By Rabbi Yair Hoffman
This week, the author received the following question from Rochel Weisz, proprietor of Inside Scoop (located in the Gourmet Glatt parking lot):
Q. My husband and I have an ice-cream store. We heard you wrote a sefer on lifnei iver, and we have a lifnei iver question: If someone is morbidly obese and comes in and orders an ice cream such as “cookies and cream,” is it forbidden for us to serve him? Are we obligated to suggest that he try a fat-free, sugar-free type instead?
A. This is a good question. According to the American Obesity Association, 127 million adults in the U.S. are overweight, 60 million are clinically obese, and 9 million are severely obese. Your question probably deals with the last 9 million. It is a growing issue.
You are in luck, because we were able to pose your question to Rav Chaim Kanievsky, shlita, and we have his answer on video and in writing. Our editor, Larry Gordon, presented your question, along with seven other halachic queries, to Rav Kanievsky this past Tuesday. But let’s first discuss some pertinent issues.
The general prohibition is found in Vayikra (19:14). There are three forms of the prohibition of “misleading the blind.” There is (a) the notion of causing someone to stumble in Jewish law, there is (b) the notion of giving someone bad advice, and there is (c) the aspect of physically placing an object before another person that is either harmful or dangerous.
To Stumble In Halachah
Most authorities hold that one who violates type (a) is also in violation of type (b) (see Igros Moshe YD I #3, Achiezer Vol. III 65:9 and 81:17). It is interesting to note that Rav Moshe Feinstein writes that violating type (a) is a sin between man and Hashem—not between man and his friend (IM OC IV #13).
But you may suggest that your morbidly obese ice-cream consumer is purposefully violating his doctor’s orders! That’s not “the blind”—he is ordering the cookies and cream with full knowledge! The Rambam addresses this question in his comments to the Mishnah in Shviis (5:6): “This means to say that when temptation and the evil inclination have shut the eyes of an individual, do not assist him in adding to his blindness.”
While this is true regarding willful type (a) violations, it is not so clear-cut regarding a willful violation under type (b)—bad advice lifnei iver. Rav Chaim Ozer Grozinsky (Achiezer ibid) rules that when the “victim” is willfully doing something against his best interests, the Rishonim hold that there is no prohibition. Rav Feinstein, zt’l, agrees. The Rambam, however, rules that there is a prohibition (Hilchos Rotzayach 12:14). Generally speaking, the rule of thumb is to be stringent.
Physical Stumbling Block
Finally, we have the type (c) variety, a physical stumbling block. Rav Moshe Feinstein, zt’l, (YD I #3) holds that there is a violation even when the stumbler is acting willfully, while Rav Elyashiv, zt’l, (Kovetz Teshuvos I CM 219) holds that there is not. Selling cigarettes to someone or ice cream to someone who is morbidly obese would fit in the physical stumbling block department. It may also be in the earlier categories too, because it is a mitzvah to take care of one’s health (veNishmartem).
There is another issue too. The Talmud (Avodah Zarah 6b) explains that the actual prohibition of lifnei iver is violated by the enabler only when the victim could not have violated the prohibition without the enabler. This is called “trei ivrah d’nahara—two sides of the river.” The classical example is of a nazir who vowed not to drink wine, and you are the only person who can hand him the wine, since it is on the other side of the river.
If the wine is on the same side of the river, or—in our case—if there is another ice-cream shop in town, it may involve a different, rabbinic prohibition called mesaya lidei ovrei aveirah—assisting the hands of evildoers.
Who cares whether it is biblical or rabbinical? Well you may, for one. The reason is that the Dagul Mervavah (on the Shach in YD 151:6) holds that when the violator is willful and it is only a rabbinic violation, there is no rabbinic prohibition either. This could perhaps save you and allow you to sell the cookies and cream to the willful violator.
Two Caveats Making It Biblical Again
There is a fascinating caveat to all this given both by the Chofetz Chaim (Laws of LH 9:1) and the Chazon Ish (YD 62:13). If the enabler instigated it—even if the wine or the ice cream was available otherwise—it remains a Biblical prohibition!
There is another caveat too. It is known as the Mishnah LaMelech’s Caveat (Hilchos Malveh uLoveh 4:2). The author, Rav Yehudah ben Shmuel Rosanes (1657-1727), chief rabbi of the Ottoman Empire, writes: if the only other enablers are Jewish too, then the prohibition of Lifnei Iver is still violated.
Okay, so what do we do here with all of this information? Well, you do have non-Jewish competitors who sell cholov Yisrael ice cream. As far as the Mishnah LaMelech’s Caveat, you are free and clear.
But do we rule like the Dagul Mervavah who says that there is no rabbinic prohibition when the violator is willfully violating it? Rav Moshe Feinstein (IM YD I #72) rules that one can only rely upon this Dagul Mervavah in combination with another factor. The Mishnah Berurah (347:7) disagrees with the Dagul Mervavah.
So what is our conclusion, since you asked? The Mishnah Berurah would forbid it and Rav Feinstein would permit it if there were another factor that one could add to the leniency. What might that be? The Shach (YD 151:6) seems to rule that the prohibition of mesaya only applies to observant Jews. If it is questionable whether the person is observant or not, then this is a factor that would make it permitted according to Rav Feinstein’s view. Thus our conclusion is that if it is a morbidly obese religious Jewish man, you must suggest the dietetic alternative—even according to the more lenient view of Rav Feinstein.
We are working with the assumption that ice cream directly affects the health of the morbidly obese, but the other 118 million Americans may not necessary be so adversely affected by it. The question is therefore only in regard to the 9 million under discussion.
Rav Chaim Kanievsky’s Answer
So what did Rav Chaim Kanievsky say about your question? He said that it is quite possible that there is a prohibition. Perhaps this discussion may give us some insight into the issues involved.
Just as an aside, members of the state of Mississippi tried to make this question into law back in 2009, but the bill was set aside by the Mississippi state legislature. v
The author can be reached at Yairhoffman2@gmail.com.