Words that Hurt: Torah Laws of Onaas Devarim

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.

26/05/2015

Laws of the Kippa

The most easily recognized symbol of Jewish identity – for men – is doubtless the kippa or yarmulke. Orthodox men always wear a kippa, and even non-observant men are generally… Read more »

14/05/2015

Behar – A Good Deal or a Torah Proscription

I am looking for a property to buy in Jerusalem. Recently, a friend notified me of a potential bargain: an elderly person, who is clearly unaware of current market prices, is selling his apartment for a very cheap price, approximately two-thirds the market value. May I purchase the apartment for the suggested price, or must I inform the buyer that the price is too low, and make an offer that reflects current market values?

Parsha Ponderings-Vayikra

DON’T PASS ON SALT FOR THIS MEAL! וכל קרבן מנחתך במלח תמלח, ולא תשבית מלח ברית אלקיך מעל מנחתך, על כל קרבנך תקריב מלח Your every meal-offering you shall salt… Read more »

14/03/2015

Purim Damages

Purim commemorates a reversal, a day of nahafoch hu, when fortunes were reversed and tables were turned. In the present article we will discuss a specific reversal that is not… Read more »

03/03/2015

Asking Forgiveness: How and for What?

In Parashas Vayechi we find that Yosef is asked by his brothers to forgive them for the offenses they committed against him.

The Torah writes (Bereishis 50:15-18): When Yosef’s brothers saw that their father had died, they said, “What if Yosef holds a grudge against us and pays us back for all the wrongs we did to him?” So they sent word to Yosef, saying, “Your father left these instructions before he died… I ask you to forgive your brothers the sins and the wrongs they committed in treating you badly.”

The Torah says that Yosef wept upon hearing the words, and then replied: “Do not be afraid – for am I in place of G-d? You intended to harm me, but G-d intended it for the good, to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives.”

What remains unclear from the verses is the question of Yosef’s forgiveness: Did he actually forgive his brothers, or not?

Rabbeinu Bachya (50:17) gives the following answer: “Whoever has hurt another is not forgiven until the victim is appeased, even though he has repented. Now, even though the verses mention that Yosef comforted them and spoke to their hearts, which gives the appearance that Yosef forgave them, we nevertheless do not observe anywhere that in fact he did forgive them and put aside the wrong they had done to him. They thus died with their sin, without Yosef’s forgiveness. It is for this reason that their sin required some type of release, which occurred with the [death of the] Ten Martyrs.”

The passage teaches us the importance of procuring forgiveness from one’s fellow after harming him or causing him hurt, and in the present article we will focus of the halachic aspects pertaining to requesting forgiveness.

For which sins is there an obligation to ask forgiveness from one’s fellow? Is there a concurrent obligation to confess and to repent before Heaven? What is the nature of the request for forgiveness, and is there a need to detail the sins? These questions, among others, are discussed below

Akin to Murder? – The Prohibition against Humiliating

In Parashas Vayeishev the Torah relates the events involving Yehuda and Tamar, which culminate in Tamar’s trial and later the birth of twins from Yehuda.

A well-known teaching is derived by the Sages from the verses narrating the trial (Bereishis 38:24-26), which tell that Yehuda was informed that his daughter-in-law had become pregnant from an illicit relationship. Yehuda pronounces judgment, and Tamar is taken out to be burned. At this point Tamar sends the signs of Yehuda’s identity (his seal, cord and staff) as proof that he is the father of Tamar’s unborn child. Yehuda justifies Tamar’s actions, and openly confesses the truth of her unspoken claim: “She is more just, than I.”

The actions of Tamar indicate how careful she was to avoid shaming Yehuda in public. The Gemara, in three instances (Berachos 43b; Bava Metzia 59a, Sotah 10b), takes note of the fact that Tamar only produced Yehuda’s possessions as a subtle indication of the identity of her child’s father, without explicitly identifying Yehuda. The Gemara understands that Tamar was prepared to be executed rather than humiliate Yehuda by explicitly identifying him as the father.

On this basis, the Gemara famously concludes: “A person should cast himself into a furnace of fire rather than publicly humiliate his fellow.”

In this week’s article we will dwell on the prohibition of humiliating one’s fellow. What is the nature and the definition of the prohibition? Is there an obligation to forfeit one’s life rather than humiliate somebody else? If not, why was Tamar prepared to give up her life for this matter?