-1702) on Shulchan Aruch. It was re-discovered after the passing of the Chazon Ish in an old sefer purchased in Biegeleisen’s old store on the Lower-East-Side and identified by Rav Ovadiah Yoseph zt”l].
So, why can’t we say that this idea of throwing oneself into a fiery pit is also hyperbole as well? And even though it would seem that this third position disagrees with Rishonim – it may be further suggested that this is the view of the Rambam. How so? The Rambam makes no mention of the fiery pit where he mentions publicly shaming someone else in the sixth chapter of Hilchos de’os.
This is not just a theoretical discussion – it has serious practical implications. If the speaker of the house, for example, were to call a Halachic Hotline and pose the question as to what she should do – what would the Posek on the phone answer? Let us also recall that there is no mention of the Kivshan HaAish concept in Shulchan Aruch. This author would suggest that it is hyperbole.
THE HASHKAFIC PERSPECTIVE
And now, the hashkafic perspective. Some would point out that this is incident is a manifestation of the words of Rabban Gamliel the son of Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi in the second chapter of Pirkei Avos when he saw a human skull floating in the water, “al da’ataift – atfooch v’sof m’tifayech yetufoon – Upon which that you have drowned others – you will be drowned, and the ultimate end of those who have drowned you will be that they shall be drowned as well.”
How so? The recipient of the remarks has not exactly been innocent in this vein. He once called a former Miss Universe, “Miss Piggy” and further defended the remark by saying, “She gained a massive amount of weight and it was a real problem.” He has also repeatedly insulted a longtime celebrity adversary by calling her, “fat, ugly.”
The first hashkafic perspective is the idea of mida keneged midah in the world. In common expression, it is known as, “what goes around comes around.” And although it is not the original definition of the term – it has become the American understanding of the word, “Karma.” This concept is also borne out by two psukim in the Torah. There is the verse in the book of Isaiah (3:11) “..for what his hands have dealt out shall be done to him…” There is another verse in Sefer Mishlei (Proverbs) 26:27),”Whoever digs a pit will fall into it, and a stone will come back on him who starts it rolling.”
WHAT’S THE REASON FOR KARMA?
But what is the reason for it? Why does Hashem run the world in this manner? The great Baalei Mussar explain that it is a true chessed Hashem. Hashem wishes to give us a key, the means to understanding why we are being punished. He does so in order that we make the effort to correct ourselves – that we do Teshuvah. What better key to understand, what better way to unravel the mystery of what we have done wrong than to receive a message from Hashem Himself in the very area that we have just stumbled. “The Speaker of the House has just fat-shamed me. Have I done this very same thing to others in the past? Oh my! I have done so. I must do Teshuvah right away!”
Getting back to our Pirkei Avos (it is the season, right?) – we see an incredible insight. This person who has drowned, is now dead. According to modern science – he died within six minutes of his no longer being able to breathe on his own. So how much Teshuvah could he possibly do, already? And the answer is that Hashem wants us to do Teshuvah so much, that even for six minutes of Teshuvah – mankind is given this opportunity for Teshuvah.
Indeed, the great Mussar giant Rav Yoseph Aryeh Leib Nenedick zt”l, the Mashgiach of Yeshivah Etz Chaim in Kletzk states that the reason Adam haRishon was punished so severely was because he did not grab onto Teshuvah right away, but delayed it by responding with an excuse.
So, if we have an opportunity for Teshuvah – let’s grab it! Hashem values it quite highly – so should we.
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