Ethics of Interpersonal Conduct
By Rav Binyamin Zimmerman
Shiur #06: Onaat Devarim
Twice in Parashat Behar (Vayikra 25:14, 17) the Torah proscribes
onaa, wronging another Jew. The
immediate context of these warnings is the area of commerce; the Torah calls
upon consumers and merchants to buy and sell fairly, without demanding
inordinately low or high prices for merchandise. The prohibition is known in
Talmudic literature as onaat mamon, monetary abuse. However, the
Sages understood the repetition of this prohibition as establishing a second
application, known as onaat devarim, verbal abuse.
Ve-ahavta le-reiakha kamokha, You shall love your fellow as yourself,
requires that one behave kindly towards others.
For that reason, it is not surprising that our Torah of kindness forbids
mistreating others, even verbally. However, as usual, an examination of this law
indicates that the Torahs definition of mistreating others is much more
expansive then we might have thought.
Everything from the context the Torah uses to introduce the prohibition
to the terminology used in the Torah suggests that understanding this
prohibition is essential for appreciating ones interpersonal obligations. A deeper look will help us uncover
The Torahs Description
of the Two Types of Onaa
Unlike other interpersonal laws that we have discussed, the prohibition of
mistreating others doesnt appear in a section of the Torah dedicated to
achieving interpersonal perfection.
Quite the contrary, it appears in a section of the Torah in Parashat Behar
which deals with yovel, the jubilee year, and the prohibition of
overcharging for an item or trying to get away with underpaying. Even more startlingly, the Torah
refers to the prohibition of mistreating others with the same exact terminology
as the prohibition of overcharging, onaa.
commences with a discussion of the laws of shemitta, the sabbatical year,
and yovel, the jubilee which occurs every fifty years. Within its description of yovel,
it refers to the unique aspect of yovel in which all land sold in the
five decades since the previous yovel will revert back to its initial
owners at the onset of the next yovel.
Within this context, the Torah discusses the details of the laws which
regulate commercial transactions which take place between jubilees and delineate
certain laws regarding commerce in general.
Understandably, these verses also introduce us to the prohibition of
unethical business practices.
The verses of onaa address both the seller and purchaser of land,
prohibiting either one from exploiting the other when involved in business
transactions. Since all lands in the
Land of Israel are to return to their original owners on the jubilee year,
real-estate prices must be determined accordingly and adjusted based on the
number of years remaining until the jubilee. A seller who overcharges or buyer
who underpays for a piece of property has violated this prohibition.
In its description of one party wronging another, the Torah makes use of the
term tonu twice, three verses apart from each other.
If you sell anything to your comrade or buy from your comrades hand, no one of
you shall wrong his brother. (v. 14)
After two verses describing
that the price of the sale must be based on the number of years left until
yovel, the Torah again mentions a prohibition of onaa:
No one of you shall wrong his comrade, and you shall fear your God: for I am
Lord your God. (v. 17)
The first verse is clearly
focusing on monetary impropriety, prohibiting either party from being involved
in any fraudulent practices. A sale
may even be revoked when the price differs drastically from the market value of
the object. The question that
bothers the Talmud is the following: what does the second verse come to
proscribe by seemingly reiterating that it is forbidden to perform onaa
isnt a prohibition of onaa mentioned three verses prior?
The Talmud (Bava Metzia 58b) addresses this issue and explains that one
should not view the reiteration of the term onaa as a repetition of the
previous prohibition. Besides
monetary exploitation, there is also an alternative form of onaa, which
the Talmud describes as even more severe:
The Torah states: No one of you shall wrong his comrade this verse refers to
In short, the Talmud explains that the two mentions of onaa in the
aforementioned verses come to prohibit two types of onaa: one monetary,
onaat mamon, and the other verbal, onaat devarim.
The Difficulties in
Explaining the Verses
While the Talmud has provided an explanation for the Torahs repetition of the
term onaa to express a second type of prohibition, a number of questions
still need to be answered to understand the verses properly. First and foremost, why would this
same term refer to two different prohibitions which seem to have nothing in
Secondly, though it is understandable that a prohibition of monetary impropriety
would be mentioned in the context of selling fields, why would that present an
opportunity to teach the prohibition of onaat mamon as well?
Thirdly, the two verses which mention the alternate prohibitions of onaa
also have other differences. The
verse regarding onaat devarim adds, And you shall fear your God.
Furthermore, the direct object of the
onaa differs: the first mention of onaa refers to the victim as
his brother, while the second specifies his comrade. What is the distinction?
What is the Torah trying to teach us?
Essentially, the Torah uses the same terminology to teach two diverse
prohibitions, one which seemingly has nothing in common with the laws of
yovel, and it chooses to distinguish the two mitzvot through other
differences in the verses language.
It would seem that the Torah has what to teach us, but what could it be?
The Severity of
Onaat Devarim: And You Shall Fear Your God
The Talmud takes notice of some of the distinctions between the two verses and
explains that the Torah wishes to indicate the severity of the prohibition of
onaat devarim in comparison to onaat mamon.
Rabbi Yochanan said in the name of Rabbi Shimon Ben Yochai: Onaat devarim
is far worse than onaat mamon, for regarding the former, it says, And
you shall fear your God, whereas regarding the latter, it doesnt state, And
you shall fear your God.
Rabbi Elazar says that the former is more severe because it affects the
individual himself, while the latter affects his property.
Rabbi Shemuel Bar Nachmani adds that regarding the former, restitution is
impossible, while regarding the latter, restitution is possible.
The latter two opinions in the
Talmud explain the severity of onaat devarim through practical
distinctions, personal damage and irreparability.
The first opinion, on the other hand, takes note of the Torahs
terminology, applying yirat Elokim, the fear of God, to the prohibition
of mistreating others verbally. Why is
this concept uniquely associated with onaat devarim, making it so severe?
Understanding the root of onaa will help us understand what the two types
of wronging have in common and simultaneously enable us to distinguish between
them. The fact that the Torah introduces the two prohibitions in the same
context and with almost identical terminology seems to point to a similar
foundation. But what could it be?
What Stands at the Root
of Both Types of Onaa:
The Chinnukh describes the mitzva of onaa as taking advantage of
The Torah commands us not to cause grief to another Jew by way of speech i.e.,
not to say to another Jew something that might pain him or aggrieve him when he
is incapable of defending himself. (Mitzva
The understanding of the
Chinnukh is seemingly echoed by the commentary of Rav S.R. Hirsch, which
provides an explanation for the term which makes the connection understandable. He explains the root of the word
onaa as the exploitation of the weakness of man, in order to cheat him, a
definition which leaves ample room for two diverse types, commercial and
In commerce, onaa is the exploitation of the other partys ignorance, in
order to cheat him
It includes any
reduction in quantity or quality of the object
or any kind of fraud
With this understanding of
onaa in mind, Rav Hirsch explains in the coming verse the terminology of
onaa regarding hurtful speech.
The preceding verse prohibits onaa in business dealings
Our verse extends the prohibition to
onaat devarim. Whoever verbally
abuses his fellow violates this prohibition
In particular, the prohibition of onaat devarim includes wronging another
by words when their evil intent is apparent only to God; hence, the verse
stresses And you shall fear your God
and onaat mamon have this in common: in both cases, one exploits
anothers weakness, his ignorance of the merchandise or his personal
While both forms of onaa
involve exploitation of a weaker party, the And you shall fear your God clause
serves to highlight the distinction between monetary exploitation, which is
noticeable, and the kind which can be covered up.
As we will soon see, onaat devarim includes a number of subtle
For this reason, the Talmud explains that yirat Elokim is relevant
specifically in the cases in which one has the ability to hide his or her bad
intentions through false claims of having meant something else; it is
specifically in such cases that one will be judged more harshly. The cover-up is a sign of erasing God
from the picture.
The connection between the two types of onaa may also be found in the
chapter in which the Torah teaches us these two prohibitions, the context of
To better understand the law we must analyze it in context. Why would verses discussing yovel be
the source of these twin prohibitions?
As mentioned earlier, In Parashat Behar, while discussing the topic of
the jubilee year, during which all purchased land must be returned to its
original owner, the Torah teaches these two forms of onaa. The Torah
demands that any price take into account the temporary nature of the sale.
Since the purchase is effectual only
until the jubilee, the land's price must be determined based on the number of
years remaining until the onset of yovel.
It is not only surprising that the Torah forbids onaat devarim in
this context, but there is good reason to question even the placement of
onaat mamon in this context.
Interestingly, the prohibition of onaat mamon doesnt even fully apply
regarding the sale of land; in Talmudic terminology, the principle is known as
ein onaa le-karkaot. The Talmud (Bava Metzia 56a) derives from the
Torah's reference to "buy[ing] from your comrades hand" that onaa
applies only to merchandise transferred by hand, i.e. movable property, not
The Ramban notes the glaring irony in this law, given that the Torah introduces
this prohibition specifically amidst its discussion of the pricing of lands on
the basis of their ultimate restoration in the jubilee year. If onaa
doesnt apply to land sales, then why use yovel as the context for
teaching the prohibition of onaa?
The Ramban therefore suggests that in truth, the prohibition of onaa
applies to real estate, as well, and the Sages exclude real estate only from the
rule that a sale is automatically voided if the purchaser pays an exorbitantly
high or low sum. In terms of the basic applicability of the prohibition,
however, it includes, in the Ramban's view, all types of property and
However, the Rambans comment notwithstanding, why teach the laws of onaa
altogether in the context of selling land before yovel, if the laws of
onaa do not fully apply in that context?
One might explain that the concept of yovel teaches us the temporariness
of property, for which ones acquisition of anothers rightful land can last no
more than fifty years. If so,
hopefully one will think twice before engaging in dishonest business tactics.
When one realizes that his ownership of the land will eventually be terminated,
he will refrain from stealing and cheating.
(Melekhet Machshevet, quoted by Nechama Leibowitz)
One might add that
understanding that Gods system of ownership includes a concept of nachala,
land that is set aside for a specific family eternally. The concept of nachala teaches
us that property ownership is not all about real-estate value; rather, there is
a divine purpose in owning property.
One should analyze how his or her property can be used to benefit society,
instead of seeing money as the be-all and end-all.
Rav Hirsch explains that the context of yovel also introduces a deeper
level. He thus explains the Torahs
inclusion of yirat Elokim in this framework:
And you shall fear your God is the direct result of shemitta and
yovel, as regards the communal life of the people of the land. These laws introduce the name of God
into all of commercial life and bring the thought continually to mind that all
people live and work together on the soil of God, in the land of God, where God
is the master of all property; as tribute, He demands that His rule be
implemented in every phase of life.
Rav Hirsch continues by
stating that if there is one thing that the sabbatical year, during which one
must not work the land, teaches us, it is that God is concerned with the
marketplace as well:
God watches over all of communal life, for God does not dwell only in the
sanctuary. Rather, He dwells in the
midst of the people and blesses its commerce.
However, God bestows His blessing only if commerce brings prosperity and
happiness to all, only if one does not wrong and aggrieve the other and one does
not abuse the position which he has attained to cheat the other. God bestows His blessing only if the
truth of all truths, that He is our God, is realized in every phase of our
lives, both as individuals and as a nation.
The next verse states that if
the Jewish people follow the will of God, we will live securely upon the land. It is the recognition of the
conceptual basis of shemitta and yovel, the need to treat others
with dignity and to create a spiritual society in all aspects, which ensures the
security of the Jewish way of life in the Jewish land. It would also seem that particularly
in the Land of Israel, commercial and interpersonal perfection is necessary.
In a similar vein, connecting business with speech is important because people
often find themselves in the midst of competition saying things they maybe
shouldnt have. On a practical
level, connecting the need to conduct oneself ethically in business with the
need to watch ones words constitutes an added lesson about keeping ones
priorities straight when involved in speech connected to money making.
There might be a halakhic explanation for this interconnection as well. The Ohr Ha-chayim explains that
despite the fact that even though ein onaa le-karkaot, there is good
reason for the juxtaposition of onaa and land sales. He explains that any case of onaa
which, for whatever reason, is not included in the technical definition of
onaat mamon such as overcharging on real estate still falls into the
category of onaat devarim. Essentially,
the two types of onaa are linked in the sense that even if one tries to
outsmart the system and overcharge on items in such a way that the sale wont be
revoked, the use of sweet talk will ensure that the act will be a violation of
the more severe onaat devarim.
Learning by Example
is unique in the tremendous scope of cases included in the prohibition.
The prohibition of onaat devarim
is not limited to outright defamation or other forms of clearly harmful speech. In fact, it includes a broad array of
cases which one might initially think are not so bad.
Any form of causing pain with words is
included in the prohibition; the examples extend beyond the expected.
The Mishna (Bava Metzia 58b) lists a number of examples of onaat
devarim, one at least that is commonplace even among good-hearted
One should not ask a merchant How much does this item cost? if one has no
intention of buying it.
The Talmud proceeds to provide
examples of onaat devarim, including reminding an individual about a
difficult past. This includes
reminding a penitent individual about his former lifestyle or misdeeds,
reminding a convert about his ancestors misdeeds or acting contemptuously
towards a convert who wants to study Torah.
While these examples are readily understandable, the line to be drawn is not so
simple. The Talmud essentially tells
us that regarding every individual one interacts with, one has to think twice
before speaking, to try and figure out whether their words may strike a negative
chord, even unintentionally (sometimes just by reminding one about something
funny from the past). Mistreatment
of others includes not only saying things which are outright negative, but also
hurting others by playing on their weaknesses.
Similarly, the Talmud notes that telling people in distress that their misdeeds
are the cause of their predicament falls under the same prohibition. At some points, one might mean well,
trying to influence others to repent for their misdeeds; however, the severity
of onaat devarim is expressed in the fact that one may violate the
prohibition even unintentionally (see Sichot Musar of Rav Chayim
Shmuelevitz, pp. 328, 447).
Practical Jokes are
The Talmud specifically lists pranks and practical jokes as part of onaat
devarim, and the Rishonim add cases of putting people on the spot. The Talmud mentions as an example of
onaat devarim directing potential buyers to a merchant who does not sell
the object they are interested in buying.
If donkey-drivers seek grain from a person, he must not say to them, Go to so
and so who sells grain, knowing that he has never sold any. (Bava Metzia 58b)
The commentators debate how
this falls under the rubric of onaat devarim. The Kesef Mishneh (Hilkhot Mekhira
14:14) quotes two possibilities:
He may have sought to embarrass the presumed vendor who has never sold fodder. This is also Rashis explanation. Alternatively, he may have tried to
discomfit the donkey-drivers, presuming the merchant would rebuff them by
saying: What have I to do with the sale of fodder!
Essentially the two opinions
debate who the victim of onaa is in this case: the merchant or the
drivers. However, the sources
indicate that all forms of practical jokes played on others are included in
onaat devarim. Yet it is here
that the uniqueness of the prohibition really takes shape.
The Rambam (Hilkhot Mekhira 14:14) adds another example:
When asked a scientific question, he should not say to someone ignorant in the
field: What is your answer on this point? What is your opinion on this
matter? The same applies to all
For all intents and purposes,
one must not use his words to hurt others even if their discomfort is only the
outgrowth of recognizing their ignorance; similarly, one may not use his words
to set up a situation which may lead to the pain of another. The examples of the Talmud are in no
way all-inclusive, as the Chinnukh (338) notes:
Nothing should be said to another Jew that may hurt or grieve him or leave him
but it is impossible to list all the examples.
In fact, while referring to
the prohibition as onaat devarim would seem to indicate that words need
be spoken to violate the prohibition, it is clear that the prohibition includes
other cases as well. Body language,
as well as any means employed to be hurtful to another, is encompassed by this
Its All about
After listing the numerous forms of onaat devarim, including cases where
one feigns interest in buying a product he or she cannot afford or has no
interest in, the Talmud comments again on the Torahs mention of yirat Elokim
in the context of onaat devarim. One
must cognizant of the fact that many examples of onaat devarim include
cases where ones true intentions are hidden.
For the matter depends on a persons intent, and concerning matters which depend
on a persons true intent, the Torah says, And you shall fear your God.
For the matter depends on a persons intent this is why it says And you
shall fear your God
For ones good
nature or bad nature is not discernible, but in the heart of the one performing
the action. Are his motives pure or
crooked? He may say, I only acted
for the good; I thought that you had produce to sell, or I honestly intended
to buy this product.
For the very reason that
onaat devarim is so expansive and includes numerous circumstances where
ones verbal abuse is hidden and undetectable to others, the Torah specifies how
one needs a special dose of fear of God to overcome the urge to hurt another. When ones bad intentions can be
covered up with false claims of having meant something else, one deserves to be
treated more harshly. The cover-up
is a sign of erasing God from the picture.
This is similar to misleading others in the context of yovel, as
if one doesnt recognize Gods true ownership over the land, which supersedes
The severity of the prohibition requires that we rethink our interactions with
others to determine if any of our actions fall into these categories. Beyond indicating that onaat
devarim is more severe than onaat mamon, the Talmud also states that
God provides an immediate and direct response to victims of onaa, even
when all other avenues of prayer to God are closed. Thus, before speaking, one must think
one step ahead and consider in advance whether his or her remarks could cause
another person any pain. Certainly
one should realize that feigning innocence when using words or body language to
hurt another only makes one more deserving of severe punishment.
Personal development is determined not only by ones interactions with others,
but by ones behavior bein adam le-atzmo, the type of individual one
becomes inside (as discussed in Year 1).
What type of person would one be if he or she is constantly searching for
avenues to maliciously malign others while hiding behind a guise of good
As we saw in the words of the Chinnukh and Rav Hirsch, the essence of onaat
devarim is to aggrieve him when he is incapable of defending himself. Nechama Leibowitz explains that the
reason why people behave in this disdainful manner is the sense of superiority
experienced by the one who lectures to his fellow man or preaches to a person in
distress (Iyunim, Vayikra, p. 550). However, weakness manifests
itself in many different areas.
Onaa can take the form of overcharging those unknowledgeable in business,
committing practical jokes against merchants, using nicknames or any of the
other examples we have seen.
The Torah teaches that there is no tolerance for mistreating others with words,
as God knows our true intentions.
The punishment for maltreating others is so severe because one who does so
expresses a lack of understanding of all of the messages mentioned above.
The Torah goes beyond warning us about mistreating those who are in a unique
position that prevents them from defending themselves; in a number of places, it
specifies certain underprivileged individuals who require special treatment with
extraordinary care so as not to hurt their feelings. In fact, the Torah requires that we
go out of our way to show them compassion.
The unique prohibitions of mistreating the disadvantaged and unfortunate will be
discussed next week.