Placing a Stumbling Block Before the Blind Person: An In-Depth Analysis
Hershey H. Friedman, PhD
Placing a Stumbling Block Before
the Blind Person:
An In-Depth Analysis
by Hershey H. Friedman, PhD
Professor of Business, Brooklyn College
© 2002 H. H. Friedman
The Bible states (Leviticus 19:14): "You shall not curse the deaf nor place a stumbling block before the blind; you shall fear your God - I am your Lord." In Hebrew, the sin of placing a stumbling block before a blind person is referred to as lifnei iver lo sitten michshol (before the blind do not place a stumbling block), or succinctly as lifnei iver.
This verse is somewhat perplexing: Why single out blind people for this law? Was placing stumbling blocks before blind people a prevalent practice in ancient times? Furthermore, there are a large number of laws in the Bible that deal with causing injury to others, blind or not. This may explain why the Talmud felt the need to give the verse a more profound meaning. Thus, the word "blind" is interpreted metaphorically to represent any person or group that is unaware, unsuspecting, ignorant, or morally blind, and individuals are prohibited from taking advantage of them or tempting them to do wrong. It is interesting to note that there is a dispute as to whether the verse should be interpreted literally at all. Apparently, some sages felt that there was no need to have a special law against causing blind people to stumble since there are a sufficient number of laws protecting all individuals from malicious harm (see Minchas Chinuch, 232:4). Others believe in the principal that Biblical verses maintain their literal meaning even when the sages use the oral tradition to add additional connotations.
The principle of lifnei iver prohibits one from giving bad advice to another person. Thus, one should not advise another party that it is in his interest to sell his field in order to buy a donkey, when his true intention is to buy the field for himself. By concealing the ulterior motive of his advice, he has violated the principle of lifnei iver (Midrash Sifra, Leviticus 19:14). In fact, the Midrash explains the reason the verse ends with the warning about fearing God: Human beings do not know whether advice proffered to them by friends is good or bad. Often, advice is given with an ulterior motive. Only God knows the true motive of the advice giver.
In addition, the above verse is considered to be a prohibition against helping or causing another to sin. Thus, placing any kind of prohibited temptation in front of someone would not be allowed. For example, providing an individual with a prohibited food, e.g., wine to a Nazirite (who takes a vow which prohibits him from drinking wine, cutting hair, or ritually contaminating himself by coming into contact with the dead), would be a violation of this commandment (Babylonian Talmud, Pesachim 22b). Rabbi Ashi, who owned forests, was permitted to sell wood to heathens who were fire-worshippers only because the majority of purchased wood is used for kindling, not for idolatry (Babylonian Talmud, Nedarim 62b). However, to sell the wood directly for the purpose of allowing pagans to practice their idolatrous practices would be prohibited. Lending someone money without having any witnesses present is also a violation of lifnei iver since it might ultimately tempt the debtor to deny that he or she borrowed any money (Babylonian Talmud, Baba Metzia 75b). If one person lends another money with interest, the borrower and the lender have also violated lifnei iver since each one enables the other to commit the sin of usury (Babylonian Talmud, Bava Metzia 75b). The Talmud (Babylonian Talmud, Moed Katan 17a) also prohibits one from hitting an older son because of lifnei iver. An older son might angrily retaliate and strike his father, which is a very serious sin.
One should not entrust animals to a shepherd, if there is a strong possibility the shepherd will allow them to graze on other people's property (Babylonian Talmud, Bava Metzia 5b). Even purchasing milk, wool, or kids from shepherds was not permitted since they might have stolen these items from the cattle under their care (Babylonian Talmud, Bava Kama 118b).
Selling anything that has the potential of causing harm to others is prohibited. Thus, the Talmud (Babylonian Talmud, Avodah Zarah 16a) states: "It is forbidden to sell [idolaters] bears, lions, or anything which may injure the public. One shall not build with them a basilica, a scaffold, a stadium, or a platform" In Talmudic times, wild animals were used in stadiums to kill people for sport; basilicas were used to try people and, if sentenced to death, the defendant was thrown off it. Individuals were also thrown off platforms to kill them. Rebbi owned white mules and was rebuked by Rabbi Pinchas b. Yair for owning such vicious and dangerous animals. He offered to sell them but was told by Rabbi Pinchas that he would then be in violation of lifnei iver (Babylonian Talmud, Chullin 7b).
According to Abaye, the reason for marking graves is to ensure that priests or pilgrims would not inadvertently become ritually unclean (Babylonian Talmud, Moed Katan 5a). When the Temple in Jerusalem was standing, priests and pilgrims bringing sacrifices had to maintain ritual purity. Leaving an unmarked grave that can result in the ritual contamination of priests and pilgrims is a violation of placing the stumbling block -the grave- before the blind, i.e., the priests and pilgrims.
There is a Midrash (Midrash Hagadol, Leviticus 19:14) that states that individuals who "strengthen the hand of sinners" or assist others to commit a misdeed have transgressed the prohibition against "placing a stumbling block before the blind." One might argue that remaining quiet in the face of evil, i.e., not blowing the whistle on iniquities, strengthens the hand of wrongdoers.
Nehama Leibowitz (1983, p. 178), the renowned Bible teacher, offers the widest extension of the law:
"But the Torah teaches us that even by sitting at home doing nothing, by complete passivity and divorcement from society, one cannot shake off responsibility for what is transpiring in the world at large, for the iniquity, violence and evil there. By not protesting, "not marking the graves" and danger spots, you have become responsible for any harm arising therefrom, and have violated the prohibition: "Thou shalt not put a stumbling block before the blind…"
The following are some common business situations that might involve the prohibition of lifnei iver.
(1) Buildings should be made accessible to the handicapped. Many office buildings have been built without ramps and railings and thereby cause the blind and other handicapped to "stumble." There very well may be an obligation on society to provide large-print books, books in Braille, and special schools for the disabled. This is arguably a modern interpretation of the verse but something to be considered.
(2) Accountants and auditors that are not careful with financial statements and thereby mislead others, e.g., investors or creditors, are guilty of lifnei iver. Investors and creditors rely on financial statements and have a right to assume that they are indeed accurate records. Moreover, accountants who purposely "cook the books" are guilty of deception and lifnei iver by helping their clients to sin.
(3) Advertising that is intended to elicit envy or create the need for showy luxury products on the part of the consumer may also be problematic. In the classic medieval ethics (mussar) work, Orchos Tzadikim (Chapter 14: Jealousy), the author notes that jealousy comes from observing what friends own. We become envious of a friend's garment, food, house, and/or wealth, and envy leads to coveting. Thus, individuals who purposely flaunt wealth in order to arouse the envy of their fellows are guilty of lifnei iver. Sadly, the newspapers are filled with stories of teenagers that are killed for a designer shirt, fancy sneakers, or a gold chain. The Orchos Tzadikim recommends a life of moderation and simplicity so as not to arouse the envy of others.
(4) Running advertisements that are intended to mislead the public are violations of lifnei iver since this is tantamount to providing people with bad advice. Similarly, salespeople or consultants who are asked for advice about products and recommend the item that provides the highest commissions are also guilty of lifnei iver. The individual who possesses the expertise is obligated to provide accurate information and not cause the "blind" client or customer to "stumble" by providing bad information. This would include stockbrokers who recommend risky financial securities in order to generate a large commission.
(5) Bait and switch advertising is a practice in which a retailer promotes an item at an extremely low price (the "bait") in order to attract the customer to the store. When the customer is in the store and attempts to purchase the advertised item, s/he is informed that the item is not available and/or is told that there are better, but "slightly" more expensive, substitutes on hand. This unethical practice is clearly a "stumbling block" to the unknowing customer.
(6) Giving a bribe or kickback to a buyer is a violation of lifnei iver. Buyers are supposed to act impartially on behalf of their employers; kickbacks encourage them to act deceitfully.
(7) Selling products that are dangerous to the public is a violation of lifnei iver. Certainly, selling weapons to criminals would be illegal. Providing cigarettes to minors would certainly be wrong, even if not prohibited by secular law. There are a number of rabbis who feel that smoking itself is a violation of lifnei iver since it harms the innocent through second-hand smoke.
(8) Being a fence and buying stolen goods would be a violation of lifnei iver.
(9) Keeping quiet when wrongs are being committed by an organization is also tantamount to "placing a stumbling block ..."
The seemingly simple verse prohibiting the placement of stumbling blocks before the blind is actually a succinct statement encompassing many important rules of ethics and morality. It is an admonition not to take advantage of the weak and the helpless or to place temptation in the path of those who may be morally weak. It is also a call to action demanding that society and people do everything possible help the weak, the vulnerable, and the helpless. It is a fundamental principle of business ethics and is on par with such essential principles as "The stranger who resides with you shall be treated the same as the native-born and you love him as yourself" (Leviticus 19:34) and "loving your fellow human being as yourself" (Leviticus 19: 18).
Leibowitz, Nehama (1983). Studies in Vayikra (Leviticus). Jerusalem: World Zionist Organization.