June 17, 2024
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Sticks and Stones: אונאת דברים

Bava Metzia 58-59

“Sticks and stones will break your bones but words will never hurt you,” goes an old saying. Abusive tongues probably coined it. The victims of those tongues would disagree. Broken bones heal. Shattered self-esteem may never recover. Our Sages, the guardians of the oppressed and defenseless, know that words can kill.

ולא תונו איש את עמיתו—“You shall not abuse one another. You shall fear your God since it is I who am God, your Lord.”

God listens very attentively to the cries of the abused. Nothing moves God to action more than the tears of the insulted.

So, when the great Rabbi Gamliel, the Nassi and President of the Sanhedrin, excommunicated his brother-in-law, Rabbi Eliezer, for refusing to bow to the majority opinion in Halachic debate, he paid for it dearly. “But I did not excommunicate him for my own honor,” pleaded Rabbi Gamliel. “I did it for God’s honor. I did it to prevent eternal disputes in Israel.”

Noble words indeed, but of little comfort to Rabbi Eliezer.

So wounded was Rabbi Eliezer by this banishment, that his wife, the sister of Rabbi Gamliel, feared for her brother’s life. What would happen to her brother if God listened to the sobs of Rabbi Eliezer and punished Rabbi Gamliel? For years, she forbade her husband, Rabbi Eliezer, to recite the words of the Tachanun prayer: “Depart from me all evildoers, for God has heard the sound of my weeping and will accept my prayer; let all my foes be shamed and utterly confounded.”

But the day came when her back was turned and Rabbi Eliezer said the Tachanun prayer and thought of his brother-in-law, who had excommunicated him. Moments later the terrible news was heard of Rabbi Gamliel’s sudden death.

In 36 different places the Torah warns us to be kind to those people that have converted to Judaism. “Heveh mekabel et kol ha’adam besever panim yafot,” “Welcome everyone with a smile,” for if you make the convert feel unwelcome, he or she may leave.

And that is also true for the Ba’al Teshuvah, the person who has found his or her own way back to the observance of God’s laws. “Haba’ah letaher, mesa’eyim oto.” If somebody sets out on the road to repentance, God gives him extra help, and we should too. It is forbidden to remind a convert or a ba’al teshuva of his or her past.  Such comments are hurtful and violate the Torah law of “You shall not abuse one another…since it is I who am God.”

It is only God who knows why troubles are visited on people.

“You are sick because you sinned.” “You are burying your child because you are being punished.” These are presumptuous and lethal words. The friends of Iyov should never have uttered these words to him and we should never utter them to others. Rather, we should take our cue from God who silently heals the sick and cheers despondent hearts. Such callous words violate the laws of אונאת דברים, abusive speech.

“Tell us,” the Rabbis taunted King David, “how is a person who committed adultery to be put to death?” And David, who was thought to have committed adultery with Bathsheba, blushed and blanched from the public humiliation. “By strangulation,” responded King David, “but he still has a share in the World to Come. But you, who have publicly humiliated me, you have no share in the World to Come.”

כל המלבין פני חבירו ברבים כאילו שופך דמים—“Kol hamalbin penei chavero berabim, ke’ilu shofech damim,” “Shaming one’s friend in public is like spilling his blood,” said Rav Nachman Bar Yitzchak. “For I have seen how the face of the shamed drains of its blood and turns white.”

Sometimes, offensive words are so subtle that they seem harmless to bystanders. But they shatter the heart they are aimed at. They do not go unrecognized by God who reads hearts and responds to tears.

We must be careful.  והיה כי יצעק אלי ושמעתי כי חנון אני “Vehayah, ki yitzak eilai, veshamati, ki chanun ani,” “If he cries out to Me, I shall listen, for I am compassionate.”


Raphael Grunfeld received Semichah in Yoreh Yoreh from Mesivtha Tifereth Jerusalem of America and in Yadin Yadin from Rav Dovid Feinstein, ztz’’l. A partner at the Wall Street law firm of Carter Ledyard & Milburn LLP, Raphael Grunfeld is the author of “Ner Eyal: A Guide to Seder Nashim, Nezikin, Kodashim, Taharot and Zerayim” available for purchase at www.amazon.com/dp/057816731X and “Ner Eyal: A Guide to the Laws of Shabbat and Festivals in Seder Moed” available for purchase at  www.amazon.com/dp/0615118992. Questions for the author can be sent to [email protected].

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