Thursday, July 11, 2013

Rabbinic infallibility: Examples of Rabbis apologizing for harmful mistakes

After calling  for the rabbis - who condemned Rav "S" as a moser and drove him out of Lakewood - to publicly apologize, I realized that there  are not many well known cases of rabbis apologizing. This  is  either because rabbis rarely make mistakes or alternatively they don't want to be perceived as fallible. It is interesting to note that the Torah reports the mistakes of our forefathers e.g., Yehuda and Tamar. You can also find references in the gemora to serious errors of talmidei chachomim-  such a Kamtza and Bar Kamtza and Rav Avkulas (see below). I posted the story of . Rav Yochanon and Reish Lakish where the errors on both sides resulted in the death of both of them. However no apology resulted. Post Talmudic you have the case of Rabbeinu Yonah and the Rambam.  I would appreciate other cases - in particular a reference to the Shaloh making a mistake. There are discussions about talmidei chachomim being protected from error - but that seems to be about eating unkosher food. Any sources that a rabbi should admit error and apologize or alternatively that a rabbi should not apologize and people shouldn't mention that rabbis erred would also be helpful.

Gittin (56a): R. Johanan said: What is illustrative of the verse, Happy is the man that feareth alway, but he that hardeneth his heart shall fall into mischief?The destruction of Jerusalem came through a Kamza and a Bar Kamza; the destruction of Tur Malka came through a cock and a hen; the destruction of Bethar came through the shaft of a leather. The destruction of Jerusalem came through a Kamza and a Bar Kamza in this way. A certain man had a friend Kamza and an enemy Bar Kamza. He once made a party and said to his servant, Go and bring Kamza. The man went and brought Bar Kamza. When the man [who gave the party] found him there he said, See, you tell tales about me; what are you doing here? Get out. Said the other: Since I am here, let me stay, and I will pay you for whatever I eat and drink.He said, I won't. Then let me give you half the cost of the party. No, said the other. Then let me pay for the whole party. He still said, No, and he took him by the hand and put him out. Said the other, Since the Rabbis were sitting there and did not stop him, this shows that they agreed with him. I will go and inform against then, to the Government. He went and said to the Emperor, The Jews are rebelling against you. He said, How can I tell? He said to him: Send them an offering and see whether they will offer it [on the altar]. So he sent with him a fine calf. While on the way he made a blemish on its upper lip, or as some say on the white of its eye, in a place where we [Jews] count it a blemish but they do not. The Rabbis were inclined to offer it in order not to offend the Government. Said R. Zechariah b. Abkulas to them: People will say that blemished animals are offered on the altar. They then proposed to kill Bar Kamza so that he should not go and inform against them, but R. Zechariah b. Abkulas said to them, Is one who makes a blemish on consecrated animals to be put to death? R. Johanan thereupon remarked: Through the scrupulousness of R. Zechariah b. Abkulas our House has been destroyed, our Temple burnt and we ourselves exiled from our land.

Ta'anis (20a): Our Rabbis have taught: A man should always be gentle as the reed and never unyielding as the cedar. Once R. Eleazar son of R. Simeon was coming from Migdal Gedor,from the house of his teacher, and he was riding leisurely on his ass by the riverside and was feeling happy and elated because he had studied much Torah. There chanced to meet him an exceedingly ugly man who greeted him, ‘Peace be upon you, Sir’. He, however, did not return his salutation but instead said to him, ‘Raca,1 how ugly you are. Are all your fellow citizens as ugly as you are?’ The man replied: ‘I do not know, but go and tell the craftsman who made me, "How Ugly is the vessel which you have made".’ When R. Eleazar realized that he had done wrong he dismounted from the ass and prostrated himself before the man and said to him, ‘I submit myself to you, forgive me’. The man replied: ‘I will not forgive you until you go to the craftsman who made me and say to him,"How ugly is the vessel which you have made".’ He [R. Eleazar] walked behind him until he reached his native city. When his fellow citizens came out to meet him greeting him with the words, ‘Peace be upon you O Teacher, O Master,’ the man asked them, ‘Whom are you addressing thus’? They replied, ‘The man who is walking behind you.’ Thereupon he exclaimed: ‘If this man is a teacher, may there not be any more like him in Israel’! The people then asked him: ‘Why’? He replied: ‘Such and such a thing has he done to me. They said to him: ‘Nevertheless, forgive him, for he is a man greatly learned in the Torah.’ The man replied: ‘For your sakes I will forgive him, but only on the condition that he does not act in the same manner in the future.’ Soon after this R. Eleazar son of R. Simeon entered [the Beth Hamidrash] and expounded thus, A man should always be gentle as the reed and let him never be unyielding as the cedar. And for this reason the reed merited that of it should be made a pen for the writing of the Law, Phylacteries and Mezuzoth.

Update July 10: From Rabbi Yair Hoffman posted with his permission
Dear Rabbi Eidensohn, 

Regarding your call for Rabbinic apologies, there is a fascinating and most remarkable Yam Shel Shlomo (Bava Kamma Perek 7 Siman 37).  The author writes that, according to his opinion, an actual blessing should be recited at a Siyum – a completion of a Talmudic tractate.  Yes, the Maharshal - Rabbi Shlomo Luriah was of the opinion that the blessing of “SheHaSimcha B’mono” should be recited at a siyum – because “there is no greater simcha or rina before Hashem than a simcha of Torah.”  And he writes further, “And so I ruled.”
But then at one such party – sheer pandemonium struck.  The holy Maharshal writes, “And I pinned this terrible event on myself - for I have violated the words of the sages, who had never heard such a thing [about this new practice of reciting the blessing]..”

Now as far as what the apology does and can do..There is a fascinating Ralbag regarding the sin of Gaychazi (Malcham II 5:25) that is most appropriate here. 
Let us recall that Elisha the prophet cured Naaman, the general of Aram of his leprosy.  Naaman wanted to reward Elisha.  Elisha refused to take anything.  Gaychazi waited until Elisha was out of sight and ran quickly to Naaman.  He tactfully implied that Elisha required a talent of silver and two suits of clothing.  Naaman gave him two talents of silver. 
Later, Elisha asked Gaychazi, “Where are you coming from?” Gaychazi answered, “Your servant went neither here nor there.”  The Ralbag remarks that if Gaychazi would have admitted to the theft he would have incurred a lesser punishment.  Elisha would have told him to return the items in a manner that would demonstrate to Naaman that Elisha had not asked for anything.  Instead, Gaychazi added to his sin by not admitting his error.

It is clear from this Ralbag that when a person has erred, even if he errs grievously – his punishment is lessened if he admits guilt.  Not so with Gaychazi – he confounded his error, by not admitting.  This proved to be the cause of his complete downfall.  Gaychazi was stricken with leprosy forever onward.

I hope these mekoros are helpful.

Yair Hoffman


  1. There is a Mishna, which I have not studied for a while so I cannot cite it correctly. However, the gist was that 2 Tannaim asked a very lowly refuse colelctor a basic question, and he corrected them, and they accepted. The message was that one should always accept the truth, even if it comes from someone lower on the learning or social scale.

  2. Moshe Emes before I approve your comment please provide evidence that he made a mistake - that it has anything to do with the post. Have no idea what you are referring to.

  3. Dovid HaMelech himself admitted his mistake after being rebuked by Nathan HaNavi. In a more recent history, Rabeinu Yonah publicly admitted his mistake in acting against the works of Rambam.
    Also, I learned that Yehuda's taking responsibility for his role in the Tamar's story was one of the reasons he was given malchus.

  4. Here are 2 good sources. David Hamelech is held in the highest regard specifically because he admitted to his sins.

    Divrei Hayamim 1 21:17
    David counted the people despite the halacha against counting.

    יז וַיֹּאמֶר דָּוִיד אֶל-הָאֱלֹהִים הֲלֹא אֲנִי אָמַרְתִּי לִמְנוֹת בָּעָם, וַאֲנִי-הוּא אֲשֶׁר-חָטָאתִי וְהָרֵעַ הֲרֵעוֹתִי, וְאֵלֶּה הַצֹּאן, מֶה עָשׂוּ; יְהוָה אֱלֹהַי, תְּהִי נָא יָדְךָ בִּי וּבְבֵית אָבִי, וּבְעַמְּךָ, לֹא לְמַגֵּפָה.

    17 And David said unto God: 'Is it not I that commanded the people to be numbered? even I it is that have sinned and done very wickedly; but these sheep, what have they done? let Thy hand, I pray Thee, O LORD my God, be against me, and against my father's house; but not against Thy people, that they should be plagued.'

    Shmuel 2 12:13
    Story of Bas Sheva.

    יג וַיֹּאמֶר דָּוִד אֶל-נָתָן, חָטָאתִי לַיהוָה; וַיֹּאמֶר נָתָן אֶל-דָּוִד, גַּם
    יְהוָה הֶעֱבִיר חַטָּאתְךָ--לֹא תָמוּת.

    13 And David said unto Nathan: 'I have sinned against the LORD.' And Nathan said unto David: 'The LORD also hath put away thy sin; thou shalt not die.

  5. There is the epic story of R' Zalmaleh Volozhiner, who said a witty line that might have made someone feel bad, and didn't know where to find that person to ask mechilah, so he went from shul to shul and street to street to attempt to find him. Kedai to see the whole story in Toldos Adam ( Partial English transaltion here:

    (It's true that he was only 14 at the time, but R' Zalmaleh was already a "godol" at that age!)

  6. Also recall the well-known aphorism, מודים דרבנן היינו שבחייהו.

  7. Very good eddie... It is a gemora shabas 15:1 It was hillel and shammai and 2 weavers came to shaar ashpot regarding laws of mikva...

    1. is that a yerushalmi perek 15 halacha 1 or is it a bavli on daf 151?

    2. Aha, you mean Shabbos 15a (what does .1 mean?). But that is not an example of Shamai and Hillel making a mistake and apologizing. They paskened what they believed to be their Rebbi's psak about how much mayim she'uvin invalidates a mikva. Two people who happened to go to the Beis Midrash told the Chachamim what they heard Shamaya and Avtalyon says and their statement was accepted as Halacha. It can hardly be a case of Hille and Shamai being wrong. Their opinions were not accepted as Halacha.

    3. but the message is to always accept the truth, even Hillel and Shammai accepted the truth form katanim.
      This is a kal v'chomer, that we should be intellectually honest, even when it hurts.

  8. Isn't there a story about the Steipler who unexpectedly visited the bar mitzvah of a boy who had insulted a few years prior. At the time he noted who he was so that he can ask mechila when the boy became a gadol (13 years old) ?

  9. Story with the Rashash of Vilna who took borrower to beis din for not repaying a loan. When he subsequently found the money inside his gemara he didnt suffice with apologizing but did a shiduch with him to show that the accused was totally innocent.

  10. Shabbos 63:

    כי אתא רב דימי א''ר יוחנן מניין לאריג כל שהוא שהוא טמא מציץ א''ל אביי וציץ אריג הוא והתניא ציץ כמין טס. של זהב ורוחב שתי אצבעות ומוקף מאוזן לאוזן וכתוב עליו בב' שיטין יו''ד ה''א למעלה וקודש למ''ד למטה ואמר ר' אליעזר בר' יוסי אני ראיתיו בעיר רומי וכתוב קדש לה' בשיטה אחת כי סליק רב דימי לנהרדעא שלח להו דברים שאמרתי לכם טעות הם בידי ברם כך אמרו משום רבי יוחנן מניין לתכשיט כ''ש שהוא טמא מציץ ומניין לאריג כ''ש שהוא טמא {ויקרא יא-לב} מאו בגד

    בבא בתרא קכז.

    דדרש רבא שתי נשים שילדו ב' זכרים במחבא כותבין הרשאה זה לזה א''ל רב פפא לרבא והא שלח רבין דבר זה שאלתי לכל רבותי ולא אמרו לי דבר ברם כך אמרו משום ר' ינאי הוכרו ולבסוף נתערבו כותבין הרשאה זה לזה לא הוכרו אין כותבין הרשאה זה לזה הדר אוקי רבא אמורא עליה ודרש דברים שאמרתי לכם טעות הן בידי ברם כך אמרו משום ר' ינאי הוכרו ולבסוף נתערבו כותבין הרשאה זה לזה לא הוכרו אין כותבין הרשאה זה לזה

  11. Also - see תפארת ישראל on פרקי אבות פרק ו' ו:

    אוֹהֵב אֶת הַמָּקוֹם, אוֹהֵב אֶת הַבְּרִיּוֹת, אוֹהֵב אֶת הַצְּדָקוֹת, אוֹהֵב אֶת הַמֵּישָׁרִים,

    "שהוא שונא כל מחשבות עקומות ועקושות שבהן ירצה המתעקש להצדיק ענייניו כי רק הדברים הישרים יאהב

  12. For Repercussions of living with falsehoods, see תנא דבי אליהו זוטא פרק ג' ס"ד:

    אם עושה אדם את עצמו צדיק ולדבר אמת מוסרין לו מלאך שמתנהג עמו בדרך צדיקים ומדבר אמת, ואם עושה אדם את עצמו רשע ולכחש ולדבר שקר מוסרים לו מלאך שמתנהג עמו בדרך רשעים ומכחש ומשקר.

    Because of this תד"א Rav Pinchos Koritzer held that אמת is almost בגדר יהרג ולא יעבור!!!!

  13. What's probably behind all this bluffing?

    See the Maharsho on שבת קיט:

    רב עמרם בריה דר''ש בר אבא א''ר שמעון בר אבא א''ר חנינא לא חרבה ירושלים אלא בשביל שלא הוכיחו זה את זה שנאמר {איכה א-ו} היו שריה כאילים לא מצאו מרעה מה איל זה ראשו של זה בצד זנבו של זה אף ישראל שבאותו הדור כבשו פניהם בקרקע ולא הוכיחו זה את זה

    שריה הם הם המוכיחים לאחרים אבל זה לזה לא הוכיחו וחיישינן לגומלין ודימה אותם לאילים שראשו של זה בצד זנבו של זה הוא משל שאין משגיח בכל מעשה חבירו מראשו ועד סוף רק על זנבו וסופו בקצת

    Surely, there is a tremendous need for Manhigim that have the power to rectify injustices and this requires that the rank and file look up to their leaders. Unfortunately, by having leaders that use deception and doubletalk, these leaders end up on the wrong side of Truth (therefore losing their license to lead), and they also end up losing the trust of many sincere people who yearn for הרמת קרן התורה. The Chillul Hashem is astounding!!!

  14. ask anyone familiar with r sternbuch's sojourn down under who heard the letter being read on friday night in shul. do as i say not as i do.

  15. Do we not say, every morning:
    לעולם יהא אדם ירא שמים בסתר ובגלוי ומודה על האמת ודובר אמת בלבבו וכו
    Last time I learned hilchos tefilas hashachris there where no exemptions for Rabbonim.

  16. פי האסון

    It is hard to read fear of heaven inside hearts. So they settle for evidence of fear of the hanhalah.

  17. A recent article by Marc Shapiro makes reference to an incident in Volozhin where the Netziv publicly asked for mechilah after slapping a talmid. See here ( for the article, which appeared in Ha-tzefirah, June 1916. (Click "continue" to get to the end; at least see the last page.)

  18. A neighboring homeowner was giving the Lakewood yeshiva a hard time about a zoning or similar issue. Rav Ahron Kotler said something not so nice about her. Somebody then told Rav Ahron that she was a Holocaust survivor. Throughout the rest of the day, Rav Ahron was heard to be saying quietly, I take it back, I take it back, I take it back...

    Rav Yoshe Ber Soloveichik once spoke very sharply to a talmid in shiur about what he thought was a poor question on the gemara. Later, he realized he was right. The Rav tracked him down and apologized.

    The Satmar Rebbe, Rav Yoel, once reprimanded a child for learning a sefer during davening. It turned out to be a very large siddur. The Rebbe apologized.

    The 1989 members of the disastrous Lanner beis din all apologized: Rabbis Wilig, Blau, Levine.

    Rabbi Norman Lamm just apologized.

    When it comes to child abuse, just words, I'm worry, are not fully adequate. The halachic Jewish apology should be different than the Christian apology. A Jewish apology means change of course of conduct, and compensation for harm done.

  19. R' Hoffman's Yam Shel Shlomo is
    וכן הוריתי פעם אחת הלכה למעשה. ונתבלבל השמחה במהומות גדולות, על ידי סיבות קשות. ותליתי הסרחון בי, שעברתי על דברי רבותיי, שלא שמעו מעולם דבר זה. על כן לא כתבו אלא בחתונה ובפדיון הבן. ובמילה ג"כ, לולי צערא דינוקא. אבל במצות אחרינא לא, ובוודאי כל דבריהם בקבלה, ובסודות פנימיות, על כל שיחה ומלה.

  20. Also, I heard a story (I think it is in the ArtScroll R' Chaim of Volozhin book) that The Gra started daily Birkas Kohanim in shul and then there was a fire in the community, and he took the fire as a sign that the duchening was not proper.

    Not exactly an apology, but for our purposes it may be. But what about a potential post about deciding what to do based on an event - how do we balance yuhra of thinking we know what it is for, or maybe it is just coincidence?

    1. see

      I heard that the fire was apparently deliberately set and he decided it was prudent not to restart daily Birkas Cohanim however this happened to his student Rav Chaim Volozhner - not the Gra. The Gra was arrested when he attempted to restart the practice. Eliach reports it simple that it was taken as a sign from Heaven page 203-204

      See also this article from Mishpacha on the topic

      Moral of the story is that intimidation sometimes also works with gedolim

  21. The famous story about the Rashash that R' Shalom Schwadron z"l used to tell...

    He once lent a grocer money, and when the grocer came to pay back he was totally engrossed in a sefer. He absentmindedly accepted the money without marking it down, and when he finished learning he closed the sefer with the money still inside.

    Not realizing that he had already been paid up, he demanded the poor grocer to pay back the loan. When the grocer said he had already paid and the Rashash said he didn't, the tumult began. The Rashash summoned him to beis din and the grocer won the din Torah.

    However, the court of public opinion had a different verdict, and everyone stopped shopping in his grocery. The grocer ultimately had to MOVE OUT OF TOWN (sound familiar?) and try and start anew in a less toxic environment, with limited success.

    A while later the Rashash opened the sefer that contained the money, and he realized he was wrong all along.

    He IMMEDIATELY called the grocer to ask him to be "Mochel" him. The grocer said that he can't be mochel him because he and his family have lost everything. When the Rashash suggested that he'll announce in public that it was all a mistake, the grocer said that nobody would believe it. They will assume the Rashash simply feels bad for the fate of the family, and that's why he's saying now it was a mistake.

    So, the Rashash Ztz"l made a proposal. He knew that the grocer had a child in Shidduchim age and the Rashash himself also did. SO HE ASKED THE POOR GROCER IF HE WOULD BE MOCHEL HIM, IF THEY'RE CHILDREN GOT ENGAGED TO EACH OTHER. The grocer said he would, knowing that if that happened nobody would think the Rashash was bluffing.

    And the shidduch was made!!!

    The beginning of the story has a striking resemblance to our current situation. Unfortunately, so far, they end terribly different.

    1. No. The Rashash won the Din Torah...

  22. Two ancecdotes from my yeshiva days:

    1) In YU - Rav Aharon Kahn publicly apologized to Rabbi Lamm for having sharply criticized something he had said, in a shmuess delivered in the beis midrash a week before.

    2) In Har Etzion - Rav Lichtenstein once (uncharacteristically) called out a guy by name when he was laughing during a sicha in the beis midrash on a serious subject. Rav Aharon called him on the phone that evening to apologize.

  23. Reb Yoel Kahn SHLIT"A in the life time of the Lubavitcher Rebbe Z"L , held the Rebbe to be Moshiach. BTW there is a gemorah like the that [ Rab Yanais Yeshiva said his name is Yinon, R'Shila's said Shiloh etc].
    After the Rebbe died & many held the Rebbe still Moshiach, he got up and said a maamar Toissi. I was mistaken, for that he paid dearly, the non-moshichisten, had already rejected him, for his moshiach business, now the moshichsten rejected him for the retraction. Nevertheless he worried about kvod shomayim, and accepted what ever it brought.
    I often wish that many of the gedoilim or Roshei Yeshiva would go take lessons from Reb Yoel SHLI"A.

    Another point is, that you will find in life a good friend who does a small avlah will apologize. However for a betrayal they will hope it goes away & never apologize. They could ask mechilah for years for petty things, but the major betrayal is to embarrassing & painful to approach, so it goes on unforgiving forever.
    Think a minute whomever is responsible for the chasing out of town & a job, & any respect of the victims family, has so badly victimized victims, that they cannot even approach the subject. How could they ever make him whole again?
    I heard in the name of Reb Mendel Kaplan Z"L of Philly, that if an American says sorry it mean no different than if they would say Go To H*LL.
    What if any of these Rabbis call up & say sorry,what exactly would that mean? I feel guilty? I want to clear my name? I am scared that in shomayim it will haunt me?
    Even in Dovid's letter he describes how he has gotten ill, & is worried of divine punishment. I appreciate the embarrassment he carries around by publicizing that letter, but it does state his own worries.
    A 'Full" apology is one where the abuser , has put himself in the place of the abused, & realizes how wrong they were, & will try their utmost to rectify it, with no ulterior or self driven motives. It is basically like the Nusach of of Tovoi lefonecha .. ashamnu etc.
    Although that is a madreigah beyond most, and any apology especially public is also something, but it doesn't fix it.
    This is practicaly Meuvas loi yuchal liskon, my guess is many feel only time can heal, anything else is adding paraffin to the fire.

  24. Elliot,Many years ago in Lakewood,I was invited in to the Rosh Yeshiva's home on a Shabbos afternoon by one of his top students. I was introduced to the Rosh Yeshiva and was asked by him where I was learning. I told him I attended an out of town yeshiva (not BGMG style) whereupon he made a remark and his Chabura of top students and the Rosh Yeshiva begab to laugh. In Seconds,my face turned Blood Red with embarrassment. The Rebbetzin was by the doorway and she was in shock looking at my face. Enough Said,We are all human beings,even Gedoilim and I have not met anyone yet that does not have a Yetzer Hara. Sadly with so much GAIIVA around there is no room for an apology


please use either your real name or a pseudonym.