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Hurtful Words

Hurtful Words

Parshat Behar

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The Torah says, "Do not hurt your fellow, and you shall fear G‑d."1 Our Sages explain2 that this verse is referring to speaking hurtful words and giving improper (detrimental) counsel. The Torah uses the phrase "you shall fear G‑d" in this context because often one who gives bad advice for his own benefit might claim that it was an honest mistake. The verse therefore emphasizes that G‑d knows his true intentions.


  • One who is asked for advice must counsel the person and direct him in a helpful way. If one intentionally directs someone to do something counterproductive, he transgresses this mitzvah.3
  • One may not remind a baal teshuvah (penitent) of his previous immoral lifestyle.4
  • One should not remind the child of a convert about the negative activities that his parents may have engaged in.
  • If one sees a friend going through difficult times, he may not tell him that he deserves this as atonement for his sins.5
  • If one says a remark in a derogatory manner, this is considered sinful, even if the overt content of the remark is not negative. An example of this is recorded in the Talmud6:
    After a particular Yom Kippur, a group of people was accompanying the high priest to his home. When the people saw the leading rabbis of the time – Shmaya and Avtalyon – they left the high priest and accompanied them instead. Shmaya and Avtalyon later went to greet the high priest. They said, "May the descendant of Aaron [i.e., the high priest] come in peace!" He responded by saying, "May the children of nations [i.e., Gentiles] come in peace!" This was a reference to the fact that Shmaya and Avtalyon were descendants of converts.7 In the context of that exchange, the remark about being a descendant of converts was used in a derogatory manner. This was considered a sin despite the fact that it is a merit to convert to Judaism, voluntarily choosing to come under the wings of the Divine Presence.8

Towards Whom?

One should show special love towards a convert, just as G‑d doesAlthough the prohibition against speaking hurtful words applies to all our fellows,9 there are some people that one should be especially careful not to embarrass or hurt:

  • Convert. The Torah twice repeats the prohibition against hurting a convert.10 Since they have separated from their families and are newcomers to the community, converts are more sensitive and should be treated accordingly. In addition, since as Jews we have experienced the difficulties of being strangers in a foreign land (Egypt), we should be more sympathetic to a person who is experiencing similar difficulties. One should show special love towards a convert, just as G‑d does.11
  • Wife. Women are more sensitive than men, and speaking hurtfully to them is likely to upset them to the point of tears. Our Sages say that one should honor his wife; in this merit he will become wealthy.12
  • Orphans and Widows. As a result of the tragedies that they experienced, orphans and widows are prone to being low-spirited. One should therefore be careful to always speak softly and respectfully to them. If they call out to G‑d asking Him to avenge their hurts (G‑d forbid), He answers their prayers.13 A teacher may discipline a student who is an orphan, but he should do so with great compassion.
    A person is considered an orphan in this regard until he reaches the age that he is able to independently conduct his affairs and does not need a guardian to care for and nurture him.14
    One should be more careful with an orphan's money than with one's own. One should be extremely careful to be honest in all financial matters that affect orphans.

Shaming in Public

One should be extremely careful to never shame another in public. This sin is akin to murder; just as blood is spilled in the act of murder, so too when one is shamed the blood drains from his face. One who publicly embarrasses his fellow loses his share in the World to Come. This sin is considered more severe than a borderline adulterous act.15

One who publicly embarrasses his fellow loses his share in the World to ComeIn fact, the Talmud16 derives from the story of Judah and Tamar that it is better to be thrown into a fiery furnace than to shame another publicly.17 It was in the merit of her extreme care not to shame Judah – to the point of willingness to forfeit her life – that Tamar had descendants who became kings and prophets.

A Talmudic sage named Mar Zutra hid in a fiery furnace to spare an impoverished man the embarrassment of knowing who his secret benefactor was. (Mar Zutra survived, but his feet were burned. From then on, he was referred to as "Mar Zutra with burnt feet." His wife who hid with him was miraculously not burned. She merited this miracle because she fed poor people directly, as opposed to Mar Zutra who only supplied them with financial assistance.)


Rashi ad loc, based on the Talmud, Bava Metzia 58b.






Ibid. See Rosh ad loc, that Job's friends did speak in this manner to Job, by saying, "No innocent man is ever destroyed" (Job 4:6-7).


Yoma 71b.


See Talmud, Gittin 57b, that they descended from Nebuzaradan, general of Nebuchadnezzar.


Menorat HaMa'or Candle 2, Klal 3, 2:2.


Besides the extremely wicked. See Talmud, Bava Metziah 59a. But see Imrei Yaakov 2:30, Biurim d.h. Pirshu, that it's only permissible to be speak hurtfully towards a wicked man if it's for the purpose of trying to reform him.


Talmud, ibid., based on Exodus 22:20 , Leviticus 22:33 and 25:17.


Maimonides, Laws of De'ot 6:4.


Talmud, ibid., 59a.


Maimonides, ibid. 10.




Bava Metziah 59a.


Talmud, Sotah 10b.


See the story in Genesis 38. Tamar did not openly state that Judah was the father of her babies, but rather alluded to that fact and waited for him to admit it himself. She thus subjected herself to the false accusation of being illicitly impregnated and the potential punishment of being burned alive.

Rabbi Aryeh Citron was educated in Chabad yeshivahs in Los Angeles, New York, Israel and Australia. He was the Rosh Kollel of The Shul of Bal Harbour, Florida, and is now an adult Torah teacher in Surfside, Florida. He teaches classes on Talmud, Chassidism, Jewish history and contemporary Jewish law.
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