The danger in stumbling over pathways to the truth

The Torah prohibits us from putting “a stumbling block before the blind.” The commandment appears as a simple phrase in Leviticus 19:14, but its implications are far-reaching.

On its face, the commandment appears to be unnecessary. Other mitzvot regarding how we are to respect and care for each other cover such a circumstance more than adequately. More to the point, the Torah forbids creating an obstruction that in turn creates a public hazard (the “open pit”; see Exodus 21:33-34) — and putting an obstacle in the path of a blind person fits that bill perfectly.

The Torah does not aimlessly pronounce do’s and don’ts, however. If the “stumbling block” is there, there must be a reason. To understand that reason, we need to understand what the Torah means by a “stumbling block” and by “blind.”

According to the Babylonian Talmud tractate Pesachim 22b, putting temptation before someone that leads him or her to sin is “putting a stumbling block before the blind.” The example cited there is handing a Nazirite a cup of wine, presumably implying that he is permitted to drink it, which he is not.

The stumbling block does not even have to be first hand, however, as we see in BT Avodah Zarah 14b-15b. For example, it says, while it is legal under Jewish law to sell a weapon or its accessories to someone who is permitted to buy such things, it is not permitted to do so if the seller merely suspects the buyer might resell the purchase to a suspected thief, say, or to a person suspected of having violent tendencies. (It is not a stretch to see the need for background checks for gun buyers here.)

The item sold does have to be dangerous, however. BT Avoda Zara 65b forbids selling clothing to a non-Jew if it contains wool and linen that are so interwoven that the strands are indistinguishable and unidentifiable. The Torah prohibits Jews from wearing such garments (the law of shaatnez, Deuteronomy 22:11). Even though the prohibition does not apply to the non-Jew, he or she may resell the garment to a Jew, who is forbidden to wear it. Even though that would not have been not a firsthand sale, a stumbling block was created by the original otherwise legal sale.

Another indirect stumbling block is discussed in BT Bava Metzia 75b, where the rule is applied, among other things, to lending someone money outside the presence of witnesses, or at least without some provable document testifying to it. If the borrower subsequently denies ever receiving the loan, this could cause others to think ill of the lender. That, in turn, would cause them to violate other Torah laws (especially Exodus 23:1, which prohibits both uttering and receiving a false report, as interpreted in BT Pesachim 118a).

The stumbling block also proscribes deceptive business practices in general. BT Bava Metzia 59b-60a, for example, prohibits diminishing in some way the quality of a wine, or mixing higher quality produce with a lesser quality, then selling the altered product to a merchant who unwittingly resells it at a higher price, causing the “blind” merchant to sin by unwittingly deceiving the buyer.

We find yet another kind of stumbling block in BT Kiddushin 32a. It begins with a discussion about how far a person must go to honor a parent, with the specific example given of a parent doing something in front of his or her child that diminishes the value of an eventual inheritance. Because that act could anger the child, leading him or her to violate the Torah’s thrice-repeated “honor/revere” commandment (Exodus 20:12, Leviticus 19:3, and Deuteronomy 5:16), it is putting a stumbling block before the blind. BT Moed Katan 17a goes even further. It says the father who strikes his adult son violates the stumbling block, because the son might curse his father (violating honor/revere), or worse, strike him back, a capital offense according to Exodus 21:15.

The Sifra, the extra-talmudic halachic midrash collection on Leviticus, in Chapter 3, Section 2:14, adds another layer of explanation: The stumbling block commandment forbids giving someone bad or even uninformed advice.

This commandment comes in five simple Hebrew words (nine in English translation), but those words provide the foundation for a virtual library-full of laws that all too often go ignored in our society.

Manufacturers, for example, have their stumbling block in what is known as “planned obsolescence.” Webster defines this as “the practice of making or designing something (such as a car) in such a way that it will only be usable for a short time so that people will have to buy another one.”

Some greengrocers mix older greens in with fresher ones and sell the package as fresh, or use stale greens in their salad bars. Supermarkets spray their produce with water, presumably to keep them fresh, but also to give the impression they were washed beforehand. Some supermarkets also cover 21 fruits and vegetables with some type of wax to provide them with a more beautiful, fresher appearance. (The wax may be legally applied to apples, avocadoes, bell peppers, cantaloupes and melons, several citrus fruits, cucumbers, eggplants, parsnips, passion fruits, peaches, pineapples, pumpkins, rutabagas, squashes, sweet potatoes, tomatoes, and turnips.)

Politicians, of course, routinely place stumbling blocks before us by misrepresenting facts, or distorting them beyond any semblance of truth.

Sadly, the media, whose task it should be to report facts as disinterestedly as possible, have become part of the problem. There was a time when the first rule for reporters was this: “State the facts devoid of spin, avoid code words of any kind, and never let your politics show.” We need only watch MSNBC, CNN, or FOX News to realize how that rule is unabashedly abused.

I believe President Trump is guilty of many things, including promoting the current climate of hate in America. I see him, also, as the master of putting stumbling blocks before us by his repeated lies and distortions.

The media, however, by failing to observe that first rule, create their own stumbling block. A specific instance came in the last few weeks, when the media jumped to conclusions about an alleged hate crime incident before all the verifiable facts were in — and we are still awaiting those facts.

A television actor claimed to police that two racist, homophobic Trump supporters viciously attacked him in front of a Chicago hotel on January 29. The actor, who is gay and black, and his claim received a great deal of air time and printer’s ink, and he, his interviewers, and other commentators used the incident to attack hate in general (usually a good thing to do) and Trump in particular (appropriate only if facts support it). Police subsequently arrested two men believed to be the attackers, but then suddenly released them late last week. This week, Chicago police say they are investigating whether the actor hired the two men to stage the attack.

Too many people in America believe the increase in hate crimes is fake news, and so is the claim that Trump’s rhetoric contributes to it, although the facts say otherwise in both instances. While it is the media’s job to report the facts of a hate crime as they are known at the time (or the unadulterated facts about anything else, for that matter), finger-pointing before all the verifiable facts are in only serves to lend credence to the fake news claims.

Beyond bringing reports of hate crimes in general in disrepute, doing so also lends credence to all the fake news claims coming from the White House and the radical right, to the detriment of the truth, to our safety, and to our democracy.

About the Author
Shammai Engelmayer is rabbi of Temple Israel Community Center, in Cliffside Park, and Temple Beth El of North Bergen, both in New Jersey. A former president of the North Jersey Board of Rabbis, he chose to work as a journalist after being ordained. That career helped him hone the skills that serve him so well on the pulpit, and helped him become a popular adult Jewish education teacher in Northern New Jersey.
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