The Torah commands us “Lo sonu ish es amiso,” – do not aggrieve one another (Vayikra 25:17). Chaza”l explain this to be a prohibition against causing pain or anguish to another with words, hence the term “onaas devarim.” Nevertheless, this issur is not limited to words, hurting another’s feelings in writing or with a gesture is also included in this prohibition (Chafetz Chaim,Chovas Hashemira ; Shulchan Aruch Hagra”z, Hilchos Ona’a) There is a famous homiletic saying on the passuk, “Ki ve’apam hargu ish,”(literally, “in their anger they killed a person”, Bereishis 49:6) with a mere “twist of the nose (af),” one can kill a person.
One does not have to give another person “a devastating blow” to transgress the prohibition of onaas devarim. The Chazon Ish writes that onaas devarim applies even if the other’s feelings were only momentarily hurt (Letters, Vol. 1 #211). For example, if a person was distracted immediately after being hurt and does not feel the discomfort or emotional pain anymore. This applies especially with children, who may be easily distracted and then forget their previous distress.
The prohibition applies even when no one else is present, and applies even in the privacy of your home between husband & wife or parents & children (Shaarei TeShuva 3:214, Chafetz Chaim, P’Sicha, Prohibition # 13).
Embarrassing another or hurting another’s feelings in the presence of two other people is a more severe aveira, as it also includes the prohibition of malbin pnei chaveiro be’rabim, shaming another person in public.
One transgresses the issur of onaas devarim even if he had no intention of hurting the other’s feelings (Chovas Hashemira in Maalas Hashemira #4).
At times, when one hurts another’s feelings, he will rationalize that the other person is too sensitive and should really not have been insulted by such an “innocent” remark. Rav Chaim Shmuelevitz proves from Chazal that this is an erroneous assumption. He explains that transgressing a mitzvah bein adam lachaveiro is like a raging fire. Just as a forest fire consumes anything in its path even if lit unintentionally, so too, one is held responsible even for unintentional onaas devarim (Sichos Mussar, p, 328, 447).
Thus, before speaking, one must think one step ahead and consider in advance whether his remarks could cause another person any pain.
Once, when Rav Moshe Feinstein’s young grandchild was playing with some friends, he saw his grandfather pass by and immediately ran to him. Rav Moshe kissed his grandchild and then also kissed the other children, so as not to hurt their feelings. (Bastion of Faith, p.16)
The prohibitionof onaas devarim applies even to ketanim, minors, including one’s own children (Sefer Hachinuch, mitzvah 338). Hurting a child’s feelings is even more stringent, since a child cannot be mochel (forgive) until he reaches bar/bas mitzvah.
Unfortunately, many people are lax in this area and, not realizing the severity of what they are doing or saying, treat children as if they have no feelings.
The Stiepler Rav once showed up unexpectedly at a bar-mitzva. After wishing the bar-mitzvah boy mazel tov he whispered something in his ear and started to exit. Although the parents were extremely honored that the Gadol Hador partook in their simcha, the curious father, who was neither a relative nor an acquaintance of the Rav, went to the Rav and asked him why he took off from his precious time to participate in their bar mitzvah celebration. The Stiepler then explained:
During the davening one Rosh Hashanah, there were some children playing outside the shule. When they started raising their voices & disrupting the tefillos, I went outside to try and quiet them down. Upon leaving, I saw your child standing in the corridor and reprimanded him for playing next to the shule. With an innocent expression, your child told me that he was merely looking for a sefer and that the children who were making the noise quickly ran away when they saw me approaching. I then realized that I embarrassed him and hurt his feelings by wrongly accusing him of something he didn’t do. Since he was a katan and I couldn’t ask his mechila, I asked him his name, address and birthday so that I would waste no time in asking mechila on his bar-mitzva day.
Although the Rambam writes (Hilchos Talmud Torah 4:5)that if a student is lax or lazy in his studies the Rebbi can rebuke him with sharp words, (and we can assume that the same applies to a parent rebuking his child), nevertheless, one must determine whether the rebuke is stemming from a sincere desire to improve the child’s behavior or whether it is a result of a need to release accumulated tension and anxiety.
Stress causes irritability resulting in the loss of one’s patience. Thus, a Rebbi, teacher or parent may get angry at a student or child and use sharp words of rebuke not for the child’s sake, but because he is in a bad mood stemming from lack of sleep, loss of money, quarrelling with a spouse, boss or headmaster. As soon as the child gets out of hand, he immediately receives a downpour of sharp words, which can also be accompanied by a potch.
A very thin line separates the legitimate intent from insincere motives. Rebuking another person requires sensitivity and expertise. We must all be careful lest chinuch be used as a guise to legitimize bad midos.
Additionally, the Rambam is not referring to rebuking or scolding a student or child in the presence of others causing him unnecessary embarrassment. (Rav M. Y. Lefkowitz, Darkei Chaim, p.59, see below, Halachos # 8)
Another form of onaas devarim is hurting another’s feelings by making a negative remark about an item that the other person purchased, such as saying, “you purchased poor quality merchandise” or “you overpaid.” Even if you are correct, not only are you prohibited from making a negative comment, you must also give compliments and say words of praise (unless the item can still be exchanged or returned). Although this might seem to be untruthful, the Maharal explains that because the other person feels differently than you do about the item (he finds the item suitable for himself), complimenting is not considered lying, since it is true in the purchaser’s eyes (Chidushai Agados, Kesubos 17a).
One can also include in this category appreciating gifts. Generally speaking, the satisfaction of the giver is proportionate to the reaction of the receiver; and the giver will feel disappointed if he feels that the receiver is not fully satisfied with the item or service he gave. Thus, when a person receives a gift or a favor from a spouse, child or guest, the immediate reaction should be a warm expression of appreciation and thanks.
What should a husband do if his wife’s cake is missing an ingredient, or if the main course is too salty, spicy, oily or slightly burned? After all, a wife wants to please her husband and values his honest opinion. Rav Aharon Feldman offers an interesting insight:
Shortly after the marriage of one of his teachers, his wife served him burnt potatoes for supper. Instead of complaining, he told her “Oh, what a wonderful dish you’ve made tonight” His wife was so pleased that she made the same dish each evening for supper. Although he duly complimented her after each meal, it was becoming more and more difficult for him to eat burnt potatoes. When her husband saw that there was no way out of the dilemma that he had created for himself, he finally told her, “Let’s try something new. One can get tired of anything” (The River, The Kettle & The Bird,p. 49).
One never knows the effort involved in preparing a meal, giving a surprise present or doing a favor, & showing even the slightest dissatisfaction can cause disappointment & hurt feelings.
Another example of causing discomfort is when someone is eager to tell you a good tiding you have already heard. By letting him know that you are already aware of it you diminish his satisfaction. Rather, you should respond with joy as if you are hearing it for the first time. This often occurs when a few different people tell someone about a birth or engagement, each one thinking that he is the first one to report the good news. The following story illustrates this point.
During the Russian Czarist rule, all young men were conscripted into the army. Bachurim tried various ways to be exempted because of the devastating religious consequences of serving in the Imperial Army. Yaakov, a student of the Kovno Rav, Rav Yitzchak Elchanan Spector, was one such applicant, and each day the Rav waited eagerly to hear the news of his army status.
One day, while the Rav was sitting in beis din, the door opened and a young man put his head into the room and exclaimed excitedly, “Yaakov is exempt!” The Rav breathed a sigh of relief and, with a radiant smile, said “May Hashem bless you with long years and good health for bringing me this wonderful news.”
A few minutes later another student opened the door and, not knowing that the Rav had already heard the good news, proceeded to inform him about Yaakov. “Oh, how wonderful!” exclaimed the Rav, giving the boy the same enthusiastic blessing as he gave the first boy. Subsequently, four more boys came in at different times with the same news, each one unaware that others had preceded him. Nevertheless, Rav Yitzchak Elchanan smiled at each one and expressed his gratitude for the good news, making each one feel as important as the first (Adapted from The Maggid Speaks, pp 62-3).
The Halachos of Onaas Devarim in Brief
(Based on Shulchan Aruch Choshen Mishpat 228: 4-5):
1.It is prohibited to ask a shopkeeper the price of an item if you have no intention of purchasing it. This is because it will make the owner feel disappointed when you don’t buy it as he thinks you intended to purchase something from him. Even though today it is common for people to compare prices and asking the price may lead to a future purchase, nevertheless, since we are dealing with a Torah prohibition, if you have no immediate intention of purchasing the product, you should tell the storekeeper that you are asking out of curiosity. This is especially true if one already purchased an item and goes to another store to see if he overpaid.
(This prohibition can apply even when shopping in a department store if the salesman receives a commission on his sale.)
2.It is forbidden to remind a person about his or her family’s past misdeeds, for example saying to a baal teshuva, “I remember when you (or your parents, siblings, etc.) didn’t keep kosher.” This also applies to anything that a person might be ashamed of. For example, one should not say, “Are you still a compulsive eater?”
This issur also applies within family relationships when a husband or wife remind the other of a previous grievance even after an apology was made; or when parents remind their children of their previous wrongdoings. Once one spouse forgives the other, or a parent forgives their child, the whole matter should be forgotten.
3.It is forbidden to call someone by any derogatory name. Even if he is accustomed to the name, you may not call him by it if your intention is to shame him. This is termed by Chazal as mechaneh sheim ra lechaveiro and is a more severe issur than onaas devarim (Bava Metzia 58b). It makes no difference whether the nickname was given because of physical appearance (fat, thin, short, tall, etc.) or whether it is simply a funny-sounding twist to the person’s first or last name. Children who are overheard calling others derogatory names should be taught the severity of the aveira.
An interesting insight about giving names is given by the Chazon Ish, who advised parents not to give their children strange sounding names so that the children will not suffer when they are older (Raboseinu, p.85).
Additionally, there is a special issur not to call someone a slave, mamzer or rasha (Kiddushin 28a).
4.If someone is suffering, it is prohibited to say “you deserve this for your previous aveiros.” For example, telling someone with a toothache that he is suffering because he spoke lashon hara.
5. It is forbidden to embarrass someone by asking him a question that he cannot answer. For example, asking a Chumash teacher a question in halacha. Likewise, it is prohibited or to ask someone to speak knowing that he’s not prepared or is not a speaker. This is the source of the minhag of interrupting a chasan or bar-mitzva boy from saying his speech. We interrupt all chasanim and bar-mitzva boys so as not to embarrass the ones who are unprepared or cannot speak well.
6. Scaring another person, such as hiding behind a door in a dark room and startling him when he enters is forbidden (Choshen Mishpat 420:32). This includes jokingly scaring someone by telling him false information, such as saying, “Someone stole your bike,” or “Your coat (or tape recorder) is missing” (Chofetz Chaim, end of Chovas Hashmira. Withholding another’s belongings, even as a joke, is also an issur of stealing, [Choshen Mishpat, 248:1])
It is also quite obvious that all forms of practical jokes are ossur because they usually cause the recipient some type of pain or anguish. A simple example of this is spilling disappearing ink on someone’s clothing, couch or tablecloth. Another example is if someone asks you where to purchase a certain item and you direct him to a shop that does not sell it, such as sending someone to a bakery when he wants to buy some tools.
7. There is an additional issur if one hurts the feelings of a widow, orphan or any other unfortunate person, since these people are more sensitive than others. The Torah writes that Hashem will hear their cries and will respond personally with retribution to those who caused them pain (Shemos 22:21, Rashi ad. loc.).
8. From the mitzvah of rebuke (tochacha) we learn that hurting another’s feelings is assur even for the sake of fulfilling a mitzvah. It is prohibited to rebuke another person if it cannot be done without embarrassing, insulting or hurting his feelings, such as doing it in public or with harsh words (Erchin 16b; Rambam Hilchos Dayos, 6:8)
Additionally, Rav Chaim Volozhin writes that someone who cannot rebuke gently without hurting the other’s feelings is free from the mitzvah of rebuke (Keser Rosh # 143.)
(As in all matters of halacha, readers should consult their halachic authority regarding practical ramifications.)
The Power of Facial Expressions
The Sefer Yerei’im (5:180) writes that even showing a sad facial expression is a form of onaas devarim. When I was a child there was a song entitled, “When you smile the whole world smiles with you.” The opposite is also true – when a person is sad he is liable to make the people around him sad too. Rav Nosson Tzvi Finkel, the Alter of Slabodka, once remarked that a person who walks around with a sad expression on his face is likened to a bor birshus harabbim – a pit in a public domain. Just as a pit causes people to stumble and fall into it, so does a person who projects a sad facial expression cause others to be sad. On the contrary, people should strive to greet others with a cheerful expression as stated in Pirkei Avos (1:15).
Rav Yisrael Salanter once saw someone who had a sad expression on his face. Engaging him in conversation in order to try and comfort him, it became clear that all was well in his personal life. Puzzled, Rav Yisrael asked him, “What then seems to be troubling you?”
“Rebbi,” the man replied “don’t you know that we are in the Aseres Yemei Teshuva now? Yom Kippur is only a few days away, and I’m nervous about my upcoming judgment.”
“Excuse me,” Rav Yisrael replied, “but why do I have to suffer because of your Yom Hadin?”
Rav Avrohom Grodzinsky, the last mashgiach of the Slabodka Yeshiva in Europe, worked on greeting people besaiver panim yafos, with a pleasant and cheerful facial expression, for two years until he mastered this trait. Even during the last days of the Slabodka Ghetto, when the Jews were being taken away daily to be killed, he would still greet people besaiver panim yafos to uplift their spirits in the last days of their lives (Alei Shur, vol I p. 192).
People claim that it is difficult to smile after a long hard day of working, learning or tending to the children. However, we observe receptionists, flight attendants and waiters who always seem to give “service with a smile,” because their jobs depend on it. Similarly, if someone were offered twenty-five pounds for every smile he greeted his spouse or child, it would suddenly become a lot easier for him to do so!
Isn’t a pleasant, enjoyable evening or a happier child worth the ten-second effort of greeting your family beseiver panim yafos? We might add that there is nothing better than a smile to promote success and goodwill. Shalom bais and hatzlacha blossom and bloom when enriched by the rays of a heartwarming smile.
Think Before Speaking!
The Sefer HaChinuch (338) writes that it is not possible to list all the different categories of onaas devarim. Therefore, a person must refrain from saying or doing anything that even appears to be onaas devarim (safek de’o’raysa le’chumra), and he should realize that Hashem knows his true intentions (cf Rashi Vayikra 25:17). The Peleh Yoetz advises that when in doubt, one should think, “Would I want another person to say this to me?” He should apply the halacha of not doing to another what is hateful to yourself.
Just as we are careful with what we put in our mouths insuring that the food has a proper hechsher, we must be equally careful what comes out of our mouths, i.e., not to hurt another’s feelings with our words.
We say on Yom Kippur, Ve’al cheit shechatanu lefanecha bevitui sefasayim, “We have sinned with the uttering of our lips.” The Siddur HaGra explains that this phrase with the passuk in Mishlei (12:18), “One can utter words that are like a piercing sword.”
Rav Moshe Aharon Stern compares a mouth to a loaded gun. Before a person shoots, he is in complete control of the bullet. It can be aimed harmlessly at a target or into the air. But once he shoots, he is no longer in control of it, and if it is aimed toward a crowd, it cannot be retracted and will strike anything in its path. Likewise, before one speaks he is in control of his words. However once harmful words are uttered, they can do irreparable damage.
Reprinted with permission from the author.
About the author
Rabbi Morgenstern has been active in Jewish education and outreach for over two decades. He also does family counseling and lectures extensively in Israel and abroad on shalom bayis, chinuch habanim, family communication, shidduchim and personal growth, and has produced a popular CD & series on these topics.
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