A Jew is a Jew is a Jew

The article below is an excerpt from Rabbi Roth’s book, “Relevance: Pirkei Avos for the Twenty-First Century.” Taking selections from Ethics of the Fathers, the book shows how the classic text of Pirkei Avos pertains to the modern world, and is as vibrant and contemporary as if it was written today. For more information, or to order a copy, click here.

פרק ד' משנה ה':רַבִּי יוֹחָנָן בֶּן בְּרוֹקָא אוֹמֵר, כָּל הַמְחַלֵּל שֵׁם שָׁמַיִם בַּסֵּתֶר, נִפְרָעִין מִמֶּנּוּ בְגָלוּי. אֶחָד שׁוֹגֵג וְאֶחָד מֵזִיד בְּחִלּוּל הַשֵּׁם.

Perek 4, Mishnah 5: Rabbi Yochanan ben Beroka says: Whoever desecrates the Name of Heaven in private will be punished in public. Acting without intent is the same as acting purposely with regard to chillul Hashem.

The Mishnah mentions two aspects in which chillul Hashem is worse than other sins.

Elsewhere, Chazal actually refer to chillul Hashem as the worst of all sins.[1] Usually, one can atone for a transgression through the process of teshuva. Some sins, however, are so grave that teshuva alone is not enough and forgiveness is not attained until Yom Kippur. Other sins are even more reprehensible, and even Yom Kippur does not suffice; atonement for them is only achieved after the person undergoes suffering.

Chillul Hashem, however, is in a category of its own. Teshuva, Yom Kippur, and suffering combined cannot rid a person of this transgression. Only his death is able to cleanse him of chillul Hashem.[2] The reason is that the person’s very existence recalls the chillul Hashem he made. Whenever people see him, they are reminded of what he did, and so complete atonement cannot be achieved until he dies and leaves this world.[3]

Before we try to understand why chillul Hashem is treated so severely, let us first understand what chillul Hashem really is.

Defining Chillul Hashem

In defining chillul Hashem, the Gemara quotes the statement of Rav that if he were to buy meat without paying for it immediately it would be a chillul Hashem.[4] Rav intended to pay eventually, so there would be nothing wrong with his buying on credit. Nevertheless, because Rav was known for his Torah scholarship and piety, even the slightest act that could be construed as stealing would make people think less of Torah.[5]

Thus it emerges from the Gemara that any action that puts Torah in an unfavorable light is a chillul Hashem even if no specific sin is involved.[6]

The Chofetz Chaim was once rushing to catch a train when he was asked to be the tenth man for a minyan in a mourner’s home. Even though he had already davenedand completing their minyan would have meant missing his train, he agreed to help so as not to create a chillul Hashem.[7]

Had the Chofetz Chaim refused to help, it certainly would not have been a transgression. Nevertheless, since the people may not have understood why he refused, he felt it would have been a chillul Hashem to do so. Again we see that a chillul Hashem depends on the perception of a behavior rather than on the behavior itself.

This is also clear from Chazal’s remarkable statement that a talmid chacham who has a stain on his clothes is liable for the death penalty.[8] Now, nowhere does the Torah say, “Thou shall not walk around with a stain on thy clothes.” How, then, can this warrant such a severe penalty? The reason is that a talmid chacham is G-d’s representative in this world. When people see him wearing dirty clothes they will say, “Look how unkempt Torah scholars are.” By causing people to have less respect for G-d and His Torah, he becomes guilty of desecrating G-d’s Name.[9]

Chillul Hashem is relative to the status of the person doing the act. What is considered a chillul Hashem for one person is not necessarily a chillul Hashem for another. This is because the more learned a person is, the greater the level of refinement people expect of him and the more they will scrutinize his every deed. Thus, for Rav, who was exceptionally pious, not paying immediately constituted a chillul Hashem, whereas for most of us it would not.[10]

Nevertheless, since chillul Hashem depends on the way people perceive us, our true status may not be relevant.[11] For example, an ordinary yeshiva bachur may not think of himself as being a talmid chacham and so might not feel that Chazal’s sharp comment about an unkempt talmid chacham applies to him. But his humility would be out of place, because to the outside world he appears like a talmid chacham. Whether he has studied for years in the world’s top yeshiva and is well versed in the entire Talmud,or whether he is newly religious and still has doubts concerning the basic tenets of Judaism, is irrelevant. To the man on the street, he personifies a talmid chacham and must therefore act like one.[12]

Collective Responsibility

If our appearance or behavior creates a negative impression, an onlooker will not limit his criticism to us alone but will generalize it as applying to all religious Jews, saying how they’re all disheveled and rude. This places a great responsibility on our shoulders. We should never think, “What does it matter what I do? I’m just one individual.” We must realize that our every action will affect the way millions of other Jews throughout the world are perceived.[13]

This is the reason why one who desecrates G-d’s Name in private is punished in public.[14] After all, why should a person who causes a small-scale chillul Hashem be punished publicly? It doesn’t seem fair. The reason is to demonstrate that there are no boundaries between the individual and the group in regards to chillul Hashem. A negative image created by an individual will reflect badly not only on him but on all Jews everywhere. The corresponding punishment, therefore, is administered in public, without distinguishing between the few and the many.[15]

There are many types of religious Jews, each with his own code of dress. One religious Jew can usually identify which “group” another religious Jew belongs to merely by glancing at his head covering. But to the outside world we are all the same. Non-Jews don’t distinguish between one type of religious Jew and another based on subtle differences in clothing. The shade and size of one’s yarmulke, or the type of snood or sheitel one wears, is beside the point and makes no difference. The crime of a single Jew is placed at the door of the entire Jewry. A Jew is a Jew is a Jew. We are all part of one body, so to speak, and each of us affects the way every other Jew will be perceived. We must always be conscious of this collective responsibility and act accordingly.

For example, our behavior on the roads will shape not only our image, but also the images of all Jews. When one Orthodox Jew got into a cab in New York, the Chinese driver asked him, “You a rabbi? Let me ask you a question. Why rabbis who drive bus always cut me off?”[16] The cab driver had probably seen just one or two Jews, yet he applied what he saw to all Jews, forming a negative impression of every Jew everywhere.

On the positive side, when we are polite and considerate, people will think better not only of us, but of all Jews. A story is told of a young man who lived in Brooklyn and often took cabs to Manhattan where he worked. One day, as he exited the taxi a block away from his office, another Orthodox Jew entered the cab. The driver turned to his new passenger and said, “See that fellow who just left my cab? You know what he told me? He works a block away from here, but he gets out here because it’s right by the subway—this way, I’m sure to get a new customer as soon as he gets out of the cab. So he walks a whole avenue block, just to help me out!

“I see why G-d made you the Chosen People.”[17]

With today’s technology and news coverage, the concept of a private act becoming public takes on new meaning. When a Jew is found committing fraud, for example, his sin is recounted in newspaper, radio, internet and TV reports around the world. Thus, what began as a “private” act of chillul Hashem ends up being revealed to millions of people.

This information explosion can also work to our advantage. Take, for instance, this extract from an article that appeared in a non-Jewish newspaper that has a readership numbering in the tens of thousands. It reports on the yeshiva in Waterbury, Connecticut, and is a classic example of how today’s press can turn a small-scale kiddush Hashem into a large one.


Purpose of Creation

The second stringency of chillul Hashem that the Mishnah describes is that one who commits it unintentionally is liable to the same punishment as one who does so intentionally.[18]

There are many actions that one might do inadvertently, such as turning on a light or dropping a pen. Some deeds, however, are so serious that one cannot claim that they were done accidentally. For example, one cannot assert that he lashed out against the President of the Unites States or slandered him by accident. In the same way, the sin of chillul Hashem is so grave that one cannot claim he did it by mistake.[19]

To better understand why chillul Hashem is so serious, let us explore how it fits into G-d’s master plan.

G-d created the world to spread His glory.[20] To this end, He set aside the Jewish people to sanctify His Name and be a light unto the nations. Had we not sinned and been expelled from our Land, G-d’s glory and existence would have been recognized throughout the world relatively quickly. The presence of the Beis Hamikdash and the open miracles that G-d would have done for us would have made it clear to the world that He alone runs and controls the universe. The nations would have seen G-d’s providence much as the Egyptians had seen it when He split the Red Sea.[21]

Because of ours sins, however, we were deemed unworthy of this supernatural existence. G-d, however, did not abandon us. Instead, He relates to us through hidden, natural ways. Since it takes much longer for the nations of the world to recognize G-d’s existence by these means, it only becomes possible when we are dispersed amongst them and are actually living within their midst.[22]

Thus, the purpose of our exile among the nations is to strengthen belief in G-d and sanctify His Name — not by lecturing or proselytizing, but by deed and example. One who desecrates G-d’s Name — even unintentionally — is therefore punished in the harshest manner, because he acts against the ultimate purpose of creation and, in particular, of the Jewish nation.

Our role in exile as a “light unto the nations” is disregarded by many people. We usually think of our exile only in the negative sense, namely, as a punishment for our sins. We forget that we also have a positive part to play — to be G-d’s ambassadors to the world.[23]

The impression we make in our daily dealings with non-Jews must be on the forefront of our minds. Whenever we meet Gentiles, we should ask ourselves, “What mark will I leave? Will his respect for G-d and His nation increase as a result of my coming into contact with him?”

And if this is true about our relationships with non-Jews, how much more so is it true when we interact with non-religious Jews who are our own brothers and sisters.

This is particularly important in Israel where there is such a strong divide between secular and religious Jews. A secular Israeli, who was flying El Al to New York, writes of the time he was squeezing his way through a noisy crowd of religious Jews davening in front of the emergency exit, when a flight attendant caught his eye and, smiling slyly, whispered in Hebrew, “You open the door, I’ll push.”[24]

The secular media feeds Israelis with vile images of religious Jews, inciting intense hatred and creating a distorted image of what religious people are like. When a secular Israeli woman visited our home on Shabbos and saw me bouncing my children on my lap, singing, and laughing with them, she was surprised. “I never realized religious Jews have fun!” she later confided to my wife.

Against such a background, the need for impeccable behavior is that much greater. A smile, a kind word, a helping hand, or a courteous “good morning” is sometimes all it takes to shatter the distorted image secular people have of the religious.

Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv once commented that every generation possesses a mitzvah that is especially significant for its time. The mitzvah for our day, he said, is to “let the Name of Heaven become beloved through you.”[25]

To let the Name of Heaven become beloved through you: what an awesome privilege! Consider: Mortal, finite man, born of woman, filled with self-doubt and uncertainty, subject to the thousand ills that flesh is heir to, here today and gone tomorrow — this weak, mortal man — each one of us — is entrusted with the privilege to make the Name of Heaven — the King of Kings Himself — become beloved through the way we live and conduct ourselves. This is the wondrous gift of the A-mighty to us, His children. To accept this gift and the responsibility that goes with it is to enhance not only the Name of G-d, but also to enrich our own lives.


[1] Yerushalmi Nedarim 3:9; Rambam Hilchos Shevuos 12:2.

[2] Yoma 86a. Rabbeinu Yona (Sha’arei Teshuva 4:§5) and Rabbeinu Bachya (Kad Hakemach, s.v. חילול השם) point out, however, that one can attain forgiveness through bringing about a kiddush Hashem.

[3] Michtav Me’Eliyahu 4:88.

[4] Yoma 86a.

[5] In view of today’s market practices, it would seem likely that regular credit card purchases would not fall under this category.

[6] Kad Hakemach s.v.חילול השם. Cf. Rashi, Yoma 86a ד''ה ולא יהיבנא. The idea that a chillul Hashem can occur even where no actual sin is committed is also mentioned in Rambam (Hilchos Yesodei HaTorah 5:11) and Sefer HaChinuch §295.

[7] Chofetz Chaim al HaTorah,167–168.

[8] Shabbos 114a.

[9] See Rabbeinu Yona, Sefer Hayiraד''ה ואל תהרג.

[10] See Mirkeves Hamishneh, Kad Hakemach (s.v. חילול השם), Mesillas Yesharim, chap. 11.

[11] As R’ Yisrael Salanter put it, “Even if in my own eyes I am nothing, when it comes to chillul Hashem I have to act like the spiritual leader of the generation if that’s what people think I am,” Tnuas Hamussar 1:283.

[12] Perhaps this is why the Pele Yo’etz (s.v. נקיות) says that, in regards to not walking around with a stain on one’s clothes, everyone should consider himself a talmid chacham. Leket Reshimos (p. 38) records in the name of R’ Nosson Wachtfogel that all bnei Torah in our generation have the status of talmidei chachamim regarding all laws of chillul Hashem. R’ Mattisyahu Salomon makes a similar remark (Matnas Chaim, Yamim Nora’im, 89).

[13] R’ Hirsch, Horeb, chap. 97.

[14] The Mishnah’s mention of causing a chillul Hashem “in private” does not mean that there is no other person present at the time of the transgression. After all, the definition of a chillul Hashem is doing something in front of others which denigrates G-d or His Torah in their eyes. “Private,” rather, means on a small scale compared to the punishment which is carried out in front of many people (Derech Chaim and Tosafos Yom Tov).

[15] Cf. Pirkei Moshe.

[16] Jewish Action, Fall 5751/1990.

[17] R’ Shimon Finkelman, “Middos Instruction: Prerequisite for Torah,” The Jewish Observer, March 2001.

[18] That the Mishnah means to equate the punishment of a chillul Hashem done by accident with one done willfully is the interpretation of Rabbeinu Yosef ben Shoshan (quoted in Midrash Shmuel), Kad Hakemach (s.v. חילול השם); HaChassid Yaavetz; Derech Chaim. However, Rambam, Rabbeinu Yona, and Sefer Mussar disagree with this interpretation, explaining that the Mishnah means only to equate an unintentional chillul Hashem with an intentional one in regards to their both being punished in public, but not in regards to the severity of their punishment. Equating the punishment of the two would be making G-d’s system of justice unjust.

[19] Based on Rabbeinu Yosef ben Sasson, HaChassid Yaavetz.

[20] Yeshaya 43:7.

[21] See Ha’amek Davar, Bamidbar 14:21.

[22] See ibid.

[23] Had the exile been meant only as a punishment, G-d would have utilized other punishments (Pesachim 87b with Maharsha). Rabbeinu Bachya in Kad Hakemech, s.v. גאולה(1), also points out this dual purpose of galus.

[24] Noah J. Efron, Real Jews (New York: Basic Books, 2003), 4. See Halichos Shlomo 1:95–96, quoting R’ Shlomo Zalman Auerbach as ruling that it is better to daven Shemoneh Esrei sitting down in one’s seat than standing up in the aisle, both because of one’s own intent and out of consideration for others.

[25] Heard from R’ Asher Weiss, June 2006.


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