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Thought for the Day: Embarrassment in Halacha

If one misses mincha (or, truthfully, almost any other regularly scheduled daily prayer service) due to external factors, then there is an option to offer a "make up" prayer at the next prayer service; a procedure known as תשלומין/offset payment.  It's not quite as good as a make up exam, but it's way more better than just shrugging your shoulders and saying, "oh well."  This option is not necessary in case one was actually exempt; for example, was involved with nursing someone back to health or burying the dead.  This option is not available to someone who just decided to skip davening out of laziness.  The תשלומין option is only availble to someone who was obligated to daven but was prevented by factors beyond his control.

Many years ago I asked R' Fuerst if someone who was caught in a public place (such as taking one's children to a museum during the winter) and felt too self-conscious to daven mincha.  The rabbi replied according to the p'sak of the Rema in Shulchan Aruch (O. Ch. 1:1) that one must never be embarrassed about doing mitzvos.  In fact, the Mishna Brura adds that it sometimes especially meritorious to do so, as others will learn from your good behavior.  Then I added a new concern, "But for a ba'al t'shuva who is already uncomfortable with his own observance and feels the embarrassment particularly keenly; would there be room to permit?"  On that the rabbi did not want to give a general answer.  (I was not asking what I should do, neither before nor after the fact; I was just asking "in principle".)

I believe I now understand the source of being reticent to offer a general p'sak for that case.  The Chafeitz Chaim (in sefer Chafeitz Chaim, הלכות לשון הרע, כלל ו', ה'/Hilchos Lashon HaRah, Rule 6, Situation 5) discusses a common dilemma.  One is in a group that is engaged in forbidden speech and is unable to extricate himself from them.  Of course, Chazal have told us in that our fingers are specifically designed to rescue us from this predicament -- just plug your ears!  (Singing "la, la, la, la, la... I can't HEAR you", of course, is extra credit.)  The Chafeitz Chaim continues, but suppose you know yourself very well and you are just not up to that challenge, as their derision is more than you can bear.  In that case, you must: (1) decide not to believe any of the forbidden gossip, (2) do not allow yourself to enjoy the gossip (the Chafeitz Chaim is a realist, after all), and (3) show no support to the group that would encourage them in their dastardly and despicable oration.  By fulfilling those three conditions, you have knocked down the transgression down to the rabbinic level and can now rely on the fact that Chazal did not extend their decrees to cases that involve כבוד הבריות.  (Which I leave untranslated for the moment.)

כבוד הבריות is usually understood to mean "embarrassment".  For example, if a person discovered that his tallis is פסול on Shabbos morning (when he can't fix it), then he would be allowed to wear it because of כבוד הבריות/his discomfort of sitting in shul without a tallis.  Another example: the שליח ציבור passes gas and it is a few moments before the bad smell dissipates.  While an individual in the congregation would need to stop and wait for the smell to dissipate, the שליח ציבור is permitted to continue uninterrupted because of כבוד הבריות/the shame he would feel.

In the footnotes (11. מפני שילעגו עליו/because they would mock him), the Chafeitz Chaim warns that this is not a p'sak upon which one should rely without reservation.  True enough, one is allowed to transgress a rabbinic ordinance when כבוד הבריות is an issue, and that is the source of the dispensation he is suggesting.  However, in this case the group in which he finds himself is doing something dreadfully wrong, so perhaps כבוד הבריות is not relevant.  To understand this, I offer the following thought exercise:  Imagine visiting a mental hospital where the patients cannot keep themselves clean and will make fun of anyone who is careful not to wet himself.  Obviously, their derision is no reason for you to be embarrassed.  Quite the opposite, their derision is more proof of their own sickness.  On the other hand (yes, this is the third hand for those of you keeping track), perhaps even in that case Chazal were sensitive to your plight and permitted the leniency of כבוד הבריות when problem is only at a rabbinic level.

From that one footnote, which certainly deserves whole lecture (which I heard in Boca Raton over Pesach from R' Noach Light of of the East Boca Kehilla), two things are clear.  One, personal feelings of embarrassment -- regardless of whether they are warranted of not -- is a factor in rendering a p'sak halacha.  Two, the stakes at risk are extraordinarily high and the weight given to the various factors must be intensely individualized.

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