Sunday, February 10, 2013

Verbal abuse is prohibited only if the person is helpless

updated Feb 11: This Chinuch says 1) that verbal abuse is only prohibited for those things for which a person is vulnerable and can't protect himself. It is not clear why he adds that phrase since it should be sufficient to say that it is prohibited to cause pain to others. [This is also mentioned by Shevet HaLevi (8:309.5): Thelanguage of the Chinuch (#338) is that “one should not say to a Jew words which cause him pain and anguish and that he doesn’t have the ability to defend himself against them.” There is some implication in this that if the person does have the power to defend himself against these words - then there is no Torah prohibition against them. Perhaps that means that if in most cases the words don’t cause hurt and anguish – they would be permitted according to the Torah. However not all cases are identical in this matter.] 2) Then he says the basis of this mitzva is that disputes are bad. However this is not the same thing as saying that hurting people is wrong. 3) He then says that the prohibition is only for frum people and thus not prohibited against children except as an act of piety. If we are prohibited to hurt someone why should it make a difference who the person is? [See Minchas Chinuch] 4) He also says that he assumes that a person has the right to defend himself against insults and learns this from the law of rodef. Why isn't this explicitly taught in the Talmud? The case of rodef is explicitly only dealing with a threat to life - not to dignity. 5) Finally he underminds the assertion that there is a right to self-defense against insult by saying our Sages said that ideally one should not respond to insult.

Chinuch(#338): It is prohibited to verbally torment any Jew. In other words it is prohibited to say to a Jew any words that cause him pains and torments him and he has no power to help himself. This is explicitly stated in Bava Metzia (58b): What is prohibited? If he is a baal teshuva you should not say to him, “Remember your old deeds.” If a person is seriously ill you should not speak to him in the manner that Job’s comrades spoke to him saying that the illness was obviously because he had sinned. If you see a donkey driver who is looking for grain you should not give him advice to go to a certain person when you know that he doesn’t sell grain. You should also not ask a merchant for the price of an object when you have no intent of purchasing it. All these actions are included in the prohibition of Vayikra (25:17), A person should not torment his people.

The essence of this mitzva is obvious. It is to prove peace in society. Peace is critically important in order for blessing to exist in the world while disputes and conflict are harmful. There are man curses and impediments that are the result of disputes.

Concerning the details of this mitzva there are a number of prohibitions and many cautions which our Sages have warned use in this matter to avoid causing pain to others in any way and not to embarrass them. They were very concerned about this prohibition as can be seen from the fact that they said that one should not examine merchandise if they don’t have money to buy it.

It is proper to be careful that not even an inference can be made from your words that would insult another. That is because the Torah has placed great emphasis that one should not verbally hurt others since this is something very harmful to the hearts of people. In fact there are many people who care more about being hurt verbally than being harmed monetarily. Our Sages say that wronging another with words is worse than harming them financially since only in the prohibition of  verbal tormenting does the Torah say  “and you shall fear your G‑d” (Vayikra 25:17). 

It is not possible to write all the cases of verbal abuse which cause pain to people. However everyone is required to avoid verbally paining other according to what he sees. That is because G‑d knows all of a man’s actions and everything which he intends because man only knows the externals which he can see while G‑d sees what is in the heart. [Shmuel I 16:7] Our Sages have written many medrashim to teach us the correct way to act. The main description of this law is in the fourth chapter of Bava Metzia.

The mitzva is applicable in all places and all times and applies equally to men and women. And even with children it is proper to be careful not to pain them with words too much – except in that which is greatly needed to teach them proper behavior. Even for a man’s own sons and daughters and household members. He who is gentle with them so as not to cause them anguish in these matters will find a life, blessing and honor. On the other hand if he transgresses this prohibition there is no punishment of flogging because there is no physical action. Nonetheless he should realize how many lashes can be administered without a physical whip by G‑d who commanded this mitzva.
However it would seem that despite the fact that verbal abuse of others is prohibited, one should not conclude that if one Jew came and wickedly verbally inflicted pain on another Jew that the victim should not answer him. That is because it is impossible that a person should be like a stone which has no one to turn it over. Furthermore if the victim remains silent it would imply that he agrees with the insults. In truth the Torah does not command that a man be like a stone which remains silent in the face of those who insult him as he would in the face of those who bless him. Rather the Torah commands us to stay far away from this type of behavior and not to initiate quarrels and insult people. If he is not a quarrelsome person he will be saved from insults. That is because one who doesn’t get into fights is generally not insulted by others except by total fools - and one should not pay attention to fools.

And if perhaps a slanderer will force us to reply to his words, it is proper for a wise man to reply to him in  dignified and pleasant manner and not to get very angry. That is because anger dwells in the bosom of a fools (Koheles 7:9). He should excuse himself to those who hear the slander about him and place the burden on the slanderer. This is the way the refined people in society conduct themselves.

We learn that it is permitted to answer a fool apparently from the fact that a person is permitted to kill a robber who has broken into his home. That is because there is absolutely no doubt that a person is not obligated to tolerate harm from another but rather has the right to defend himself. Likewise concerning verbal abuse which contains cunning and deceit, he is permitted to save himself with every manner with which it is necessary to save himself.

Nevertheless there are certain people whose piety is so elevated that they would not want to accept this ruling that one can respond to someone who is verbally abusing them. That is because they are afraid that they might become angry and would over respond to the abuser. Concerning these pious people our Sages (Shabbos 88b) said, “They are insulted but they do not respond with humiliation. They hear themselves being disgraced and yet don’t reply. Concerning them it is written in Shoftim (5:31), And those that love You, are like the sun going forth in its might.”


  1. Well there are different forms of abuse, and it is a pity that they are all called abuse. True, one does not have to answer every tirade or abusive term one hears in life.

    On the other hand: once the verbal abuse becomes systematic, I suppose it would be an infringment of "lifney iver al tasim michshol" not to answer: the person who is always verbally abusive has to learn that this is not acceptable. how can they learn if no-one tells them?

    I think that encouragement through passivity or acceptence plays an important role in abusive relationships: every time the person who is abused does not defend themselves, it encourages the abuser to go a little further down the path of abuse.

    Furthermore, there are clearly forms of abuse (verbal and other) that have to be stopped immediately (threats, physical abuse, sexual abuse).

    There might be isolated cases where extreme patience and longanimity can stop abuse, but I don't think this can be accepted as a general rule.

  2. Why should it not apply to children according to the strict letter of the law? Minchas Chinuch says that it does apply to children even though it doesn not seem like that from the words of the Chinuch.

    1. א) עי' הדרש והעיון (ויקרא סי' רפ"א) – "ועיין בספר החינוך ... ויש לתמוה מדברי הנימוקי יוסף ... הובא ברמ"א ... דאין מצווין על אונאת דברים אלא ליראי השם, וזה משום דדרשינן לא תונו איש את עמיתו עם שאתך בתורה ובמצות ... וקטן לא הוי בר תורה ומצות ול"ש בי' אונאת דברים. ויש לתמוה עוד ... בסוכה מ"ו ע"ב: וא"ר זירא לא לימא איניש לינוקא, דיהיבנא לך מידי ולא יהיב ליה, משום דאתי לאגמורי' שיקרא, ... ואם נאמר דגם בקטן מוזהרין על אונאת דברים, הנה מדינא אסור לעשות כן ... וצ"ע בזה".

    2. In the Talmud we are given a specific case of not calling someone by a perjorative term. Presumably it is to avoid hurting their feelings?

    3. Why not just say that a refined person doesn't do such things and thus it is not because of hurt feelings.

    4. In as much as that is an answer to my point, it also answers your new point in green on top of this page.

    5. My question was why isn't the Chinuch consistent. He says it is because it prohibited to cause pain but then he says the prohibition is for those who are defenseless. then he says it is because of disputes etc. He says children are not included -

      He could have said it was because of pain or because G-d doesn't like it or because it is bad for society.

  3. Rabbi daas Torah, when reporting on you peie tropper heirsch etc.. you emulate a "giddy" like passion to destroy them. why is that permited. are you not considered a Rodef. Is it not said that even if a tzadik is pusuing a rasha "elokim yvakesh es ha'nirdof.

    1. It is interesting answering accustions of the type "when did you stop beating your wife"

      You presume to know that I have a giddy like passion to destroy them and therefore you want to know how I can be such a sinner. Simple answer is that your assumption is wrong and you have no knowledge of my motivation.

      It is relevant to remind you of what the Chinuch writes

      G‑d knows all of a man’s actions and everything which he intends because man only knows the externals which he can see while G‑d sees what is in the heart. [Shmuel I 16:7]

      Stick to the issues and stop the ad hominem attacks

  4. Some time ago, the observation was made that one of the primary strategies of discipline used in our yeshivos and frum schoolsis that of public embarrassment. This includes the delivery of mussar in a public manner, thereby being shaming, or the frank degradation of a talmid or talmidoh. The assumption of many who wish to justify this is that the issue of "malbin pnai chaveiro b'rabim" does not apply to children. That assumption, however, is inaccurate. For one, the gemora specifies the reason for malbin pnai chaveiro is that it is tantamount to murder. Secondly, the Rambam in describing that halacha is plainly clear that the issur exists whether the victim is an adult or a koton. This halacha is a major challenge to a huge percentage of chinuch, as it clearly forbids some of the techniques used, and it also constrains others to be done in non-embarrassing ways. Our classes are public arenas, and how a rebbe or teacher addresses the misbehaving child is governed by halacha.

    I suggest the following provocative thought. I believe that a huge proportion of "kids in the parsha" are abuse victims, but not necessarily the media grabbing kind. I believe these children have been made to feel shamed, and that this issue alone is the dominant feature of this crisis of our generation. No research or scientific study, just anecdotal. What do others think?

    Aside from onaas devorim, we have the issue of malbin pnai chaveiro b'rabim, requiring this issue to be added to the discussion.

    1. You first have to demonstrate that embarrassment is not legitimate for educational purposes- which I don't think you can. You can't ignore the gemora and poskim.

      In general chastisment involves shaming and yet it is a Torah commandment.

      Hitting a child is emotional painful - and yet it is a clear halacha that a teacher or parent can hit a child.

      At most you can claim that there are alternative techniques that produce better educational resultsthan emotional or physical abuse.

    2. I don't get your argument. Firstly, any form of discipline can be administered without the shame factor. Most mechanchim do not look for the Torah way to discipline as they have hardly any training in chinuch. I can present dozens of scenarios in which the public shame factor is unneeded, yet is usually there. Yes, some kids are resilient to this, but many are not. Since the Rambam says it's ossur, we don't need to calculate the statistics of resilience.

      The Torah commandment of Tochacha specifies "Velo siso olov chait", referring (among other things) to embarrassment.

      Let's explain a bit. Providing a negative consequence for a behavior pairs it with negativity, thus inhibiting it. Behaviorism 101. If the negative consequence is not about the behavior but about the person himself, we have a pairing that should be recognized as not teaching but damaging. Teach me the action is bad, not me. If it is about me, I'm out of here. That cannot be the intended goal of Tochacha or discipline. Actually, there are many seforim today addressing the use of disciplinary tools, and all point to shame as one that is totally unacceptable. It is not in the purview of the mechanech to reject a talmid, only to guide. Even the potch must be clearly about a demonstration that the behavior was negative, NOT the anger of the parent or rebbe. That message is repeated constantly by the expert mechanchim of today's and previous generations. References available.

    3. רמב"ם דעות ו:ח

      המוכיח את חבירו תחלה לא ידבר לו קשות עד שיכלימנו שנאמר ולא תשא עליו חטא, כך אמרו חכמים יכול אתה מוכיחו ופניו משתנות ת"ל ולא תשא עליו חטא, מכאן שאסור לאדם להכלים את ישראל וכל שכן ברבים, אף על פי שהמכלים את חבירו אינו לוקה עליו עון גדול הוא, כך אמרו חכמים המלבין פני חבירו ברבים אין לו חלק לעולם הבא, לפיכך צריך אדם להזהר שלא לבייש חבירו ברבים בין קטן בין גדול, ולא יקרא לו בשם שהוא בוש ממנו, ולא יספר לפניו דבר שהוא בוש ממנו, במה דברים אמורים בדברים שבין אדם לחבירו, אבל בדברי שמים אם לא חזר בו בסתר מכלימין אותו ברבים ומפרסמים חטאו ומחרפים אותו בפניו ומבזין ומקללין אותו עד שיחזור למוטב כמו שעשו כל הנביאים בישראל.

      However the main issue that chinuch is different. The prohibition of the Rambam is when it is not for the purpose of chinuch. Further the Sefer Chinuch is saying that the prohibition of distressing another does not apply to a child but nonetheless it should be avoided "And even with children it is proper to be careful not to pain them with words too much – except in that which is greatly needed to teach them proper behavior"

  5. > and yet it is a clear halacha that a teacher or parent can hit a child.

    Talk about being a naval b'rshus a Torah!

    I have a question: when it comes to Chanukah lights we all embrace the method the Gemara lists as mehadrin min mehadrin. No one even thinks twice about it.
    But when it comes to how we treat other human beings we quote rules and laws to avoid being menschen.

    How come?

  6. MGI you obviously already know the answer and the halacha is getting in the way.

  7. I wish to raise a question which was discussed in a different context previously.

    R Dessler promoted an idea that people who get secular education / professions, must be mistreated, and not be given any respect.

    How does that fit in to the issur of speaking harshly to a Jew?

    1. good point. Rav Dessler was not talking about directly publicly embarrasing a person. He simply wanted to deny the opportunities for status from having a decent job or profession. Major difference between passive and active


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