Thursday, May 6, 2010

Onaas Devarim - Words of Destruction

By Neil Harris

In merit of a refuah shelaimah for Esther bas Sara

In Parshat Behar we have a mitzvah that, these days, doesn't really get as much attention as it should. Like manymitzvos, it contains components of both bein adam l’chavero and bein adam l’makom, thus allowing us to work on our relationship with others and also our connection to Hashem. The mitzvah is not to verbally harm somone, also know as אונאת דברים, ona'as devarim. I'll admit, personally, this isn't always an easy mitzvah to fulfill and requires one to constantly think before they speak.

In Vayikra 25:17 it states,

ולא תונו איש את עמיתו ויראת מאלוקיך כי אני יקוק אלוקיכם

And you shall not wrong, one man his fellow Jew, and you shall fear your God, for I am the Lord, your God.

Rashi explains,

ולא תונו איש את עמיתו: כאן הזהיר על אונאת דברים, שלא יקניט איש את חברו לא ישיאנו עצה שאינה הוגנת לו לפי דרכו והנאתו של יועץ. ואם תאמר, מי יודע אם נתכוונתי לרעה, לכך נאמר ויראת מאלהיך, היודע מחשבות הוא יודע. כל דבר המסור ללב, שאין מכיר אלא מי שהמחשבה בלבו, נאמר בו ויראת מאלהיך:

And you shall not wrong, one man his fellow-Jew: Here, Scripture is warning against wronging verbally, namely, that one must not provoke his fellow [Jew], nor may one offer advice to him that is unsound for him but according to the mode of life or the benefit of the advisor. And if you say, “Who can tell whether I had evil intentions [when I talked to my fellow in an insulting manner? Perhaps I did so in order to make him feel remorseful and repent his ways].” Therefore, it says, “and you shall fear your God.”-The One Who knows all thoughts-He knows. Concerning anything held in the heart and known only to the one who bears this thought in his mind, it says “and you shall fear your God!” - [Bava Metzia 58b]{1}

The last line of Rashi is in relation to the teaching of Rabbi Yehudah, who says that you have violated the mitzvah of Ona'as Devarim by asking questions or showing interest in making purchase for something if one doesn't have any money, because your heart knows the truth and of everything known only to the heart it is written: and you shall fear your God.

It seems that Hashem ultimately knows our thoughts and intentions specifically in regard to how we interact with others. Because of the potenial personal damage to someone from what we say, it's truly important to strive have yiras Hashem, fear of God.

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch zt"l, in is commentary on Chumash elaborates on this mitzvah in the most beautiful way. Rav Hirsch says:

This prohibition of אונאת דברים embraces any and every kind of hurting the feeling of others by words, making reference to the shady past of somebody, or to that of his parents; making aggravating reproaches in times of trouble; putting to shame in public: calling somebody by jeering names; but especially hurting somebody by words in such a way that only God can see the evil intent: such as giving bad, or even only teasing advice; more, even capriciously arousing false hopes in somebody, such as asking the price of an article which you have no intention of buying.

Rav Hirsch then adds a similar idea to that of the Gemara in Bava Metzia by writing:

The admonition addresses all members of the nation together and says: they are not to hurt one another in any way, each one is to fear his God, is to know that God has His Eye and His Ear directed to each one of them, and also that He is equally the God of each of his brethren. {2}

We see from the examples cited by Rav Hirsch how careful we must be especially when it comes to bringing up someone's past, their lineage, and even using insults or nicknames.

The last two references that I'd like to bring are the Sefer HaChinuch and Kitzur Shulchan Aruch. Both, as you will see, show the importance of watching what we say to those closest to us. Sefer HaChinuch (mitzvah 338) writes,

This precept is in effect everywhere, at every time, for both man. and woman. Even toward young children it is right to take care not to pain them unduly with words, except for what is greatly necessary so that they should learn ethics and morals-and this even toward a man's own sons and daughters and members of his household. He who is lenient with them, not to inflict pain on them in these ways, will find life, blessing and honor.{3}

The Chinuch teaches us how careful we must be with how we speak to children, especially our own children.

Lastly the Kitzur Shulchan Aruch in Chapter 63 writes,

וצריך לזהר ביותר מאונאת אשתו, שלא לצערה בדברים, לפי שהאשה רכה בטבע, ועל צער מעט היא בוכה, והשם יתברך מקפיד על הדמעות, ושערי דמעות לא ננעלו

One needs to be especially careful about wronging his wife, and not distress her by speech, because a woman has a sensitive nature, and in mild distress she cries, and Hashem, may He be blessed, is strict about tears, and “The gate of tears is never locked.” (Berakhos 32b){4}

Even in the most intimate and personal relationship we might have with someone we have to be sure to use extra care with how we speak.

In an age when we text, email, chat, and occasionally speak with people face to face (this does not mean using Skype), it's more important than ever to think before we speak.With the current economy as it is and many people looking for employment, even a causal statement like, "I really had a tough week at work", can be painful if overheard by someone who is unemployed. Again, what we say and how we say it can be the difference between fulilling a mitzvah or the opposite.

{1} Translations from Judaica Press, found online at here.

{2} My thanks to Rabbi Gerson Seif for lending me his copy of Rav Hirsch's commentary, translated by Issac Levy.

{3} Translation from The Book of Mitzvah Education, Charles Wengrow, Feldheim.

{4} Translation by Rabbi Micha Berger, posted online here.

1 comment:

  1. Links from footnotes: