Emotional Homicide: The Prohibitions Of Embarrassing Others In Public Part 1 of 2 by Rabbi Daniel Z. Feldman


Reprinted from “The Right and the Good” with permission of the author

The halakhic correlation between emotional and physical assault is perhaps most starkly conveyed by a Talmudic passage concerning first King David, and then Tamar, the daughter-in-law of Yehudah.  The King, weathering the aftermath of his involvement with a woman of questionable marital status, cries to the heavens about the humiliation he suffers at the hands of his detractors.  Even when involved in the study of unrelated issues of ritual impurity, they shift the attention to the incident with thinly veiled legal inquiries.  “David,” they taunt, “what manner of death befalls he who has relations with a married woman?”  David’s retort is quick to turn the tables on these verbal attacks.  “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.”  The Talmud derives a principle from this tale, in the name of Rava: “Better for one to have relations with a possibly married woman than to shame his fellow in public.”

 The text continues with a reference to the earlier trial of Tamar.  Twice widowed from the sons of Yehudah, she was accused of being unfaithful to his family, to which she maintained an obligation to marry into a third time, in keeping with the laws of yibum.  Unbeknownst to the court, which stands ready to execute her, the father of her unborn child is actually Yehudah himself.  Tamar refuses, however, to save herself by explicitly volunteering this information, an act which would surely humiliate Yehudah.  This noble act of near-sacrifice prompts the derivation of another halakhic principle: “Better for one to hurl himself into a fiery furnace rather than shame his fellow in public.”

 The first principle, from the David HaMelech story, finds little mention in later halakhic sources .  This is not surprising, as the precise conflict of values dealt with, adultery and avoiding humiliating others, is not a frequent one in human experience.  It is the second principle, mandating the sacrifice of one’s life before that of another’s dignity, which commands more significant rabbinic attention.  The Rif includes this in his compilation of halakhic conclusions from the tractate Bava Metzia, apparently indicating its acceptance as normative, and he is not alone among medieval authorities.  The authors of the Tosafot  question the absence of humiliating others among the Talmudic list of those transgressions requiring martyrdom, such as murder, idol worship, and sexual immorality.  They respond by limiting this list to those prohibitions explicitly mentioned in the Torah, a standard that embarrassing others apparently does not fulfill.  The very question, however, is predicated on the assumption that humiliating others does indeed require the ultimate sacrifice in its avoidance.  Joining this group is Rabbeinu Yonah, who in his classic ethical treatise Shaarei Teshuvah   rules that this prohibition takes precedence over self preservation.  The Sefer Ohel Moed echoes this position.  It should also be noted that the passage concerning Tamar is not the only Amoraic source to discuss risking one’s life to avoid embarrassing another.  The Midrash  contains an opinion that Yosef was in danger of being killed by his brothers when he exposed himself to them without his guards; nonetheless, he preferred this to the possibility that they would be humiliated in front of strangers.

 The Meiri, however, is clearly not of this mind, for in his talmudic commentary (Berakhot 43b and Sotah 10b) he interprets the talmudic comment to be “derekh ha’arah” and  “derekh tzachut” – that is, not to be understood as practically authoritative.  Similarly, a perusal of the Rambam’s Mishneh Torah uncovers no requirement for martyrdom in this instance.  The great commentator to the Shulchan Arukh, the Pri Chadash, in his glosses to Mishneh Torah, does cite the position of Tosafot as authoritative, and apparently feels the Rambam to be in consonance with this view; furthermore, R. Shlomo Zalman Auerbach, in his Shut Minchat Shlomo (no. 7) writes “with the exception of the Meiri, all rishonim have interpreted the statement in accordance with its literal meaning.”  Nonetheless, the Rambam’s complete omission is generally taken to be significantly indicative of his position.   R. Yehudah Herzl Henkin adds the Sefer HaChinnukh, R. Yehudah HaChasid and the Menorat HaMaor to the list of those who view the phrase figuratively.

 What emerges, then, is a dispute among rishonim, with the Rif, the Tosafot, and Rabbeinu Yonah taking the Talmud at face value and obligating self-sacrifice before shaming another, and the Meiri and the Rambam apparently unwilling to allow so drastic a notion into practical halakhah. R. Yehudah Leib Graubart felt that this difference of opinion could be paralleled to another dispute, at least as far as Tosafot and the Rambam were concerned.  The Tosafot,  in their commentary to Avodah Zarah, are of the position that although martyrdom is obligatory in only a limited number of instances, one may voluntarily sacrifice himself for any mitzvah if he deems it appropriate.  The Rambam, however, in his Mishneh Torah, explicitly excludes such an option. Such preexisting points of view can certainly dictate the understanding one brings to a phrase such as “better for one to hurl oneself into a fiery furnace rather than shame his fellow in public.”  To the authors of the Tosafot, who recognize voluntary self-sacrifice for all commandments, such a singling out for humiliating others must mean an obligatory martyrdom.  Accordingly, they rule in Sotah that this commandment should theoretically be listed among those precepts that demand precedence over self-preservation.  Alternatively, the Rambam, who generally recognizes no permissibility of self-sacrifice absent of an obligation, can interpret the unique teaching of this text to be the one such instance.  Hence, no obligation is mentioned in Mishneh Torah, for the Rambam views humiliating others as a transgression which allows, but not mandates, self sacrifice.  Indeed, another eminent commentator, P’nei Yehoshua, analyzes the intent of the text as to whether it refers to an option or an obligation.

 Nonetheless, it seems clear that a concern more fundamental to the local issue informs this dispute among the rishonim.  The Talmud, earlier in this same passage (58b), identifies the logic relevant to its conclusions.  One who shames his fellow in public, we are told forcefully, is as if he shed blood.  We are even provided with physiological evidence of this moral relationship; when one is embarrassed, “azil sumaka v’ati hivara,” the features lose their red color and turn white; thus, the Talmudic term for humiliation, “halbanat panim,” whitening the face.  While this does seem to contradict empirical observation, as an embarrassed individual, blushing, is normally red-faced, R. Obadiah of Bartenura offers an explanation. At first, an embarrassed individual reddens in the face, as he initially experiences rage at what has occurred.  However, once he fails to provide a satisfactory response, his concern turns inward to an internal sense of worry, and the blood leaves his face, resulting in the whitening of the face. The Midrash Shmuel quotes in the name of R. Menachem L’Beit Meir a description that will be familiar to anyone who has ever been truly embarrassed. “One who is humiliated, his face first turns red, and then turns white, because due to the magnitude of the shame, his ‘soul flies away’, as if it wanted to leave the body...once the blood returns to its source, the face turns white, like someone who has died...” Nonetheless, some texts do contain the emendation “reddening the face” instead.

 The question, then, becomes the evaluation of this comparison between homicide and humiliation.  If humiliation is indeed equal to murder in the absolute sense of the word, it is readily understandable that it must be avoided even at the cost of death, as is clearly established as the rule for murder.  The Talmud challenges one who would slay another to save himself: “How do you reason that your blood is redder than his?”  If humiliation is truly shedding of blood, one who wishes to do so to preserve his own life must answer to the same objection.

 This issue, then, serves as an analytical prerequisite to any question of martyrdom. How are the Talmud’s words to be taken?  Is humiliation indeed equivalent to murder in all respects, to any and every extent?  Or, rather, is the phrase a homiletical device, worded to convey the intense severity of the prohibition but never meant to be equated with murder to the fullest sense of its ramifications? R. Shlomo Zalman Auerbach offers an example of the second possibility.  The Talmud states, “He who steals from his friend the value of a prutah is as one who takes his life from him,” and yet no authority has recommended following this comparison through to its logical conclusions. Also along these lines, R. Zvi Ashkenazi comments generally on the Talmudic usage of the Hebrew “k’” at the beginning of a word to suggest a comparison, as is the case here, humiliation being called “k’sh’fikhat damim,” “like” murder. In that instance, he writes, the similarity is less than absolute.  R. Yaakov Etlinger concurs, noting that were this not the case, an individual who disrespects the festivals would be treated with the severity of an idol worshiper, as is the implication of the Talmud in Makkot (23a). R. Moshe Shick, however, conveys by implication a differing approach to this generalization.  Apparently the rishonim struggled on this point, with consequent implications for their positions on martyrdom.

 Accordingly, Rabbeinu Yonah, cited above as obligating self-sacrifice in his Sha’arei Teshuvah, identifies embarrassing others as avak retzichah, an equivalent derivative sub-category of murder, in  his commentary to Pirkei Avot (3:11). Concurring in later generations are the Pri Megadim (in his Matan S’kharan Shel Mitzvot and Teivat Goma), the Shut Ohr David (14:1), the Chiddushei Maharakh (Hilkhot Yesodei HaTorah ch.5), the Shut Binyan Tzion (#173 and #175), and R. Avraham Piotrokowski. Rabbi Yaakov Emden, in his commentary to Pirkei Avot (3:15), cites the position of Rabbeinu Yonah without expressing disagreement.  The Alshikh, commenting on the Torah, interprets the verse “he who spills blood of a person, in a person (shofeikh dam ha-adam ba-adam), his blood shall be spilled” as referring to one who humiliates another, incurring an internal spilling of blood.  “Do not be surprised,” he warns, “that one can deserve capital punishment even though he has not actually ended a life, for has not a person’s face been created in the image of God, and without which he would be comparable to an animal; therefore, he who whitens the face, where the image of God resides, is deserving of death for he has blemished the site of the image of God.”  R. Shlomo Aviner goes as far as to impute literal significance to the designation of homicide, citing a medical authority of the opinion that the physiological effects of humiliation may indeed contribute to a shortened life span.

 Consequently, later authorities lined up to takes sides on the martyrdom issue.  R. Yaakov Etlinger concluded that in his view the majority position indeed forbids humiliating another even at the expense of one’s life. R. Ovadiah Yosef considers the issue and does not appear to offer an explicit conclusion . However, it seems to be the currently accepted position that although an overwhelming number of earlier sources obligate self-sacrifice, the existence of significant dissent on the topic precludes the practical implementation of such a principle.  This follows the analysis of the Beit Yosef, who states the principle that the presence of any dispute on a question of martyrdom prevents it being put into practice.  R. Yehudah Hertzl Henkin also investigates this issue to a lenient conclusion, feeling this to be the position of the vast majority of rishonim, and noting that martyrdom is not mandated by any of the works of halakhic codification.

 Further, even if theoretically martyrdom was called for, the variability present in all real life situations makes it impossible to put such policy into practice.  The unpredictability of the other’s reaction and sensitivities make actual self-sacrifice unfeasible.  R. Pinchas Levinson notes that the concept is phrased in the Talmud, atypically, as a matter of “preference.” This is to signify that it is reflective of the assumption that the victim would equate humiliation with his own death; however, as there always exists a possibility that this is not true, one may not allow himself to be physically killed to avoid the embarrassment .  Thus, what emerges is a theoretical equation that conveys a tremendous seriousness inherent to the prohibition, but would in no situation actually allow the martyrdom to be put into practice.

 The definition of the relationship between humiliation and murder as a homiletic comparison or, more severely, as an absolute equation apparently lies below the surface of other halakhic discussions as well. R. Shlomo Kluger, commenting on the Shulchan Aruch, records a surprising and, as he acknowledges, unprecedented ruling concerning the obligation to rescue one whose life is in danger.  While it is understood that such an obligation does not attach itself at the cost of one’s own life, R. Kluger extends this notion farther, maintaining that one need not save another’s life if he himself will consequently endure humiliation. Emotional death, humiliation, would seem in his analysis to possess a genuine equivalency to physical death. R. Meir Dan Plotzki, in his work Kli Chemdah, writes extensively to refute this notion.  More recently, R. Shlomo Zalman Auerbach rejected this ruling, noting that “it is impossible to compare self-inflicted humiliation to embarrassing others.”  Joining in disagreement with the position of R. Kluger are R. Aryeh Leib Grosnas , R. Avraham Yafeh-Shlesinger , and R. Raphael Silber.

 However, R. Auerbach’s opposition to this innovation does not necessarily imply a rejection of the absolutist understanding of the humiliation/murder comparison. R. Auerbach, until his death considered one of the leading halakhic authorities in the world, authored an extensive discussion, published in his Shut Minchat Shlomo (no. 7) as well as other places, of the principles regulating the suspension of the laws of Shabbat in order to save a life. Toward the end of this discussion, he expresses considerable difficulty with the accepted assumption that one may not violate the Shabbat to avoid humiliating another just as he would to save his life.  He acknowledges that there certainly are some differences between embarrassment and death, disagreeing as he does with the aforementioned opinion of R. Kluger and noting further that no one would ever suggest that it is permissible to kill someone who attempts to embarrass him, claiming self-defense.  Nonetheless, he still considers the comparison to be of sufficient weight to warrant, at least upon initial consideration, pushing off considerations of Shabbat.  R. Auerbach expends great effort to explain this discrepancy between theory and practice, offering at one point to allow passive and rabbinical violations of the Shabbat in accordance with the laws of k’vod habriyot, maintaining human dignity.  He ultimately is unsatisfied in this struggle, concluding “the issue continues to need a definitive decision.”  R. Yosef Roth observes that the purpose of violating Shabbat in instances of mortal danger is the preservation of physical life, and does not stem from the severity of the crime of murder.  Therefore, even if humiliation is equated absolutely with homicide, it does not necessarily follow that superseding Shabbat is called for.  Interestingly, R. Shimon Pollack does seem prepared to consider leniencies in the laws of Shabbat if humiliation is the alternative.

 R. Natan Gestetner, in his responsa, considers another issue relevant to evaluating the comparison. A kohen who has killed someone is prohibited from partaking in the priestly blessing, the birkat kohanim.  Would a kohen who embarrasses others be similarly excluded?  R. Gestener proceeds to analyze the issue, noting the earlier question of martyrdom to avoid shaming others. He concludes leniently, citing a supporting implication in the Shut Ralbach, finding the comparison to be less than total. He concurrently advances a technical argument, proving that even were the severity of humiliation equivalent to (or worse than, as he notes in the name of the P’nei Yehoshua,) homicide, this kohen would nonetheless not be excluded; the category is limited to physical murder, as indicated by Talmud citing the verse, “your hands are filled with blood.”  Nevertheless, R. Baruch Weiss, in an independent analysis of the issue in his book-length treatment of the laws of birkat kohanim, reaches a stringent conclusion and forbids such a kohen from partaking in the blessing.

 This position may perhaps be shared by the authors of the Tosafot to Masekhet Arakhin.  The Talmud suggests that among other transgressions, murder is atoned for through the priestly vestments.  The Tosafot deal with this statement in light of the contradictory statement earlier that the murderer will suffer bodily afflictions for his sins.  They reconcile these ideas by interpreting the text dealing with the priestly vestments as referring not to actual murder, but rather to embarrassing others in public.  The implication is clearly that while humiliating others is symbolically identified as murder, one is not to take this usage literally.

 Another issue to which this concern is relevant is taken up by R. Yisrael Meir Lau, currently the Ashkenazic Chief Rabbi of Israel.  One normally possesses the privilege, if he so wishes, of allowing another to impinge on his rights, known as mechilah.  May one permit another to embarrass him? If humiliation is an interpersonal offense with a severity comparable to murder, yet not in actuality equal to murder, than its gravity would not necessarily preclude an option of mechilah.  However, if the comparison to bloodshed is taken literally, one must consider the fact that no individual has the right to permit himself to be murdered in weighing this question.

 The assumption that the identification with murder is not absolute is taken by R. Yaakov Reischer.  He raises the issue of a non-Jew, subject to the seven Noahide laws, which include, of course, murder. R. Reischer maintains that in defining these laws, the umbrella of murder as universal prohibition does not extend to include embarrassing others among its restrictions and punishments. While humiliating others is compared to homicide, he admits, this does not indicate genuine equivalence. 

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