The Impropriety Of Flattery
‘They Flattered King Agrippas’
The Gemara discusses the severe prohibition against flattery and goes so far as to say that as a punishment for the Sages flattering King Agrippas improperly, they became liable for destruction. The source for this prohibition is the pasuk, “Do not pollute the land” (Bamidbar 35:33). Our Sages explain that the Hebrew word for pollute, “chanufa,” can also mean flattery (Sifri 161). This refers to flattering the wicked (Ramban, ibid).
Some Rishonim (Reishis Chochma: Shaar Kedusha ch. 12; Orchos Chaim by the Rosh, 103) rule that it is also forbidden to excessively flatter a righteous person with the selfish motivation of receiving some benefit from him. However, if one’s motive is to make the righteous person feel good, it is not only permitted, it is actually a mitzvah.
Flattering the Wealthy
The Ben Ish Chai (Rav Pa’alim IV, O.C. 4) criticized the custodians of shuls in Baghdad who would flatter the wealthy by lavishing an enormous amount of attention on them in shul when they celebrated a bris milah, omitting Tachanun in their honor even if the bris was not held in shul.
Undue Titles of Respect
The S’dei Chemed was very careful never to give anyone an undue title of respect for fear of transgressing the prohibition against flattery. He writes (v. III, “ches” 140) that for this reason he decided never to attach any titles to the names of people to whom he wrote halachic letters. However, he changed his mind when he realized that not affixing titles would be seen as demeaning to people who truly deserved such titles. Indeed, people were so sorely offended that when the time came for the S’dei Chemed to print his teshuvos, the publishers were told to add titles of respect to the names of distinguished rabbanim mentioned in them. They decided to add the title, “HaRav HaGaon” to every single name mentioned in order not to offend anyone.
However, there were many unworthy people also mentioned in these letters, and once the letters were published, these people displayed them as proof that the S’dei Chemed thought highly of them, causing a terrible chillul Hashem. The S’dei Chemed therefore decided that from then on, he would give each person the customary title of respect due him. Although these titles were sometimes exaggerated, the S’dei Chemed believed that flattering the righteous is not prohibited – it is only improper – and in order to avoid offending people, it is sometimes best to be improper.
Flattering One’s Wife
It is interesting to note that the Reishis Chochma, in fact, advises flattering one’s wife, even insincerely, to promote peace in the home. This does not violate the prohibition against flattery.