What Jewish Sources Show Us That Hypocrisy Is Wrong?

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Dear JITC-

What Jewish sources show us that hypocrisy is wrong?

Thank you,
Dave

Dear Dave-

I have to say, I really like this question. And, unlike many other questions, I don’t think I’ve been asked this before. The easiest reply might be simply to cite Exodus 23:7, which enjoins us to distance ourselves from falsehood, but let’s see what we can find that specifically addresses hypocrisy.

The challenge is, how would one say “hypocrisy” in Biblical Hebrew? Isaiah 9:16 arguably says that God won’t have mercy on hypocrites; that’s how the Malbim understands the word ChNF here but the Metzudas Dovid says it means people who flatter evildoers.

Similarly, Psalms 34:14 – the famous verse that says “keep your tongue from speaking evil and your lips from speaking deceit.” The Radak understands mirmah (“deceit”) to mean hypocrisy, though not every commentator interprets it that way.

Apparently, in the absence of a Biblical word that has a one-to-one correspondence with the English word “hypocrisy,” we’re going to need more than a single word to find some definitive cases. An example of a clear reference to hypocrisy can be found in Psalms 41:6-7. There, David complains that his enemies came to visit him while he was ill. They pretended to be concerned with his welfare but they were really coming to see how close he might be to death. These two verses convey the idea of hypocrisy without using any word that might be considered a synonym for it.

This example speaks only to David’s personal experiences but other verses can be seen as more general condemnations of hypocrisy. Consider, for example Jeremiah 7:9-10, in which the prophet castigates people who steal, kill, commit adultery, swear falsely and follow idols, only then to go and pray in the Temple and justify that they’re “saved” because of this act. (In verse 11, Jeremiah says that such people treat the Temple like “a den of thieves,” a phrase that may be familiar from elsewhere.) Likewise, take a look at Isaiah 66:17, in which the prophet criticizes those who purify themselves to go eat in the gardens, only to chow down on pork and other detestable things once they get there.

This latter example is particularly apt when one considers that the archetypical example of hypocrisy is derived from the prohibition against eating pork. No, really. The Torah in Leviticus 11:4-7 lists four animals that display only one of the two signs of kosher animals; the camel, the hyrax and the hare chew their cud[1] but they don’t have split hooves, while the pig has split hooves and doesn’t chew its cud. These animals are equally non-kosher but the pig is the “poster child” for non-kosher animals because its kosher feature – split hooves – is external. It sticks its foot out as if to say, “Look at me – I’m kosher” when it really isn’t. So, in addition to these animals’ shared attribute of being non-kosher, the pig has the additional defect of being a hypocrite. (See Bereishis Rabbah 65:1, cited by Rashi on Genesis 26:34.)

The Gemara condemns hypocrisy in a number of places. In tractate Pesachim (113b), the Talmud lists three types of people that God hates; the first of these is a person who says one thing with his mouth while thinking a different thing in his heart – in other words, a hypocrite. (The idea that this is a person whom God “hates” is some pretty strong language!) Similarly, tractate Yoma (72b) tells us that if a Torah scholar’s insides don’t match his outsides then he’s no Torah scholar at all.

The Rambam codifies these ideas as a prohibition against hypocrisy in the Mishneh Torah. In Hilchos Deios (2:6), he writes:

“One may not say one thing with his mouth and think a different thing in his heart. Rather, his internal self must match his external self and what he feels in his heart must match what he expresses with his mouth.”

There are many other sources. For example, Yehu was both rewarded and punished for killing King Ahab (in II Kings 10:30 and Hoshea 1:4, respectively). This was because Yehu was not completely innocent of Ahab’s crimes. The Semak, cited by the Chofetz Chaim in Shmiras Halashon (Shaar HaTevuna 17:4) explains that whenever one person “punishes” another – be it by striking him, embarrassing him or badmouthing him (in cases where it’s legally appropriate to do so) – one must know that he is personally free of the fault that he’s punishing. If this is not the case, then he’s a hypocrite. Punishing another person for a flaw that one possesses himself is tantamount to punishing an innocent person, and one is subject to Divine retribution for doing so.

We must not, however, be quick to attribute every inconsistency to hypocrisy. Sometimes people are inconsistent simply because we’re human, and therefore imperfect. Consider the following story from tractate Yevamos (63b):

Through a juxtaposition of verses, Rabbi Eliezer extrapolated that one who refrains from the mitzvah to procreate is considered like one who commits murder. Rabbi Yaakov interpreted the same verses and concluded that one who abstains from procreation diminishes God’s image on Earth. Ben Azzai concluded that one who neglects this mitzvah both diminishes God’s image on Earth and is considered like one who commits murder. The Sages then asked a logical question of Ben Azzai.

“Hey, Ben Azzai,” they said. “You taught a nice dictum but you, yourself, never married or had kids! How do you justify this apparent contradiction?”

“You make a good point,” Ben Azzai conceded, “but what can I do? All my soul wants is to learn Torah all day long! I’m afraid the world will have to be maintained by others engaging in the mitzvah of procreation.”

Was Ben Azzai a hypocrite? His actions were certainly inconsistent with his teaching but he didn’t deny it or justify that he was somehow exempt. He owned it, acknowledging that his shortcoming was because he’s human.

We should be likewise tolerant of others when we perceive that they may not always practice what they preach. It’s not always because people are hypocrites; sometimes it’s because people are a work in progress. As the Gemara tells us (Pesachim 50b, Sanhedrin 105b, and probably elsewhere), we encourage people to do things insincerely in the hopes that it will lead to doing them sincerely.

As far as keeping ourselves from being hypocrites, we should follow the example set by Rabbi Yannai in tractate Baba Basra (60a-b):

Rabbi Yannai had a tree whose branches hung over a public thoroughfare. Another person – we’ll call him Joe – also had such a tree, and people were complaining that Joe’s tree was impeding passage. Rabbi Yannai told Joe to come see him in the morning; overnight, Rabbi Yannai pruned his tree.

The next day, when Joe arrived, Rabbi Yannai told him that he had to prune his tree. Joe objected that Rabbi Yannai also had a tree that impeded passage and Rabbi Yannai replied, “If mine has been trimmed then you must also trim yours.”

The Gemara asks why Rabbi Yannai didn’t tell Joe to cut his tree as soon as the complaint came to his attention. It answers that Rabbi Yannai was acting according to the teaching of Resh Lakish, who said, “Correct yourself first, and then correct others.”

So while hypocrisy is wrong – God hates hypocrites and we’re punished for attacking others over flaws that we ourselves possess – inconsistency is not necessarily hypocrisy. We can recognize others – and ourselves – for our good aspects without considering us all hypocrites for our imperfections. But it’s best to reinforce our good traits in the hope of ultimately correcting our inconsistent shortcomings.

Sincerely,

Rabbi Jack Abramowitz
Educational Correspondent
Follow Ask Rabbi Jack on YouTube

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  1. For the armchair zoologists among you who are about to object that hares are not ruminants, they “chew their cud” through a process called cecotrophy. You can Google more information on that because it would take us wayyyy off topic here.

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