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Post Mon, Jun 14 2021, 4:23 pm
“Somebody who Pains Himself”

In the context of this discussion it is important to note the somewhat cryptic statement made by the Rema (Choshen Mishpat 228:1): “It is permitted to cause distress to one who causes himself (atzmo) pain.” The source of the ruling is the Nimmukei Yosef (Bava Metzia 58) in the name of a Midrash, and it has caused much discussion and debate in the writings of later commentaries and authorities.

The Ir Shushan (ibid.), clearly unwilling to accept that the Torah prohibition of onaas devarim is waived for somebody who causes himself pain, explains the ruling as follows: The prohibition of onaas devarim applies specifically to somebody who is classified as amitecha, “with you in Torah and Mitzvos.” Somebody who does not possess fear of Heaven pains himself, and there is therefore no prohibition to cause him distress.

This interpretation appears to be somewhat strained, and the Semah (4) suggests an alternative: Someone who pains himself (a type of masochist) cannot be classed as a normal member of society, and he therefore leaves the group of amitecha, “your fellow.” Therefore, the prohibition does not apply to those who cause themselves grief. The Nesivos Ha-Mishpat (1) likewise quotes this rationale and halachic conclusion.

Yet, the Semah’s understanding is also somewhat surprising. We find no precedent for excluding someone who is peculiar from the category of amitecha; the only exclusion mentioned by the Gemara is someone who is distant from Torah and Mitzvos. Furthermore, the exclusion of someone who is strange (by virtue of his self-affliction) from the category of amitecha will have far reaching consequences in many other areas, such as the general obligation to judge him favorably. Such halachic ramifications are not mentioned by poskim.
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Post Tue, Jun 15 2021, 5:50 pm
Whose Pain Is It?

The Be’er Hagolah offers a third interpretation, suggesting that the word atzmo of the Nimmukei Yosef does not mean someone who causes himself distress, but rather somebody who pains another. The Rema and the Nimmukei Yosef thus mean to teach that one may return an insult for an insult: If someone causes you grief, there is no prohibition to cause him grief in return.

Although the Semah rejects this explanation, the Vilna Gaon upholds it, and adds an explanation based on a Gemara (Shabbos 40a): “One who transgresses a rabbinical decree, it is permitted to call him a transgressor.” The person in question may well suffer from this label, yet it is permitted to call him by the derogatory title. The Vilna Gaon mentions another Gemara (Megillah 25b): “One who has a bad name (there are substantiated bad rumors about him) – one may disgrace him with Gimel and Shin.”

The same is true of someone who causes another grief: Since he transgresses the prohibition of onaas devarim, it is permitted to cause him grief.

Citing the Yerei’im (180), the Chafetz Chaim (Be’er Mayim Chaim 1:31) concurs that this is the correct interpretation of the ruling given by the Nimmukei Yosef and the Rema. We thus learn that there is no prohibition of returning an insult for an insult. Just as we may give derogatory names to someone who is known to violate Torah laws, so one may call a person who insults others, by appropriate names.

If we, nonetheless, wish to fulfill the above ruling of the Raanach (I.e. that the person who retaliates is liable for the pain he causes), we would have to ensure that the retaliatory epithets will not cause actual pain and anguish. Although it is certainly a virtue to remain silent – in fact, the Gemara (Yoma 23a) writes that it is among the greatest virtues a person can have – one who retaliates has upon whom to rely.
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Post Wed, Jun 16 2021, 4:35 pm
Application of the Prohibition

Naturally, the prohibition against inflicting emotional pain upon a fellow Jew applies equally to men, women, and children.

In the case of children, parents must exercise special care, since it is sometimes necessary for a parent to chastise a child as part of his upbringing. When chastising one’s children, one must thus ensure that the underlying intentions are pure. Likewise, one must be wary of causing the children unnecessary pain(Chinuch, ibid.).

It is related that Chazon Ish once saw a father admonish his child over a possible muktzeh transgression on Shabbos, thereby causing the child anguish. The Chazon Ish noted that the child had possibly transgressed a rabbinic prohibition, but the father, for going over the top, had transgressed a Torah prohibition of onaas devarim.

What Constitutes Onaas Devarim?

In the current article we have discussed the laws of onaas devarim, and covered a number of important related questions. However, we have yet to discuss what precisely constitutes onaas devarim: What type of speech or deed enters the category?

Briefly, any form of speech or deed which embarrasses, offends, pains, aggrieves, shocks (in the painful sense of the word), or angers one’s fellow can be classified as onaas devarim. This emerges from the teachings of various authorities who mention these adjectives in defining the prohibition. Although the most commonly used description is ’embarrassment,’ Rashi (Bava Metzia 59) and others (see Chinuch 338 and Shaarei Teshuvah 2:24) use the term ‘tza’ar,’ while the Rambam (Negative Commandment 251) mentions ‘anger’ and ‘shock.’

Yet, there are many details concerning precisely which speech falls under the prohibited category, and which does not. Is it forbidden for a younger sister to get married before her older sister on account of the prohibition? When is it permitted to call others by nicknames? We will please G-d return to this topic at a future opportunity.

Harav Yehoshua Pfeffer
Harav Yehoshua Pfeffer
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