D’var Torah: On wronging with words

Written by Rabbi Josh Levy — 13 May 2022

One of the many beautiful features of our tradition is the way in which the rabbis would craft expansive textual traditions on the basis of an odd line or two in Torah.

Most famously, the early rabbis themselves described the laws of Shabbat as a ‘mountain suspended from a hair’ to express the weight of tradition that they derived from minimal source material.

Another example of this can be found in our Torah portion for tomorrow morning.
Parashat B’har deals with property ownership and the economic life of the early Israelite community. At one point it tells us, “When you sell property to your neighbour, or buy property from your neighbour – al tonu ish et achiv – one person should not wrong another person”.

Then, a few verses later, it states “lo tonu ish et amito v’yareita mei-elohecha – do not wrong one another, but fear your God.”

The rabbis ask, “Why this repetition? “Why does it twice tell us not to wrong one another?” To the rabbis, no phrase of Torah could be redundant, so this repetition must come to teach us something.

The answer, according to an early text on Leviticus known as Sifra, is that the first instruction refers explicitly to ‘onaat mammon’, hurting someone through use of money. This was a prohibition on financial exploitation, financial mistreatment, as was clear from the context.

But, of course, that is not the only way we might hurt each other. So the second is understood to be a prohibition on a different type of hurting, ‘onaat d’varim’, hurting someone through words, which – the rabbis go on to argue – is just as bad.

The rabbis give some examples of what they mean: It is forbidden to remind someone about their previous bad behaviour if they have changed their ways; prohibited to suggest that someone is responsible for their own afflictions through their behaviour; forbidden to give a shopkeeper the idea that you are going to buy something when you have no intention of doing so.

And the instruction ‘lo tonu ish et amito’ is over time extended and broadened. It is forbidden in Jewish law to embarrass someone publicly, forbidden to tease, forbidden to cause pain or distress by our words.

We live in a world which has become careless with speech. We are emboldened by social media to cause pain without thought of consequence; de-sensitised to the power of words by our ability to use them without seeing where they land, a phenomenon exacerbated by the enforced separation of the pandemic.

By contrast, the Talmud with characteristic hyperbole, tells us that it is ‘Better that a person throw themselves into a fiery furnace than shame their neighbour in public’, and, similarly, ‘That one who humiliates another forfeits their place in the world to come’.

The rabbis make a great interpretative leap from our Torah portion. It is one from which they suspend, if not a mountain, then a largish hill of law and tradition all emphasising how careful we should be in speaking with each other.

As we continue to come back together with others, may we remember the power of our words: “lo tonu ish et amito v’yareita mei-elohecha – do not wrong one another, but fear your God.”