Ona’as Devarim – verbal abuse — is one of the prohibitions mentioned in this week’s parasha. As many a bully can tell you, sticks and stones can break bones, but name-calling can break one’s heart. This week’s article will cover the various halachic aspects of nicknaming – can one use a derogatory nickname if the person doesn’t care? Can one use a non-derogatory nickname? What about calling a person by his family name; ‘son of so-and-so’; or ‘father of so-and-so’? Is there any difference between a derogatory term that refers to the person and a term referring to one’s family or place of origin? What can one do if he needs to call someone, but he only knows his derogatory nickname? And if one is only referred to by his derogatory nickname, how should it be written in the get (divorce contract), in which one is obligated to mention every name he is called by? May a school fire a teacher who resorts to name calling in order to reprimand unruly students?
Calling by a Nickname
In this week’s parasha we read: “And you shall not wrong, one man his fellow Jew, and you shall fear your G-d…” (Vayikra 25:17). The Gemara (Bave Kama 58b) explains that the previous pasuk (Vayikra 25:14: “And when you make a sale to your fellow Jew or make a purchase from the hand of your fellow Jew, you shall not wrong one another”) refers to the prohibition to swindle, while this pasuk warns not to cause pain verbally, ona’as devarim. The Gemara mentions several examples that are included in this prohibition, one of which is calling another by a derogatory nickname. In this week’s article we will discuss this aspect of the prohibition of ona’as devarim.
Severity of the Prohibition
The Gemara (Bave Metzia 58b) states: “Rabbi Chanina said: All those who descend to Gehinnom ascend from there besides for three, which are: One who commits adultery with a married woman, one who shames his friend publicly, and one who calls his friend an offensive nickname.”
The Gemara asks: Isn’t calling one’s friend an offensive nickname in essence shaming him? Why are these two separate categories? The Gemara answers that the prohibition of using an offensive nickname applies even when the individual is accustomed to being called by this name and is no longer bothered by it.
No Offense Intended
The above-mentioned Gemara teaches us that shaming (causing another person to blush and/or pale) and name-calling is essentially the same prohibition. Even when no longer embarrassed by a nickname, using a nickname remains a Torah prohibition. The Shulchan Aruch (Choshen Mishpat 228:5) warns to be careful not to use a derogatory nickname with the purpose of inflicting pain, even if one is accustomed to it. Here, it seems, the prohibition to use a derogatory nickname is only invoked if the intention is to cause embarrassment.
Seemingly, there are two prohibitions: the prohibition to shame and the prohibition to use a familiar (that is no longer embarrassing) derogative term for the purpose of hurting another.
If the nickname no longer embarrasses the addressee and is not used for harmful purposes, this prohibition does not apply (although another prohibition may be involved, which will be discussed further on).
The Maharsha (Bave Metzia 58b) points out that this is an unusual prohibition – although no actual damage was caused and no emotional harm was inflicted, a punishment is meted out for the intention to shame another.
A Neutral Nickname
The Gemara mentions specifically one who calls his friend by a “bad name”, but the Rambam (Hilchos Teshuva 3:14) and most other Rishonim read here “calling by a name,” omitting the word “bad”. Do they imply that use of any kind of nickname is prohibited even if it carries no negative connotation, or were they simply using concise language?
According to the Maharsha (Bave Metzia 58b), the Rambam understands that one may not use any kind of nickname — even one with no negative meaning – if it is used with the intention to shame another. Therefore, calling another “Israeli”, “Yekke”, “Swiss”, or “Redhead” in order to embarrass or cause one to feel different in any way is forbidden, even if the addressee is used to the term and it no longer hurts his feelings.
According to the Kesef Mishna, however, even the Rambam only meant a negative nickname. His only reason for omitting he word “bad” is to stress that even using a nickname that does not appear negative to the addressee because he is accustomed to it is forbidden.
The Gemara records (Megillah 27b) that Rabbi Zakkai was asked by his students what was his merit for living a long life. He listed several actions of which he was very scrupulous, one of which was never calling another by a nickname.
The Tosefos ask: why is this a special quality if it is mentioned in the Gemara as a straightforward prohibition? How can it be a special quality that earned Rabbi Zakkai longevity?
They answer that Rabbi Zakkai was careful to not use nicknames, even neutral ones, while the Gemara’s prohibition refers to name-calling with family flaws (such as mentioning that one’s family has mamzerim — even if everyone calls them that and they have already gotten used to being called that way, one who uses the nickname is punished).
The Tiferes Yisroel (Yachin, Sanhedrin 10:11) explains that there is a midline situation – calling one by a derogatory nickname which has no familial indications. According to the Tosefos, while this is not included in the terrible sin for which one does not exit Gehenom, it is a rabbinic prohibition.
The Rosh (Tosefos Harosh Megillah 27b) offers another explanation: Rav Zakkai was careful to call every person by his given name and not by his father’s name, even if others were used to calling him by that name. (For example, Moshe Rabbenu is referred to, at times, as “Ben Amram”, and King David is called “Ben Yishai”.) Rav Ada was careful to call every person by his first name because it is more personal and honorable.
In another discussion in the Gemara (Taanis 20b), Rav Ada’s students asked him by what merit he earned longevity. One of the reasons he listed was that he never nicknamed another person. The Gemara is split over the explanation of this quality – some say he never used a personal derogatory nickname while others explain that he never called another person by his family name.
Tosefos explain that he only referred to derogatory family names. Rabbi Avraham Iben Ezra, for example, was called that name after a paternal forefather. His entire extended family used this surname and it accorded them honor. According to the Tosefos, the prohibition only refers to using a name that degrades the family. (See below regarding using family names today.)
The commentaries differ what was so praiseworthy in Rav Ada’s actions. The Maharsha understands that most people neglected the prohibition to use derogatory family names but Rav Ada was scrupulous in following the law. However, the Ben Ish Chai (Ben Yehoyada, Taanis 20b) explains that the Tosefos in Taanis understood that Rav Ada bar Ahava was careful not to use one’s family name unless it was an honorable title. Even though where there is no negative connotation in the family name, addressing one by his family name is not prohibited, nevertheless Rav Ada bar Ahava was scrupulous to only call people by their first name — an extra stringency. This is also mentioned by Rav Ovadia Yosef (Yabia Omer, volume I, Yore Deah 18:13).
Seemingly, the Tosefos learn that the prohibition of referring to one’s negative family name only refers to a nickname that connotes a family defect, even if everyone else uses it.
There are several levels in the prohibition of name-calling:
Using a nickname that causes another to blush or turn pale is prohibited under the prohibition of shaming one’s fellow. Here, there is no difference if the term used is a negative or neutral one – if it causes another shame it is severely prohibited. One who transgresses this sin never leaves Gehenom.
Name-calling is a terrible sin and one who uses nicknames does not leave Gehenom. Using a derogatory nickname is prohibited even if one is used to being called that and it no longer shames him. The Rishonim differentiate here: according to Rashi, the prohibition is only when it is used with intention of causing embarrassment. According to the Tosefos, the prohibition only refers to a family flaw. According to the Riaz (Piskei Riaz, Bave Metzia 4:7) the prohibition depends if the other person cares or not. Even if he is used to the reference and no longer blushes from it, using it is prohibited if the person minds.
Use of a negative reference one is used to and is no longer embarrassed but which is not a family flaw, is at least a rabbinic prohibition. The Rishonim only disagree if this person descends to Gehenom without return, or not.
The Shulchan Aruch rules that every nickname that is intended to embarrass another may not be used, even if the addressee is used to being called by it.
Being careful to call every person by his full given name without nicknames is praiseworthy. One who is careful to do so merits longevity.
The Pele Yoetz (kinuy) is of the opinion that it is forbidden to refer to a person by his family name because it is a derogative form of reference. One who does so does not have a portion in the world to come. This is especially true with regard to rabbis such as Rabbi Karo and Rabbi Alshiech (rather one must say Morenu Harav Yosef Karo, Morenu Harav Moshe Alshiech).
Rabbi Rachamim Nissim Yitzchak Palagi (Yafe Lelev, volume 5, Yore Deah 242:8) argues with this opinion and writes that all the Rishonim refer to the Rif as ‘Rav Alfas’ (in reference to the city in which he lived) and that on the contrary, there is greater honor in referring to a Rabbi by his family name such as Rabbi Karo instead of using an acronym of his initials.
Rabbi Ovadia Yosef writes (Yabia Omer, volume I Yore Deah, 18:13) that many early authorities were accustomed to using this form of reference. He notes the Ben Ish Chai who explains that Rav Ada bar Ahava had a special added stringency of refraining from referring to one by his family name, but there is no prohibition involved.
Is referring to a person by his surname prohibited nowadays? It seems to be dependent upon the accepted practice. Where the accepted title for an honorable person is Rabbi Miller, that would be the honorable way to address him, while where using the name of his magnum opus in reference to the person is accepted – that would be an appropriate title. At times, it would also depend upon the context – a name mentioned for quoting a halacha may be stated differently than when teaching a moral lesson, personality trait or story.
Nowadays, using one’s surname is preferable in many situations, while at times, referring to one by his first name cultivates feelings of camaraderie. Every situation requires awareness and tact to figure out the appropriate way to refer to or address another person. Taking the time to think about it is recommended.
Only Know the Nickname
How do we approach a person if we only know his derogatory nickname? The Pele Yoetz (ibid) writes that one should refer to him as the person who is called ‘so-and-so’. This title indicates that the nickname is not his name and he has a given name, which I am, unfortunately, unaware of. This format preserves the other person’s dignity.
The Sifsei Tzadik tells in in his will (Tzava’a 6) a story about a Jew in Warsaw known as ‘Reuven the Black’. He saw that his grandfather, the Chiddushei Harim, was distressed by it – “people are losing their portion in the World-to-Come” he worried.
Where a Jew was called ‘Blind Yossel’ the Sifsei Tzaddik writes that he would reprimand people for using the name. When they answered that everyone calls him that, he responded: “In Gehenom there is room for everyone.”
Writing a Derogatory Nickname in a Get
The Yam Shel Shlomo (Gitin 4:15) raised another problem – when writing a get, one must write not only the husband or wife’s given names, but also all their nicknames. It would seem we’re in a catch-22 situation since if we write a derogatory nickname we incur a prohibition with horrific results while not mentioning it might render the get unkosher?
He answers that since the get needs to be written according to the religion of Moshe and Yisroel, it is impossible to write a nickname which goes against the Torah. Therefore, we should rely upon the added catch-all written in the get “including every name and nickname he is known by”. This is enough to render the get kosher. He adds, that where it is not customary to add this line, if one of the marriage partners has a nickname that cannot be written, adding these words is mandatory.
Reprimanding by use of Name Calling
Can one reprimand a person by calling him names when the purpose is to cause him to stop his disgraceful behavior? An interesting discussion of this topic is found in the Rambam (Shemona Perakim 4) and Ramban’s (Bamidbar 20:8) disagreement regarding to Moshe Rabbenu’s sin at Mei Meriva. According to the Rambam, his sin was in his referring to the Jewish people as Hamorim as it appears in the pasuk, “Now listen, you rebels [hamorim], can we bring forth water for you from this rock?” (Bamidbar 20:10). The Ramban, though, disagrees. How could it be, he argues, that later on, at the end of his life, Moshe repeats the reference in the pasuk: “You have been rebelling against the Lord” (Devarim 9:24)? If Moshe Rabbenu been already punished for this reference, why would he use it again?
Rabbi Shlomo Eshtrok (Midrashei HaTorah, Chukas) points out an essential difference between calling the people “rebels” and telling them that they rebelled. Calling someone a rebel is name-calling, an adjective, while telling them that they rebelled is a description of their actions. When reprimanding another, one should never resort to name-calling because it causes the person to believe that name is part of his personality, and he begins to identify with it. This results in the opposite of the reprimander’s intentions – instead of uprooting the trait it becomes more ingrained in his mind. Describing the offensive behavior points the finger at the behavior not the person, implying that better behavior is expected. Here, the reprimanded person receives the message that he is essentially a good person, despite having stumbled, and he must make sure not to repeat the offensive behavior.
Firing a Name-Calling Teacher
Rabbi Yitzchak Zilberstein (Chishukei Chemed, Nedarim 32a) writes that in light of Rabbi Shlomo Eshtrok’s understanding, that if a teacher insists on calling wayward students by derogatory names despite being warned to stop he may be fired from his job.
Before initiating conversation, it is important to give a moment’s thought to the way the other would most enjoy being referred to. Name-calling is a sin which is punished severely, and even using a derogatory nickname that is commonly used is prohibited. Using a nickname for purpose of causing another person shame or other emotional pain is totally forbidden. And in general, it is important to remember — one’s name is like music to their ears if used properly.