This week’s article discusses the prohibition of humiliating others, and how far one must go in order to save another from shame. Why did Tamar prefer to be burned alive rather than shame her father-in-law? Is this the actual halacha? Can shaming someone be worse than killing him? Is the prohibition of shaming only in public, or does it also include shaming in private? Why do people change colors when being embarrassed? How is the G-dly image hurt?
Humiliation in Halacha
This week’s parsha, Vayeshev, 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 descends.
The verses describing Tamar’s trial (Bereshis 38:24-26) tell that Yehuda was informed that his daughter-in-law had become pregnant. 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 the 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 rather than subject Yehuda to public humiliation. On this basis, the Gemara (Brachos 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 this article we will dwell on the prohibition of humiliating someone. What is the nature and the definition of the prohibition? Is there really an obligation to forfeit one’s life rather than humiliate another?
The Prohibition of Shaming
The Rambam includes the prohibition against humiliating others in his listing of the mitzvos (Sefer Hamitzvos, negative commandment 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 (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 even if his face will turn 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]. Also he should not call him a name that shames him, nor should he speak in his presence about a matter which embarrasses him.”
The Rashbatz (Magen Avos 3:11) maintains that this prohibition only refers to shaming during rebuke. Other forms of shaming come under the prohibition of Ona’as Devarim, which will be explained.
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 (Brachos 43b), as derived from the story of Tamar.
The same concept reverberates in the danger that Yosef chose over shaming his brothers: before exposing himself to them, Yosef ordered the room be emptied of other people, despite the fact that he was placing his life in danger (Bereshis 45:1) by leaving himself alone with his brothers. Rabbenu Bachya explains that he was prepared to endanger his life rather than publicly shame his brothers.
According to Tosefos (Sota 10b), the Talmudic teaching is taken literally: A person must actually give up his life rather than publicly shame his fellow. Tosefos question why the sin 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 HaTorah 5:2) and Shulchan Aruch (YD157:1) 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 Tosefos is that the Gemara lists only 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.
Another prohibition involved in shaming is derived from the pasuk: “And you shall not wrong, one man his fellow Jew” (Vayikra 25:17). The Gemara explains this refers to all forms of harm and pain one causes another, whether financial loss or emotional pain.
The financial charge of boshet – shaming fees that Beis Din requires someone to pay his victim for shaming him, is seen by the Levush as proof for the prohibition to shame another. While halacha maintains that mudslinging or spitting without physical assault does not incur a Torah obligated shaming fee, Beis Din has the right to levy the fine as it sees fit.
The Mishna (Avos 3:11) writes: “Rabbi Elazar of Modi’in said: One who profanes kodoshim (sacred things), who degrades the Festivals, who humiliates his friend in public, who abrogates the covenant of Avraham Avinu, or who interprets the Torah contrary to its true intent—although he may possess Torah knowledge and good deeds, he has no share in the World to Come.” The Rambam (Laws of Repentance 3:14) explains that this applies specifically to someone who regularly shames others. A one-time or occasional offense does not carry the same degree of punishment.
Additionally, Chazal tell us (Bave Metzia 58b) that shaming people publicly results in the perpetuator’s going down into Gehenom and not coming back. The Tosefos (ibid) disagree among themselves if this means that since he loses his portion in the World to Come, he remains forever in Gehenom, or he spends the regular 12 months in Gehenom after which he goes to a neutral place, neither good nor bad.
The Rambam (Laws of Repentance 3:14) explains that the above only refers to one who didn’t repent before his death. One who repents before his death merits the World to Come. Why shaming is worse than actually taking another’s life in explained in the above mentioned Shaarei Teshuva: murder is a dramatic action, and a murderer is quicker to repent than one who shamed another, who might well forget about it and never repent.
Why is shaming another such a severe transgression? The Tosefos Yom Tov (Avos 3:11) explains that human beings were created in the G-dly image. One who shames another to the degree that his face changes colors humiliates the G-dly essence of his Neshama, of which the Torah says: “For he has scorned the word of the Lord and violated His commandment; that soul shall be utterly cut off for its iniquity is upon it” (Bamidbar 15:31). The Pnei Yehoshua (Bave Metzia 58b) adds that this is the reason he does not come out of Gehenom – because he does not believe in man’s G-dly image, therefore he loses his own connection to eternal life.
My rebbe, Rabbi Bunim Schrieber shlita explains that there are three worlds, or planes of existence. We exist in the physical world, where the body reigns supreme. In the future, eternal world, only the spiritual soul will exist, with no physical aspect – only pure, unadulterated spiritual pleasure. Then there a mid-level called the World to Come. There, the soul exists along with a certain physical aspect, something described by Chazal as “Tzaddikim sit with their crowns on their heads, reveling the Shechinah’s presence.” This state, where souls exist until the creation realizes its ultimate purpose, is where a shamer is excommuned from.
While he might receive reward for his Torah and mitzvos in the future, eternal world, where only the soul exists, one who fails to respect his fellow man’s G-dly image, will be denied the pleasures of the World to Come, where physical and spiritual merge into a single unit.
Shaming = Murder
Chazal equate shaming with murder. What’s the connection? The Gemara explains (Bave Metzia 58b) that one who becomes red in the face and then white as a ghost undergoes a process in which the blood in his heart “dies” from shame, therefore drains from his face. The Maharal explains (Chidushei Agados) that the human countenance is called the G-dly image, and when one is shamed, that light is extinguished. Causing this light to be extinguished humiliates only the G-dly image, not the physical body.
Rabbenu Yona explains differently (Sha’arei Teshuvah 3:139): since shame is more bitter to humans than death, shaming someone is equal to murdering him.
Consumed by Fire
In light of the above, it is easy to understand why Chazal see it preferrable to give up one’s own life rather than shame another, but is this a practical ruling? Should it be understood literally?
The Tosefos (Sota 10b) and Rabbenu Yona (Sha’arei Teshuvah 3:139) understand this ruling literally, and forbid shaming even in a life-threatening situation. However, according to the Meiri (Sota 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 Brachos (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, as well as the Shulchan Aruch, make no mention of the teaching, and rule that one must only surrender one’s life to avoid transgressing the three cardinal sins. Apparently, they did not see this as the practical halacha.
The issue of whether there is a halachic obligation to give up one’s life to avoid publicly humiliating others is deiscussed by the Pri Megadim (Teivas Goma 5). A number of authorities write that one does not have to surrender his life for this purpose (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 (Minchas Shlomo 1: 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.
The Rambam (Hilchos De’os 6:7-8) maintains that the prohibition includes both public and private shaming, even when nobody else is present. While public shaming is no doubt more severe and punished by losing his portion in the World to Come, private shaming is also forbidden. The Chofetz Chaim explains that the reason public shaming is mentioned in Chazal is because people change colors when shamed in public more easily than when shamed privately.
The Rambam (Hilchos De’os 6:7-8), Smag (negative commandment 6), and Yereim (195) rule that the prohibition to shame another only refers to a righteous Jew. However, one who was privately rebuked for his transgressions and ignores it may be shamed publicly for sinning. The Shulchan Aruch (CM 420:39); Shulchan Aruch Harav (CM 30); and Rama (CM 225:1) likewise rule that the prohibition of Ona’as Devarim refers only to G-d-fearing individuals.
The Rambam and Smag add another caveat: while two parties involved in a financial dispute might attribute the title of “a non-G-d fearing Jew” to their opponent for taking what each claims is his own, this does not permit either of them to shame the other publicly.
We have seen that causing public shame is considered by Chazal an especially severe transgression, to the degree that some maintain one must even surrender his life rather than publicly shame another Jew. Some see public and private shaming as one and the same.
Causing shame to another person saps his life force from him and causes him depression, which he might never recuperate from. It is considered an act of murder, even if the ashamed might eventually get back to himself. Since most don’t see this transgression as so terrible and might forget about it and fail to repent, one who shames others regularly forgoes his portion in the World to Come.
We must retain awareness of the G-dliness each person carries, cherish his unique qualities, and respect him for carrying a spark of G-d. We must do everything possible to prevent another Jew from shame.