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   by Jacob Solomon

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When you sell of buy something from another person… do not extort one another (25:14).

No man should extort his fellow man, and you shall fear G-d, for I am the L-rd your G-d (25:17).

The Talmud (Bava Metzia 58b) distinguishes between these two prohibitions of extortion. The first refers to ona’at mammon – overcharging in a business deal. A strawberry market trader, for example, would be guilty of this offence if the going rate for a kilo is five shekels, and he misrepresented that going rate to his customers by charging seven. The second statement refers to – ona’at devarim – literally ‘extortion with words’. This phrase expresses the prohibition of hurting others verbally – in personal relationships. It is forbidden to remind people of embarrassing aspects of their past or their ancestry: for example to show less that due respect to a learned and exemplary Torah personality because he followed a hippy lifestyle in his youth. It is also wrong to rebuke a person for a misdemeanor with a tirade that assassinates his entire personality and makes him feel worthless.

The wrongs of overcharging, and of talking hurtfully to others are both denoted by the same term in the text – ona’a. What have they in common?

In addition, why does the Torah appear to place a greater weighting against hurting others than against overcharging? For in ona’at mammon, the text states ‘do not extort one another’ without any further qualification. But with ona’at devarim it states, ‘no man should extort his fellow man’ and then it continues, ‘you shall fear G-d.’

Moreover, the Torah elsewhere legislates against hurtful speech by forbidding gossip (even where the facts are correct), and slander. What puts ona’at devarim into a class of its own, requiring the Torah to legislate against it?

In answering these points, it is important to examine the nature of ona’at devarim. The realities of verbal harassment are in many ways worse than gossip and slander. Ridiculing someone can have an enduring effect upon his personality development, often subjecting the victim to humiliation and scorn. In its more severe forms, it can permanently damage his self-esteem and his ability to relate to others. Humiliation does not only result from words; it can also be the consequence of an intentional snub. It can be very demeaning when ignored by others, giving the victim the feeling of being worthless. While the individual should not be obsessed with his ego, a reasonable self-image is essential for emotional stability. Thus, denigrating a person with either disparaging words or by giving him the cold shoulder when a smile would make his day is acting reprehensibly. Verbal abuse may seem to be non-violent, but it creates damage that lasts long after the marks of a violent blow have disappeared. The lack of self-esteem resulting from being the object of someone’s verbal abuse can have deleterious effects that stigmatize generations, as such victims fail to develop their true capabilities as adults and, lacking self confidence, often pass it to their children.

Unlike gossip and slander, and unlike ona’at mammon, the person guilty of ona’at devarim can easily defend himself – and on the surface at least, get away with it. He may retort “I speak like this for your own good”, or more ‘sweetly’ “I am only trying to help you.” In some cases – such as a well-deserved, but sufficiently tactful telling-off, that might be true. In others – namely an uncontrolled exhibition of ill-temper or verbal bullying, it is not. The victim gains the psychological satisfaction of at the expense of the other’s mental well-being, just as the swindler gets the financial satisfaction at the expense of the other’s financial well-being. Unlike the victim of extortion, the insulted has no legal recourse to financial redress. Therefore the text states, ‘You shall fear G-d’ – He knows what your true motives were. The Almighty also knows something else: He created the victim with sensitivities so that he can tell whether the rebuker is acting constructively or destructively – and he will not be easily fobbed off with an ‘I am only trying to help you’.

I remember with pleasure a certain teacher of Talmud who had an English-speaking student who, even after several years of study, had an almost total block with the language of the Gemara, but nevertheless was quite intelligent. Instead of causing him the humiliation of relegation to a lower group, he tactfully incorporated him within the class by calling on him to answer issues raised by others in comprehension and in class discussion. That student felt valued and over the years his language difficulties faded…

Some material from the above was based on ideas from ‘Peninim on the Torah’ by R. Leib Scheinbaum (Shema Yisrael Website), and Around the Shabbat Table by Aryeh ben David pp.227-8



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