Halacha for Tuesday 24 Nissan 5781 April 6 2021

Judging People Favorably

Since it is customary this time of year during the Omer counting period to publicly expound the teachings of Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers) as was indeed the custom of Maran Rabbeinu Ovadia Yosef zt”l, let us discuss some ideas mentioned in Pirkei Avot.

Pirkei Avot states (Chapter 1, Mishnah 6): “Yehoshua ben Perachya says, ‘Establish a rabbi for yourself, acquire a friend for yourself, and judge every person favorably.’” Rabbeinu Ovadia of Bartenura explains that when the matter can be seen equally from a positive and a negative point of view and there is no tangible evidence against the individual either way, one should judge him favorably and give him the benefit of the doubt and not suspect the individual baselessly of wrongdoing, as the Torah states, “With righteousness shall you judge your fellow,” and our Sages (Shevuot 30a) explain that this means that one must judge one’s friend favorably. Additionally, our Sages taught (Shabbat 97a) that the body of one who wrongfully suspects his friend will end up being smitten, as we find that Moshe Rabbeinu said about the Jewish nation, “And they will not believe me,” to which Hashem replied that he should place his arm in his cloak and upon removing it, Moshe was smitten with leprosy and only later did it heal. This was his punishment for wrongfully suspecting the Jewish people, for the verse later states, “And the nation believed.” Indeed, Hashem told him that they are believers the children of believers. We may from the words of Rabbeinu Ovadia of Bartenura that if the individual is known to be an especially upright and G-d-fearing person, one should still judge him favorably even if doing so in the given situation seems farfetched.

Regarding the incident that occurred with Chana the prophetess, the verse states, “And Chana spoke unto her heart”; our Sages explain that this refers to matters involving the heart, meaning that Chana was praying while gesticulating and this seemed bizarre in the eyes of Eli Ha’Kohen and led him to assume that she was intoxicated. He told her, “Until when shall you be drunk? Remove your wine from within you!” To which she replied, “No, my master, for I am a women of hardened spirit, but I have drunk no wine nor any other intoxicating beverage.” She meant to tell him, “You are not a master and the holy spirit of Hashem does not rest on you for you have judged me unfavorably”. The Gaon of Vilna explains that Eli Ha’Kohen actually consulted the Urim Ve’Tumim (breastplate of the Kohen Gadol containing a piece of parchment upon which Hashem’s ineffable name was inscribed) about the woman standing in front of him, and the letters "הכשר" illuminated from the breastplate. He mistakenly arranged these letters to form the word "שכרה" (meaning “intoxicated”) instead of arranging them to form the word "כשרה" which can either mean “worthy” or “like Sarah” meaning that she was barren like our matriarch Sarah was and was praying for a child. Since he interpreted the letters incorrectly, the word "שכרה" emerged. Thus, Chana told him that he was neither a master nor did the holy spirit of Hashem rest upon him since properly encoding the messages provided by the Urim Ve’Tumim required one to possess the holy spirit of Hashem. When Eli realized that he had erred, he begged her forgiveness and the Gemara (Berachot 31a) derives from here that one who suspects his friend wrongfully must appease him. Furthermore, one must actually bless the wronged party, as the verse states, “And Eli replied by saying, ‘Go with peace and may the G-d of Israel fulfill your request which you have requested from him.’”

One must derive from here the importance of judging his friends and family favorably and not always be demanding and suspicious of them; rather, one should be pleasant with people and always give them the benefit of the doubt. By doing so, one merits being judged favorably in Heaven, as the Gemara tells us (Shabbat 127b), “One who judges his friend favorably will be judged favorably by Hashem.” An incident once occurred where Rabbi Akiva was hired as a paid worker by a truly G-d-fearing man for a three year period. This man had many material possessions. On the eve prior to one of the holidays at the end of the third year, Rabbi Akiva wished to depart and he told his employer, “Please pay me my wages so that I may return home to support my wife and children.” The man replied, “I do not have money to pay you.” Rabbi Akiva replied, “So then pay me with animals or fruits.” The man told him, “I do not have these either.” Rabbi Akiva told him, “Then pay me with pillows or blankets.” The man replied, “I do not have these either.” Rabbi Akiva proceeded to sling his pack over his shoulder and sadly started his journey home, empty-handed. After the holiday, the employer arrived at Rabbi Akiva’s home bearing three donkeys laden with all sorts of foods, beverages, and delicacies, plus Rabbi Akiva’s wages. After eating and drinking, the man turned to Rabbi Akiva and asked, “When I told to you that I did not have whatever you asked me to pay you with, of what did you suspect me?” Rabbi Akiva replied, “I assumed that you had consecrated all of your belongings (to the Bet Hamikdash), and consecrated items are forbidden to benefit from and they are no longer yours.” The man exclaimed, “I swear to you that this is indeed what happened; I consecrated all of my possessions because my son, Horkenos, was not toiling in Torah. When I came to my friends, they absolved me of this vow. As for you, may Hashem judge you favorably just as you have judged me favorably.”

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