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Parshat Matot-Masei: Flattery (khanifa) will get you destruction?

Tammuz 5783 | July 2023

What is khanifa and is it prohibited?

A few years ago I was speaking with a colleague and advocating for a tolerant attitude towards certain people when I was asked, “what about khanifa?” I knew what the word meant – flattery or brown-nosing, but was previously unaware it was considered a halakhic problem. Since then it seems to me that khanifa pops up with increasing regularity, specifically in this context. But are people using it correctly?

The term khanuifa is ambiguous. In this case it seems to refer to a specific form of disingenuity – flattering or condoning bad actions or people – similar to the modern Hebrew definition.[1] What does khanifa mean? Is it prohibited? Are there times it’s allowed?

A Torah prohibition?

Before relating details of their much anticipated settlement in the Promised Land, Parshat Massei begins with a poetic description of the forty years of Israelite encampments wandering the desert. Occasionally the discussions of portions and borders are interrupted by Divine warnings reminding the Israelites that this gift is conditional; to retain it the people must follow God’s Torah and fulfill their spiritual and interpersonal responsibilities.[2]

The penultimate section of the Book of Bamidbar lays out the rules for the Cities of Refuge, Levite cities that accepted those found guilty of “negligent homicide.” Confinement to such cities is understood as a method of protecting the offender from a reprisal killing by the go’el ha-dam, blood-avenging kinsman of the deceased, as well as a form of exile and atonement. At the end of the description the Torah warns the judges not to take money to stop an execution or to allow those sentenced to exile in a City of Refuge to return to their lands early.[3] The Torah follows this prohibition with what is perceived as a more general warning that any blood that is spilled must have consequences:

“[33] You shall not pollute (takhanifu) the land that you are on, for blood will pollute (yakhanif) the land and the land will not atone for blood that was shed in it except through the blood of the one who shed it. [34] You shall not defile (titma) the land in which you settle, in which I abide, for I am the Lord your God who abides within the Children of Israel.”[4]

This is the only occasion the root kh-n-f appears in the Torah and its meaning is disputed. The plain meaning appears to be pollute, profane, or defile, parallel to the use of the root t-m-a, which often relates to ritual impurity but can mean “defile” in a more general sense as well. If so, the first half of verse 34 seems redundant – “You shall not pollute the land that you are on… You shall not defile the land on which you settle…” Those who seek to plumb the depths of meaning in the Torah can’t accept such a lengthy repetition devoid of any significance.[5] There are two possible solutions: differentiate between the specific meanings of khanifa and tuma or between the general message of each verse.

A midrash in Bamidbar Rabba seems to do the latter.[6] It brings a list of sins that cannot coexist with the Shekhina (Divine Presence), and therefore lead to exile – idolatry, licentiousness, and bloodshed. Verse 33 is the prooftext that the specific sin of bloodshed pollutes the land and execution is the sole form of atonement; verse 34 is a general warning against defiling the land because it is God’s abode – which the midrash interprets as a warning that defiling the land leads to exile.[7]

Other midrashim take the former approach. Another Midrash in Bamidbar Rabba explains kh-n-f as drought, which is caused by sins such as bloodshed.[8] The Sifrei brings three options.[9] The first two explain khanifa as flattery and the verse is interpreted alternately as a caution against “khanafim” flatterers or against making the land flatter its residents.

As noted, this verse contains the only uses of the root kh-n-f in the Torah, but there are over a dozen other uses in the Bible. The prophets Yirmiyahu and Yishayahu often use it in a similar context discussing the pollution of the land through sin, but it is also used to describe people, as in the Proverb, “A khanaf destroys his fellow with the mouth.”[10] Interpretations of khanaf there include someone who does or speaks evil or who tries to lead others astray – which may be done through flattery.[11]

From pollution to flattery?

According to BDB flattery is a later Hebrew and Aramaic meaning of kh-n-f. Is it disingenuous to explain a Torah word using a later definition?

Ramban provides a unique approach to reconcile the two interpretations. In Devarim Israel is warned that if they sin they will work the land but will not enjoy its produce, which he claims is the actualization of khanufa – the land is defiled and “acts in opposition to what can be seen and what appears to be.”[12] It’s not hypocrisy, but rather a false or insincere representation, “ain tokyo k’varo” – the inside is not like the outside. Consequently, the Sifrei teaches that in addition to the prohibition against taking a monetary bribe to acquit murderers, the Torah also prohibits treating them disingenuously, in a way that does not align with their actions, due to their status or strength. It is insincere and inauthentic for those who represent justice to withhold appropriate punishment for the guilty or honor them as if they are innocent, just as it is inauthentic for a land that appears rich to withhold the produce that is the due reward of those who work.

Rabbi S. R. Hirsch further elucidates that the people are the primary produce of the Land of Israel they were given with the expectation and condition they fulfill His commandments. The land gives life, but it demands that life is valued. If Israel is not the just and righteous nation they were meant to be then the land cannot give them its strength.

Chazal: Flattery will get you destruction

Rabbinic literature on khanifa is sparse. When discussing the mitzvah of Hakhel the mishna relates that King Agripas was praised by the sages for standing while he read from the Torah.[13] When he read “You may not appoint a foreign man [as king] above you” he shed tears and “they” (the sages or the crowd) cried out, “You’re our brother! You’re our brother!”[14]

The mishna indicates this was positive, Agripas is praised by the rabbis, he seems to be God-fearing, and the people like him. Yet the gemara brings Rabbi Natan who states that those who flattered (he’khenifu) Agripas were immediately sentenced to destruction. The gemara brings disrupting opinions as to whether khanfa is allowed in life-threatening situations, or for powerful people “in this world.”[15]

Agripas was a king, he was also “our brother” through his mother and through his good deeds, so why does Rabbi Natan condemn this statement?[16] Ben Yehoyada explains that the issue was that the sages pronounced “You are our brother” when they could have stayed quiet – i.e. there was no threat and yet the sages actively condoned or denied the halakhic problem that Agripas’ father Herod was not Jewish.[17]

What constitutes khanifa?

The continuation of the gemara brings more statements about the evils of flattery, but it does not explain what constitutes flattery. Although there are few exceptions such as Yereim, most halakhic authorities do not count khanifa as its own prohibition. Some subsume khanifa under the prohibitions against supporting those who sin, placing a stumbling block before the blind, refraining from the mitzvah of giving rebuke, or falsehood in general; others don’t mention it at all.[18]

Some limit the prohibition of khanifa to condoning evil people or acts – implicitly or tacitly. Meiri explains that a person who praises the wrongdoing of a sinner becomes guilty as well, since their praise may lead others down the same path of sin.[19] The gemara allows khanifa “in this world,” clearly disingenuous flattery of people in positions of power to prevent harm; such khanifa does not result in a chillul Hashem, desecration of God’s name. Tosafot take a stricter approach and indicate that khanifa out of fear is always a problem, as the flatterer has elevated their fear of a person above their fear of God. Yereim is the most lenient, he allows for khanifa in cases that will avert physical or monetary harm and only prohibits khanifa for its own sake or to curry favor.

Orkhot Tzadikim goes into more detail and lists nine prohibited forms of khanifa.[20] Excusing the sins, generally praising, or even befriending a person one knows to be a rasha, thief, or cheat in their presence is khanifa – as all these encourage them to continue their bad behavior and will likely have a negative impact on the flatterer. When not in their presence, one may not praise or recommend a rasha; even if the person is not a rasha, a respected leader may not exaggerate the qualifications of someone close to them or recommend someone they don’t know well to install them in a position of power. Such endorsements may cause others to think the person is pious and reliable, which can lead to them condoning, ignoring, or learning from their bad behavior.

Orkhot Tzadikim also says silence may be a problem. Someone who has the power to protest evil actions and does not is “close to khanifut;” this is also true of someone who convinces themselves that their rebuke would not help, even though they can’t be sure. Associating with people speaking maliciously, crudely, or denigrating the Torah is also a problem; even if they won’t listen to them he may not sit there in silence. Even if one is honoring evildoers out of fear or to preserve the peace, the sages only allowed demonstrating the minimal amount of honor.[21]

Good flattery

He concludes that the worst type of khanifut is flattering another to make them sin – either to get them to take your side in an argument where you are wrong or to get them to join you doing a sin. Essentially, most of these opinions see khanifa as an issue because it leads to sin. Indeed, Orkhot Tzadikim explicitly allows one to flatter one’s wife, creditors, or a rabbi. In these cases the aim is not nefarious but rather shalom bayit (peace in the home), financial benefits, or learning Torah.

Consequently, Orkhot Tzadikim, among others, allows for khanifa if it is aimed at bringing the person closer to God and the Torah and getting them to stop their sins. He acknowledges that in our time, when most people are unable to give or receive rebuke, this may be necessary.

“And also any person he thinks will be drawn to him and listen to him to keep mitzvot, and if they approach in anger they won’t listen, but through flattery they will accept the rebuke – then it is a great mitzvah to flatter them to bring something valuable from something repugnant…”

Final thoughts

The discussion above may have raised more questions than answers. Is khanifa a form of falsehood that is prohibited in all but life-threatening situations? Or is it fine if it doesn’t lead to sin?  Must we outspokenly condemn all evil we see? Nowadays when many counsel that we should refrain from rebuke, is there a mitzvah to flatter?

In our discussion we haven’t even questioned how to define a rasha. In the past we asserted that there are few people today who fulfill the rabbinic criteria of rasha.[22] It’s possible this is part of the reason khanifa comes up more than usual – as understanding, tolerance, or even acceptance of people who clearly don’t observe all of halakha spreads, some are worried that this will make it more difficult to discern right from wrong. In general this may be part of a greater trend where growing trends of moral ambiguity and pluralism trigger others to move in the opposite direction, refusing to see beyond black and white.

How can we find a balance between understanding and ambiguity, acceptance and clear boundaries?

Perhaps the key is recognizing the gray – flattering bad people may rarely be an issue, but we still must be careful not to flatter bad actions. Such khanifa is all around us and it’s destroying our sense of right and wrong and warping our perception of reality.

Yes, khanifa must be weighed against similar mitzvot such as the positive mitzvot to judge others favorably and love our fellow Jew, and prohibitions against perverting justice, malicious speech, embarrassing another Jew, and wrongfully rebuking them. This is not an easy path to navigate, and it’s made more difficult by all the gray involved in actions.

Nevertheless, some things are clearly wrong. It is wrong to ignore claims of harassment, assault, or corruption to further our own interests, or because we know someone’s public persona, agree with their politics, like their art, etc. We must call out wrongdoing. If we endorse someone we know to be flawed we must qualify our endorsement, condemn their bad speech or actions even if they are not a rasha. Refraining from doing so is a chillul Hashem and will likely cause others to sin.

All this is exponentially true for public figures. If we return to the basics of our discussion, the issue of khanifa begins with judges, people who are supposed to differentiate right from wrong, who are willing to be swayed by a person’s position or have something to gain. A khonef presents themselves as something they are not, they may use their good reputation, flattery, or gifts to curry favor or get others to excuse their bad actions. Those who defend them, espouse conspiracy theories, or even silently abide are guilty as well.

We must be able to live in the gray – admit that a person may not be a “bad person” but may do “bad things.” Or that someone may do good things but be a bad person. Returning to my colleague’s original question, it seems I may advocate on behalf of a generally good or God-fearing person suspected of a particular wrongdoing as long as I clearly condemn the sin and do not deny evidence of wrongdoing or do so in a way that encourages others to sin.

This is not easy, but that doesn’t mean it’s not worthwhile. The world is a complicated place. Our inability to admit that and our tendency to ignore or excuse wrongdoing when it furthers our interests is making it more complicated. We are losing our sense of right and wrong and it’s only getting worse. When khanifa is done by individuals it can lead to sin, when done by leaders it can lead to catastrophe.

“Rabbi Shimon ben Khalafta said: ‘From the day the fist of khanufa prevailed – judgments were perverted, actions were corrupted, and no one could say to their friend, ‘my actions are better than yours.’”[23]

[1] In modern Hebrew it means flattery or “kissing up,” not necessarily to evil, which is probably why the halakhic issue is now referred to as “khanifa la-resha’im” – flattering the wicked.

[2] The spiritual responsibility to rid the land of idol worshippers is described in Bamidbar 50-56; the moral responsibility of a justice system that accounts for every life taken by another person is described in 35:9-34.

[3] Verse 31 contains a general warning not to take “kofer” or “protection money” for the life of the murderer, verse 32 specifically prohibits taking such money to allow someone guilty of negligent homicide to return from the City of Refuge to their land before their “sentence” is complete, which is when the present High Priest dies. A general prohibition against judges taking bribes can be found in Devarim 16:19.

[4] Bamidbar 35:33-34

[5] Even those who do not question every repetitive word or extraneous letter may look for meaning in such a lengthy repetition. The Talmud speaks of two approaches, that of Rabbi Yishmael who maintains “dibra Torah kilashon bnei Adam,” “the Torah speaks like people do,” and Rabbi Akiva who disagrees and rules that every word has unique significance. Rabbi Akiva and those who followed his approach would expound on every repetition, while Rabbi Yishmael’s approach is often used to explain opinions that do not accept those teachings.  See for example TB Berakhot 31a-b; Nedarim 3a.

The idea that “the Torah speaks like people do” remains disputed. Some successive Torah scholars, such as Rambam, have applied the principle to explain other cases of difficult language, such as anthropomorphic descriptions of God. See Guide to the Perplexed 1:26.

[6] 7:10

[7] It’s been noted that the City of Refuge is a form of exile for a person guilty of negligent homicide, as such negligence also defiles the land and exile can act as atonement.

[8] 8:4. It learns this from the use of kh-n-f in Yirmiyahu 3:2 which is followed by a description of drought.

[9] Bamidbar 161:3

[10] Mishlei 11:9; For more examples of the former see Yishayahu 24:5; Yirmiyahu 3:1-2; Tehillim 106:38. For the latter see Iyov 8:13, 13:16, 20:5, 27:8.

[11] In order: 1) Ralbag, 2) Rashi, Ibn Ezra, 3) Metzudat David. The concept of causing others to stray may be reflected in Yirmiyahu 23:11.

[12] Devarim 28:38-40, and Yirmiyahu 3:1-2, Yishayahu 24:5

[13] Mishna Sota 7:8; TB Sota 41a-b

[14] The gemara says “they,” so it could be referring to the sages and other religious leaders who were just mentioned.

[15] One opinion cites Yaakov’s obsequious flattery of Esav as a prooftext.

[16] Rashi explains he was their brother, as his mother was Jewish, Ben Yehoyada also suggests he was their brother in good deeds as he was known to be a good king.

[17] Tosafot explains that both the father and mother must be Jewish. Piskei Tosafot Sota 50 “Only a king [born] from those who may marry into the priestly class may be appointed.”

[18] Yereim 248 counts it as a mitzvah d’oraita, Biblical commandment, and Semak includes it under Vayikra 19:15. See also Minkhat Yitzchak 4:79, Maharam Schick Responsa Orach Chaim 303, Chafetz Chaim Introduction to Laws of Lashon HaRa Negative Commandments 16, and Peninei Halakha and Likutei Peninei Halakha 2:2:2.

In his Commentary on the Mishna in Sota 7:8 Rambam describes the Agripas incident as khanifa, but otherwise does not seem to mention it.

[19] See note 18

[20] Chapter 24

[21] Rav Moshe Feinstein suggests it is possible that there is a biblical prohibition against explicitly condoning sins but generally honoring a rasha may only be rabbinic. Igros Moshe Orach Chaim 2:51

[22] Post on Akharei Mot – Kedoshim. On the issue of a rasha see  TB Avoda Zara 26b. For further discussion see other sources quoted in this article and Noda B’Yehudah Or HaYashar 30. On the issue of rebuke see Chazon Ish YD 2:28, Chafetz Chaim Igeret 26, Responsa Binyan Tzion 23

[23] TB Sota 41b


Rabbanit Debbie Zimmerman

Debbie Zimmerman graduated from the first cohort of Hilkhata – Matan’s Advanced Halakhic Institute and is a Halakhic Responder. She is a multi-disciplinary Jewish educator, with over a decade of experience in adolescent and adult education. After completing a BA in Social Work, Debbie studied Tanakh in the Master’s Program for Bible in Matan and Talmud in Beit Morasha.