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I know that the prohibition against placing stumbling blocks before the blind has been understood to be a prohibition against misleading or causing people to sin, but the simple meaning of the text is to not put an actual physical stumbling block in front of a blind person.

All rules are written for a reason. Torah rules even more so. Many were written to separate Jews from other ancient Near Eastern peoples. Is this an example of one: did the Jews' neighbors literally place stumbling blocks before blind persons? Even if there's no external historical evidence of this, are there Talmudic references to these practices of non-Jews or pre-Jews (or G-d forbid, of Jews)?

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Note that the Minchas Chinuch says that literally placing a stumbling block before a blind person is not a (Biblical, at least) violation of this avera (according to what I read in the "Torah Lodaas" weekly sheet by Rabbi Matis Blum; I didn't look up the MinCh myself). –  msh210 Jun 1 '12 at 20:53
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Why are you so confident that the simple meaning is a hyper literal one rather than the phrase being an idom in the same way we might use it as such now? –  Yirmeyahu Jun 1 '12 at 22:48
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...I'm not. But in context, it's paired with cursing the deaf, which sounds like something entirely literal. Also, why leave that to idiom and not say, "don't mislead the ignorant" which would be much more literal? –  Charles Koppelman Jun 3 '12 at 2:39
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see my discussion here. i think that it both instances (blind and deaf), it is obviously idiomatic. parsha.blogspot.com/2008/05/kedoshim-do-not-curse-deaf.html –  josh waxman Jul 12 '12 at 4:24
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I would say that although it is primarily there to warn us about acting dishonestly. It can also be taken literally. Just like a Ben soreh U'Moreh which is a case that is nearly impossible yet teaches us about a lot of other cases. –  shachna Jul 12 '12 at 14:46
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I think that it is fair to say that actually placing a physical stumbling block in front of blind people is not something that used to happen. If this had been a regular occurance, then the negative mitzvah not to do it would be interpreted as prohibiting a very specific action that the people might otherwise do. The next time they wanted to trip up someone who was blind, they would think to themselves, "Nope, I can't do that. There's a mitzvah against it." Meanwhile, the mitzvah would not come to mind before someone gave an unwary tourist bad directions (because he hates tourists, or something like that).

If, however, putting stumbling blocks before the blind was not something that literally used to happen, the mitzvah has the analogical meaning with which we associate it (which, of course, also literally prohibits putting stumbling blocks before the blind).

So unless you would argue that the mitzvah refers only to literally tripping people who are blind, it's fair to say that this was not something that actually happened.

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Perhaps tripping blind people was common, and the Torah is telling you not to do that AND not to do parallel things such as misinforming people. This seems like a false dichotomy. –  Double AA Aug 15 '12 at 16:52
    
@DoubleAA Of course, not tripping blind people is included in our non-literal interpretation of the mitzvah. But if this were something that was common, the mitzvah would be interpreted literally like "Do not murder" is interpreted literally. –  Daniel Aug 15 '12 at 16:56
    
@DoubleAA In other words, I am arguing that if people did trip blind people, then this commandment WOULD NOT be prohibiting parallel things. –  Daniel Aug 15 '12 at 17:00
    
How would 'Do not murder' be interpreted non-literaly? And also not everyone agrees that physically putting a stumbling block in front of a blind person is forbidden because of this lav. –  Double AA Aug 15 '12 at 17:17
    
@DoubleAA If people actually did put stumbling blocks before the blind, and the mitzvah doesn't prohibit that, then why would it use those words? Anyway, my point isn't whether the mitzvah does or doesn't prohibit doing so. My point is that if people actually did that, then logically the mitzvah would not prohibit other things that we generally consider it to prohibit. –  Daniel Aug 15 '12 at 17:33
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