The Prohibition against Humiliating
The Rambam includes the prohibition against humiliating one’s fellow in his listing of the mitzvos (Sefer Ha-Mitzvos, lo ta’aseh 303), mentioning the source as the Torah obligation to rebuke one’s fellow, in which the verse adds, “and you shall not bear upon him a sin.” Chazal (Erchin 16b) understand this to mean that one must be wary of publicly humiliating one’s fellow, even if he is deserving of rebuke.
The Rambam elaborates on the matter in Hilchos De’os (6:8):
One who rebukes his fellow should not speak so harshly that he shames him, as it is stated, “[You shall surely rebuke your fellow] and you shall not bear upon him a sin” (Vayikra 19:17). So [too] did the Sages say, “I might think you must rebuke him [while] his face is turning colors, [the verse] comes to teach us, ‘and you shall not bear upon him a sin.'” From here [we see] that it is forbidden to shame a Jew, all the more so in public.
The Rambam explains the gravity of the sin:
Even though one who shames his fellow does not receive lashes, it is a terrible sin. So did the Sages say, “One who shames (lit., ‘makes white’) the face of his fellow in public has no share in the World to Come” (Pirkei Avos 3:15). Therefore, one must be careful in this matter – that he not embarrass his fellow publicly, whether a small or great [person]. And he should not call him a name which shames him, nor should he speak before him about a matter which embarrasses him.
Following the lead of Chazal, who compare shaming somebody publicly with murder (pointing out that the blood leaves a person’s face), later authorities highlight the acute suffering associated with shame.
Rabbeinu Yonah (Sha’arei Teshuvah 139) writes that the suffering of the victim is even more bitter than death, and the Sefer Chassidim (54), in a similar vein, writes that given a choice, a victim would choose death over shame. The Magen Avos (Avos 3:15) adds that the pain of death is instantaneous, while the grief of shame can last a lifetime.
Punishment for Shaming
The Sefer Ha-Chinuch (Mitzvah 240) writes that although beis din cannot give lashes for the crime of public shaming (the reason being that no physical action is involved – the only action is verbal), Hashem has many ways to see to it that the person gets what he deserves.
Nonetheless, we do find that later authorities sanction concrete punishment for somebody who publicly humiliates his fellow.
The Rosh (Bava Kamma 8:15) quotes Rav Sherira Gaon that one who embarrasses somebody verbally should be excommunicated, and the Rambam (Hilchot Chovel U-Mazik 3:5) suggests that it is up to each beis din in each individual situation to determine the appropriate punishment. Both of these ideas are mentioned by the Shulchan Aruch (Choshen Mishpat 420:38).
Moreover, the Rema cites a view that although one may not be given Torah-based lashes for this transgression, he should be given rabbinic lashes. The Sema (49) writes that the lashes are given on account of the Torah prohibition of lo tonu – the prohibition against causing another suffering. According to this understanding the halachah will apply even if the shaming is not in public.
Besides these possibilities, the Mishnah in Avos (3:11) teaches (as noted by the Rambam) that one who humiliates another publicly has no share in the World to Come.
Rabbeinu Yonah (Shaarei Teshuvah, Gate 3, no. 141) adds that unlike a murderer, who may understand the enormity of his crime (and thus regret it and repent), one who shames someone publicly often fails to recognize that what he did is indeed so terrible – though in fact the damage caused by public humiliation can be irreparable (Bava Metzia 58b). He will therefore not do teshuvah, and his transgression will never be forgiven, precluding his being granted his proper share in the World to Come.
In these consequences, shaming one’s fellow in public is more severe even than murder.
What Constitutes a Public Humiliation?
The unique severity of causing humiliation is limited to a case of embarrassing somebody in public. The question is therefore raised: What is considered a “public humiliation”?
One opinion is that a public humiliation requires an audience of ten people. The Pri Megadim (see below) mentions this possibility, and the opinion also emerges from the Be’er Sheva (Sanhedrin 99a, s.v. hamalbin), who writes that somebody who publicly humiliates his fellow is considered an apikores because public shaming is even worse than shaming in front of a Torah scholar (according to one opinion in the Gemara, an apikores is somebody who shames another in front of a Torah scholar). He further adds that we can assume that a Torah scholar is present among the public gathering. Both arguments imply that ten people are present.
The Chafetz Chayim (Chafetz Chayim 2:1, in footnote), however, rules that the severity of public shaming applies whenever the person is shamed in front of even three or more people, which is the smallest number of people that constitutes a ‘public.’ A ruling found in the introduction to the book (14), in which the Chafetz Chaim differentiates between the presence of “others” and the presence of “many,” implies that the reference is to three people not counting either the offender or the victim (the presence of two others does not suffice to reach the full severity of the offence).
A third opinion is that only two people, aside from the offender and the victim, are required to form a `public.’ This ruling is given by the Pri Megadim (Matan Secharan Shel Mitzvos, no. 5), and cited by many later authorities (see Binyan Tzion 172). Halachic authorities are most explicit in stating this view, and it thus seems that this is the principle ruling (see Toras Ha-Adam Le-Adam, Vol. 6, p. 222, who cites many concurring opinions).
Dying Rather than Humiliating
As a further demonstration of its severe nature, Chazal teach that one should throw himself into a burning furnace rather than cause someone shame in public.
This lesson, which we mentioned at the outset, is derived from the epic deed of Tamar, who chose to refrain from exposing Yehuda in spite of the sentence of death that hovered over her head.
Following similar lines, Rabbeinu Bachya (Bereishis 45:1) explains why Yosef ordered that nobody should be in the room when he confessed to his brothers, despite the fact that he was placing his life in danger (by leaving himself alone with his brothers, he took the risk that they would kill him). He endangered his life rather than publicly shame his brothers.
According to Tosafos (Sotah 10b), it is clear that the Talmudic teaching must be taken literally. Tosafos question why the scenario of public humiliation is not listed together with the other circumstances that require a person to sacrifice his life. The Gemara (Pesachim 25a-b) teaches that there are three sins which one may not violate under any conditions, even to save one’s life, namely, idol worship, forbidden marital relations, and murder.
Thus, if one is ordered to take somebody else’s life, under threat of death, it remains forbidden to carry out the murder. The Rambam (Hilchos Yesodei Ha-Torah 5:2) and the Shulchan Aruch (Yoreh Deah 157:1) rule accordingly. If, however, one must also give up one’s life rather than embarrass someone else in public, why is this requirement not mentioned together with the requirement to give up one’s life rather than violate the three cardinal transgressions?
The answer suggested by Tosafos is that the Gemara dealt only with prohibitions explicitly mentioned in the Torah; the prohibition against publicly humiliating somebody is not expressly formulated in the Torah, and was thus not mentioned by that Gemara. Clearly, according to Tosafos, the teaching is to be taken as binding on a literal level.
Is Humiliation Comparable to Murder?
Rabbeinu Yonah (Sha’arei Teshuvah, 3:139) likewise writes that the halachah, as derived from the tale of Tamar, is that one must indeed let himself die by hurling himself into a fiery furnace rather than publicly humiliate someone. While not directly addressing the question of Tosafos, Rabbeinu Yonah explains that shaming someone is similar to murdering him (see Bava Metzia 58b).
Based on the comparison, we understand that just as one must die rather than kill someone, one must likewise die rather than publicly shame someone. It is possible that this halachah is not listed independently because it is an extension of the case of murder, which is listed.
Although the Sages do make the comparison between humiliation and murder, the halachic ruling of Rabbeinu Yonah remains difficult to understand. The Gemara explains the rationale of allowing oneself to be killed rather than taking another life, “for how do you know that your blood is redder than his, perhaps his blood is redder than yours?” (Sanhedrin 74a). We don’t know whose life is “preferable” before Hashem, and therefore it is forbidden to take a life to save one’s own life.
This rationale will not apply to humiliating somebody. Though we cannot know which blood is redder, it would seem that one person’s literal blood – his life – is ‘redder’ than another’s shame. At the very least, there is no proof to the matter from the case of actual murder.
Rabbeinu Yonah apparently understood that the reason why it is forbidden to kill someone, even under threat of death, is simply on account of the prohibition of murder. The rationale offered by the Gemara that the lives are equal gives us a further understanding, but the basic law is that murder is prohibited without reference to that rationale. This idea is also stated by the Kesef Mishnah (Yesodei Ha-Torah 5:5; see also Chemdas Shlomo no. 38, and Chidushei Rav Chaim Ha-Levi on the Rambam). Rabbeinu Yonah therefore understood that by extension, the halachah also applies to public humiliation.
Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach zt”l (Minchas Shlomo, Vol. 1, no. 7) raises the question of violating Shabbos to save somebody from public shame. Rav Shlomo Zalman assumes without argument that it is not permitted to violate Shabbos to save a person from humiliation, and therefore asks the question: Given that public humiliation is akin to murder – to the degree that one must give up one’s life rather than shame another – why is it forbidden to desecrate Shabbos in order to save a person from public shame?
Although he does not suggest a clear answer to the question, Rav Shlomo Zalman implies that both halachos are true: On the one hand, it is forbidden to violate Shabbos for the purpose of saving someone from public shame, for this is not considered “saving a life.” Yet on the other, one must avoid the positive act of publicly humiliating another, even at the cost of one’s life.
Yet, not all authorities agree that one must actually give up one’s life to avoid shaming another. The Rambam, for instance, does not mention the passage that seems to mandate (or at least sanction) sacrificing one’s life for this purpose, and as noted above he rules that one must only surrender one’s life to avoid transgressing the three cardinal sins. Although it might be suggested that humiliation is included in murder, the Rambam never mentions the parallel between humiliation and murder.
It is thus possible that the Rambam understood the Gemara’s statement as meaning to underscore the severity of publicly humiliating another, but not as an actual halachic principle. This approach is stated explicitly by the Meiri (Sotah 10b), who describes the statement as being derech he’ara – a pedagogic statement intended to impress upon us the importance of avoiding causing others embarrassment. In his commentary to Berachos (43b), the Meiri refers to this passage as derekh tzachus, again implying that it should not be taken literally.
The issue of whether there is a halachic obligation to give up one’s life to avoid publicly humiliating another is examined by the Pri Megadim (Teivas Goma 5), and a number of authorities write that one does not have to surrender his life for this purpose (including the Penei Yehoshua and the Ein Yaakov). The issue thus remains the subject of a dispute.
According to the opinion that there is no obligation to give up one’s life to avoid publicly shaming another, how was Tamar permitted to do so? Whereas Tosafos and the Rosh (Avodah Zarah 27a) permit voluntarily sacrificing one’s life to avoid any sin, the Rambam (Yesodei Ha-Torah 5:4) forbids doing so in no uncertain terms. It would thus appear that Tamar acted improperly by refusing to explicitly identify Yehuda as the father of her child, and risking her life to avoid shaming him.
Why, then, was Tamar prepared to die to avoid humiliating Yehuda?
Rav Meir Simchah Ha-Kohen of Dvinsk (Meshech Chochmah Devarim 24:8) distinguishes between Jews and gentiles with regard to this issue. In his view, the Rambam forbids unwarranted martyrdom because a Jew belongs to the collective whole of the Jewish people; the lives of all Jews are bound to one another, and therefore no Jew has the right to voluntarily surrender his life – even for the sake of Hashem – for this impacts the rest of the Jewish people. A non-Jew, however, may volunteer to sacrifice his life to avoid committing a transgression, and therefore Tamar acted admirably when she refused to divulge the father’s identity even at the risk of her own life.
Another possible approach emerges from the Gemara (Kesuvos 67b), which relates that Mar Ukva and his wife opted to enter a burning furnace rather than cause shame to the pauper to whom they had donated money (miraculously, they escaped almost entirely unscathed). Since the issue in question was not public shame, there was certainly no obligation upon the Ukva family to place their lives in danger rather than embarrass the pauper. Nonetheless, it appears that because they lived on a uniquely elevated level, they held it was permitted to do so.
This is possibly the explanation even for Tamar’s actions, in which she endangered not only herself, but even her unborn child (see Rav Asher Weiss, Minchas Asher, who points out the added difficulty of her endangering her child).
A final approach, which is in marked departure from the conventional understanding of the passage, is that Tamar was not under threat of execution at all, but was rather going to be branded (Baal Ha-Turim, citing from Rav Yehuda Ha-Chasid; see also Torah Temimah, who points out that the approach appears to contradict the Gemara, and tries to resolve the contradiction). According to this understanding, Tamar was not actually putting her life at risk at all. However, this approach is not the predominant opinion.
 It is noteworthy that in his Laws of Repentance (3:14), the Rambam writes that the special severity of losing one’s portion in the World to Come applies specifically to someone whose regular conduct is to publicly shame others. A one-time or even an occasional offence is not as severe.