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The Logic Behind Marit Ayin

I don’t see consistency in how marit ayin is applied. There are cases that are forbidden where the likelihood of mistake seems remote, while cases I view as more problematic are permitted. Can you explain why that is?

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Rabbi Daniel Mann

Sivan 27 5781
Question: I don’t see consistency in how marit ayin is applied. There are cases that are forbidden where the likelihood of mistake seems remote, while cases I view as more problematic are permitted. Can you explain why that is?

Answer: We will attempt a partial overview of the concept marit ayin, focusing on elements that help understand the phenomenon that troubles you.

The laws of marit [ha]ayin forbid "Reuven" from doing otherwise permitted action A when people may think he did the similar B, when B is forbidden. Marit ayin is based on two concerns: 1. People who know B is forbidden may suspect that Reuven sinned. One must avoid chashad (people believing he sinned), as the Torah says: "You shall be "clean" [in the eyes] of Hashem and Israel" (Bamidbar 32:22, as understood by mishna, Shekalim 3:2). 2. People will think that if Reuven did B, it must be permitted. Rashi in some places (including Keritut 21b) cites #1 as the reason and in others (including Avoda Zara 12a) cites #2.

Rashi’s dichotomy is among the indications that the two reasons complement each other. In some cases, Chazal may have felt that one of the reasons did not apply but the other did. For example, people do not often suspect a large group of people of openly sinning (see Rosh Hashana 24b). Regarding a marit ayin prohibition on something that looks like bowing down to an idol (Avoda Zara 12a), it is unlikely someone would think it is permitted to do so.

So when should we say marit ayin? If one thinks it is very likely his actions will be misunderstood, creating violations or chashad, he should refrain from the action. However, what if there is only a modest chance? For such cases, we look to Chazal and poskim for guidance. Chazal forbade a few dozen cases due to marit ayin. Subsequently, it remains forbidden even when in a particular case the chance of mistake and/or chashad is small (e.g., one lives in a very religious, knowledgeable, and trusting community). If the whole basis for the prohibition disappears, we generally suspend the prohibition. For example, the gemara (Avoda Zara 20b) says that one must not rent out his bathhouse to a non-Jew to operate on Shabbat because usually a bathhouse’s workers were wage-earning employees (forbidden on Shabbat). However, in a society in which they are commonly profit-sharers, it is permitted (Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chayim 243:2). A minority of poskim equate marit ayin more closely to other Rabbinic prohibitions in regard to the prohibition continuing after the reason no longer applies (Pleiti 12:2).

There is a fundamental machloket, crucial to your question, as to whether post-Talmudic poskim can create a marit ayin prohibition in the type of case in which Chazal likely would have. The Kneset Hagedola forbids using matza meal to coat food because it looks like it is made with flour (he knew of a case of incorrect "copying"). The Pri Chadash (OC 461:2) argues that we cannot make our own Rabbinical prohibitions (and that isolated mistakes cannot be avoided).

We do find some post-Talmudic marit ayin prohibitions, but many of them follow a common construct. The gemara (Kritut 21b) forbids eating collected fish "blood" because it resembles forbidden (animal) blood. The Rashba (III:257) extends this concept (as opposed to creating a new marit ayin prohibition) to not combining mother’s milk with meat. Poskim extend the idea of confusing types of food to not putting "almond milk" into meat (see Rama YD 87:3 and Shach ad loc. 6 about whether it applies to poultry, which is only "Rabbinic meat"). Regarding these extensions of a Talmudic marit ayin prohibition, we care about what is and is not confusing in our times/places. Therefore, Rav Ovadia Yosef (Yabia Omer VI, YD 8) says that synthetic milk is common enough for it not to be suspicious to serve it with coffee after a meat meal; we do the same with pareve ice cream.

In summary, the main reason marit ayin is not always applied according to our logic is because we usually do so by comparison to Talmudic precedents and not just contemporary society.
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