Friday, December 3, 2010

Words that Kill

"Gossip: - Norman Rockwell
From the writings of Hacham Yosef Hayyim of Baghdad -the Ben Ish Hai

"All the gates are locked except for the gates through which cries from onaah enter..." [Bava Metzia 59a, Rashi]

The Torah forbids us to wrong one another through onaah [Lev 25:14-17] of which there are two types: cheating by overcharging or underpaying, and speaking hurtful words.

The second type is worse. The first hurts the pocketbook, the second hurts the person himself. Moreover, money can be refunded, words cannot be taken back. [Bava Metzia 58b]

Worst of all is to insult a person to the point that he is shamed. Calling him by an unflattering nickname, even if he is used to it and does not feel embarrassed, is onaah if the intention was to embarrass him. [Ben Yehoyada - Ben Ish Hai, Shannah 1, Ki Teitzei]

Whoever hurts his friend even verbally must appease him, as it is written: My son, if you became a guarantor for your neighbour... if you are caught by the words of your mouth... do this, now, my son, and save yourself.... Go, humble yourself and appease your neighbour. [Proverbs 6:1-3]

What does a guarantor's financial obligation have to do with verbal abuse?

A person who guarantees a loan through speech alone, without so much as a handshake, is legally bound to pay if the friend defaults. [Shulhan Aruch, Hoshen Mishpat 129:2] This shows that words have consequences. So a person who hurts his friend verbally cannot say "What does it matter? It was only words." [Ben Yehoyada]

Whoever shames his friend in public, it is as if he sheds blood. [damim, literally: bloods] [Bava Metzia 58b]

Why does our Gemara speak of shedding "bloods" in the plural?

Shaming a person in public even once sheds his blood several times: each time he recalls the incident or sees those who witnessed it. [Ben Yehoyada]

Whoever shames his friend in public to the point of making him turn pale, is as if he sheds blood.... for we see that the red drains out of his face and is replaced by white. [Bava Metzia 58b]

A person should enter a fiery furnace rather than shame his friend publicly. How do we know? From Tamar, as it is written: "She was taken out." [Genesis 38:2] [Ketubot 67b; Sotah 10b]
Tamar was found guilty of immorality and taken out to be burned. She could have saved herself by revealing that Judah was responsible for her pregnancy, but chose to die rather than expose him to public disgrace. At the last minute, Judah realized that he was responsible, admitted it publicly, and saved her.

From Tamar we learn not to publicly shame others regardless of personal consequences. It is better to enter a red fire than to make the red leave a friend's face by shaming him.

In the Holy Land, they are particularly careful to avoid shaming people and causing them to turn pale. [Bava Metzia 58b]

Why is this specific to the Land of Israel?

There are two angels in charge of death. The one in charge of the Diaspora is from the Side of Evil; the one in charge of the Holy Land is not. [Hesed L'Avraham]

Bloodshed evokes the jealousy of these angels. "Taking lives is my craft" they say. "How dare man encroach on my domain?" And shaming people is akin to shedding their blood.

The Jews of the Holy Land were afraid that the evil angel might say "The inhabitants of the Holy Land have encroached on my domain; I will encroach on theirs and enter their Land." Therefore they were particularly careful to avoid shaming people. [Ben Yehoyada]

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