Love Thy Neighbor

Rabbi Avrohom Sebrow

It says in the Torah, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” The Talmud (Kesubos 37b) has a very peculiar application of this verse. The Talmud discusses the proper manner of a court-mandated execution. The Talmud observes that there are two ways to perform the execution referred to as “sayef.” How do we know which option to choose? We choose the one that causes less suffering and disfigurement to the condemned man. Why? Because of the above verse. This application of the verse seems to contradict its conventional interpretation. The Rambam writes: “It is a mitzvah to love every Jew as oneself. Therefore, he is commanded to speak of his praises and be concerned for his possessions as if they were his own.” The Hagahos Maimonis comments that the dictum of the Rambam only applies to someone who is considered your “neighbor.” Who is considered one’s neighbor? An individual who keeps Torah and mitzvos. The Rambam himself writes (Hilchos Rotzeach 13:14) that it is a mitzvah to hate an individual who was warned and nevertheless sinned, if he did not repent. By law, beis din only puts to death someone who was warned before he committed his crime. Therefore, the verse of “Love your neighbor as yourself” should not apply to this individual, since he is labeled as wicked. Why then should this verse dictate that we choose the best manner of execution? In fact, the Ramah (Sanhedrin 52b) seems to disagree with the Hagahos Maimonis. He specifically writes that even a wicked man is covered by the verse of loving your fellow man.

He offers the above application as a proof. Apparently, the verse applies to wicked people because the Talmud applies it to a condemned man. However, the commentators offer several defenses to the position of the Hagahos Maimonis. The first is offered by Rabbi Perlow in his commentary on Rav Saadia Gaon’s Sefer Ha’mitzvos. He writes that the mitzvah to hate a wicked person only applies in his lifetime, not right before or after his death. Right before his death, where there will be no more interactions between the condemned man and others, the verse of “Love your neighbor” applies even to him. The Shu’T Beis Shearim (OC 69) writes that we can assume the condemned man repented before his execution. The Rambam writes only that it is a mitzvah to hate a wicked individual who did not repent. This person who is about to suffer the ultimate penalty most likely repented and therefore there is a mitzvah to love him. That does not absolve beis din from meting out his due punishment for his crime; however, they will have compassion and use the best method possible. The Baal HaTanya writes that when Chazal say that it is a mitzvah to hate a wicked person, they are referring to his evil actions. However, every individual, no matter how far removed he is from spirituality, has a spark of G-dliness in him. You should love that spark. Hence, there is a dichotomy; you should both love and hate the wicked person at the same time.

The verse of “Love your neighbor” then applies even to a wicked individual. When the Romans conquered Yerushalayim, they were initially afraid to enter the Beis HaMikdash. It was decided that a Jew should enter first. They announced that any Jew who enters the Temple could keep what he steals. Yosef Meshisa entered and brought out the Menorah. The Romans then said that the Menorah was too splendid to be used by a commoner, and they directed him to enter a second time and take something else. Yosef Meshisa had a sudden change of heart and declared, “Is it not enough that I angered Hashem once? Shall I anger Him again?” They urged Yosef to go in again, but he steadfastly refused. Yosef Meshisa died al kiddush Hashem. When Yitzchak prophetically saw this and other similar examples, he conferred the brachos on Yaakov. There are many tzaddikim who willingly gave their lives to sanctify the Divine Name. What was so special about these examples? Yosef Meshisa, to all appearances, had already forsaken Judaism. He was ready to collaborate with the Romans. But in one moment, he had an absolute clarity of vision and an instant transformation. He proved that even those who forsake the Torah still have that spark buried deep inside of them. Yitzchak foresaw that even the traitors of Klal Yisrael have the inner potential to achieve the greatest heights – in an instant. Therefore, Yitzchak surmised that Yaakov and his descendants were certainly deserving of the blessings.

Rabbi Avrohom Sebrow is a rebbe at Yeshiva Ateres Shimon in Far Rockaway. In addition, Rabbi Sebrow leads a daf yomi chaburah at Eitz Chayim of Dogwood Park in West Hempstead, NY. He can be contacted at

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