HURTFUL WORDS Part 3
By Rabbi Yehonasan Gefen
In the past weeks we have discussed the prohibition of causing pain
through speech. This includes speaking harshly to someone even in
private. However, the commentaries write that speaking in such a way to
someone in front of other people, and thereby embarrassing him, is
considered even more lowly than normal hurtful speech. They go so far as
to say that to embarrass someone is considered in a certain respect like
We further learn about the seriousness of embarrassing others from the
story of Yehuda and Tamar. Tamar was about to be executed for a sin that
she did not in fact commit. She had the ability to exonerate herself but
in the process she would cause great humiliation to Yehuda. She preferred
not to openly embarrass him, rather she gave him the opportunity to speak
up himself1 . The Gemara learns from
here that a person should rather let himself be killed than embarrass his
fellow man2 . The halachic authorities
discuss as to whether this Gemara should be applied in actual law3 , but regardless, it teaches us a great
deal about the Torah’s attitude to causing others pain. The Torah places
great concern for our emotional and psychological well-being: When a
person is humiliated in public his self-respect is severely effected, this
is akin to taking his very lifeblood away from him and is comparable to
actually taking away his physical life.
Whilst joking about other people is often in and of itself forbidden, this
is even more true when it will cause embarrassment to the victim. This
also applies to disciplining children (or students). They also have a
right to maintain their self-respect and are likely to feel greatly hurt
by being punished or shouted at in public. There may be rare occasions
where it is permitted to rebuke them in front of the other children, in
order to convey a message. However, this is rarely the case, and if a
person finds themselves continually embarrassing their children in front
of other people then he must realize that this is unacceptable and can
cause them great damage. It is far more recommended to take the child
aside and calmly discuss his misdemeanor in private. This way, he will
not feel attacked and he can maintain his self-respect.
Another situation relevant to this discussion is when a person may see
certain failings in his friend that require candid discussion and perhaps
rebuke. Again, it is forbidden to do so in front of other people.
Human beings are made in the Image of G-d and deserve to be treated in
such a way. In the vast majority of instances it is forbidden to cause a
person to lose his self-respect by humiliating him in public.
1 See Parshas Vayeishev for the full account of this story.
2 Bava Metsia, 58a-59b.
3 See Mishpatey Shalom, p.92-3.
Text Copyright © 2008 by Rabbi Yehonasan Gefen and Torah.org