Lifnei Iver: The Prohibition against Entrapment
The Torah (Vaykira 19:14) prohibits placing a stumbling block in front of a blind person. This prohibition is commonly known as lifnei iver (before a blind person). Talmudic and post-Talmudic literature presents numerous applications to this prohibition. In this issue, we will discuss some of those applications and how they relate to practical life.
The Nature of the Prohibition
The Midrash, Sifra, Kedoshim no. 2, applies the prohibition of lifnei iver to giving improper advice to someone who is "blind" on that matter. One example that the Midrash provides is advising someone that a certain woman is permitted to marry a kohen when in reality she is not. Another example that the Midrash provides is telling someone to travel early in the morning knowing that he will be attacked by bandits.
The Gemara, Avodah Zarah 6b, applies the prohibition of lifnei iver to a case of enabling someone else to violate a transgression. The Gemara's example is providing a cup a wine to a nazir (someone who has taken an oath prohibiting him from drinking wine). The Gemara states that the biblical prohibition of lifnei iver is only violated if one provides the wine in a situation where the nazir has no other reasonable means of attaining wine. If he has other means of attaining the wine, there is no biblical violation of lifnei iver. Tosfaot, ad loc., s.v Minayin, add that one only violates lifnei iver in a case similar to providing a cup of wine, where the assumption is that he is going to drink it, or in a case where the individual states explicitly what he is going to do with the item. However, if a Jew asks someone for something that can be used for a transgression or for something permissible, there is no prohibition to give it to him and suspect that he will violate the transgression.
The Midrash and the Gemara provide two different methods of violating lifnei iver by causing someone to commit a transgression. In the Midrash's case, the "blind person" ends up violating a transgression because he was misinformed about the transgression. In the Gemara's case, the "blind person" violates a transgression knowingly, but only with the help of another.
There are a number of practical differences between these two methods. First, R. David ben Zimra (1480-1573, commonly known as Radvaz) in his responsa, (2:796, printed at the end of Vol. II) notes that the Gemara's limitation of the prohibition to cases where the "blind person" would not otherwise be able to violate the transgression only applies to the enabling method. If someone instructs a "blind person" that he is permitted to marry a certain individual who is really prohibited to him, he violates lifnei iver, even though this person has the option of marrying other women.
Second, Tosafot, Avodah Zarah 22a, s.v. Teipuk, cite the opinion of Rabbeinu Tam that one can violate lifnei iver on a biblical level by enabling someone to violate a rabbinic prohibition. Ramban, Avodah Zarah 22a, s.v. Ha D'Akshinan, disagrees and maintains that one cannot violate the biblical violation of lifnei iver by causing someone to violate a rabbinic prohibition. R. Shneur Z. Pradkin (1830-1902), Torat Chesed, Orach Chaim no. 5, suggests that one can only violate the biblical prohibition of lifnei iver through causation of a rabbinic violation if the violation is caused by misinforming the "blind person." If the violation is caused by enabling the blind person, it is not considered a biblical violation of lifnei iver.
R. Moshe Feinstein (1895-1986), Igrot Moshe, Yoreh De'ah 1:3, presents a similar approach to that of R. Pradkin and explains that the two different methods of lifnei iver belong in different categories of mitzvot. Misinforming an individual is a violation of an interpersonal mitzvah (bein adam l'chaveiro). Enabling someone to violate a transgression is a violation of a mitzvah between man and G-d. As such, if someone misinforms someone else, he violates the biblical prohibition of lifnei iver, regardless of whether there is an actual violation of a biblical law. However, if someone enables another person to violate a transgression, the severity of the violation of lifnei iver can only be as severe as the actual transgression that he enabled the "blind person" to perform.
Third, Chaim C. Medini (1832-1904), S'dei Chemed Vol. II, pp. 294-296, discusses the question of whether one violates lifnei iver merely for placing the "stumbling block" if the "blind person" never stumbles over it. Ostensibly, it should depend on which method of lifnei iver we are dealing with. If a person misinforms someone else, it should be considered a violation regardless of whether the victim acts based on that information. If a person hands a cup of wine to a nazir and the nazir decides not to drink it, it is arguable that since there is no actual transgression, the one who gave the cup does not violate lifnei iver.
Assisting without Enabling
Tosafot, Shabbat 3a, s.v. Baba, write that even in situations where there is no biblical violation of lifnei iver (such as a case where the violator has another means of violating the prohibition), there is nevertheless a prohibition against assisting someone in performance of a transgression. Tosafot note that this prohibition is rabbinic in nature.
R. Akiva Eger, Glosses to Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh De'ah 181:6, notes that the prohibition against assisting someone in performance of a transgression is result oriented. If one assists someone else in performance of a transgression in a way that helps minimize the severity of the prohibition, the prohibition against assistance does not apply. The specific example R. Eger discusses is one where a woman assists a man to cut his pei'ot (the hair on the corners of his face). If someone cuts his own pei'ot, he violates two transgressions: one as the cutter and one as the recipient. If someone else cuts his pei'ot, both of them violate a single transgression. However, a woman is not subject to this prohibition and therefore, if she cuts the pei'ot of a man, the man violates one transgression and she does not violate any transgression. R. Eger notes that if she were asked to cut his pei'ot and agreed, she would not violate the prohibition against assisting someone in performance of a transgression. The reason is that if she were to refrain from cutting his pei'ot, he may cut them himself. Therefore, she is actually helping him minimize the severity of the transgression because if he were to cut them himself, he would violate two transgressions. By the woman cutting his pei'ot, he only violates one transgression.
R. Moshe Shternbuch, Teshuvot V'Hanhagot, Orach Chaim 1:358, applies similar logic to a question that commonly occurs in the area of outreach. Suppose someone wants to invite someone who is not (yet) observant for a Shabbat meal in order to teach him about Shabbat. However, this person will likely drive to the Shabbat meal on Shabbat. Is it permissible to invite this person, knowing that he will violate Shabbat by driving in order to attend the meal?
R. Shternbuch notes that there is no violation of the biblical prohibition of lifnei iver because one does not enable this person to drive on Shabbat by inviting him to the meal. He has the option of driving regardless of the invitation. Regarding the rabbinic prohibition against assistance in performance of a mitzvah, one must examine the end result. Since the purpose of inviting this person is to bring him closer to Judaism, inviting him is considered bringing him closer to Torah rather than assisting him in the performance of transgressions.
The Actual Placing of a Stumbling Block
The most obvious application of this prohibition is actually not that obvious. There is a dispute regarding whether one violates lifnei iver for placing an actual stumbling block in front of a blind person. R. Eliyahu Mizrachi (ca. 1450-1526), Vayikra 19:14, writes that the verse cannot be understood literally. R. Yehuda Rosanes (1657-1727), Mishneh LaMelech, Hilchot Malveh V'Loveh 4:6, suggests that the prohibition against placing an actual stumbling block is not derived from the aforementioned verse, but rather from the verse that curses someone who trips a blind person who is walking on the road (Devarim 27:18).
R. Yosef Babad (ca. 1800-1874), Minchat Chinuch no. 232, disagrees with R. Rosanes and maintains that the verse must also be understood literally and that one does violate lifnei iver for placing an actual stumbling block. R. Moshe Feinstein, op. cit., also assumes that placing an actual stumbling block constitutes a violation of lifnei iver. He states that this case serves as the model for the bein adam l'chaveiro aspect of lifnei iver.