The prohibition of ona’a, monetary fraud, is laid out in the instruction of the Pasuk: “When you sell something to your fellow, or buy from your fellow, do not wrong one man his fellow” (Vayikra 25:14). However, it is notable that Chazal, based on the subsequent Pasuk which instructs “you shall not wrong one another,” specify two forms of ona’a: one financial, and the other emotional.

The Mishnah (Bava Metzia 58b) thus teaches that “just as there is ona’a in a transaction, so, too, there is ona’a in words.” This “ona’a of words” is referred to as ona’as devarim. Citing Rabbi Yochanan in the name of Rabbi Shimon b. Yochai, the Gemara teaches that ona’as devarim is even more severe than financial fraud, since the Pasuk mentions the fear of G-d specifically in the instruction of ona’as devarim, which implies an added degree of severity. Moreover, the latter strikes only at a person’s money, while the former strikes his self; and third, the latter can be returned, while the former cannot be directly remedied.

The Gemara adds that the punishment for causing suffering is executed more swiftly than that for monetary wrongs. Hashem, the Gemara explains, hears the call of one who calls Him out of pain and anguish.

In the present article we will discuss the parameters and the laws of the prohibition of ona’as devarim: Is the offense punishable by Beis Din? Which people does the Torah single out for special care in this context? Is it permitted to insult somebody else in retaliation for verbal assault? These questions, among others, are discussed below.

The Prohibition and its Punishment

Causing somebody emotional pain, through verbal, written, or any other form of communication, is a Torah prohibition. This is the teaching of the Gemara as noted above, and the basic prohibition is recorded by the Rambam and by the Shulchan Aruch (Choshen Mishpat 228:1).

Monetary wrongs, as noted, can be righted by payment. Ona’as devarim, however, cannot be so easily reversed. This distinction gives rise to a question concerning the punishment for the offense of ona’as devarim. Since this is a Torah prohibition which cannot be reversed, a transgressor should be liable for punishment by malkos (39 lashes). This is the opinion of the Maharam of Rotenberg (Prague, 785). The Mordechai (Bava Metzia 306) likewise mentions that the offense is punishable by malkos.

The Beis Yosef (Choshen Mishpat 1) questions this. Since the offense of causing emotional pain is perpetrated through words rather than actions, it follows that it is not punishable by Beis Din. Indeed, we find in the Chinuch (338) that the punishment of lashes is not applicable to ona’as devarim because no physical action is involved. The Beis Yosef suggests that the Mordechai refers to rabbinic lashes (makas mardus), and not to a Torah-ordained punishment. Yet, based on the wording of the Maharam, this approach is clearly strained.

A possible resolution of this difficulty is that the prohibition of ona’as devarim is considered a branch of monetary ona’a. The monetary offense of ona’a does involve a concrete action, so that were the money not refundable, it would be punishable by lashes. Though it lacks physical action, the offense of ona’as devarim is thus likewise punishable, since it is related to the monetary prohibition.

This reasoning follows the principle noted by the Maggid Mishneh (Sechirus 13:2), who suggests that a prohibition that could involve a physical action is always punishable by Beis Din, even when the actual offense was transgressed without an action.

The Chinuch, however, could maintain that the prohibition of ona’as devarim is unrelated to the monetary ona’a. Following in the wake of the Rambam (Negative Prohibition 251), he lists the prohibition as a separate Torah transgression, and therefore maintains that there is no punishment of lashes for the transgression of ona’as devarim. Additionally, the Chinuch maintains that whenever a transgression was done without a physical action, it is not punishable by Beis Din even if it could have been transgressed by a physical action.

Causing Grief

What type of speech or deed enters the category of ona’as devarim?

The general rule is that any form of speech or deed which embarrasses, offends, pains, aggrieves, shocks (in the emotional sense of the word) or angers one’s fellow is classified as ona’as devarim. This emerges from the teachings of various authorities who mention these adjectives in defining the prohibition. Although the most commonly used description is “embarrassment,” Rashi (Bava Metzia 59) and others (see Chinuch 338 and Shaarei Teshuvah 2:24) use the term “grief,” while the Rambam (Negative Commandment 251) mentions “anger” and “shock.”

The Mishnah gives several examples of the prohibition. For instance, it is forbidden to remind baal teshuvah of his previous sins (or a convert to Judaism of his sins as a non-Jew), since these memories can cause a person embarrassment. This halachah is ruled by the Shulchan Aruch (Choshen Mishpat 228:4).

Much care must be taken to avoid causing grief. Thus, the Gemara (59b) teaches that if a family member was hung as punishment for a crime, the word ‘hang’ should not be used when speaking to family members, even in the context of “hanging up a fish.” Mentioning the term could cause family members grief.

Likewise, the Mishna notes that one may not ask a shopkeeper “how much is this item” when one has no intent of buying the item. The reason is that doing so will cause the vendor disappointment since he falsely expected a sale. The Rach (Pesachim 112b) suggests another explanation, namely, that the item is devalued in the eyes of the vendor, causing him grief.

This example given by the Mishnah commonly occurs after someone has already completed a purchase but wishes to compare prices to check if he made a good deal. Because he has no intent of buying another item, it is forbidden to inquire about prices, unless it is made clear at the outset that there is no desire to buy the product. In large chain-stores and supermarkets the prohibition is less applicable, since the sales people are typically not the owners, and have little or nothing to gain or lose from the quantity of sales.

Asking Good Questions

Some cases of ona’as devarim are easy to predict and to avoid. Others, however, are trickier, and require us to think carefully before we speak.

A good example of this is asking tough questions. The Shulchan Aruch (Choshen Mishpat 228:4) mentions that one should not ask questions if he knows that the person asked will have difficulty answering, since this will cause distress or shame.

Following similar lines, the Sefer Chassidim (312) instructs a host to avoid questioning his guest in matters of Divrei Torah, unless he is sure that the guest is capable of providing answers.

Even when a Rav is giving a Shiur, disciples should only ask questions after the Rav has collected his thoughts, and should also restrict their questions to matters currently being studied, to avoid embarrassing or distressing him. Naturally, this halacha depends on the particular circumstances.

Sometimes, we are required to rebuke or discipline somebody else, such as a teacher or parent who is concerned with the behavior of a child. While this may be necessary, the general rule is that one should cause minimal distress. When the child is treated with appropriate respect and dignity, even a disciplinary talk need not cause acute shame and grief. Iyov’s friends, who reminded him that punishment is not meted out without sin, are considered by the Gemara as having violated the prohibition of ona’as devarim for  causing Iyov grief.

Retaliation

A fascinating question arises in cases of retaliation. If someone finds himself under physical assault, he is within his right to defend himself in kind. Even where there is no danger to life, one is not obligated to allow the assailant to continue his assault, and may strike back to fend him off (Shulchan Aruch, Choshen Mishpat 422:13)

Does the same principle apply to verbal abuse?

Based on the parallel concept of physical assault, it would certainly be permitted to hurl an epithet aimed at stopping the assaulting party from a verbal deluge. Under most circumstances, however, returning an insult just makes things matters worse. Is it permitted to retaliate in kind, even though it may cause pain or offense, or is the principle of retaliation related only to physical self-defense (see Rosh, Bava Kama 3:13)?

In the halacha discussing physical retaliation the Rema appears to equate verbal and physical abuse: “So too, in cases of insults and embarrassments, he who started must pay the fine.” Just as the person who initiated a physical fight is held responsible for the affair and therefore liable to pay damages, so too in cases of verbal damages, the initiator alone is held liable: only he, and not the retaliating victim, must pay a monetary fine for causing shame and embarrassment.

The fact that the initiator alone is held responsible, whereas the person who responded is exempt from all liability, seems to indicate that a person who responds in kind to verbal assault has committed no wrong.

Yet, the Raanach (no. 50) explains that retaliation does not incur a penalty only when it is executed in the heat of the moment. In cases of verbal damages, such as embarrassment and shame, one is only liable to pay damages for words with spoken with full intent and awareness (Choshen Mishpat 421:1), and not when the insult emerged in the heat of the moment. A similar line of reasoning is found in the Yam Shel Shlomo (Bava Metzia 8:42).

Thus, although there is no liability for spontaneous verbal retaliation, the question remains whether it is permitted to return a calm and collected insult at the offender. Based on the ruling of the Raanach, somebody who lets out a wounding insult in a calm and composed state of mind is violating the prohibition, even if the insult is in reaction to somebody else who started the fight. This type of insult is not permitted.

“Somebody who Pains Himself”

In the context of this discussion it is important to note the somewhat cryptic statement made by the Rema (Choshen Mishpat 228:1): “It is permitted to cause distress to one who causes himself (atzmo) pain.” The source of the ruling is the Nimmukei Yosef (Bava Metzia 58) in the name of a Midrash, and it has caused much debate in the writings of later commentaries and authorities.

The Ir Shushan (ibid.), clearly unwilling to accept the that the Torah prohibition of ona’as devarim is waived for somebody who causes himself pain, explains the ruling as follows: The prohibition of ona’as devarim applies specifically to somebody who is classified as amitecha, “with you in Torah and Mitzvos.” Somebody who does not possess fear of Heaven is paining himself, and there is therefore no prohibition in causing him distress.

This interpretation is somewhat strained, and the Sema (4) suggests an alternative: Someone who pains himself (a type of masochist) cannot be classed as a normal member of society, and he therefore leaves the group of amitecha. Having left the group of “your fellow,” the prohibition does not apply to those who cause themselves grief. The Nesivos Hamishpat (1) likewise quotes this rationale and halachic conclusion.

Yet, the Sema’s understanding is also somewhat surprising. We find no precedent for excluding someone who is “peculiar” from the category of amitecha. The only exclusion mentioned by the Gemara is someone who is distant from Torah and Mitzvos. Furthermore, the exclusion of somebody “strange” (by virtue of his self-affliction) from the category of amitecha will have far reaching consequences, such as for the obligation to judge him favorably. Such halachic ramifications are not mentioned by poskim.

Whose Pain Is It?

The Be’er Hagolah offers a third interpretation, suggesting that the word atzmo of the Nimmukei Yosef does not mean someone who causes himself distress, but rather somebody who pains another. The Rema and the Nimmukei Yosef thus mean to teach that one may return an insult for an insult: If someone causes you grief, there is no prohibition against causing him grief in return.

Although the Sema rejects this explanation, the Vilna Gaon upholds it, and adds an explanation based on a Gemara (Shabbos 40a): “One who transgresses a rabbinical decree, it is permitted to call him a transgressor.” The transgressor in question may well suffer from the negative nametag, yet it is permitted to call him by the derogatory title. The Vilna Gaon mentions another Gemara (Megillah 25b): “One whose hearings are evil (there are substantiated bad rumors about him)—one may disgrace him.”

The same is true of someone who causes another grief: Since he transgresses the prohibition of ona’as devarim, it is permitted to cause him grief.

Citing the Yerei’im (180), the Chafetz Chaim (Be’er Mayim Chaim 1:31) concurs that this is the correct interpretation of the ruling given by the Nimmukei Yosef and the Rema. We thus learn that there is no prohibition against returning an insult for an insult. Just as we may give derogatory names to someone who is known to violate Torah laws, so one may call the provocative affronter by appropriate names.

If we nonetheless wish to fulfill the above ruling of the Raanach (i.e. that the person who retaliates is liable for the pain he causes), we would have to ensure that the retaliatory epithets will not reach the level of causing actual pain and anguish. Although it is certainly a virtue to remain silent – in fact, the Gemara (Yoma 23a) writes that it is among the greatest virtues a person can reach – somebody who lets loose in retaliation has upon whom to rely.

Conclusion

Chesed, it is said, begins at home. So does the matter of ona’as devarim.

Concerning a person’s wife, the Gemara (Kesubos 62b) relates of how Rav Rechumi used to spend the entire year together with his mentor, Rava, returning home only once a year, on the eve of Yom Kippur. One year, Rav Rechumi was late. Immersed in his studies, he failed to notice that the time for his yearly homecoming had come.

His wife, who had been waiting close to a year for the visit, became worried. “Perhaps now he will come,” she thought to herself, “perhaps now.” But there was no sign. Finally, concerned and distressed, she shed a tear. As the tear rolled down her cheek, the roof on which Rav Rechumi was sitting collapsed, and he fell to a tragic death.

Recognizing her special sensitivity, the Gemara (Bava Metzia 59A) teaches that one must be especially particular concerning ona’as devarim of one’s wife: “Forever, one should be careful concerning the onaah of one’s wife, for her tear is swift to come, and her grief is at hand.” This special sensitivity is noted by the Shulchan Aruch (228:3).

Children, too, require special sensitivity. It is related that Chazon Ish once saw a father admonish his child over a possible muktzeh transgression on Shabbos, thereby causing the child grief. The Chazon Ish noted that the child had possibly transgressed a rabbinic prohibition, but the father, for going over the top, had transgressed a bona-fide Torah prohibition of ona’as devarim.

Our homes need to be havens of sensitivity and care, in which goodwill is abundant and hurt and offense avoided. When such are our homes, we can extend their good nature to our communities, neighborhoods and cities. In the spirit of the Omer, let us treat each other with respect and with dignity, and think carefully lest our speech cause others pain and grief.

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