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Thought for the Day: מראית עין -- Demeaning, Suspicious, and Misleading Activities

I mostly live according to the implied mussar of this story: When I was 20 I was very worried about what everyone thought about me.  When I turned 30, I thought, "Who cares what they think about me?"  By 40, though, I realized... no one really thought about me one way or the other.  As it turns out, that story is akin to "sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never harm me."  That is, a good general principle, but clearly not always true.  Words can be very harmful, and they are sometimes seeing your actions and making a judgement.

Consider the following things that are all forbidden because of "what will the neighbors think!?".

  1. Putting two holes on each corner of our tallis so the tzitzis go in and come back out on the same side of the garment.
  2. If you have two windows facing the street, leave one window without Chanukah lights.
  3. Except in case of dire need, putting wheat into a water mill before Shabbos.  More modern example?  On erev Shabbos, putting dirty dishes into a dishwasher that is set to start its cycle automatically during Shabbos.
While all are a problem with מראית עין/appearance, only one is technically in the halachic category of מראית עין.  Why is that important?  Two reasons: (1) the halacha is stricter for the "real" מראית עין (ie, as defined by Chazal); (2) we don't make up our own מראית עין cases.  Even though the rules are stricter, therefore, if something is outside the sharp guidelines given to us by Chazal, then we don't need to worry about it.  Since the main stringency of מראית עין is that it is forbidden אפילו בחדרי חדרים/even in our innermost chambers where no one else could possibly see.

Example one is not a case of מראית עין; it is a case of demeaning behaviour.  That is, since the normative halacha is to make one hole, a person who makes two holes looks like he feels "holier than thou" regarding the entire Jewish nation; aka יוהרה.  Such behaviour is demeaning; we don't separate ourselves from the Jewish nation.  That being the case, says the Mishna Brura, one may make his tallis koton that way; it's worn under the other garments -- therefore not visible -- therefore gives no appearance of יוהרה and perfectly permissible.  (NB: The Ari z"l was not stringent like that.)

Example two is also not מראית עין; it is rather a case of חשדא/suspicious behaviour.  Passersby may think that the additional window is for a separate apartment and that the Jew who lives there is not careful to light Chanukah candles.  We are not afraid that other Jews will learn from his behaviour that it is ok not to light Chanukah candles, Chazal want us to always act so above board that there is not even a suspicion of wrong doing.

Example three is -- tada -- the real deal; real, מראית עין.  Actions that are forbidden because of מראית עין are actions that could also be forbidden even without the מראית עין issue if they were done a different way.  That is, the reason I am allowed to do this or that is because of preparations I made that are not apparent by just looking at the current situation.  When wheat is being ground or the dishwasher is running, there is no way to know that the wheat was put in before Shabbos nor that the timer was set from before Shabbos.  (There are other problems with the dishwasher example -- such as the cooking of the grease on the plates -- but I am focussing now on מראית עין.)  Chazal were worried that someone would see what I am doing without checking all all the preconditions and therefore could come to transgress Shabbos unknowingly.

What's with אפילו בחדרי חדרים/even in our innermost chambers where no one else could possibly see?  My speculation is that it is because Chazal knew that I would research something very well before I did it and come to a permissible way to act.  After doing something a certain for a long time, though, I might very well forget all the details... and therefore come to skip something critical.  I could be my only bad role model.

How can you possibly know when something is perfectly permissible regardless of what others think and when they might come to look askance at me, or suspect me of wrongdoing, or come to do the wrong thing while thinking they are following my example?  You can't; you need Chazal.... and you better have a good rav do help you navigate all that Chazal.

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