In the fifth perek we learnt a number of Mishnayot that limit the interaction with one suspected of violating the laws of shemittah. The first Mishnah (5:6) discusses those utensils that a craftsman is not allowed to sell such a person. The Mishnah summarizes by explains that only those tools whose prime function is for a prohibited activity are prohibited from sale.
The Rambam explains that this restriction is based on the prohibition of “lifnei iver lo titen michshol” – before a blind person, do not place a stumbling block. He explains that the pasuk refers to a person whose eyes have been closed by his desires and yetzer ha’rah. The pasuk wishes to stop another from pushing such a person further away. In other words, one is not allowed to assist one in committing a transgression.
One case that is debated is regarding the sale of a ploughing cow (5:8). Beit Shammai forbids it since its prime use is for a prohibited purpose. Beit Hillel however entertains the possibility that the purchaser intends to slaughter the cow. Despite the possibility being remote, Beit Hillel considers it enough to justify the sale. Consider that we are dealing with a biblical prohibition and we generally rule stringently in such cases of doubt. How then do we understand Beit Hillel’s position?
The Mishnah Rishona raises this questions and discusses a few possibilities. Citing the Tosfot he explains that the biblical prohibition of lifnei iver is when one is the sole enabler of the violation. The classic example is where one provides wine to a Nazir standing on the opposite side of river and has no way of accessing the wine himself. If the Nazir did have a means of attaining them, then it is still prohibited to provide him the grapes, albeit on a rabbinic level. One possible solution could therefore be where the purchaser had other means of acquiring these tools. If that were the cases, since the prohibition would be rabbinic and it is really a safek (doubt) that it would be used in a prohibited manner, we can be lenient. The Mishnah Rishona however rejects this solution as the Mishnah does not differentiate regarding the accessibility of the tools.
Another possibility he raises is that the entire prohibition is only when it is clear that it is a “stumbling block” at the time it is handed over. He however cites the Gemara (Avoda Zara 14a) as a difficulty on this understanding. The Mishnah taught that that one is not allowed to sell pure frankincense to an idol worshiper out of concern that it will be used as part of his worship. The Gemara adds that he can however sell him large quantities since in those volumes he would be engaged in trade and not worship. The Gemara follows by asking that we should nevertheless be concerned that the purchaser will sell it to others that will engage in idol worship. Abaye responds that we are commanded on lifnei iver and not lifnei de’lifnei iver. The Mishnah Rishona understands that were it not for this rationale of it being lifnei d’lifnei, then one would be prohibited even though the prohibited use is not certain at the time of the original sale.
The Iggrot Moshe (Yoreh Deah I:72) however understands that the prohibition of lifnei iver only applies when providing another with something that can only be used for a prohibited activity. If however it can be used for permissible activities as well, then the lifnei iver does not apply. This is not based on a doubt, rather it is the nature of the prohibition and would be the case even if he knew it would definitely also be used for prohibited activities. He continues that if that were not the case, one would not even be able sell pots and pans to an over aveirah since they will be used for cooking in a prohibited manner (e.g. non-kosher food, on Shabbat, etc). Furthermore, in response to the original question of the Mishnah Rishona, he understands (based on Avoda Zara 21a) that when the Gemara learns that we are not commanded on lifnei de’lifnei iver, it is teaching that even according to those that maintain when there is a doubt regarding a biblical prohibition we rule stringently, that is not the case for the prohibition lifnei iver. In other words, if there is a doubt regarding a biblical violation of lifnei iver – that the item will only be used for a prohibited use – then it is permitted.
Finally, the Minchat Shlomo (35:2) understands that the prohibition of lifnei iver is violated when one provides another a cheftza shel issur (prohibited object), e.g. a neveilah or wine to a nazir. Since in our cases it is not a cheftza shel issur it is permissible as long as there is a possible permitted use.
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