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Shaming in Halacha – Practical Application


Last week’s article focused on the theoretical obligation to do everything possible to save another person from shame. This week we will focus on the practical applications of this concept. When is saving another person from shame compulsory, and at what price? Can a shoplifter be yelled at if he’ll be ashamed to be caught red-handed? Once the deed is done, can the thief be asked to open his bag to prevent a loss or damage? What is the best way to stop a thieving cleaning lady? Is one required to put himself to shame in order to save another’s life? Is chilul Shabbos permitted to prevent shame? Of this and more in the coming article.


In this week’s parasha we read how Yosef goes from the deepest of Egyptian dungeons, right to the Egyptian throne. Even after becoming king, he sends no notice to his father of his whereabouts. Instead, he waits for the opportunity to make peace with his brothers. And when he does finally meet them, he remains undercover, waiting for them to show regret for having sold him. When they finally show willingness to pay with their life to bring him and his brother back home, he discloses his identity, knowing the time is ripe to make peace with them without shaming them.

Even when the moment came to reveal his identity, Yosef was ever so vigilant to ensure no undue shame was caused to his brothers. He asked to be left alone with them, despite his brothers’ physical prowess and the danger he was placing himself in. He preferred endangering his own life rather than shame his brothers.

This story illustrates how serious the sin of shaming another person is, and to what extent we must go in order to prevent another person from being shamed, even if he deserves it.

How does this concept play out practically in halacha? That is the topic of this week’s article.

Halachic Sources

The Gemara sets down the halacha: it is preferable to throw oneself into a burning furnace than to publicly shame another person. The Tosefos (Sota 10b) and Rabbenu Yona (Shaarei Teshuva 3:139) accept this ruling plainly, understanding that paying with one’s life in order to prevent another from shame is an obligation. Therefore, one who is threatened with death unless he shames another person is obligated to die and not do so. The Pri Chadash (Mayim Chayim Yesodei HaTorah 5:2) and Aruch Laner (Binya Tzion 171-172) follow this approach.

The Rambam and Shulchan Aruch, though, do not mention this halacha. The Meiri (Brachos 43b) explains the Gemara’s statement is said b’derech tzachus – while conceptually burning alive is preferable, practically, we must follow the simple halachos of pikuach nefesh and not place our lives in danger.

The Pnei Yehoshua (Bave Metzia 59a) understands that one is permitted to give his life to save another from shame, and he is not considered as having transgressed the prohibition of taking one’s own life. On the other hand, one who shames another in order to save his own life does not transgress the same prohibition as one saves himself through killing someone else.

Embarrassing One’s Self to Save a Life

The rabbis who equate shaming with killing, forbid shaming another person to save a life. But what happens in the opposite case – is one obligated to embarrass himself to save another persons’ life? Is one even permitted to do so? For example, a person standing undressed in his bedroom sees someone drowning in the river through the window. Is he obligated to jump out naked and run through the streets to save the drowning person’s life? Or, if shame is equal to death, perhaps he is forbidden to do so?

Rabbi Shlomo Kluger (glosses on Shulchan Aruch CM 426) uses the following story in which the sages forbade an encounter between a man and a woman, even at the price of a person’s life, to prove his ruling (Sanhedrin 75a):

“There was an incident involving a certain man who set his eyes upon a certain woman and passion rose in his heart, to the point that he became deathly ill. …The doctors suggested: The woman should at least converse with him behind a fence in a secluded area, so that he should derive a small amount of pleasure from the encounter. The Sages insisted: Let him die, and she may not converse with him behind a fence.”

The Gemara comments… “Granted, according to the one who says that she was a married woman, the matter is properly understood… But according to the one who says that she was unmarried, what is the reason for this total opposition? …Rav Pappa says: This is due to the potential family flaw, i.e., harm to the family name, as it is not permitted to bring disgrace to the entire family in order to save the lovesick man.”

The man was destined to die, because his cure would shame a family. Therefore, Rav Shlomo Kluger maintains: if saving a person comes at the price of causing embarrassment, doing so is unnecessary and even forbidden.

The Kli Chemda (Prasha Tetze 22:1) disagrees vehemently, maintaining that shame and harming one’s good name is not enough of a reason to refrain from saving a life. The reason for the Gemoro’s ruling is that the man endangered himself. Therefore, the woman had no obligation to embarrass her family in order to save him from the danger he brought upon himself.

When Filing a Lawsuit Causes Shame

Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach (Minchas Shlomo 1:7) wonders how one can serve as a witness in a court proceeding or summon someone to Beis Din if doing so would shame the defendant in Beis Din. The mitzva to serve as a witness is for any offense, even a first-time offender. Could the prohibition to shame another negate the mitzva to take part in Beis Din proceedings?

Rav Shlomo Zalman answers that as long as the proceedings follow Torah law, they are not included in the prohibition of shaming another. Shaming only applies when the action is halachically forbidden. When the action is permitted, even if the result is shameful, it is not included in the prohibition. Whenever filing a lawsuit is halachically permitted, testifying is not only permitted but a requirement, and refusing to do so violates the prohibition of refraining from testifying.

Screaming “Stop, Thief!”

Based on the halacha that absolves any halachically-endorsed activity from the prohibition of shaming, actions intended to prevent or stop damages are also permitted. Therefore, one who sees a thief preparing to steal or escaping, is permitted to scream, “thief, thief!” and catch him, even if he’ll be embarrassed, provided it will result in recouping the theft. If the damage is done, shaming is forbidden. Similarly, taking someone to Beis Din is permitted only if the case can be proven.

It is important to repeat the following point: the above only refers to a tzaddik who made a mistake. Protecting one who regularly ignores the mitzvos from shame is unnecessary.

Checking a Suspect’s Body or Bag

Often, when an expensive item is lost or misplaced, the cleaning lady is the first to be suspected. Could she have done it? Can she be demanded to open her bag before leaving the house? Are we permitted to suspect her, just by virtue of her job and access to the house, or are extra grounds for suspecting her necessary? Even if she is sometimes dishonest, could she be asked to open her bag if finding the theft will cause her to change colors and be ashamed or should she simply be laid off?

Rav Shlomo Zalaman Auerbach (Minchas Shlomo 133:1) addresses both questions. Suspecting people, says Rav Shlomo Zalman, is always recommended. He proves this from the Braita (Maseches Derech Eretz 5): “All people should be considered thieves, and honored as if they were Rabban Gamliel.” The Braita ends with a story of a man who came to stay with Rabbi Yehoshua. Rabbi Yehoshua gave him warm hospitality, but put him up in a loft to sleep, removing the ladder before leaving. At night, the man woke up and cleared the loft of all the belongings, but when he tried to escape, he fell down and broke his neck. In the morning, Rabbi Yehoshua found him lying injured on the floor.

This story teaches us that suspecting others of unscrupulous activities is always permitted, especially when something is lost. Taking action to prevent that damage, even at the expense of shaming the thief, is permitted, because ultimately, he brought it on himself.

Had the thief not been in a hurry to escape Rabbi Yehoshua’s house, he would have noticed the ladder was missing. Therefore, Rabbi Yehoshua is not considered having endangered his guest’s life.

While suspecting others is permitted, shaming them is forbidden. On the contrary – every person must be honored and respected as if he were the princely Rabban Gamliel himself.

As for the second question: Rabbi Auerbach answers that the cleaning lady should be laid off respectfully, without shamefully demanding her to open her bag.

Before firing, though, if possible, it is preferable to test her by leaving a large bill out in plain sight to see if she is honest or not. Since this method might cause her to transgress the prohibition of theft, the bill should first be made ownerless. This minimizes the transgression if she does end up taking it (one who thinks something is forbidden must refrain from it, even if in truth it was not — Kiddushin 81b).

General Bag Checking

Question: Money was stolen from an office which was used by only two people – a customer and an employee. Can the manager demand all employees undergo bag-checking before leaving work, or is that considered shaming innocent people?

Answer: Rav Auerbach (Minchas Shlomo 133:8) answers that opening employee’s bags is permitted, and even announcing there was a theft, and the suspect is one of the workers (obviously without disclosing his name).

There is a famous story about a man who met his elementary school teacher. “Teacher, I owe you my life.” The former student explained that as a kid, he had once stolen a classmate’s expensive watch. “While I really wanted to return it, I simply didn’t know how to do it. The owner was crying so hard, I just couldn’t take it, but I was petrified of the embarrassment.”

“You were a smart teacher. You stood all the children facing the wall, warning everyone to close their eyes. You proceeded to check all our pockets until you found the watch in my pocket. But you didn’t stop there. You continued down the line until every boy in the class’s pockets were checked. Only then did you announce that the watch had been found, and resumed teaching. Despite having touched something that didn’t belong to me, you preserved my dignity, and continued treating me like a regular trustworthy child. You preserved my dignity and helped me believe in my honesty despite that one-time slipup.”

The teacher looked at him, and answered, “Well, that was the truth. I really didn’t know it was you. You see, when I told everyone to close their eyes, I did the same.”

Shabbos Desecration to Prevent Shaming

Question: A normally G-d fearing person made a mistake and committed a serious prohibition. The action was captured in a surveillance camara. While the person has since repented, one of his enemies managed to lay his hands on the camara and hangs the footage on a public bulletin board a minute before Shabbos. Removing it on Shabbos would involve Shabbos desecration, but can it be done to prevent his shame?

Answer: Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Auerbach (Minchas Shlomo 1:7) rules that a shamer is not considered a rodef, and cannot be killed. He debates if Shabbos can be desecrated to prevent shaming, and remains undecided.

Practically, since the Rambam and Shulchan Aruch did not mention this halacha, they apparently follow the Meiri’s opinion, however, if one might lose his sanity or take his own life because of the shame, a rabbi should be consulted.




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