Is it right to criticise people harshly?…ask the rabbi

January 11, 2016 by Rabbi Raymond Apple
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Is it right to criticise people harshly?


Q. Is it right to criticise people harshly?

A. There is a right way to criticise, and a wrong way.

Rabbi Raymond Apple

Rabbi Raymond Apple

The curse of the Tochechah in the Torah are read in a soft, almost inaudible voice. The Reader does not enjoy pronouncing harsh words or rebuke. He cannot imagine God derives any pleasure from the punishments He threatens. God does not criticise out of hatred, but out of love; “whom the Lord loves, He chastises” (Prov. 3:12).

For those who enjoy belittling others and their deeds, there is a parable in Mendele Mocher Seforim, the “grandfather of Yiddish literature”, in his presentation of the old-time shtetl.

Mendele writes about the women’s wick-drawing circle, which meets in one of the poverty-stricken houses of the village. There the women draw out wicks for synagogue candles, while they improvise prayers to the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Hardly one of them can read or write. They know no Hebrew, apart from expressions incorporated into Yiddish. Yet they sway to and fro, repeating the words of a prayer-leader:

“Judge of the world, merciful God! These candles we make for the synagogue, for the sake of Your great and holy Name, and for the sake of the souls of all the holy ones-may they awaken the sainted patriarchs and matriarchs, and cause them to rise and intercede for us, that no evil, pain or suffering be visited upon us; that the light of our husbands and of our children be not put out before their time, God forbid…

“As we draw out this wick for our Father Abraham, whom You saved from the fiery furnace of Nimrod, so purify us from sin, that our souls may come before You unsullied as on the day we were born.”

“Now,” demands Mendele indignantly, “let him laugh who dares. Let him, if he can utter the words, say it is all foolishness. No! May there be more such candles, more of these pure utterances of love for Torah and for all mankind.”

And he proceeds: “And where do you find all this, I ask? Among women who seem coarse and ignorant, little souls of small account, women you would pass by in the market-place without a second glance!”

“Let the mockers hear them,” he cries; “let them know what a Jewish heart really is!”

And if the reader should say in surprise: “But you, Mendele, are the biggest of the mockers, the one who criticise the most!” – then Mendele replies, “But I criticise them out of love!”


Q. Is it true that someone who visits the sick takes away a sixtieth of the person’s illness?

A. This idea seems to be linked to a g’matri’a. When Joseph heard of his father Jacob’s illness, he was told, “Hinneh avicha choleh”, “Behold, your father is sick” (Gen. 48:1). The numerical value of “hinneh” (“behold”) is 60 (5+5+50).

Joseph’s visit to his father had a positive effect on the patriarch’s morale and “Israel (Jacob) strengthened himself and sat on the bed” – “al ha-mittah” (Gen. 48:2). In g’matri’a, “ha-mittah” is 59 (5+40+9+5).

Visiting the sick must, however, not be allowed to irk the patient. The visitor must know when to come and when to go, what to say and what not to say.


Q. I am left-handed and this caused me problems at school many years ago, where they tried to force me to use my right hand and in fact the teacher hit me with her ruler if she caught me writing with my left hand. I just wondered if there was a Jewish angle on the issue.

A. Very much so. From Biblical times onwards there appears to have been a feeling that the right hand was more important. Taking a few examples almost at random, Jacob called his youngest son Benjamin, “son of the right hand” (Gen. 35:18). He put his right hand on Ephraim’s head (Gen. 48:14). Batsheva sat at Solomon’s right hand (I Kings 2:19).

The Psalmist says of God, “Because He is at my right hand, I shall not be moved” (Psalm 16:8). The famous oath says, “If I forget you, Jerusalem, let my right hand wither” (Psalm 137:5). In a metaphorical fashion, God is said to have a right hand; “Your right hand, O Lord, is glorious” (Ex. 156).

Halachah likewise attached greater significance to the right hand because it was regarded as the stronger hand. The wedding ring is placed on the first finger of the right hand. The m’zuzah is placed on the right-hand doorpost. T’fillin are placed by the right hand (the stronger) on the left arm.

The prejudice against the left hand led the Kabbalah to believe that the “sitra achra” – the other (i.e. evil) side, was “sitra smola”, the left side. Obviously this prejudice was found in many cultures; the Latin word “sinister”, symbolic of hidden evil, literally means “left”.

However, Jewish tradition must not be used to justify well-meaning but unwise attempts to force children out of left-handedness, whether by smacking them with a ruler or otherwise. The Jewish rule is clear: if a person is left-handed, that, for them, is their stronger hand, and the stronger hand in that case is used to place t’fillin on the weaker arm, the right one.

In Judaism, therefore, those who are left-handed are not regarded as left out.

Rabbi Raymond Apple served for 32 years as the chief minister of the Great Synagogue, Sydney, Australia’s oldest and most prestigious congregation. He was Australia’s highest profile rabbi and held many public roles. He is now retired and lives in Jerusalem. 

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