The Prohibition of Engaging in Contentious Dispute (Part II)

  • Rav Yehuda Shaviv




shiur 11b-

The Prohibition of engaging in Contentious dispute

Rav Yehuda Shaviv





            Rabbeinu Yona of Gerona in his Sha'arei Teshuva (III, 58) records a list of prohibitions connected to speech, including:


"That he be not like Korach and his company" (Bemidbar 17:5) – Our Rabbis, of blessed memory, said: "He who is unyielding in a dispute violates a negative command, as it is written: 'That he be not like Korach and his company.'"


            Remaining in a state of contentious dispute is so severe that "one is permitted to speak lashon ha-ra about a contentious person,[1] as it is stated: 'But me, even me your servant, and Tzadok the priest, and Benayahu the son of Yehoyada, and your servant Shlomo, has he not called' (I Melakhim 1:26)" (Yerushalmi Pe'a 4b).


            This general prohibition to be unyielding in dispute is qualified by what Rabbeinu Yona says in the very next paragraph:


He who does not stand firmly in dispute with those who set themselves on a path that is not good and those who draw iniquity, is punished for their sins… And he violates a negative prohibition, as it is stated: "You shall not suffer sin on his account"…. (Vayikra 19:17)


            This matter requires examination, for surely we learn from Moshe Rabbeinu that one should not stand firmly in dispute even with those who set themselves on a path that is not good, as he tried to appease Datan and Aviram. And it is from this incident involving Moshe that Reish Lakish derived the law applying to all people that a person should not stand firmly in dispute, even when justice is on his side.[2]


            In any event, it follows from what Rabbeinu Yona says that the prohibition against contentious dispute is unlike other prohibitions. For otherwise there would be no room for an allowance for the sake of preventing another person from sinning, for the rule is that we do not say to a person: "Transgress a prohibition in order to prevent another person from transgressing a prohibition.” Rather, it is extremely undesirable behavior, primarily on account of its consequences, but if it might possibly lead to positive consequences, not only is such behavior permitted, but, according to Rabbeinu Yona, it is a mitzva.[3]


            Another source which sees contention as subject to a prohibition is the Semag, though this is not unequivocal either. The Semag writes (negative commandment, nos. 156-157):


It is written in Parashat Kedoshim: “You shall not defraud (ta'ashok) your neighbor, neither shall you rob (tigzol) him” (Vayikra 19:13). Who is guilty of gezel? One who forcibly seizes money from another person…. Who is guilty of oshek? One who came into possession of another person's money with that other person's permission, and when the latter demands it back, he keeps the money for himself and does not return it…. Even though this is the plain understanding, nevertheless Rava said in chapter Ha-Mekabbel: “Oshek and gezel are one and the same thing. The Torah calls it by two names so that one should transgress two negative commands.” According to this it is one prohibition, and in its place we count that which we learned in chapter Chelek: “Rav said: 'He who is unyielding in a dispute violates a negative command'…."


            That is to say, since we count the two prohibitions as one, a slot has been cleared in the count of negative commands, and we can count the prohibition of contentious behavior as a negative command. It may be asked: What is the specific connection between the prohibition of contention and these two prohibitions? If it is fit to be counted as a separate prohibition, why should we put off counting it until after we clarify that the prohibition of oshek is not counted as a separate prohibition? It might be suggested that one who fails to pay another person what is due him gives rise to contention, but this requires further examination.




            It might be possible to suggest an explanation in light of the following statement found in the She'iltot. Rav Achai states in his second she'ilta in Parashat Korach (she'ilta 131):


The people of the house of Israel are forbidden to act contentiously, for when people remain in a state of contention, they come to hate each other, and the Torah said: "You shall not hate your brother in your heart" (Vayikra 19:17).


            Instead of the term "le-hachazik be-machloket" ("to be unyielding in dispute") the She'iltot uses the term "la-asot machloket" ("to act contentiously"). The term "le-hachazik be-machloket" appears, however, in the continuation of the passage which includes a citation of the statements of Reish Lakish and Rav.[4] But his main novelty is that he sees the prohibition of contentious dispute as a safeguard against the prohibition of hatred in the heart.


            Based on this principle we can better understand the words of Rabbeinu Yona. If the entire prohibition of contention is a safeguard against the prohibition of hatred, there is room to permit and even obligate contentious dispute, when such contention will prevent hatred. For if a person sees his fellow committing a transgression, but refrains from stirring up an argument and rebuking him – this is liable to lead to hatred. For surely it is explicitly stated in the Torah in Parashat Kedoshim in the verse dealing with the prohibition to hate: "You shall not hate your brother in your heart; you shall certainly rebuke your neighbor, and not suffer sin on his account" (Vayikra 19:17). The Torah first established the goal (which is also the prohibition) – "You shall not hate your brother in your heart." But how can the Torah command about hatred in the heart; surely such a feeling is largely out of a person's control! Therefore the Torah comes and shows the way. How can one prevent hatred? By giving rebuke. For hatred is created against a certain background. Don't keep your hatred in your heart, but rather "you shall certainly rebuke" and thus "you shall not suffer sin on his account" (this is also the way that the Ramban explained the verse).


            Based on this we can understand the words of the Semag. One who is unyielding in dispute transgresses a prohibition. It stands to reason that the prohibition is that of hatred in the heart, for dispute leads to hatred. And the prohibition of hatred was already counted as a separate prohibition. But now that the place of the prohibition of oshek has been cleared, we can say that one who is unyielding in dispute transgresses a separate prohibition. And the truth is that there is no more contentious behavior than oshek, and one who engages in oshek also causes his victim to be unyielding in dispute with him.


If we see dispute as something that leads to hatred, it is possible to distinguish between different types of dispute, as we find in the Mishna:


Any dispute that is for the sake of Heaven is destined to endure; one that is not for the sake of Heaven is not destined to endure. Which is a dispute that is for the sake of Heaven? The disputes between Hillel and Shammai. Which is a dispute that is not for the sake of Heaven? The

dispute of Korach and all his company. (Avot 5:17)


            The desirable type of dispute, like that of Shammai and Hillel, did not lead to hatred, as we find in a Tosefta cited in Yevamot 14b:


Although Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel were in disagreement [regarding laws pertaining to marriage and its dissolution]…- what the one forbade, the other permitted - nevertheless, [men affiliated with] Beit Shammai did not refrain from marrying women of [i.e., associated with] Beit Hillel, nor did [men affiliated with] Beit Hillel refrain from marrying women of Beit Shammai. This should teach that they showed love and friendship toward one another, thus putting into practice the injunction: "Love you truth, but also peace"(Zekharya 8:19).




            As mentioned, assuring one safeguard strengthens another: As a safeguard protecting against hatred – refrain from contentious dispute; as a safeguard protecting against dispute – refrain from separating into different groupings. Thus explains the Rambam:


This commandment[5] also includes [a prohibition] against there being two courts which follow different customs in a single city, since this can cause great strife. [Because of the similarity in the Hebrew roots,] the prohibition against gashing ourselves ["lo titgodedu"] [can be interpreted] to mean: "Do not separate into various different groupings [aguddot aguddot]." (Hilkhot Avoda Zara 12:14)


            Forming into a single group is the key to redemption, as our patriarch, Yaakov, said to his sons: "Gather yourselves together, that I may tell you that which shall befall you in the last days" (Bereishit 49:1). And our Sages expounded: "He commanded them about dispute. He said to them: May you all be a single gathering … And the children of Israel formed a single grouping – they prepared themselves for the redemption" (Bereishit Rabba 98). Yaakov was aware of the danger of contentious dispute which almost consumed his entire house, and so his testament to the house of Israel was: "May you all be a single gathering."


This article appeared in Daf Kesher, Parashat Balak, 17 Tammuz 5748, no. 140.


(Translated by David Strauss)


[1] When speaking lashon ha-ra can help alleviate the contention ("Ze ha-Sha'ar" commentary, ad loc.).

[2] Perhaps Rabbeinu Yona maintains that Reish Lakish and Rav disagree about this. The fact that the Rif does not mention Reish Lakish's exposition indicates that he rules against him.

[3] According to this, there is a hierarchy of these three variables. Speaking lashon ha-ra is a serious matter, but it is permitted in order to prevent dispute. Dispute is a serious matter, but it is permitted in order to permit another person from sinning.

[4] As opposed to the Rif who does not cite the words of Reish Lakish, the She'iltot mentions all the related statements.

[5] The prohibition of "lo titgodedu," which according to its plain sense forbids gashing oneself as a sign of mourning or as part of an idolatrous rite. See Hilkhot Avoda Zara 12:13.