Do Not Place Stumbling Blocks

Parashat  Acharei Mot and Kedoshim  Leviticus 16:1 – 20:27

presented January 2009 at the Newton Centre Minyan, an egalitarian Jewish congregation in Massachusetts

In these readings what usually gets attention is the sexual prohibition laws and the purification and temple and sacrifice laws. But what is most interesting to me is that this parasha (section of the Torah) gives one of the most explicit statements of how people should behave to one another.

I’ll focus on Leviticus. 19:9-18 and use this as a launch to speak about treatment and rights of people living with disabilities.

What is most bizarre to me in this parasha is that the most ritualistic ridiculous law (shatnes – the prohibition on mixing wool and linen) in the context of not mixing things together, comes right after the most open-ended interpersonal statement “love your fellow as yourself”. Sandwiching this ethical stuff in the midst of a whole bunch of irrelevant ritual stuff perhaps serves to catch our attention to the ethical stuff, or alternatively, it buries the ethical stuff so that we don’t notice it.

Not putting a stumbling block before the blind, and loving your neighbor as yourself are actually the antithesis of all the other rules that have to do with setting boundaries and distinctions.

Not put stumbling block before the blind is one of those verses that we associate with Christians – they have incorporated it much more into their moral and discursive universe. When I looked for explanations I found the old Talmudic stuff that talks about situations we don’t really encounter anymore (selling livestock, for example). The only modern discussions of any length or specificity have to do with business ethics. So I’m going to tackle this verse today and take it seriously.

Don’t put a stumbling block before the blind:

This verse is somewhat perplexing: Why single out blind people for this law? Was placing stumbling blocks before blind people a prevalent practice in ancient times? Furthermore, there are a large number of laws in the Bible that deal with causing injury to others, blind or not. This may explain why the Talmud felt the need to give the verse a more profound meaning. Thus, the word “blind” is interpreted metaphorically to represent any person or group that is unaware, unsuspecting, ignorant, or morally blind, and individuals are prohibited from taking advantage of them or tempting them to do wrong. It is interesting to note that there is a dispute as to whether the verse should be interpreted literally at all. Apparently, some sages felt that there was no need to have a special law against causing blind people to stumble since there are a sufficient number of laws protecting all individuals from malicious harm (see Minchat Chinuch, 232:4). Others believe in the principal that Biblical verses maintain their literal meaning even when the sages use the oral tradition to add additional connotations.

The principle of lifnei iver (before the blind) prohibits one from giving bad advice to another person. Thus, one should not advise another party that it is in his interest to sell his field in order to buy a donkey, when his true intention is to buy the field for himself. By concealing the ulterior motive of his advice, he has violated the principle of lifnei iver (Midrash Sifra, Leviticus 19:14). In fact, the Midrash explains the reason the verse ends with the warning about fearing God: Human beings do not know whether advice proffered to them by friends is good or bad. Often, advice is given with an ulterior motive. Only God knows the true motive of the advice giver.

In addition, the above verse is considered to be a prohibition against helping or causing another to sin. Thus, placing any kind of prohibited temptation in front of someone would not be allowed. For example, providing an individual with a prohibited food, e.g., wine to a Nazirite (who takes a vow which prohibits him from drinking wine, cutting hair, or ritually contaminating himself by coming into contact with the dead), would be a violation of this commandment (Babylonian Talmud, Pesachim 22b). Rabbi Ashi, who owned forests, was permitted to sell wood to heathens who were fire-worshippers only because the majority of purchased wood is used for kindling, not for idolatry (Babylonian Talmud, Nedarim 62b). However, to sell the wood directly for the purpose of allowing pagans to practice their idolatrous practices would be prohibited. Lending someone money without having any witnesses present is also a violation of lifnei iver since it might ultimately tempt the debtor to deny that he or she borrowed any money (Babylonian Talmud, Baba Metzia 75b). If one person lends another person money with interest, the borrower and the lender have also violated lifnei iver since each one enables the other to commit the sin of usury (Babylonian Talmud, Baba Metzia 75b). The Talmud (Babylonian Talmud, Moed Katan 17a) also prohibits one from hitting an older son because of lifnei iver. An older son might angrily retaliate and strike his father, which is a very serious sin.

Selling anything that has the potential of causing harm to others is prohibited. Thus, the Talmud (Babylonian Talmud, Avodah Zarah 16a) states: “It is forbidden to sell [idolaters] bears, lions, or anything which may injure the public. One shall not build with them a basilica, a scaffold, a stadium, or a platform” In Talmudic times, wild animals were used in stadiums to kill people for sport; basilicas were used to try people and, if sentenced to death, the defendant was thrown off it. Individuals were also thrown off platforms to kill them. Rebbi [a Talmudic rabbi] owned white mules and was rebuked by Rabbi Pinchas ben Yair for owning such vicious and dangerous animals. He offered to sell them but was told by Rabbi Pinchas that he would then be in violation of lifnei iver (Babylonian Talmud, Chullin 7b).

There is a Midrash [elaboration on Biblical texts] (Midrash Hagadol, Leviticus 19:14) that states that individuals who “strengthen the hand of sinners” or assist others to commit a misdeed have transgressed the prohibition against “placing a stumbling block before the blind.” One might argue that remaining quiet in the face of evil, i.e., not blowing the whistle on iniquities, strengthens the hand of wrongdoers.

Nehama Leibowitz (1983, p. 178), the renowned Bible teacher, offers the widest extension of the law:
“But the Torah teaches us that even by sitting at home doing nothing, by complete passivity and divorcement from society, one cannot shake off responsibility for what is transpiring in the world at large, for the iniquity, violence and evil there. By not protesting, “not marking the graves” and danger spots, you have become responsible for any harm arising therefrom, and have violated the prohibition: “Thou shalt not put a stumbling block before the blind…”

The seemingly simple verse prohibiting the placement of stumbling blocks before the blind is actually a succinct statement encompassing many important rules of ethics and morality. It is an admonition not to take advantage of the weak and the helpless or to place temptation in the path of those who may be morally weak. It is also a call to action demanding that society and people do everything possible help the weak, the vulnerable, and the helpless. It is a fundamental principle of business ethics and is on par with such essential principles as “The stranger who resides with you shall be treated the same as the native-born and you love him as yourself” (Leviticus 19:34) and “loving your fellow human being as yourself” (Leviticus 19: 18).

The following are some common situations that might involve the prohibition of lifnei iver.

(1) Buildings should be made accessible to the handicapped. Many office buildings have been built without ramps and railings and thereby cause the blind and other handicapped to “stumble.” There may very well be an obligation on society to provide large-print books, books in Braille, and special schools for the disabled. This is arguably a modern interpretation of the verse but something to be considered.

(2) Advertising that is intended to elicit envy or create the need for showy luxury products on the part of the consumer may also be problematic. In the classic medieval ethics (mussar) work, Orchos Tzadikim (Chapter 14: Jealousy), the author notes that jealousy comes from observing what friends own. We become envious of a friend’s garment, food, house, and/or wealth, and envy leads to coveting. Thus, individuals who purposely flaunt wealth in order to arouse the envy of their fellows are guilty of lifnei iver. Sadly, the newspapers are filled with stories of teenagers that are killed for a designer shirt, fancy sneakers, or a gold chain. The Orchos Tzadikim recommends a life of moderation and simplicity so as not to arouse the envy of others.

(3) Selling products that are dangerous to the public is a violation of lifnei iver. Certainly, selling weapons to criminals would be illegal. Providing cigarettes to minors would certainly be wrong, even if not prohibited by secular law. There are a number of rabbis who feel that smoking itself is a violation of lifnei iver since it harms the innocent through second-hand smoke.

(4) Keeping quiet when wrongs are being committed by an organization is also tantamount to “placing a stumbling block …”

(5) Making jobs and other opportunities unavailable to millions of blind people and other Americans who, due to physical disability, age, youth or economic hardship, do not drive cars.  Government at all levels has built highways to develop suburbs and other newly developed areas, thereby redistributing jobs, housing and tax bases to those areas, without providing public transit so that car-less Americans can reach suburban jobs.   By doing so, government has kept the blind and other car-less Americans away from employment and shopping opportunities. The federal government has sought to better the lot of the disabled through the Americans with Disabilities Act, enacted in 1990.  The ADA requires employers and owners of public accommodations to “reasonably accommodate” disabled employees, and requires that bus and rail service be made fully accessible to the disabled.  Because the ADA imposed a costly mandate upon bus and rail systems but did not provide funds with which to implement that mandate, it has forced cutbacks in bus service for everyone (including disabled people who already used public transit) and has thus been counterproductive to some extent.

(6) Teachers too can learn from this expanded sense of not putting a stumbling block before the blind.  Indeed, anyone in a position of differential power or wealth in effect generates a constant stream of temptations before those situated below themselves.  The notion of Mechilah enables those who set the tone and terms of relationships to minimize confrontations and moral transgressions, without resorting to total relativism.  The duty to honor parents and teachers stays firm, sometimes even firmer, when it is assumed to be there and the governing party’s focus is directed elsewhere.

(7) One final Talmudic case expands the range of the “stumbling block” in a direction that holds promise for contemporary urban life.  In Tractate Moed Katan, Abaya [a Talmudic rabbi] is asked:  “Where can you find an allusion in the Torah regarding the duty of marking graves?  His reply is:  ‘You shall not put a stumbling block before the blind.’”  Here is a case where a person stays at home, completely passive but knowing that there is an old graveyard in his neighborhood that is unmarked.  A priest — a kohen, who is traditionally forbidden contact with the dead — might unwittingly tread on grave and thereby be led into transgression.  The person at home has neither deceived nor provoked the kohen or anyone else; neither has she offered misleading advice or been party to a criminal act.  How could the rabbis — and how can we — object to her conduct?

Looking beyond the specific issue of ritual purity, we are guided by the Torah’s teaching in the Holiness Code of Kedoshim to an expanded moral understanding that applies throughout civic and communal life:  Even by sitting at home doing nothing, in complete passivity and separation from society, one cannot shake off responsibility for what transpires in the world at large — for the iniquity, violence, and pain so ubiquitous there.  By not protesting and protecting against the danger spots — by, in effect, not “marking the graves” — we become responsible for the harm that arises.