Sticks and stones will break my bones but names will never hurt me. Thus goes the famous line used to arm children with a response to those who may bother them verbally. Although at one time this may have been a wise educational tactic, we all know that it is simply not true. Verbal abuse does not only hurt; it often takes much longer to overcome than any form of physical harm we may incur.
This concept is referred to in the first of this week’s two parshiot, Behar.
“Do not wrong one another, but fear your God for I am the Lord your God” (Vayikra 25:17).
Commenting on the fact that the exact same phrase is found only a few verses earlier, the Gemara (Bava Metzia 58b) concludes that the verse is referring to verbal wrongdoing. The rabbinic term for this prohibition is“ona’at devarim”. Examples of such wrongdoing include reminding a ba’al teshuva of his former misdemeanors or a convert of the sort of things he did prior to his conversion.
The Gemara suggests a further, rather surprising, example of ona’at devarim.
“A person should not even eye merchandise when he does not have money to buy it”.
This implies that one should not go into a store, look around, maybe even enquire about certain items, unless one intends and has the ability to make a purchase. Why should this be? The simple answer is that the store owner will notice this person’s interest in his merchandise and therefore hope to make a sale. If one has no interest in buying anything, the store owner’s hopes will have been falsely raised.
This would appear to be a little extreme. One of my teachers, HaRav Baruch Gigi, explains that what may appear to be a simple browse around a store could result in monetary loss to the owner. If he sees that people come in, look around and do not purchase any of his wares, he may be inclined to lower his prices. This would be based on a false impression. The advantage of this explanation is that it draws a direct parallel between ona’at devarimand its counterpart ona’at mammon, the prohibition to overcharge or to cause monetary loss. However, it seems highly possible that the prohibition here stems from something other than monetary loss.
The above quoted Gemara continues to explain why the verse which relates to ona’at devarim adds the statement “veyraita me’Elokecha, but fear your God”. This phrase is generally employed when a person’s intention cannot be discerned from his actions alone and therefore he may tend to believe that his offence can go unnoticed. In these cases the Torah reminds us to fear God, for He knows our true intent.
In our instance, the store owner may believe that the person who browses his store hoped to make a purchase but did not find what he wanted or was unhappy with the price. Was this in fact the case or was his recent customer not really a customer at all?
This implies that comparative shopping is perfectly acceptable. It is generally advisable to spend our money wisely. However, we have to be sure of our intentions when entering a store. Are we genuinely interested in the items for sale or are we just biding our time?
The underlying message of this example chosen by the Gemara is the extent to which we must be aware and careful not to hurt other people’s feelings. This is underscored by a further example in the Gemara which proscribes us from giving a person a derogatory nickname. This is prohibited even if the nickname is well known and even used by that person themselves.
A similar notion is found in a well known Mishna in the fifth chapter of Pirkei Avot, which, according to some traditions, is learned this Shabbat after mincha:
“There are four traits among men: One who says what’s mine is mine and what’s yours is yours – this is the average trait. Some say this is the trait of S’dom…” (Avot 5:10)
The continuation of the Mishna is familiar but we will focus on the opening lines. We find here a dispute as to the acceptability of a form of “laissez faire” attitude to one’s worldly possessions. One who believes in a policy of “each to his own” is either considered to be average or one who has adopted the wicked attributes of the city of S’dom.
What is interesting is that one normally would understand this Mishna as referring to a person’s character. Whilst we do not deny that to be the direct intention of the Mishna, we note that the opening statement reads: “one who says”. This may refer to a declaration of sorts. A person, when confronted by his fellow man, categorically states that he will not be sharing – “what’s mine is mine and what’s yours is yours”. The very voicing of such an attitude could cause us to equate this person’s behavior with that found in S’dom. The words uttered here demonstrating complete indifference to the other person, these words can cause harm. This could be an example of ona’at devarim, conveying to us the weight with which we must choose our words in our interpersonal relationships.
Returning to Parshat Behar, we note that this concern for the welfare of those around us is thematic to this parsha. The sabbatical year, Sh’mitta, although being multi-faceted in its religious ramifications, achieves some form of equality between the classes. Due to the fact that produce becomes hefker, ownerless, the pauper can find himself plucking fruit next to the prince, the servant enjoying the same products as his master. The Jubilee year, Yovel, ensures that no man will remain a slave for eternity, nor will the land of the entire country be held by a handful of real estate tycoons. Later on in the parsha we learn of the concern we should exhibit towards the slaves and the poor.
In this context of social legislation, we must also remember to treat each other with the utmost respect and be careful as to how we converse with those around us. For when all is said and done, names will always hurt me.