After Yehudah sins with his daughter-in-law Tamar, the Torah states, “VaYugad LiYhudah Leimor Zanetah Tamar Kalatecha VeGam Hineih Harah LiZnunim VaYomer Yehudah Hotziuha VeTisareif. Hi Mutzeit VeHi Shalechah El Chamihah Leimor LeIsh Asher Eileh Lo Anochi Harah VaTomer Haker Na LeMi HaChotemet VeHaPetilim VeHaMateh HaEileh,” “It was told to Yehudah as follows, ‘Your daughter-in-law Tamar has committed harlotry, and moreover, behold, she is pregnant by harlotry.’ Yehudah said, ‘Take her out and let her be burned!’ She was being taken out, and she sent word to her father-in-law, saying, ‘By the man to whom these belong I am pregnant.’ And she said, ‘Recognize, if you please, whose are this signet, this wrap, and this staff’” (BeReishit 38:24-25).
Discussing these Pesukim, Rashi (38:25 s.v. VeHi Shalechah El Chamihah) and Yalkut Shimoni (ad loc. s.v. Hi Mutzeit) quote the famous comment of Rabi Zutra Bar Tuvya: “Noach Lo LeAdam SheYapil Atzmo LeChivshan HaEish VeAl Yalbin Penei Chaveiro BaRabim,” “Better that a person throw himself into a fiery furnace and not shame his friend in public.” Tamar is informed that Yehudah has ruled that she be put to death by burning, yet she is determined that Yehudah not be put to shame at all costs, including her life. She does not expose Yehudah’s guilt.
Rashi (38:24 s.v. VeTisareif) quotes a Midrash that presents the view of Rabi Meir that the penalty of Sereifah, burning, is assessed due to the fact that Tamar is the daughter of Sheim, the son of Noach, who had the status of a Kohein. The Mishnah (Sanhedrin 9:1) assesses the punishment of death by Sereifah to a married daughter of a Kohein who engaged in promiscuous behavior.
There are several questions on this approach, many of which are raised by the Ramban (ad loc. s.v. VaYomer Hotzi’uhah VeTisareif). Firstly, the Sereifah that the Pasuk speaks of ostensibly is burning at the stake, yet the death penalty imposed by Beit Din is “Sereifat Neshamah VeGuf Kayam,” the burning of the innards without burning the outer body, which is accomplished by pouring hot lead down the throat of the individual being executed. Secondly, the penalty of Sereifah is administered only to a Bat Kohein who is married through Chupah. Tamar is awaiting Yibum, making her a Shomeret Yavam, and a Shomeret Yavam who engages in an act of infidelity merely violates a Lav, a negative commandment for which one receives lashes, but does not receive Sereifah. Thirdly, Tamar, like all of mankind during her time, is a Bat Noach. The punishment for any violation of one of the Sheva Mitzvot Bnei Noach is Hereg, beheading; Arayot is no different than the other six.
Ramban posits that Yehudah is a Katzin, a sort of chief among the people. He not only gains the respect and reverence of his brothers, but the people with whom Bnei Yisrael associate also revere Ya’akov’s family and specifically the powerful Yehudah. That being the case, this surreptitious act on Tamar’s part to dress as a Zonah and entice someone is deemed a disreputable act against the ruler. Tamar is essentially a Moredet BeMalchut, and the custom is to burn those who engage in dishonorable activities against the king.
It seems almost instinctive that if one were falsely accused of such an atrocious crime and, moreover, were being taken to be killed that one would seek acquittal whatever way possible, yet Tamar chooses to sacrifice her life rather than embarrass Yehudah. Such is the crime of embarrassing another human being in public. Tamar is, in essence, in a Yeihareig VeAl Ya’avor situation, where one should sacrifice his life rather than violate the prohibition. As Chazal teach (Sotah 10b), “Kol HaMalbin Penei Chaveiro BaRabim KeIlu Shofeich Damim,” “If anyone embarrasses his friend in public, it is as if one has killed.” Furthermore, it is better that she be killed than kill another human being. As the Gemara (Sanhedrin 74a) eloquently puts it, “Mi Yeimar DeDama Didach Sumak Tefei,” “Who says that your blood is more red than his?” This Halachah is not derived from a Pasuk—the Gemara calls it a Sevara, a law which is derived logically.
But why do we compare one who shames another to one who has spilled another’s blood? Some explain that it is certainly a severe transgression to embarrass another, but the comparison to killing is merely figurative as it is used to describe the blood that leaves one’s face after the shameful words have been expressed. The face turns a bright red and then the effect is Malbin Penei Chaveiro, which literally means that it returns to its whiter, regular complexion.
However, if we are to take Chazal very literally that it is better for a person to be thrown into a fiery furnace than to shame another in public and that this is truly a case of Yeihareig VeAl Ya’avor as Tamar understood, then the comparison to Shefichut Damim must also be taken somewhat literally.
Perhaps we can understand this in light of a well-known explanation of the mechanism of Teshuvah impacting a Gezeirah Ra’ah, an evil decree that has been preordained by Hashem for an individual. How exactly does Teshuvah accomplish Ha’avarat HaGezeirah, the removal of the decree?
Teshuvah changes a person. He is no longer the person he once was. The Gezeirah remains on the old person, but that old person doesn’t exist anymore.
The same is true in a different way regarding embarrassing someone. Cruel and critical comments as well as degrading and humiliating remarks have the power to lower a person’s self-esteem to the point that he or she no longer has the confidence to be the person he or she thought they were. The individual who thought he was a decent Ba’al Tefilah, Ba’al Tzedakah, athlete, or musician, is no longer that person after hearing degrading remarks. That person is dead. He has been murdered by callous criticism.
Chazal mention a Kivshan HaEish, a fiery furnace, although it appears that Tamar is to be burned at the stake and not in a furnace. This is, perhaps, to allude to the purpose of a furnace, namely, the refining of metals. “Noach Lo LeAdam SheYapil Atzmo LeChivshan HaEish,” “It is good for a person to throw himself into a fiery furnace.” One should perfect and refine his own character first and then “VeAl Yalbin Penei Chaveiro BaRabim,” he will not have the callousness to cause shame to another human being.