Yesterday, we noted the Mishna’s description in Masekhet Yoma (1:5) of the oath administered to the kohen gadol before Yom Kippur, whereby he swore to offer the incense on Yom Kippur in the manner required by the halakhic tradition. Due to the influence of the heretical Sadducee sect, which advocated a different procedure for the incense offering, it was necessary for the elders of the priestly tribe to force an oath upon the kohen gadol before Yom Kippur, to ensure that this ritual would be done properly. The Mishna states that after the kohen gadol took this oath, both he and the elders wept. The Gemara (Yoma 19b) explains that the kohen gadol wept because he was suspected of heresy, and the elders wept due to the gravity of the prohibition of “chosheid bi-ksheirim” – wrongly suspecting an innocent person.
The question arises, since the elders were required to administer the oath in light of the influence wielded by the Sadducees, why did they weep? Undoubtedly, their suspicion was entirely justified under the circumstances, and they were in fact required to impose this oath upon the kohen gadol in order to ensure the integrity of the Yom Kippur service. Why, then, did they cry? Since they did precisely what they needed to do, why did they fear the consequences of violating the prohibition of “chosheid bi-ksheirim”?
Rav Yitzchak Hutner (Reshimot Leiv – Sukkot, pp. 81-82) explained that the elders’ weeping was a necessary prerequisite for their suspicion to be allowed. In the exceptional instances when an interpersonal offense is permitted, it must be accompanied by discomfort. Rav Hutner gives as an example Rabbenu Yona’s ruling in Sha’arei Teshuva (3:58) that one is allowed to speak lashon ha-ra about a ba’al machaloket – somebody who instigates fights. The Chafetz Chayim, in Shemirat Ha-lashon, qualifies this ruling, noting that somebody who regularly speaks lashon ha-ra may not follow this leniency. When lashon ha-ra is permitted, it may not be spoken joyfully, or even casually, and it may be spoken only with a degree of unease and even anguish. Therefore, somebody who frequently relishes the opportunity to share negative information about his fellow may not speak lashon ha-ra even in situations when it would ordinarily be allowed.
Similarly, Rav Hutner explained, although the elders were permitted – and in fact required – to suspect the kohen gadol and impose this oath, it needed to be done with grief, with a degree of emotional pain. Rav Hutner added that this is the reason why the Mishna bothered to tell us about their weeping, a detail which does not, at first glance, appear to relate to the required procedure to prepare for the Yom Kippur service. This weeping was an outright halakhic requirement, as suspecting the kohen gadol was allowed only if it was done with a degree of inner turmoil. The Mishna is teaching us that even when we have a need to act suspiciously and question the innocence of a fellow Jew, this must not be done with the satisfaction of feeling superior, but must rather be accompanied by genuine feelings of discomfort. We should relish and seize opportunities to judge our fellow Jews favorably, and lament the occasions when we are compelled to be suspicious.