The Torah teaches: “When you sell something to your fellow, or buy from your fellow, do no wrong one man his fellow” (Vayikra 25:14). In a subsequent verse, the Torah states: “You shall not wrong one another.”
Dwelling on the two verses, the Gemara explains that the latter verse refers to onaas devarim. This means that causing somebody else emotional pain, by means of verbal, written, or any other form of communication, is a Torah prohibition. This basic prohibition is recorded by the Rambam and by the Shulchan Aruch (Choshen Mishpat 228:1).
The Gemara, moreover, writes that the prohibition of onaas devarim is more stringent even than the Torah transgression of monetary onaah (overcharging).
Several reasons are mentioned for this: The offense is worse since it attacks the person himself, rather than his money. Also the pasuk mentions the fear of G-d in the instruction of onaas devarim, which implies an added degree of severity. And finally, monetary wrongs can be restored by paying back, whereas anguish and grief caused, can never be recalled.
The Gemara adds that the punishment for causing suffering is executed more swiftly than that of monetary wrongs. Hashem, the Gemara explains, hears the call of one who calls Him out of pain and anguish.
In this article we will discuss the parameters and the laws of the prohibition of onaas 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.