Next week will be Parashas Vayeishev. The parsha includes the story of Yehuda and Tamar, which culminates in Tamar’s trial and the birth of her twins from Yehuda. One of the twins, Peretz, fathered the Davidic lineage from which Mashiach is destined to descend.
The verses describing Tamar’s trial (Bereishis 38:24-26) 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 children. Yehuda justifies Tamar’s actions, and openly confesses the truth of her unspoken claim: “She is more just than I.”
Chazal highlight the way Tamar exposed Yehuda as father of her future children. Rather than simply declaring him the guilty party, Tamar was careful to avoid shaming Yehuda in public, producing Yehuda’s possessions as a subtle indication of his identity rather than explicitly exposing him. Chazal understand that Tamar was prepared to suffer execution by fire rather than subject Yehuda to public humiliation. On this basis, the Gemara (in three places: Berachos 43b; Bava Metzia 59a, Sota 10b) famously concludes: “It is preferable for a person to cast himself into a fiery furnace rather than publicly humiliate his fellow.”
In the current article we will dwell on the prohibition of humiliating somebody else. What is the nature and the definition of the prohibition? Is there really an obligation to forfeit one’s life rather than humiliate another? When is it permitted to humiliate another? Which enactments were made to avoid shaming, and what is the special place in this matter of the poor and the meek?
These questions, among others, are discussed below.
The Prohibition of Shaming
The Rambam includes the prohibition against humiliating others in his listing of the mitzvos (Sefer HaMitzvos, lo ta’aseh 303). He cites the verse obligating a person to rebuke his fellow, which concludes with the words “and you shall not bear upon him a sin.” Chazal (Erchin 16b) understand this to mean that one must be wary of publicly humiliating others, even if they are deserving of rebuke.
The Rambam elaborates on the matter in his Hilchos De’os (6:8): “One who rebukes his fellow should not speak with him 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] the Sages taught: 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. The Sages thus taught: “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 refrain from embarrassing his fellow publicly, whether a small or great [person]. And he should not call him a name that shames him, nor should he speak before him about a matter which embarrasses him.”
Concerning losing a share in the World to Come, the Rambam highlights elsewhere (Laws of Repentance 3:14) that the special severity applies specifically to someone whose regular conduct is to publicly shame others. A one-time or occasional offense does not carry the same level of punishment.
Dying Rather than Humiliating
As noted above, Chazal teach that a person should rather throw himself into a burning furnace than cause someone public shame (Berachos 43b), as derived from the conduct of Tamar.
The same concept reverberates in the danger that Yosef chose over shaming his brothers: before exposing himself to them, Yosef ordered that nobody should be in the room, despite the fact that he was placing his life in danger (Bereishis 45:1; by leaving himself alone with his brothers, he took the risk that they would kill him). Rabbeinu Bachya explains that he was prepared to endanger his life rather than publicly shame his brothers.
According to Tosafos (Sotah 10b), the Talmudic teaching is taken literally: A person must actually give up his life rather than publicly shame his fellow. Tosafos question why the scenario of public humiliation does not appear 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 De’ah 157:1) rule accordingly. If one must also give up one’s life rather than embarrass someone 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 public humiliation is not formulated explicitly in the Torah and was thus not mentioned by the Gemara. Clearly, according to Tosafos, the teaching is thus to be taken as binding on a literal level.
Rabbeinu Yonah (Sha’arei Teshuvah 3:139) likewise writes that the halacha, as derived from the tale of Tamar, is that one let himself die by hurling himself into a fiery furnace rather than publicly humiliate somebody. Rabbeinu Yonah explains that shaming someone is akin to murdering him (see Bava Metzia 58b).
It is noteworthy that the Gemara (Sanhedrin 74) presents a rationale for not murdering somebody under threat of death: “For how do you know that your blood is redder than his; perhaps his blood is redder than yours.” This rationale does not apply to humiliating somebody. Though we cannot know whose blood is redder, we can surely know that one person’s literal blood (his life) is “redder” than another’s shame.
According to Rabbeinu Yonah, it seems that it is forbidden to kill someone, even under threat of death, simply on account of the prohibition of murder. The rationale offered by the Gemara gives us a further insight, but the basic understanding does not require it. 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 halacha also applies to public humiliation.
Others, however, write that the lesson of Chazal should not be understood on a literal level.
According to the Meiri (Sotah 10b), the teaching is written 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.
This also seems to be the Rambam’s opinion. The Rambam makes no mention of the teaching, and rules that one must only surrender one’s life to avoid transgressing the three cardinal sins.
The issue of whether there is a halachic obligation to give up one’s life to avoid publicly humiliating others is debated by the Pri Megadim (Teivas Goma 5), and a number of authorities write that one does not have to surrender one’s life for this purpose (including the Pnei Yehoshua and the Ein Yaakov). In terms of the halachic “bottom line,” this will certainly be the operative ruling, given that we are stringent in all matters relating to life and death—though Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach seems to suggest that this is in fact a minority view.
Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach zt”l (Shut Minchas Shlomo Vol. 1, no. 7) raises the parallel question of violating Shabbos for the sake of saving somebody from public shame. He assumes 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 to save someone from public shame; on the other, one must avoid publicly humiliating another, even at the cost of one’s life. He explains that there is a difference between actively shaming somebody in public and saving somebody from shame: one must go to every extreme to refrain from active shaming, but the same does not apply to saving somebody from embarrassment.
Related Customs and Enactments
Due to the severity of public humiliation, we find several enactments to avoid public shaming.
The Mishnah (end of Taanis) notes (citing Rabban Shimon b. Gamliel), “There were no better days for Israel than the fifteenth of Av and Yom Kippur, on which maidens of Israel would go out in borrowed white garments, so as not to shame those who did not have.” The white garments were borrowed, to ensure that no maiden should be shamed for not having them.
Another custom related to the same matter relates to the kesubah document. The Rivash (no. 153) was asked why the amount of the Ketubah is so slight – how can such a small monetary sum ensure that a man will think twice (at least) before divorcing his wife (which is the purpose of the Kesubah). He answers: “The Sages enacted an equal Kesubah for all, so as not to shame he who lacks the means, and they evaluated the sum according to a poor person.”
Even in the Amidah prayer, the Gemara (Sotah 32b) explains that the reason the prayer was enacted as a silent prayer is so that sinners (who declare their transgressions as part of the prayer) should not be shamed.
Likewise, we find that customs of mourning and burial were standardized with a view to ensuring that nobody should suffer embarrassment (Mo’ed Kattan 27a).
Leining and Other Readings
In bringing Bikkurim (the First Fruits), the Sages enacted that specifically the Kohen – and not the person bringing the Bikkurim – should read out the mandated declaration. The Rambam (Commentary to Bikkurim 3:4) explains that many who brought Bikkurim were not fluent in the Holy Tongue, and so as not to shame those who did not know how to read, it was enacted that the Kohen should read for all.
In a similar vein, it is customary that a single person is appointed as the Ba’al Koreh for reading from the Torah, rather than each person who receives an Aliah reading for himself. Tosafos (Bava Basra 15a; Rosh Hashanah 27a; Menachos 30a) writes that this was does to ensure that those who don’t know how to read will not be publicly embarrassed.
So, too, it is customary to recite Birkas Erusin (the first blessing recited at a wedding) on behalf of the Chassan, rather than him reciting it himself. Shut Alfei Yisrael (Orach Chaim 6) writes that even the Sheva Berachos should in principle be recited by the Chassan (this matter is the subject of a dispute among authorities), but others recite them so as not to shame those Chassanim who can’t.
Examples abound, but the above suffice to show how careful the Sages and later authorities were in ensuring that nobody should be caused public embarrassment – to the degree that many customs and enactments are based on this consideration.
Exceptions to the Rule
In spite of the above, we find a number of instances in which the Sages were not particular to avoid potential shame that can arise from social gaps. This was done where another value conflicted with the desire to ensure nobody should suffer embarrassment.
For bringing Bikkurim, the Sages made no restrictions on how the fruits are brought. The Mishnah thus states that the rich would bring them in vessels of gold, whereas the poor brought them in pots of clay (see Bikkurim 3:8). Although this is liable to cause the poor a degree of shame, the Tosafos Yom-Tov explains that no standard enactment was made, for this would decrease the honor of the Temple.
We thus learn that although the matter of causing shame is a central consideration, it much nonetheless be balanced against other considerations, and under certain circumstances the concern for shame will be deferred by other factors.
Even in the case of the kesubah, only the principle sum was standardized, whereas the “addition” that each man can give was left to individual circumstances. The Gemara (Kesubos 54b) explains that the Mishnah highlights this halacha to teach us that in this matter the Sages were not concerned for the shaming of those who lack the means. It is possible that here, too, the facilitation of Shidduchim, in which the “additional sum” can be a significant factor, deferred the concern for shaming those who lack the wherewithal.
An important application of these considerations is the question of celebrations of bar-mitzvos and weddings, whose extravagance can sometimes get out of hand; the same is true of buying apartments for children. Among certain communities special enactments are made to restrict these practices, so as not to cause trouble for those who can’t meet the standards. Other communities, however, refrain from doing so. It is up to the heads of communities to strike the appropriate balance between the different factors involved.
Shaming as Sanction
Another exception to the rule is the case of shaming as a sanction, or “for the sake of Heaven.” This idea originates from the Torah itself, where we find that the zaken mamre is killed in public (Rashi writes that this is done during festivals for maximal exposure), so that “all the nation will hear and see, and will sin no more” (Devarim 17:13).
The Gemara (Yoma 86b, based on Rashi) thus writes that a person’s sins are publicized where there is a need for doing so: “We publicize the flatterers [wicked people who make themselves out to be righteous] due to the desecration of the Name [so that others should not learn from their deeds].”
Rashi offers another explanation for the halachah: the sins of hypocrites are publicized so that when they are punished by Heaven, people should not wonder at how so apparently righteous a person received so harsh a punishment.
In a similar sense, it is permitted to embarrass a person if this is necessary to cause him to repent his wayward deeds (Rambam, De’os 6:8), or to ensure that he should not lead others to sin.
An example of this matter is in the laws of Shechitah. A Shochet who sells non-kosher meat to the public is publicly flogged, and his identity and actions are declared in Shuls, to ensure public awareness (Hagahos Ashri, Chullin 7:16; see Rambam, Maachalos Asuros 8:9).
Likewise, in certain cases it is permitted and obligatory to publicize people who are disqualified from marriage into Israel – for obvious reasons (see Kiddushin 70; Yoreh De’ah 265:4).
At the same time, it is important to note that we find no halachic permit to shame somebody who is only suspected of sin. The Rosh (Kelal 7, no. 7) warns of this concerning somebody under suspicion: “Heaven forbid the shaming of a Jew in public!”
The Poor and the Meek
It is important to highlight the place of the poor and the meek in the context of concern for shaming. Many of the enactments noted above were made with the poor in mind: “so as not to shame those who don’t have.” Sometimes this rationale is made explicit by the Sages, such as the enactment of the Mourning Meal (Mo’ed Kattan 27a): “At first they would bring the meal to the mourner, for the rich in vessels of gold and silver and for the poor in earthenware – and the poor would be shamed. They enacted that the meal be brought to all in vessels of earthenware, out of honor for the poor.”
An Italian community, where it was custom to draw lots to decide which homeowner will put up the poor who had made their way to the city, considered asking the poor people themselves to take part in drawing the lots. The purpose of this was to cause the poor person shame, and thus ensure that he shouldn’t burden the community unless circumstances were truly dire. The Mahari Mintz responded: “Concerning the matter of the guests, Heaven forbid the institution of an enactment that will cause them shame and anguish… I cannot expound on this matter, for it ought to be entirely simple even for an utter simpleton! It is a disgrace for me to mention and to deal with such claims.”
Concern for the shame of the meek and the underprivileged brought the Sefer Chassidim (no. 424) to a far-reaching decision, concerning a Kohen who could not properly pronounce the word yishmerecha (He shall guard you), and rather said yashmidcha (He shall destroy you). A community leader instructed the man to refrain from ascending to bless the people, because instead of blessing, he actually cursed! Yet, the rabbi was shown in a dream that he should allow the person to bless, and should he refrain from doing so he will be punished!
In a halachic sense the ruling is not clear (see Shut Yabia Omer, Vol. 6, no. 11). However, it certainly serves as a pointer of the great care and concern that the Sages and rabbis showed for shaming others, and in particular the poor, the weak, and the meek – even when faced with significant halachic considerations.
We have seen that causing public shame is considered by Chazal to be an especially severe transgression, to the degree that according to some opinions one must even surrender his life rather than publicly shame others. Based on the severe nature of this matter, Chazal enacted a range of enactments to avoid causing individuals shame.
However, we have also seen that the potential for somebody being shamed or embarrassed must be weighed against other values and factors, such that in certain circumstances the Sages were not concerned for the possibility of somebody being shamed. In rare instances, and specifically where this is required “for the sake of Heaven,” it can even be permitted to cause somebody public shame.