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Rabbi Yohanan ben Berokah said: whoever profanes the name of Heaven in secret, they exact punishment from him in public. Unwittingly or wittingly, it is all one in profaning the name.


Rabbi Yohanan ben Berokah highlights the severity of profaning the name of Heaven, which we will assume is synonymous with the concept of chillul Hashem, profaning God’s name. Usually, profaning God’s name is assumed to be a public act, so what does profaning the name of Heaven in secret entail? Additionally, why and how is the punishment exacted in public? Finally, why is there no differentiation between witting and unwitting sins?


Rabbi Jonathan Sacks delineates five different types of chillul Hashem and reflects;

Common to all five dimensions of meaning is the radical idea, central to Jewish self-definition, that God has risked His reputation in the world, His Name,” by choosing to associate it with a single and singular people. God is the God of all humanity. But God has chosen Israel to be His “witnesses,” His ambassadors, to the world. When we fail in this role, it is as if God’s standing in the eyes of the world has been damaged.

This definition presents a challenge to our Mishna, which suggests that there is an internal dimension to chillul Hashemthat is not dependent on the outside world. Commentaries vary in their approaches to this fundamental question. Maimonides writes that if one’s motivation in sinning is to anger God or out of spite, then that qualifies as a chillul Hashem even if nobody else was present. Rabbeinu Yonah adds that some sins, like idol worship, are so grave that they are definitionally a desecration of God’s name even in private.


Others suggest that “in private” doesn’t necessarily mean alone but can include acts performed in front of a smaller crowd. A sin conducted in front of even one other desecrates God’s name in his or her eyes. Even in the privacy of one’s homes, family members observe and are influenced by inappropriate behavior. Alternatively, Rabbi Israel Lipschitz suggests that even if the sin is performed with none other present, the sinner himself becomes desensitized and accustomed to disrespect God.  


Perhaps there is also a message about authenticity. By violating a sin in private, a person is communicating to God that he is more concerned with his own reputation. Avoiding shame is the motivating factor. Concern for God is absent. Even in private, God is present, aware, and cares about our choices. There should be no difference between our public and private personas with regards to fear of Heaven. We should be authentically virtuous in both settings.  


If done in private, what is the significance of the punishment being exacted in public? Rashi suggests that if someone does a sin in private, when God punishes him, people will think that it is undeserved, so God’s name unjustly desecrated. This relates Rabbi Sacks’ example of chillul Hashem on a national scale, where “God is, as it were, caught between the demands of justice on the one hand, and public perception on the other. What looks like retribution to the Israelites looks like weakness to the world. In the eyes of the nations, for whom national gods were identified with power, the exile of Israel could not but be interpreted as the powerlessness of Israel’s God.” Therefore, the Mishna is teaching that to spare God’s reputation, the sin that was done in private will also become known to the public.


Alternatively, perhaps the public outing is not a manifestation of Divine punishment but is a natural consequence. Private ethical and moral failings often become public over time. Moreover, when someone accustoms himself to behave a certain way in private, it often leaks out into his public behavior, body language, and reactions. While not guaranteed, the public is adept at noticing and exposing evil.    


Finally, the reason why there is no distinction between witting or unwitting is due to the severity of the sin and its consequences, particularly when the public is involved. The observers cannot easily distinguish between internal intentions making the ramifications of a desecration of Heaven reverberate even if unintentional.  We are all forewarned to be extra meticulous about avoiding desecrating God’s name. We cannot plead innocence based on lack of intention. We should have known better and been more careful.





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