Finally, finally, the head of ISIS and his second-in-command met their end. A vicious, evil man by all accounts, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi got his just desserts in a remarkable military operation by America’s elite forces. The president mentioned that Baghdadi will have to now give an account before G-d.
The story was posted on the websites of the major Jewish media outlets, but some people posed the following question: “How can a Torah media source print a picture of a rasha? Don’t Chazal tell us, ‘Asur l’histakel bipnei rasha,’ it is forbidden to gaze at the face of an evildoer?’”
So what is the answer? Can a Torah website post a picture of al-Baghdadi? Is it clearly forbidden? Is it entirely permitted? Or is it a machlokes? Also, what is the source and the reason for this prohibition? And also, if it is a prohibition, then why doesn’t the Shulchan Aruch cite it?
If one only briefly glances at the picture does that make a difference?
One woman who glanced at the photo remarked, “I don’t think I could recognize him. He just looks like a mess. Long hair, fat, schlubby, and unkempt.”
The Gemara in Megillah explains that Rebbe once inquired of Rabbi Yehoshua ben Karcha as to how he merited long life. He said that he had never looked upon the face of an evil-doer. He quoted Rabbi Yochanan that it is forbidden to look at the face of a rasha.
It seems that the meforshim present three rationales for the prohibition. The first is that there is a force of tumah that is on the face of the evil-doer, and looking at his face could actually draw out the tumah toward this person. This explanation seems to have been put forward by the author of the Kav HaYashar (chapter II) and by the Maharsha on the Gemara. Rav Elya Lopian, zt’l, in Lev Eliyahu (parashas Noach) also espouses this view. Rabbi Yitzchok Meir Goldstein attributes this view to Rav Scheinberg, zt’l, as well as the mashgiach of Kaminetz, Rav Moshe Aharon Stern.
A second reason, suggested by Rabbeinu Yonah in his Sha’arei Teshuvah (Sha’ar III #193) is that one can be influenced by the person and perhaps come to befriend him. This is also the view of the Meiri in Megillah.
The Maharsha provides another answer as explained by the Pri Megadim in his sefer Rosh Yosef. Man was created in the Divine Image. When and if he reduces himself to act in an evil fashion, it is tantamount to a disgrace of the Divine stamp, heaven forbid. Thus, looking at the face of a rasha is like seeing someone disgracing Hashem, chalilah.
This author would like to suggest a fourth possible reason. Chazal were aware that there is a certain percentage of the population that is rebellious and does things b’davka. If society holds something to be anathema, this small percentage would likely end up doing it. It could very well be that Chazal were attempting to place logistical impediments to this small percentage of rebels in limiting their exposure to such people in the first place. The fact that so many “moderate” Muslims gave up their tolerance of western culture and became radicalized is an example of this underlying idea.
Is a Picture Different?
When the sources discussed the prohibition, they were referring to the actual person. They did not discuss a drawing or a picture. The poskim have actually discussed whether or not one can look at a picture. Rav Azriel Auerbach, shlita, cited in a journal titled B’Nesivus Ha’Halachah (Tammuz 5772), distinguishes between real life and a picture and permits looking at a rasha through a picture. In his work, Om Ani Chomah (page 40), Rav Mordechai Gross, one of the leading poskim in Eretz Yisrael, likewise permits looking at a photograph of a rasha.
A source sent me a quote that Halichos Chaim (2:362 p. 171) cites Rav Chaim Kanievsky, shlita, as answering that there is no prohibition in looking at the picture of a rasha. Likewise, Rav Shlomo Miller was cited by that source permitting it.
However, Rav Nissim Karelitz, zt’l, who just passed away this week, forbids it in his Chut Sheini (Vol. III, page 260).
As an interesting aside, my parents, aleihem ha’shalom, went to see the captured Adolf Eichmann, y’mach sh’mo, when he was put on trial in Jerusalem. While on trial, he was held in a glass cage. Rav Mordechai Gross permits gazing upon a rasha in a glass cage.
Question on the Original Source
One can pose an interesting question on the source of the halachah. What is being added by Rabbi Yehoshua ben Karcha exactly, above and beyond the quote of Rabbi Yochanan?
One possibility is that Rabbi Yochanan is speaking figuratively and that it is not a full-fledged halachah. Rabbi Yehoshua ben Karcha is thus adding that one should follow this advice, notwithstanding any social difficulties such an approach may have. This would explain why the Shulchan Aruch does not quote the halachah.
Another possibility is that Rabbi Yochanan is speaking only of looking directly at the face of a rasha. Rabbi Yehoshua ben Karcha’s specific behavior, which granted him longevity, was having nothing at all to do with the rasha, even beyond the letter of the law. If this is the correct understanding of the Gemara then it might be middas chassidus to avoid having anything to do with such a rasha, even beyond the letter of the law.
According to the reason espoused by Rabbeinu Yonah, it would seem that if the evil-doer’s crusade is also dead, then one would be able to look at him because there is no concern that he will become a follower. If, however, in this case, there is a developing neo-ISIS movement, then it would still apply.
Does It Matter If One Only Looks Briefly?
There are poskim who translate the word “l’histakel” as meaning “intensely gazing.” There is a debate between Rav Moshe Feinstein and the view of the Bach regarding the exact meaning of this word when it comes to looking at women. The Bach forbids it entirely, but Rav Feinstein permits looking but forbids gazing. The Magen Avraham (O.C. 225:20) makes this point explicitly in regard to looking at a rasha and thus permits it if one does not gaze intensely.
There are two reasons why a Jewish publication would place a picture next to an article. The first reason is to attract more people to read it. There is no question that a good picture attracts the attention of the reader.
There is another reason, however. In the past few years there have been heart-wrenching incidents after heart-wrenching incidents, including the vicious murder of a Jewish journalist who attended IDC in Herzliya. It gives chizuk to us seeing that this evil rasha is now dead. If the picture helps us see the strict hand of justice more vividly, then that is a worthy endeavor.
It would seem that since there is a debate in halachah about the matter, and there are so many other factors at play here, if there is reason to do it, then one may certainly follow the lenient view. This is especially true since the Magen Avraham permits looking at the rasha if one does not gaze intensely at him.
May we all merit to see the era of redemption of “Ki sa’avir memsheles zadon min ha’aretz.” We should also express our appreciation to our armed forces and the president of the United States for ridding the world of this Muslim Hitler, y’mach sh’mo. n
Rabbi Hoffman can be reached at Yairhoffman2@gmail.com