(This should not be relied upon for practical halacha. When a question arises a Rabbi should be consulted.)
“And you shall not corrupt the land in which you live, for the blood corrupts the land, and the blood which is shed in the land cannot be atoned for except through the blood of the one who shed it”. (Masai 35:33)
The Sifra writes that the above verse is the source to prohibit flattery or appeasement (chanifa). The Sefer Yeraim (248) explains that the proper definition of chanifa is perverting the truth by “flattering” someone who is doing something hallachically wrong. Any time we choose to let a sinner think his sinful act is, for some reason, not so bad- we are guilty of chanifa. Chanifa likewise occurs when a Jewish person gives a false picture of what the Torah says. The Orchos Tzadikim lists nine forms of chanifa, one of which is bestowing honor upon a rasha.
Chanifa in the Talmud
In Sota (41a) the Mishna relates an episode that took place shortly before the destruction of the second Temple, during the reign of King Agrippas, a grandchild of King Herod. During the mitzvah of “Hakhel”, which took place once every seven years, the King read aloud from the Torah in the Temple courtyard, in the presence of all the people. When he reached the verse (Devarim 17) “You [the Jewish people] may not appoint over yourselves [as king] a foreigner”, King Agrippas began to weep (for this verse disqualifies him from being the king). Whereupon the Rabbis and the people comforted him, saying, “You are our brother, you are our brother.” The Gemara comments that at that instant the Jewish people became guilty of destruction for flattering King Agrippas.
The Gemara continues to list the severity of this prohibition, it says that any person who flatters, even the unborn curse him; any group which flatters will ultimately be exiled; whoever has in him flattery will fall to Gehennom etc.
Chanifa to save one’s life
Tosafos (Sotah 41b) writes that although chanifa is forbidden, one may do so in life threatening situations. His source is a Gemara Nedarim Daf 22. The Gemara records that Ulla, while traveling to Israel with two men, witnessed one man murder the other. The murderer then turned to Ulla and asked, “was I correct in my actions?”. Ulla, fearing for his life, responded “Yes”. When Ulla encountered Rav Yochanan he voiced his concern that perhaps he was aiding the actions of a sinner, Rav Yochanan responded that “you were allowed to do so to save your life.” Tosafos cites this Gemara as the source that chanifa is permitted to save one’s own life. A similar view was expressed by the Yeraim (248). The Mishnah Berurah (156:4) codifies this ruling as well, he writes: “If one fears for his life he is allowed to tell someone ‘you have done well’, even if that person committed a sin.”
However, Rabbeinu Yonah (in Shaarei Teshuva shaar shlishi 188) disagrees and feels that one is obligated to give up one’s life rather than commit chanifa. The Sefer Orchos Tzadikim follows the approach of the Shaarei Teshuva.
The opinion of Rabbeinu Yona is seemingly problematic, for there are only three aveirus that one is obligated to die rather than commit. Those three sins are murder, idolatry and illicit relations. And since chanifa is not one of the three sins one should perform this act rather than lose his life.
I believe the answer to this question can be found in the works of Rav Moshe Feinstein zt”l (Igros Moshe O.C. 2:51). Rav Moshe discusses the prohibition of chanifa and its parameters. He cites the permissible view of Tosafos and his source- the Gemara Nedarim. Rav Moshe wonders why does Tosafos need to find an obscure Gemara to rule leniently, since chanifa is not one of the three grave sins (which we require one to give up his life), it should need no source or proof to allow it? Rav Moshe explains that normally one should perform chanifa in life threatening situations, this is a clear and simple fact. However, there are situations where one is not allowed to transgress that sin and that is if it entails advancing an erroneous hallachic ruling. As the Yam Shel Shlomo (Baba Kama 38) writes, one is obligated to die rather than rule incorrectly on purpose. When one does so he is questioning the validity of the Torah and the rules found therein.
Rav Moshe explains that Tosafos feels that saying to a rasha when he sins that “he acted correctly” is not considered issuing a hallachic ruling (rather he is saying that people who have your low moral compass would feel that you acted correctly) and is allowed to save his life. Tosafos needed the Gemara in Nedarim as a source that telling someone “you have acted correctly” is not considered a hallachic ruling. However, to issue an erroneous ruling, such as “One is permitted to commit murder” is absolutely forbidden and one should die rather than issue such a ruling.
[He adds that the biblical prohibition of chanifa may only apply to one who perverts the truth by validating a sinful act, such as “you have done correctly”, however, merely bestowing honor upon a rasha may not be considered Biblical chanifa. Although bestowing honor upon a rasha may be considered a negative action and should be avoided, in great need one may rule leniently.]
Now we can perhaps understand the ruling of Rabbeinu Yona. It is possible that he was discussing whether one may tell a sinner “you have acted correctly” to save his life, to which Rabbeinu Yona rules that one is forbidden to do so. And the reason that Rabbeinu Yone feels that one is not allowed to do so is because he disagrees with Tosafos and feels that merely telling a sinner that he acted correctly is considered issuing an erroneous hallachic ruling and is not allowed even in life threatening situations.
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