Rabbi Yitzchak Neria
Former Rosh Kollel in Montreal
Shalom u’vracha. I often hear that one must give everyone the benefit of the doubt. What does this mean in practical terms? Is this a halachah or simply a nice custom?
Shalom lashoel. Your question is multifaceted, and we will try to address it appropriately.
The source for the mitzvah of dan likaf zechut (judging someone favorably or giving the benefit of the doubt) is the pasuk:
“With righteousness shall you judge your fellow.” (Vayikra 19:15)
In Sefer HaMitzvot (Positive Mitzvah 177), the Rambam writes:
“And it also includes that one should judge one’s fellow favorably and only interpret his actions and words positively and benevolently.”
Although we might think that this commandment applies to judges and dayanim only – since they are the ones who are told to judge “with righteousness” – the Rishonim explain that it applies to each and every person.
Rabbenu Yona (Shaarei Teshuva 3) teaches:
“And behold, if you see a man who says something or performs an action, and one must judge his words and actions positively and favorably. If he fears God, you are obligated to judge him favorably as the truth – even if intellectually, the matter is close and tends more towards the inauspicious. And if he is of the benonim (mediocre individuals), who refrain from sin but occasionally stumble, you must eliminate the doubt and declare for a favorable judgment. As rabbotenu z”l said, ‘One who judges his fellow man favorably is himself judged favorably.’ (BT Shabbat 127b) And this is a positive mitzvah from the Torah, as it says, ‘With righteousness shall you judge your fellow.’ (Vayikra 19:15) And if the matter tends towards the inauspicious, the matter should be for you as a safek (a doubt), and do not judge him unfavorably. But if most of the person’s actions are wicked or it was shown that he has no fear of God in his heart, then his actions and words should be judged unfavorably. As it says, ‘The righteous person considers the house of the wicked, corrupting the wicked to their ruin.’ (Mishlei 21:12)”
In Sefer Shmirat HaLashon, the Chafetz Chaim cites Rabbenu Yona and adds that, practically speaking, one should not rush to act without first giving another person the benefit of the doubt.
Thus, judging favorably is not just good advice. According to some Rishonim, there is a positive mitzvah to judge “with righteousness”.