Embarrassing Others

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Embarrassing another person is one of the most severe prohibitions in the Torah. Unfortunately, it is also one of the most often violated. It is essential to learn the Halachot of embarrassing others in order to avoid causing this terrible pain to others.

Source of Prohibition

There are two possible prohibitions that one violates when he or she embarrasses another.

First, the Torah prohibits oppressing another [1]. The Mishnah Bava Metzia [2] extends this prohibition to oppressing another with words as well as with money. This prohibition forbids several different ways of oppressing with words. When one embarrasses another, he or she is in violation of the prohibition of “A man may not oppress his fellow [3]."

Second, there is a specific prohibition not to embarrass that is derived from the Mitzvah of rebuking others. The Torah commands “You shall surely rebuke your friend[4].” However, the end of the verse: “and you shall not bear iniquity because of him” warns us not to allow the fulfillment of this commandment to simultaneously cause a transgression of humiliating another. The prohibition against embarrassing in this specific case creates a general prohibition against embarrassing another in any situation [5].

In addition to violating the above prohibitions, anyone who embrasses another is also failing to fulfil the Mitzvah of V’ahavta L’reach Kamocha [6].

Statements on Severity of Embarrassment

Statements in Talmud Throughout the Talmud and later Rabbinic sources we find many statements that emphasize how seriously the Rabbis took the prohibition of embarrassing another.

Statements in Talmud

  1. He who publicly shames his neighbour is as though he shed blood [7]
  2. Verbal wrong is more heinous than monetary wrong [8]
  3. Better it is for man to cohabit with a doubtful married woman rather than that he should publicly shame his neighbour. [9]
  4. Better to throw oneself into a furnace rather than embarrass another [10]
  5. There was a poor person in the time of the Talmud and Mar Ukva would daily leave coins behind the poor man's door. One day the poor man wanted to find out who had been leaving coins for him. So he waited until Mar Ukva and his wife stopped by and dropped off the coins. The pauper tried to follow them, when Mar Ukva noticed he was being followed he ran with his wife and hid in a hot furnace as to not embarrass the man. [11]

Statements from later Rabbinic sources

  1. Rabbeinu Yonah in his famous work explains that the pain of shame is even worse than death itself [12].

Punishment

There are three opinions about whether someone who embarasses somone else receives the punishment of Malkos (lashes):

  1. The Sefer HaChinuch says there is no punishment of malkos for embarrassing others [13]
  2. The Mordechai does however demand malkos for embarrassment, and onat devarim (verbal oppression.) [14]
  3. The Chiddushei Anshei Shem approves malkos mardus, or unofficial malkos, issued by rabies which may actually be applied more severely. [15]

Payment for damage done by embarrassing someone

  1. The Talmud says that verbal harassment does not make a person responsible for monetary punishment. [16]
  2. The Maharshal says that a person can choose choose to pay a fine to the victim, or charity (it’s debated which one) instead of taking lashes. [17]

Other Punishments in this world

  1. Even though there is no punishment in Beit Din, the Sefer HaChinuch warns that God has other ways of punishing people in this world[18]
  2. “When one causes suffering to others, he is punished in Olam Hazeh too. Every person must pay attention to what he does and what he says so as not to hurt his fellow man. The truth is that the punishment is much worse in Olam Habo, but most people are not aroused by what they can’t see directly, so I am speaking about something that everyone understands well.”[19]

Punishment in the World to Come

  1. The gemara says all who descend into Gehenna (hell) eventually leave. Except for one who publicly shames his neighbour. [20]

Atoning for Embarrassment

In order to achieve full repentance for sinning, one must undergo a complex process of asking for forgiveness. The steps of the process include: [21]

  1. First acknowledging, then regretting one’s sin.
  2. Privately confessing the transgression to God.
  3. Devoting oneself to not committing a similar transgression in the future.
  4. Make amends with the person you have transgressed against.
  5. Ask for absolute forgiveness from the one you offended, and from God.

Before examining the steps specific to atoning for embarrassment, we must assess whether or not it is even possible to do Teshuva:

  1. According to the Gemara, one embarrasses another publicly descends to Hell and never ascends[22]. This seems to imply that the punishment is final with no chance for Teshuva.
  2. However, Tosafot explain that the Gemara is only talking about if you didn’t do Teshuva, because Teshuva helps for everything. [23]
  3. The Midrash, on the other hand, says that embarrassing one in public cannot be absolved by Teshuva [24].
  4. Rabbeinu Yonah explains that the reason we say you are condemned to Hell for eternity is not because Teshuva does not work if you do it, but it’s because it’s highly unlikely that one would actually do Teshuva for embarrassing someone. The reason being that we often rationalize embarrassing others, or we simply fail to acknowledge the damage it causes. [25]

While the steps enumerated above are the standard steps of completing Teshuva, there are specific steps required to atone for embarrassment:

  1. You must try to appease your friend at an opportune time, or until he agrees to listen to you. You must then feel you friend’s pain in your heart and resolve not to embarrass others. Finally, if one embarrasses you in the future, you should not feel upset, rather you should view it as fair. [26]
  2. One should give gifts to the person they oppressed as a means of making amends. One should give Mishloach Manot to the person on Purim, or confront them before Yom Kippur when they’re more likely to listen. One may also have friends help him lay the groundwork for his apology. [27]
  3. “If the humiliation took place in the presence of others, make your apology in their presence, as well as in private. Otherwise the victim has the right to say, “You shamed me in front of others, and now you want to apologize in private. Bring me all the people who heard you embarrass me, and then I will accept your apology.” [28]

Giving up Your Life

The Gemara compares embarrassing someone in public to killing them[29]. Murder has a special status in Halacha. It is a subject of debate if the comparison the Gemara makes between embarrassing and murder is meant to be taken literally with implications for Halacha or not. Two comments in the Gemara seem to suggest that the comparison should be taken literally.

  1. When the Jewish people asked King David “what manner of death befalls he who has relations with a married woman?” David quickly replies “He is executed with strangulation, and then receives a portion in the world to come; however, one who shames his fellow in public has no portion in the world to come.” As you can see from king David is it “Better for one to have relations with a possibly married woman than to shame his fellow in public”[30].
  2. When Tamar, Yehuda’s daughter in law, is accused of adultery, to save herself she privately gives Yehuda a hint that she is pregnant with his baby without embarrassing him publicly. As you can see from Tamar is it “Better for one to hurl himself into a fiery furnace rather than shame his fellow in public” [31]

On the other hand, some later commentators assume that when the Talmud makes comparisons between an act and some other much worse act (such as comparing stealing to murder or comparing disrespecting the Chagim to Avodah Zarah) the comparison should not be taken literally [32] In the following five instances Rabbis have argued about the implications of taking the comparison between embarrassing and murder literally[33]:

  1. Should one give up their life to avoid embarrassing another just like one must give up their life to avoid killing another?
  2. Can you refrain from saving someone if you would be embarrassed in the process just like you can refrain from saving another if you would die in the process?
  3. Can you violate Shabbat to avoid embarrassment just like you can violate Shabbbat to avoid death?
  4. Is a kohen who embarrasses someone prohibited from ascending the duchen to say Birchat Kohanim just like a Kohen who has murdered someone is?
  5. Are you allowed to give permission to someone to embarrass you or not just like you are not allowed to give someone permission to kill you?

Types of Embarrassment

The Mishna and Gemara Bava Metzia provide several examples of things people can say that violate the prohibition of hurting others with speech. From these examples we can discern different types of ways in which a person can be hurt.

The Mishna provides these examples: [34]

  1. One may not say to a sinner who repented “remember your prior deeds.”
  2. One may not say to a convert's son “remember your ancestors' deeds.”

The Gemara provides the following additional examples:[35]

  1. He may not say to a convert who wants to learn “your mouth ate forbidden foods. Will it learn Torah, which was given from God?”
  2. One may not tell one suffering afflictions that he is receiving those afflictions due to prior sins.

In addition the Gemara relates three stories based on Tanach in which characters experience embarrassment:[36]

  1. Iyov's friends spoke to him - "Mi Hu Naki Ovad". They told him that his afflictions were caused by is prior sin.
  2. Tamar, had she revealed that Yehuda was the one who impregnated her, would have embarrassed him.
  3. David’s peers used him as an example of an adulterer in their learning.

There are many ways embarrassment takes place. Calling a person by a derogatory nickname, for instance, is forbidden in Halacha. You may not ask an uneducated person for an opinion on a scholarly matter that would draw attention to his lack of knowledge or education. You may not refer someone to another person for assistance when you know the other person cannot help. These are all also examples of embarrassment that would be forbidden in Halacha.[37].

On the secular point of view, embarrassment is split up into five parts. Violation of Privacy, when private places on the body are exposed, an invasion of private information, or, an invasion of personal space. Lack of knowledge or lack of skill, when failure to showcase knowledge is displayed. Criticism, when the subject is made the center of attention for a negative reason. Awkward acts, when situations such as inappropriate conversations, clumsiness, and ungraceful actions take place in a social setting, triggering embarrassment. Appropriate image and environment, when personal possessions, clothing, and overall body image is found by the subject to be far less than what is actually expected by themselves and by society. [38]

Of these five parts, the examples from the Tanach, Mishna, and Gemara all either fall into one of these categories, or several of these categories.

Retaliation

  1. It is virtuous to respond to insults with maturity, calmness, and silence. This practice will be rewarded greatly. [39]

Notes

  1. VaYikra 25:17
  2. Bava metzia 58b
  3. VaYikra 25:17
  4. Vayikra 19:17.
  5. Sefer HaChinuch 240 based on Sifra
  6. Vayikra 19:18.
  7. Bava metzia 58b
  8. Bava metzia 58b
  9. Bava metzia 59a
  10. Bava metzia 59a
  11. Ketuboth 67B
  12. Gates of Repentance 3:139
  13. Sefar chinook
  14. Bava Metzia 4:306
  15. Chiddusei Anshei Shem
  16. Bava Kama 91a
  17. Yam Shel Shlomo 8:49
  18. Sefer HaChinuch 240
  19. Reb Aharon Leib Shteinman as quoted in http://www.torahlab.org/community/article/why_so_much_suffering/
  20. R. Hanina in Bava Metziah 58b
  21. Rambam, Hilchot Teshuva Chapter 1
  22. Bava Metiza 58b
  23. Bava Metiza 58b
  24. Otzar HaMidrashim pg. 505
  25. Shaarei Teshuva 3:141
  26. Sefer Chassidim 54
  27. Reuven, Rabbi Nitzan Kitzur Hilchot Smirat HaLashon
  28. Yalkout Shimoni, Hosea 14
  29. Gemara Bava Metziah 58b
  30. Gemara Bava Metziah 59a
  31. Gemara Bava Metziah 59a, Gemara Ketubot 67b
  32. Rabbis Shlomo Zalman Auerbach, Zvi Ashkenazi and Yaakov Etlinger as cited by Feldman, Daniel Z. “Emotional Homicide: The Prohibitions Of Embarrassing Others In Public”
  33. All five are discussed in detail in Feldman, Daniel Z. “Emotional Homicide: The Prohibitions Of Embarrassing Others In Public”
  34. Bava Metzia 58
  35. Bava Metzia 58
  36. Bava Metzia 58a and 59a
  37. Gemara Bava Metziah 58b
  38. Withers, Lesley; Sherblom, John. "Embarrassment: The Communication of an Awkward Actor Anticipating a Negative Evaluation". Human Communication 11 (2): 237–254.
  39. Gemara Shabbat 88b. See Rosh b"k 3:13:, Shulchan Aruch CM 421:13, Minchat Chinuch 241:1, Chikrei Lev YD 3:60, and Chafetz Chaim (Peticha l'Hilchot Lashon Hara no. 8-9) who discuss the idea of retaliation.