Wednesday, January 9, 2013

The Prohibition of Ona'as Devarim – Hurting Another Jew's Feelings

“And you shall not hurt the feelings of one another, but you shall fear your God, for I am HaShem your God.” (Leviticus 25:17)

The Torah commands us not to hurt our fellow Jews in any way, even through speech. Harming another Jew with words is called ona’as devarim – oppressing with words. The Talmud (Bava Metzia 58b) tells us that harming another Jew’s feelings is even worse than cheating him of money.

The Talmud gives several examples of the kinds of harmful statements that are prohibited:
  • Reminding a person of something shameful in his past, or in his family’s past. For example, if he was once not properly religious and has since repented, it is forbidden to remind him of his previous deeds. Related to this, if a person is a convert, we are not permitted to make remarks that imply that his non-Jewish origin somehow diminishes his status as a Jew.
  • If a person is suffering from misfortune or illness, we are not permitted to tell him that his suffering is a punishment for his sins.
  • Shaming someone in public. Even if it is sometimes necessary to admonish a person for his misdeeds, this should be done in private. Shaming a person in public is a terrible sin, even if it is done with good intentions. Obviously, to maliciously shame a person in public is far worse. The Talmud tells us, “Anyone who shames his fellow in public, it is as if he spilled blood.” Shaming another person in public is akin to murder.
    “Anyone who shames his fellow in public, it is as if he spilled blood.”
    Instead of saying that it is as if he spilled “his blood”, the Talmud refers to blood in the plural (which doesn’t translate well into English). The Ben Ish Chai (Rabbi Yosef Chaim of Bagdad – 1832-1904) explains that when one shames another person in public, every time the victim remembers his shame or meets someone who was present, he experiences the shame again. So when one shames his fellow in public, he has not merely shamed him once, but he has spilled his blood repeatedly!
    The Ben Ish Chai
  • Calling someone an insulting name. This is particularly problematic if one calls someone by an insulting name so frequently that it becomes a popular nickname for the person.
  • Giving misleading or self-serving advice. Do not think that since no one will know that the bad advice was given with bad intent that you will get away with it, because God knows. That is why the Torah adds here, “you shall fear your God”. (Rashi on Leviticus 25:17)
  • Arousing false hopes. For example, if one goes into a store with no intent of buying anything, but asks the store owner for prices making him think that you are a potential customer.
The importance of this mitzvah cannot be understated. The Talmud (Bava Metzia 58b) states:
All those who go down to Gehinom (Hell) eventually come back up, except three: one who has committed adultery with another man’s wife, one who has shamed his fellow in public, and one who has given an insulting nickname to his fellow.
We must be very careful not to hurt the feelings of our fellow Jews. We must always bear in mind Hillel’s rule “What is unpleasant to you, do not do to your fellow” (Talmud Shabbos 31a). Sometimes we think that an insulting remark made in jest is harmless. Yet we all know many times when someone’s feelings were hurt from a joking remark. “I was only joking” is not a valid excuse. Just as one does not treat another person’s life as a joking matter, one must treat his fellow’s feeling with great respect. (Pele Yo’etz – Ona’ah)

In addition to the basic mitzvah not to hurt another Jews feelings, the Torah tells us to be extra careful about hurting the feelings of people who are particularly vulnerable. This includes a convert, “When a convert comes to live in your land, do not hurt his feelings” (Leviticus 19:33) or any other person who is not a native to your country, place, or culture (see Exodus 22:20). We must also be extremely careful about the feelings of widows and orphans, for the Torah says, “You shall not afflict any widow, or orphaned child. If you afflict them in any wise, and they cry to me, I will surely hear their cry; And my anger shall burn hot, and I will kill you with the sword; and your wives shall be widows, and your children orphans” (Exodus 22:21-23). The Talmud (BM 59a) also says that a man must be particularly careful not the hurt his wife’s feelings.

Despite the importance of not insulting another person, it is sometimes acceptable to respond strongly to someone who is verbally attacking you. However, even in such a case, one should use care and not speak out of anger. Moreover, it is considered a great level of righteousness to avoid responding even to those who verbally attack you. (Sefer HaChinuch 338)

This material was originally written for young students.

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