by Rabbi Yair Hoffman for 5tjt.com

There is a verse in VaYikra that has been little understood. The verse is velo sonu Ish es amiso – (VaYikra 25:17). The Mitzvah is generally called “Onaas Dvarim” or just plain “Onaah.”

The Sfas Emes explains that the main reason behind this Mitzvah is so that we will all have a sense of oneness as a people. Causing another pain was prohibited because it causes division within us as a people.

There is an interesting debate between Rav Henoch Leibowitz zatzal and Rav Chaim Shmuelevitz zatzal in regard to Pnina and Chana.

Pnina realized that the reason Hashem was withholding children from Chana was because she was not davening to Hashem with the requisite intensity. She took it upon herself leshaim shamayim to help Chana intensify her prayers by teasing her that she had no children. Rav Chaim Shmuelevitz zatzal (Sichos Mussar) points out that the notion of “what goes around comes around” (Middah keneged Middah) regarding causing someone else pain exists, even when the underlying intention is 100 percent proper.

Rav Henoch Leibowitz zatzal held that Pnina was only 99.999 percent Lishma , but there was a subtle, infinitesimally small trace of improper motivation in Pnina’s actions. Regardless, we see how serious the issue of causing another pain actually is.

A man was not giving his wife a get and a question was posed to Rav Elyashiv. Is it permissible to try to get his parents to influence the son to give a get by threatening to expose an illegal activity that one of the parents was doing? The response from Rav Elyashiv was No. There is no permission whatsoever to cause pain to another, no matter what his son is doing.

The Midrash Rabbah (Bereishis 14:19) explains that Menashe, Yoseph’s son, was punished for “finding” the goblet in Binyamin’s sack, even though he did so on his father’s instruction. He caused the Shvatim pain, they ripped their clothes in agony over the fate of Binyamin. The Midrash explains that as a result Menashe’s portion of his inheritance was also ripped.

Rachel Imeinu, stole the Teraphim of her father Lavan. Her intent, of course, was absolutely proper. She wished to wean her father off of his belief in worshipping idols. Yet the Zohar tells us (VaYeitzei 164b) that she did not merit to raise those whom she loved because she deprived her father of what he loved!

Examples of this violation include reminding a Ger of the actions of his fathers, or a Baal Teshuvah of his original behaviors or sins. Asking someone a question in a subject area where the person being asked is also a violation of Onaah (See Rambam Hilchos Mechira 14:12). Similarly, inquiring the price of item where one has no intention at all of purchasing the item is also a violation of Onaah (See Bava Metziah 58b).

Violation Through Inaction

In discussing this, Mitzvah Rav Yechiel Michel Stern cites the Chikrei Laiv (YD Vol. III #80) that this prohibition could also be violated through inaction. For example, if someone recites a Mishebarach for a number of people but purposefully leaves one person out, he is in violation of this prohibition. A sad aspect of this prohibition is that violators are often unaware that that they are verbally abusing or causing pain. Often they may characterize the recipient of their statement, words or actions as “overly sensitive.”

Different manifestations of Onaas Dvarim include, demonstrating anger at another, name calling, threatening, and blaming one’s own behavior on someone else’s actions. Certain criticisms are subsumed under the category of Onaas Dvarim as well.
Sometimes, there is a very thin line between proper parenting and Onaas Dvarim.

This thin line must be navigated very carefully. For example, let’s assume that a mother is concerned and convinced that in today’s atmosphere where “thin is in,” her daughter needs to lose the excess weight. (The prohibition even applies to little children – the exceptions, of course, are when it is necessary for parenting (See Sefer HaChinuch 251)). At what point, however, do the mother’s comments turn from constructive parenting into a Torah violation of Onaas Dvarim? Often, most people do not get the message unless the issue is made clear to them in no uncertain terms.

There is a story of a young single man who never showered. His Rav approached him and told him that he had to start showering daily. The young man responded that showering would not be effective because he constantly sweats in his particular line of work and he would have to shower several times a day in order to be clean. The Rav told him that that was his obligation and put his foot down. Within two months the young man got engaged and was told by his fiancé that she did not even so much as look at him prior to his “complete turnaround.”

The point of the story is that, generally speaking, when people have an underlying issue, nicely telling them is not going to do the trick. Since that is the case, the issue is very pertinent: at what point is it Onaas Dvarim and at what point is it constructive criticism or constructive parenting?

The answer to this question depends upon the person’s response. The Torah in many places stresses the obligation for one to be intelligent, and to be able to accurately assess likely responses of people. This situation is no different. An accurate assessment of the person’s likely response must be made. If it is unlikely to change, further pressing of the issue would be a violation of Onaas Dvarim. This does not mean, however, that one should give up. One should constantly be thinking how to coordinate a change within the person, but one that would be effective.

What if one violated this prohibition? What must he do? The Talmud (Yuma 87a) tells us that there is an obligation to try to placate him, to undo the damage. The Talmud quotes verses in Mishlei as to what he must do, “Press your plea with your neighbor …” There are opinions that one must “make nice” in front of three rows of three people too.

The conclusion of all this is that the violation is a very serious one. It is a Mitzvah that has also, somehow, fallen off the wayside. There is another prohibition called Onaas Mamom: monetary abuse. The Talmud (Bava Metziah 58b) states that quotes three sages who explain how the prohibition of verbal abuse is by far more serious than the prohibition of monetary abuse.

The author can be reached at yairhoffman2@gmail.com.

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