I once had a professor who said that when the Talmud states, “don’t do that,” you can be pretty sure people were doing it. In such cases, it’s one thing for the law books to say “no,” but it can be much more difficult both to say and to hear face-to-face — and not always desirable. The rabbis struggled with this as well:
Rava bar Rav Hanan said to Abaye: Did we not learn in a mishnah that one may not clap hands, or clap one’s hand against one’s body or dance on a Festival? And we see, however, that people do these things, and we do not say anything to stop them.
Abaye responded: And according to your reasoning, what about this halacha that Rava said: One may not sit on Shabbat at the entrance of a private alleyway next to the post, which delineates its boundaries, lest an object roll away into the public domain and he come to bring it back? And yet we see that women put down their jugs and sit at the entrance of the alleyway, and we do not say anything to stop them. Rather, in these matters we rely on a different principle: leave the Jewish people alone, and do not rebuke them. It is better that they be unwitting in their halachic violations and that they not be intentional sinners.
Rava’s assumption, in a teaching recounted by Abaye, is that people will not listen to everything the rabbis say. This view, that we should not correct people about certain minor violations because it is better they transgress unwittingly than on purpose, is curious. This stance is also in tension with other teachings in the Hebrew Bible and elsewhere in the Talmud.
The Torah (Leviticus 19:17) commands one to rebuke violators of biblical precepts. Many times, the rabbis seem in agreement with this idea. Consider this text from Shabbat 55a that we read earlier in this tractate:
Rav Zeira said to Rav Simon: The master should rebuke the household of the exilarch (the political head of Babylonian Jewry).
He replied: They will not listen to me.
Rav Zeira answered: Even if they will not accept rebuke from you, rebuke them nevertheless.
If under normal circumstances we are required to rebuke violators, even if there is no chance they will actually listen, why does Abaye counsel against it on today’s page?
Later Talmud codes and commentators struggled with this problem, as well. According to definitive rabbinic codes such as the Shulchan Aruch and the Mishnah Berurah, if people commonly violate a prohibition unwittingly, provided it is not something punished by karet (cutting off from the Jewish community) or a capital crime, we do not rebuke them for fear that they might continue to violate it intentionally. There is also a difference in the Talmudic calculus of punishments between a biblical violation (severe) and a rabbinic violation (less so). Furthermore, the punishment for intentional sinning is generally much harsher than doing the same thing by mistake. In this way, minding one’s own business is a kindness — sparing the violators from punishment.
As modern people, we can learn much from this ruling. As my mother of blessed memory used to say, “everything that comes into your head doesn’t need to come out of your mouth.” What would happen if instead of engaging with trolls on social media — even though we know for certain we are right (gosh darn it!) — we take a breath and click on that gif of cavorting puppies or that recipe link? What would happen if instead of getting into it with our neighbor over the length that they let the grass grow on their property, we instead took time to admire their flowers? Or, in the spirit of today’s daf, if instead of saying “Hey! We don’t clap in shul!” we instead appreciated our fellow congregants’ enthusiasm?
“Leave the Jewish people alone” might be one of the most enduring pieces of advice ever offered by our sages.