Guest Post by Daniel Kahn
The centrality of kavod habriot in the Jewish legal tradition may be traced throughout the writings of generations of torah scholars, and has led to magnificent decisions on the normative plane. As Orthodox Jews, this halachic concept influences our actions on a daily basis.
A discussion of the topic must begin with defining semantics. The Hebrew word “kavod” is loosely translated as respect. Overall respect can be categorized into 2 categories: honor, a respect based on position, and dignity, a respect based on the divine image that is contained in every individual who makes up the “briyot”, or the created.
In Parshas Shoftim, we receive the commandment to go to war under certain circumstances, as well as some of the rules related to taking such action. The Torah enumerates exemptions to potential fighters who find themselves in unique situations, such as the newly married, one who has just completed building a home, or one who has planted a vineyard. In addition to these exemptions, the Torah includes in this list the fearful and soft-hearted as well.
The Sifre brings the opinion of Rav Yochanan Ben Zakai who says that each one of the exemptions except for the last category requires witnesses in order to prove entitlement. He continues to explain that the only reason the Torah exempted them is for the sake of the fearful. If a faint hearted person would be seen walking the streets peacefully while his brothers are at battle, he would become embarrassed. The Torah therefore included additional opportunities for exemptions so that he would not be forced to walk the streets alone, but would rather be among others staying home. The frightened are also not required to bring character witnesses to prove they have fearful dispositions, thereby minimizing any publicity and potential embarrassment.
In the Mechilta, Rav Yochanan Ben Zakai is mentioned as well in the context of the compensation a thief must remunerate to the victim of his robbery. Rav Yochanan is quoted in relation to the law that when one steals an ox and either sells or slaughters it he must pay 5 times the value of the principle object, in contrast to when the object of the theft is a sheep, wherein he only pays 4 times the value. He explains that really the payment for theft of either animal should be equal, yet the Torah felt bad for the thief of the sheep who would have to walk around with a sheep on his back (an embarrassing situation), as opposed to the thief of an ox, who could lead the animal by a rope.
In these two midrashei halacha we see the power of kavod habrios and the lengths the Torah goes in order to maintain its prominence.
What does this mean for us on a practical level?
Rav Ovadiah Yosef was once asked the following question by a baalas teshuva (someone who “returns” to God) who had given birth to her first son: Her husband assumed the child required a pidyon haben, a ‘redemption of the first born child’. However, unbeknownst to her husband, the questioner had an abortion years earlier, which meant that halachically she did not actually require a pidyon haben. She wanted to know if she could proceed with a fake ceremony because she did not want to tell her husband about certain aspects of her past.
Rav Ovadiah allowed her to keep the matter concealed, and they performed the ceremony with the brocha despite the fact that it would apparently be a bracha levatala (a blessing for no reason). In response to such concern, Rav Ovadiah writes that “gadol kavod habrios shedochech lo saaseh beTorah” clearly trumps a saying a bracha levatala, an offence he considers to be on the rabbinic level.
Additionally, I have seen in a book on the customs and practices of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik recorded by Rabbi Reuven Ziegler that when a baal korei will become embarrassed by being corrected in front of the whole khal during laining, it best to abstain from such because of the severity of the issue.
It is clear then that kavod habriyot, which has truly led to magnificent rulings on the normative plane, should be considered a practical and important halachic ideal in our day to day lives.
–Daniel is a law student in Bar Ilan University