The opening of Parashat BeHar details the manner in which the prospective Yovel year and its restoration of prior ownership over fields and homes impacts upon the laws of commerce. Pricing is fixed in accordance with the number of years remaining until the Yovel year out of recognition that any acquisition of a field is temporary, as the buyer possesses rights over the field only until the Yovel year. Based on the laws of Ona’ah, a seller may not substantially overcharge for the field being sold, nor can a buyer undercut the seller too significantly – “Al Tonu Ish Et Achiv,” “You shall not wrong one another” (VaYikra 25:14), commands the Torah. Three Pesukim later, the Torah reiterates the prohibition, stating, “VeLo Tonu Ish Et Amito,” “And you shall not wrong one another” (VaYikra 25:17). Chazal (Bava Metzia 58b) reinterpret the later injunction as not simply reiterating the earlier prohibition, but instead introducing a new type of injury, Ona’at Devarim, verbal hurt, rather than Ona’at Mammon, monetary harm.
Although the Mishnah and Gemara list several examples of Ona’at Devarim, countless additional instances of hurtful words easily come to mind. Yet, due to the abundance of cases, a neat categorization of the many examples and an understanding of the precise focus of the prohibition remain elusive. In a Shiur delivered in Sivan 5758, Rav Aharon Lichtenstein utilized the five categories of payment in the area of Chavalah, physical injury, to help categorize the instances of Ona’at Devarim. Of the five categories, Shevet and Ripui, unemployment and medical expenses, are consequences of personal injury and are not themselves aspects of the injurious action. The remaining three payments, Nezek, Tza’ar, and Boshet – damage, pain, and embarrassment – are each aspects of the injurious action that is inflicted on a fellow Jew. In a similar manner to Chavalah, the verbal assault of Ona’at Devarim shares the same three pronged focus, prohibiting words that cause financial harm, psychological pain, and embarrassment to another person.
One of the examples of Ona’at Devarim listed in the Mishnah (Bava Metzia 58b) is an instance in which a potential buyer asks a seller for the price of an item when he has no interest in purchasing the object. Meiri comments that the prohibition, in this case, focuses on the financial harm caused to the seller. The buyer, embarrassed to admit that he had no interest in purchasing the item, will decline the seller by claiming that the item is overpriced causing its devaluation in the eyes of other consumers. Similarly, the Gemara states (Pesachim 112b) that Rabi Yishmael, the son of Rabi Yosi, instructed Rebbe that he should not inquire after an item if he has insufficient funds to purchase it. Rashbam explains that other interested buyers will shy away seeing that this individual is already pursuing the purchase of the item, thereby causing the seller to suffer. Rabbeinu Chananel develops the point slightly differently, arguing that the buyer’s decision to not purchase the item will cause the seller to lower his price and forfeit a percentage of his profit. In both instances, the buyer’s inquiry is regarded as Ona’at Devarim due to the financial harm it causes the seller.
A second focal point of the prohibition of Ona’at Devarim is the embarrassment to others that results from one’s speech. An example of Ona’at Devarim presented in the Baraita (Bava Metzia 58b) is the intentional misdirection of an interested consumer. A contemporary example of this would be directing an individual looking to purchase a lawn mower to a fruit and vegetable store, or advising someone interested in purchasing a dozen bagels to check in Home Depot. Rambam (Hilchot Mechirah 14:14) adds a further example to this category. When a question arises regarding a certain ‘Devar Chochmah,’ posing the question to an individual whom you know is ignorant in the matter in order to put that person ‘on the spot’ and watch them stammer and plead ignorance, would likewise violate the prohibition of Ona’at Devarim. The Kesef Mishnah explains that in both instances the misdirection and the ensuing awkward and confused conversation between the interested consumer and the shop owner will cause embarrassment to one or both of the parties involved. Needless to say, putting someone ‘on the spot’ when they clearly lack the necessary knowledge to address an issue is mortifying, particularly in public. It is in this light that the Gemara’s discussion, specifically in this context of embarrassing people in public and coining condescending nicknames, is better understood.
The dominant feature of Ona’at Devarim, though, is the aspect of psychological pain. Reminding a repentant and convert of their prior deeds and the deeds of their parents are two chief examples of Ona’at Devarim mentioned in the Mishnah. Furthermore, the Baraita mentions that responding to an individual’s tragic misfortune, illness, or suffering, as Iyov’s friends rhetorically questioned him, “Zechar Na Mi Hu Naki Avad,” “Do you remember anyone innocent who has perished?” (Iyov 4:7), would similarly violate the prohibition of Ona’at Devarim. Rashi, in his commentary on VaYikra, encapsulates these examples in formulating the underlying principle – a person should not cause anguish to another individual. Similarly, the Sefer HaChinuch (Mitzvah 338) primarily speaks in terms of causing pain and anguish to others with one’s speech.
The Torah’s sensitivity toward verbal assault and the financial harm, psychological pain, and embarrassment that result from it requires even greater attention in an age of ever-increasing methods of communication, audience, and permanence. The Gemara’s position that Ona’at Devarim is more severe than Ona’at Mammon by dint of its personal and irreversible nature resonates today to an even greater degree than ever before.