By Rabbi Avrohom Sebrow

The Amora Reish Lakish said that one who suspects the innocent is punished by being stricken in his body (Shabbos 97a). The question of who exactly is considered innocent isn’t clear. The Chefetz Hashem says that innocent in this context refers to anyone who is not guilty of the infraction he is being accused of. This point is made clear by an exchange mentioned in the Gemara prior to Reish Lakish’s statement. Our rabbis taught: The mekosheish (gatherer mentioned in the Torah as being the first person subject to the death penalty for violating the laws of Shabbos) is in fact Tzelofchad, according to Rebbe Akiva. Rebbe Yehudah ben Beseira said to Rebbe Akiva, “In any instance you will ultimately have to give a Divine accounting for naming Tzelofchad as the mekosheish. If you are correct, the Torah specifically did not name who the mekosheish was, and you revealed the secret. If you are incorrect in your identification, then you slandered a righteous person.”

However, Tzelofchad could not have been a completely righteous individual, as his own daughters declared, “He died of his own sin” (Bamidbar 27:3). Rebbe Yehudah ben Beseira maintains that Tzelofchad was from the group known as the mapilim. After the Jewish nation accepted the evil report from the spies, Hashem decreed that they would perish in the desert and would not merit entering the Land of Israel. There was a small group of men who defiantly tried to make their way to Israel regardless. They were killed by the Amalekites and Canaanites while making their attempt.

Rebbe Yehudah ben Beseira told Rebbe Akiva he was going to have to give a Divine accounting for slandering a tzaddik. Yet Tzelofchad was definitely not your typical tzaddik. Even according to Rebbe Yehudah ben Beseira, he defied a direct command not to attempt an ascent to Israel. However, he was innocent of the more serious charge of chillul Shabbos. Rashi makes this point that chillul Shabbos is the more severe crime. According to Rebbe Yehudah ben Beseira, Rebbe Akiva would be subject to Divine retribution for slandering an individual by accusing him of a more serious infraction.

One could have disregarded Reish Lakish’s admonition against suspecting the innocent as irrelevant today. After all, we are all guilty of something. Nevertheless, as the Chefetz Hashem pointed out, if the person is innocent of the sin you are accusing him of, he is considered kosher. A friend once told me that he was incensed that a person was looking in his BlackBerry throughout the entire davening. After all, what did he come to shul for? During Aleinu, he glanced over and noticed that the individual was actually davening from his BlackBerry, which had a siddur app.

A number of years ago I rejoiced at the news that a friend of mine from high school had become engaged. He was one of the first, or perhaps even the first, from my high-school class to become engaged. I found out via word of mouth when many of my friends asked me if I had heard the news. They had each received a phone call informing them of the good news and telling them details about the vort. I had never been to a vort before and I wasn’t sure of the proper etiquette. I was not invited to the vort. Further, I was troubled by the fact that I hadn’t received a call, when all my friends had. I began to contemplate that maybe we weren’t such good friends after all. The truth was that we hadn’t talked for two years since we finished high school. Yet we were good friends then. I decided that I should go to the vort anyway, invitation or not.

When I arrived at the vort, the chasan immediately spotted me and gave me a hug and a warm, effusive greeting. Still wondering about the lack of the call, I went to talk to my other friends. One friend saw me and declared, “Avrohom, I’m so happy you came. You were on the list of friends to be called but I didn’t bother. I knew you would find out about it anyway!” v

Rabbi Avrohom Sebrow leads a daf yomi chaburah at Eitz Chayim of Dogwood Park in West Hempstead and offers a program to help children with ADD increase focus and concentration. He can be contacted at

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