Wednesday, August 30, 2023

Dan l'chaf zechus - What is the obligation to judge favorably?

update - point 5 Chofetz Chaim

One of the major issues when making decisions about other people is the well known principle of dan l'chaf zechus (to judge people favorably). What does that mean and what are the parameters. In this post - I will gradually add up the elements to give a full picture of what is involved. 

1) Firstly what is the source of this principle? While it does state the principle in Avos (1:6) "Appoint a teacher for yourself, acquire a companion and judge all men favorably" - this is not the source of the principle - but it seems to be advice. The actual source of the principle is learned in Shevuos (30a) from Vayikra (19:15) - the verse immediately preceding the prohibition of lashon harah. The end of the verse says "With righteousness you shall judge others" 
Shevuos (30a): Our Rabbis taught: In righteousness shalt thou judge thy neighbour: that one should not sit, and the other stand; one speak all that he wishes, and the other bidden to be brief. Another interpretation: In righteousness shalt thou judge thy neighbour: judge thy neighbour in the scale of merit.
2) There is an obvious problem - as Rav S. R. Hirsch points out. If this verse is referring to judgment in court - it is not dealing with interpersonal relationships. And yet the gemora seems to learn both from the same verse!

The Meiri seems to be the only one who simply says that the verse is about beis din and dan lchaf zechus is merely an asmachta.
Meiri (Shavuos 30b): Even though the majority of what I have written are laws learned directly from the Vayikra (19:15) "b'tzedek tisphot amisecha" [which are laws of beis din] there is also something which is learned indirectly from this verse by asmachta and allusions. That is the principle that a person should judge others favorably giving them the benefit of the doubt (l'kaf zecus) when the case can legitimately be understood in two opposing ways and the only way to decide between them is to rely on what is reasonable. ...
3) The next question is what exactly are the details? The Rambam makes a number of  different statements. For example he clearly indicates it is a desirable personality trait - but not a mitzva in these two places where he doesn't mention an obligation.
Rambam(Sefer haMitzvos 177):... Aside from the laws dealing with beis din, it is also learned from this verse of B'Tzedek that it is proper to judge his fellow man as innocent and not to understand his deeds and words other than being good.
Rambam(Hilchos De'os 5:7):A talmid chachom should have the midos that he does not scream and yell when he is talking to other like a bull or wild animal....and he should judge all men as being innocent and speak of their praise and not degrade them at all. He should love peace and pursue peace...
 However in Avos he makes distinctions based on the type of person - it is no longer "all men"- but judgments of innocence are an act of piety - not obligation. He does however omit the average person and lists 1) unknown person 2) tzadik 3) rasha.
Rambam(Avos 1:6): Judge all people as innocent. This means that if there is a man that you don't know whether he is righteous or wicked and you see him do something or say something that can be interpreted either as good or bad – you should understand it as good and not bad. However if you know the person to be an established tzadik and his deeds are good and he apparently does something that is bad and only by using a far fetched explanation can it be justified – then it is proper to assume that in fact it was good and do not suspect him of evil.... On the other hand a person well established as evil then it is best to avoid such a person and not to believe he is capable of doing anything good – if there is anyway of interpreting it as evil behavior. So if the person is not known to you and his deeds have not been determined to be good or bad – then it is necessary as an act of piety to judge him favorably.
However here in Mishneh Torah the Rambam again states all people
Rambam(Sanhedrin 23:10): When litigants are before the beis din they should be viewed as wicked and with the presumption that both sides are lying and judgments should be based on what seems correct. However when the trial is over and the litigants leave beis din they should be viewed by the judges as righteous people since they have accepted the judgmet of the court. And all people should be judged as innocent.
It would thus seem that the Rambam views dan l'chaf zechus as a principle of midos rather than halachic obligation.

That apparently is the view also of Rabbeinu Yonah for the average person. Viewing the tzadik as innoncent, however, is obligatory unless the evidence is unequivocal.

Rabbeinu Yonah(Shaarei Teshuva 3:218): A person who says something or does something and it is possible to judge his words or his actions either as being good or bad. If he is a G-d fearing man then truth demands that he be judged favorably even if his words or actions are reasonably closer and inclined to being bad.
And if he is of the average class of men, who guard themselves from sinning, but who occasionally succumb. then it is appropriate to cast aside the doubt and decide in favor of his worthiness. As our Sages of blessed memory have said, "One who adjudges his friend as worthy will himself be adjudged worthy by God" (Shabbath 127b). This is a positive commandment of the Torah, as it is said, "In righteousness shalt thou judge thy neighbor" (Leviticus 19: 15). And if the deed points to the side of incrimination, let it be doubtful in your eyes, and do not decide it in favor of incrimination.
But if most of the man's deeds are evil. or if you have established that the fear of God is not present in his heart. incline his deeds and his words to the side of incrimination. as it is said, "The righteous one considereth the house of the wicked, overthrowing the wicked to their ruin" (Proverbs 21 : 12). We have already interpreted this verse.
Thus it is only for the gadol/tzadik/talmid chachom is one obliged to believe - even reasonable - not not conclusive evidence of wrong doing.

4) However many poskim say that we don't have such people in our times. This is discussed by Minchas Yitzchok (3:112) and stated clearly by the Chavis Ya'ir (#62) and others.

5) All of the above however is only if no one might be hurt be assuming innocence. What is the halacha if there is a possibility of assuming innocence or assuming  that the person did teshuva - but if that judgment is mistaken someone might be hurt?  Clearly it changes the priorities.
Rabbi Dovid Castle [To Live among Friends] notes (page 790) If a teacher was caught child molesting, you should not give him the benefit of the doubt and decide that he probably will not do it anymore. That would be at the expense of others. Similarly if  someone has a history of violent behavior or mental illness, when it comes to shidduchim, you may not hide such information and give him the benefit of the doubt about his future behavior. If someone is suspected of swindling people you should not give him the benefit of the doubt and suggest to someone else to go into business with him. We should not over-emphasize our obligation not to speak lashon hara in situations where we are obliged to speak.
7) Chofetz Chaim strongly disagrees that dan lchaf zechus is only midos chassidus for the average person. He says that is a misunderstanding of the Rambam. Problem is that if the Rambam (Avos 1:6) is talking about the case of an unknown person which is midos chassidus - why doesn't the Rambam mention the normal case? Furthermore Rabbeinu Yonah's language also indicates  that it is midos chassidus for the average person - while he says it is a Torah obligation only for the Tzadik.
Chofetz Chaim  (Essen 3 Be'er Mayim Chaim 3): My good reader, don't try to refute my understanding by saying that the Rambam definitely disagreed with Rabbeinu Yonah, the Semag and the Semaj – and  held that "judging favorably" is only a proper personality trait but not a Torah mitzva. Don't insist that the Rambam held that judging favorably is only a good personality trait and not a Torah obligation based on the fact that the Rambam wrote at the end of his comment to Avos (1:6) that it was only midos chassidus (piety). That is in fact a mistaken understanding of the Rambam's view. The Rambam (Avos 1:6) there is only referring to the case where it is unknown whether the person is righteous or evil. In such a case it is clear that I have no obligation from the Torah to judge him favorably and if I do so it is only a good personality trait – not a Torah obligation. This also explains the Rambam (Hilchos De'os 5:7) where he says it is one of the characteristics of the talmid chachom to judge favorably. The clear inference is that is only a sign of good personality and is not obligatory. But the answer is that (Hilchos De'os 5:7) is also only describing the case of an unknown person.

In the text of the Chofetz Chaim (Essen 3) I quoted the language of Avos (1:6) "Judge everyone favorably" which seems to mean that everyone – even those who are strangers. In fact however it is only a Torah obligation in the case where we know the person is not evil but is an average person.  Proof for this understanding comes from the Rambam himself in Sefer HaMitzvos (177) who explicitly states, "Included in this verse (Yakira 19:15) is also the obligation to judge his friends (chaver) favorably. The clear implication of the word "obligation" is that we are dealing with the case when all men are obligated in this mitzva (not just talmidei chachomim) - since the 613 mitzvos the Rambam is describing applies to all Jews. We can see that our explanation is true from the Rambam in Avos (1:6) and in Hilchos De'os (5:7), that we mentioned above which mentions midos, simply says to "judge all men favorably"   - even if they are strangers. In contrast Shavuos (30a) and Sefer Mitzvos (177) which are describing the Torah obligation of the verse "With righteousness judge your fellow" say "judge your friends favorably". The word "friends" implies that you recognize that he isn't a wicked person.


  1. Many years ago I was discussing a very left wing MO rabbi with a Habad yeshiva mashgiach. The Chabad rabbi said that if you want to be meikil, you have to have a shtreimel and long beard, i.e. cannot do so if you are MO and clean shaven.
    I am reminded of this by your courageous efforts to question false and irrational notions, which may or may not be based on Gemaras, but in any case are dangerous and lead to destruction of society. If you were clean shaven and wore regular clothes, then this post would be seen as apikorsus.
    How we read people is not the same as how a shofet must judge people. In any case, the torah says we should not favour one side or other in court case, whether he is rich or poor.

  2. I hope the Chabad rabbi was not meikel, because he probably doesn't wear a shtreimel. ;)

  3. there seems to be a disconnect in the sources added. There are some big names of rishonim, then suddenly we hear of an unknown R Dovid Castle.
    Why isn't there [yet] a big authority who takes his position?

  4. @Eddie - what he says seems obvious - but I haven't found anyone else who even raised the question

    It seems that this issue is primarily midos chassidus and thus there is no great need to elaborate the details

  5. I am an American man, and I have decided to boycott American women. In a nutshell, American women are the most likely to cheat on you, to divorce you, to get fat, to steal half of your money in the divorce courts, don’t know how to cook or clean, don’t want to have children, etc. Therefore, what intelligent man would want to get involved with American women?

    American women are generally immature, selfish, extremely arrogant and self-centered, mentally unstable, irresponsible, and highly unchaste. The behavior of most American women is utterly disgusting, to say the least.

    This blog is my attempt to explain why I feel American women are inferior to foreign women (non-American women), and why American men should boycott American women, and date/marry only foreign (non-American) women.


    . ,/,/. /. /

  6. If a teacher was caught child molesting, you should not give him the benefit of the doubt.... Similarly if someone has a history of violent behavior or mental illness, when it comes to shidduchim, you may not hide such information and give him the benefit of the doubt about his future behavior. If someone is suspected of swindling people you should not give him the benefit of the doubt and suggest to someone else to go into business with him.

    I've never heard of this Rabbi Dovid Castle, and do not give him any sort of benefit of doubt. He took a huge leap of faith by extending and similarizing the laws of when one has a definite history, to one where someone has a suspected history. Mr. Castle (seeing that erred, I am now judging him as a non-rabbi) is correct about the cases where one was caught or has a real history. In the case of suspicions though, your advice to others can reflect your suspicions, to a certain degree, your advice cannot be definite and strong like when there is a knowledgeable history.

    (I mean no disrespect to Rabbi Dovid Castle, whomever he may be. I was making a point.)

  7. What should happen if a Rabbi doesn't adhere to what is encumbered upon him, such as not breaking confidences and speaking lochen Horah!
    Saying someone isbmentally ill when they are not. Judging them! Repeating information on heresay to that persons detriment! Sending private and confidential information to another without seeking permission! Sending false and inaccurate voluntary statements to a secular court to complain about Rabbinic colleagues!

    Is this behaviour of a Rabbi to be respected?
    Is it lochen Horah if I mention the Rabbi by name?

    Rabbi Jacob Biderman head of Chabad Schools and University perhaps you can give your opinion on this?

  8. @Eddie - Rav Sternbuch told me that if you want to be meikel than you first have to establish yourself as being machmir. A person - whether they have a beard and streimel or not - can not always be lenient.

  9. This is, of course, correct. Or it is a more formal statement of what the Chabad Rav told me. The argument I heard from the MO Rav, was that he is machmir on certain things, e.g. ribbis, where others are meikel. But it is not such a clear issue or balanced one. Shemitta is a good example. Some argue that Otzar BD is the best, since it also fulfills the mitzvah of eating shemitta produce. On the other hand, buying produce for nochrim, may in fact be Israeli produce, which isnt even covered by heter mechira, which they channel through Arab salesmen. others take the view that even if it is really produce of nochrim, it is still involving the issur of lo techanem.
    But this is a digression. The discussion on kaf z'chut is a very important one, yosher koach.

  10. Message to Eddie: This "Chaim" is not the regular "Chaim" you are used to insulting (and sometimes being insulted by)!

  11. Do you mean it is another guy altogether, or that my old adversary has done teshuva?

  12. An excellent question. The answer is both - it IS another guy altogether, but your old "conversationalist" DID do Teshuva on Yom Kippur!

  13. Is there a mitzvah to be stupid? Or to put it another way, don't stand idly by your brother's blood - does that include your own? It is possible that Gedaliah held like the Chofetz Chaim. In Yirmiyahu, we see that Gedaliah refused to listen to military intelligence that he was about to be assassinated:
    Ch 40: 13 Moreover
    Johanan the son of Kareah, and all the captains of the forces that
    were in the fields, came to Gedaliah to Mizpah, 14 and said
    unto him: 'Dost thou know that Baalis the king of the children of
    Ammon hath sent Ishmael the son of Nethaniah to take thy life?' But
    Gedaliah the son of Ahikam believed them not. 15 Then Johanan
    the son of Kareah spoke to Gedaliah in Mizpah secretly, saying: 'Let
    me go, I pray thee, and I will slay Ishmael the son of Nethaniah, and
    no man shall know it; wherefore should he take thy life, that all the
    Jews that are gathered unto thee should be scattered, and the remnant
    of Judah perish?' 16 But Gedaliah the son of Ahikam said unto
    Johanan the son of Kareah: 'Thou shalt not do this thing; for thou
    speakest falsely of Ishmael.'
    He judged Ishmael with kaf zchut. However, he paid a high price for this: He himself was killed. Many other Jews were killed. The remainder went to Egypt, and defied Yirmiyahu, and this was a lost opportunity for the Beit hamikdash to be rebuilt permanently.

    That is quite a high price to pay for the idea of judging people favorably. But many other disasters have occurred for this reason.
    Ironically, Hareidim have also judged non hareidim unfavourably, and in the case of WW2 this also led to disasters, such as the refusal to leave Europe on visas procured by "apikorsim" or even Mizrochim.

  14. @Eddie the Chofetz Chaim clearly states in 6:10 that he doesn't agree with your understanding. He cites Nida (61a) which mentions Gedaliah.

    He clearly states that one needs to take precautions as if the information might be true - but one is not allowed to believe it. He also states that there is no mitzva to be stupid.

  15. Thank you for directing me to that Gemara. It says "But owing to the fact that he should have taken note of the advice of Johanan the son of Kareah and did not do so Scripture regards him as though he had killed them"

    So there are cases when you act as if you believe, but should not believe (according to Gemara and CC). That is quite a difficult balance to achieve.


  17. it is not a very clear teshuva. An example: Someone wears a kippa and sits by a shul or yeshiva collecting tzedaka. He smells of alcohol, and is probably not even jewish. A Rav I knew would give him money, and i followed in the footsteps of the Rav. However, it is well known that drunks and drug users exploit this trick to get money from Jewish institutions. Should he have a chazaka of kshrut?

  18. I wish to ask a general question regarding halacha. It is not always possible to get psak halacha on call, when in a situation. Even in some cases a psak, perhaps by someone who is not necessarily a Gadol , or cannot/ will not ask a Gadol, and his psak is suspicious.

    Now here is my question. Ibn Ezra says that nothing inthe Torah can be irrational, and if it appears so, it should be reinterpreted until it is rational. Can an individual, in the position described above, do this with a limited halacha for a situation? i.e. if i don't think a psak is rational, or what i've learned about a situation is irrational, to do what i consider rational?

  19. @Eddie I don't understand your question. Do you mean a psak you consider irrational or one that you think is mistaken?

  20. It could be both. For example, if someoen has not benefited from the research on Kaf zchus of this post, they may have a basic knowledge of it, but be in a situation when they are not sure what to do.
    On the other hand, a Rav may give a psak which seems irrational, in which case can the person reject it? If one has knowledge to show that the psak is mistaken, then I suppose the question no longer applies.

  21. Let me be even more daring -
    if according to Ibn Ezra, we can reinterpret the Torah if it is irrational, why can't we do the same, with say, the Shulchan Aruch or the Mishnah berurah?

  22. @Eddie why don't you give an example?

  23. I think the best example is along the lines of what is being discussed. One may learn several things, eg dan l'kaf zchut; not to malbin panim/ humiliate someone; and not to see the devious side of someone's actions. In fact, the 2nd case is akin to murder. Now for a layman like me, these seem like hard and fast rules. If i am in a situation where someone is acting with evil intentions, but showing a face of innocence, it may be harmful to myself/family or others. Why should i risk personal injury rather than expose such a person? Again I might not have R' Shternbuch on touch-dial to tell me the correct halacha.


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