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Bein Adam Le-chavero: Ethics of Interpersonal Conduct

By Rav Binyamin Zimmerman



Shiur #06: Onaat Devarim



Distressing Others


Twice in Parashat Behar (Vayikra 25:14, 17) the Torah proscribes onaa, wronging another Jew.  The immediate context of these warnings is the area of commerce; the Torah calls upon consumers and merchants to buy and sell fairly, without demanding inordinately low or high prices for merchandise. The prohibition is known in Talmudic literature as onaat mamon, monetary abuse. However, the Sages understood the repetition of this prohibition as establishing a second application, known as onaat devarim, verbal abuse.


“Ve-ahavta le-reiakha kamokha,” “You shall love your fellow as yourself,” requires that one behave kindly towards others.  For that reason, it is not surprising that our Torah of kindness forbids mistreating others, even verbally. However, as usual, an examination of this law indicates that the Torah’s definition of mistreating others is much more expansive then we might have thought.  Everything from the context the Torah uses to introduce the prohibition to the terminology used in the Torah suggests that understanding this prohibition is essential for appreciating one’s interpersonal obligations.  A deeper look will help us uncover this message.


The Torah’s Description of the Two Types of Onaa


Unlike other interpersonal laws that we have discussed, the prohibition of mistreating others doesn’t appear in a section of the Torah dedicated to achieving interpersonal perfection.  Quite the contrary, it appears in a section of the Torah in Parashat Behar which deals with yovel, the jubilee year, and the prohibition of overcharging for an item or trying to get away with underpaying.  Even more startlingly, the Torah refers to the prohibition of mistreating others with the same exact terminology as the prohibition of overcharging, onaa.


Parashat Behar commences with a discussion of the laws of shemitta, the sabbatical year, and yovel, the jubilee which occurs every fifty years.  Within its description of yovel, it refers to the unique aspect of yovel in which all land sold in the five decades since the previous yovel will revert back to its initial owners at the onset of the next yovel.  Within this context, the Torah discusses the details of the laws which regulate commercial transactions which take place between jubilees and delineate certain laws regarding commerce in general.  Understandably, these verses also introduce us to the prohibition of unethical business practices. 


The verses of onaa address both the seller and purchaser of land, prohibiting either one from exploiting the other when involved in business transactions.  Since all lands in the Land of Israel are to return to their original owners on the jubilee year, real-estate prices must be determined accordingly and adjusted based on the number of years remaining until the jubilee. A seller who overcharges or buyer who underpays for a piece of property has violated this prohibition.


In its description of one party wronging another, the Torah makes use of the term “tonu” twice, three verses apart from each other.


If you sell anything to your comrade or buy from your comrade’s hand, no one of you shall wrong his brother.  (v. 14)


After two verses describing that the price of the sale must be based on the number of years left until yovel, the Torah again mentions a prohibition of onaa:


No one of you shall wrong his comrade, and you shall fear your God: for I am Lord your God.  (v. 17)


The first verse is clearly focusing on monetary impropriety, prohibiting either party from being involved in any fraudulent practices.  A sale may even be revoked when the price differs drastically from the market value of the object.  The question that bothers the Talmud is the following: what does the second verse come to proscribe by seemingly reiterating that it is forbidden to perform onaa — isn’t a prohibition of onaa mentioned three verses prior?


The Talmud (Bava Metzia 58b) addresses this issue and explains that one should not view the reiteration of the term onaa as a repetition of the previous prohibition.  Besides monetary exploitation, there is also an alternative form of onaa, which the Talmud describes as even more severe:


The Torah states: “No one of you shall wrong his comrade” — this verse refers to verbal abuse.


In short, the Talmud explains that the two mentions of onaa in the aforementioned verses come to prohibit two types of onaa: one monetary, onaat mamon, and the other verbal, onaat devarim.


The Difficulties in Explaining the Verses


While the Talmud has provided an explanation for the Torah’s repetition of the term onaa to express a second type of prohibition, a number of questions still need to be answered to understand the verses properly.  First and foremost, why would this same term refer to two different prohibitions which seem to have nothing in common?


Secondly, though it is understandable that a prohibition of monetary impropriety would be mentioned in the context of selling fields, why would that present an opportunity to teach the prohibition of onaat mamon as well?


Thirdly, the two verses which mention the alternate prohibitions of onaa also have other differences.  The verse regarding onaat devarim adds, “And you shall fear your God.”  Furthermore, the direct object of the onaa differs: the first mention of onaa refers to the victim as “his brother,” while the second specifies “his comrade.”  What is the distinction?  What is the Torah trying to teach us?


Essentially, the Torah uses the same terminology to teach two diverse prohibitions, one which seemingly has nothing in common with the laws of yovel, and it chooses to distinguish the two mitzvot through other differences in the verses’ language.  It would seem that the Torah has what to teach us, but what could it be?


The Severity of Onaat Devarim: “And You Shall Fear Your God”


The Talmud takes notice of some of the distinctions between the two verses and explains that the Torah wishes to indicate the severity of the prohibition of onaat devarim in comparison to onaat mamon.


Rabbi Yochanan said in the name of Rabbi Shimon Ben Yochai: “Onaat devarim is far worse than onaat mamon, for regarding the former, it says, ‘And you shall fear your God,’ whereas regarding the latter, it doesn’t state, ‘And you shall fear your God.’”


Rabbi Elazar says that the former is more severe because it affects the individual himself, while the latter affects his property.


Rabbi Shemuel Bar Nachmani adds that regarding the former, restitution is impossible, while regarding the latter, restitution is possible.


The latter two opinions in the Talmud explain the severity of onaat devarim through practical distinctions, personal damage and irreparability.  The first opinion, on the other hand, takes note of the Torah’s terminology, applying yirat Elokim, the fear of God, to the prohibition of mistreating others verbally.  Why is this concept uniquely associated with onaat devarim, making it so severe?


Understanding the root of onaa will help us understand what the two types of wronging have in common and simultaneously enable us to distinguish between them. The fact that the Torah introduces the two prohibitions in the same context and with almost identical terminology seems to point to a similar foundation.  But what could it be?


What Stands at the Root of Both Types of Onaa:


The Chinnukh describes the mitzva of onaa as taking advantage of another’s weakness.


The Torah commands us not to cause grief to another Jew by way of speech — i.e., not to say to another Jew something that might pain him or aggrieve him when he is incapable of defending himself.  (Mitzva 338)


The understanding of the Chinnukh is seemingly echoed by the commentary of Rav S.R. Hirsch, which provides an explanation for the term which makes the connection understandable.  He explains the root of the word onaa as “the exploitation of the weakness of man, in order to cheat him,” a definition which leaves ample room for two diverse types, commercial and personal.


In commerce, onaa is the exploitation of the other party’s ignorance, in order to cheat him…  It includes any reduction in quantity or quality of the object… or any kind of fraud…


With this understanding of onaa in mind, Rav Hirsch explains in the coming verse the terminology of onaa regarding hurtful speech.


The preceding verse prohibits onaa in business dealings…  Our verse extends the prohibition to onaat devarim.  Whoever verbally abuses his fellow violates this prohibition…

In particular, the prohibition of onaat devarim includes wronging another by words when their evil intent is apparent only to God; hence, the verse stresses “And you shall fear your God”…


Onaat devarim and onaat mamon have this in common: in both cases, one exploits another’s weakness, his ignorance of the merchandise or his personal sensitivity.


While both forms of onaa involve exploitation of a weaker party, the “And you shall fear your God” clause serves to highlight the distinction between monetary exploitation, which is noticeable, and the kind which can be covered up.  As we will soon see, onaat devarim includes a number of subtle actions.


For this reason, the Talmud explains that yirat Elokim is relevant specifically in the cases in which one has the ability to hide his or her bad intentions through false claims of having meant something else; it is specifically in such cases that one will be judged more harshly.  The cover-up is a sign of erasing God from the picture.


The connection between the two types of onaa may also be found in the chapter in which the Torah teaches us these two prohibitions, the context of yovel.


Yovel and Onaa


To better understand the law we must analyze it in context.  Why would verses discussing yovel be the source of these twin prohibitions?


As mentioned earlier, In Parashat Behar, while discussing the topic of the jubilee year, during which all purchased land must be returned to its original owner, the Torah teaches these two forms of onaa. The Torah demands that any price take into account the temporary nature of the sale.  Since the purchase is effectual only until the jubilee, the land's price must be determined based on the number of years remaining until the onset of yovel.  It is not only surprising that the Torah forbids onaat devarim in this context, but there is good reason to question even the placement of onaat mamon in this context.  Interestingly, the prohibition of onaat mamon doesn’t even fully apply regarding the sale of land; in Talmudic terminology, the principle is known as ein onaa le-karkaot. The Talmud (Bava Metzia 56a) derives from the Torah's reference to "buy[ing] from your comrade’s hand" that onaa applies only to merchandise transferred by hand, i.e. movable property, not land.


The Ramban notes the glaring irony in this law, given that the Torah introduces this prohibition specifically amidst its discussion of the pricing of lands on the basis of their ultimate restoration in the jubilee year. If onaa doesn’t apply to land sales, then why use yovel as the context for teaching the prohibition of onaa?


The Ramban therefore suggests that in truth, the prohibition of onaa applies to real estate, as well, and the Sages exclude real estate only from the rule that a sale is automatically voided if the purchaser pays an exorbitantly high or low sum. In terms of the basic applicability of the prohibition, however, it includes, in the Ramban's view, all types of property and merchandise.


However, the Ramban’s comment notwithstanding, why teach the laws of onaa altogether in the context of selling land before yovel, if the laws of onaa do not fully apply in that context?


One might explain that the concept of yovel teaches us the temporariness of property, for which one’s acquisition of another’s rightful land can last no more than fifty years.  If so, hopefully one will think twice before engaging in dishonest business tactics.


When one realizes that his ownership of the land will eventually be terminated, he will refrain from stealing and cheating.

(Melekhet Machshevet, quoted by Nechama Leibowitz)


One might add that understanding that God’s system of ownership includes a concept of nachala, land that is set aside for a specific family eternally.  The concept of nachala teaches us that property ownership is not all about real-estate value; rather, there is a divine purpose in owning property.  One should analyze how his or her property can be used to benefit society, instead of seeing money as the be-all and end-all. 


Rav Hirsch explains that the context of yovel also introduces a deeper level.  He thus explains the Torah’s inclusion of yirat Elokim in this framework:


“And you shall fear your God” is the direct result of shemitta and yovel, as regards the communal life of the people of the land.  These laws introduce the name of God into all of commercial life and bring the thought continually to mind that all people live and work together on the soil of God, in the land of God, where God is the master of all property; as tribute, He demands that His rule be implemented in every phase of life.


Rav Hirsch continues by stating that if there is one thing that the sabbatical year, during which one must not work the land, teaches us, it is that God is concerned with the marketplace as well:


God watches over all of communal life, for God does not dwell only in the sanctuary.  Rather, He dwells in the midst of the people and blesses its commerce.  However, God bestows His blessing only if commerce brings prosperity and happiness to all, only if one does not wrong and aggrieve the other and one does not abuse the position which he has attained to cheat the other.  God bestows His blessing only if the truth of all truths, that He is our God, is realized in every phase of our lives, both as individuals and as a nation.


The next verse states that if the Jewish people follow the will of God, we will live securely upon the land.  It is the recognition of the conceptual basis of shemitta and yovel, the need to treat others with dignity and to create a spiritual society in all aspects, which ensures the security of the Jewish way of life in the Jewish land.  It would also seem that particularly in the Land of Israel, commercial and interpersonal perfection is necessary.


In a similar vein, connecting business with speech is important because people often find themselves in the midst of competition saying things they maybe shouldn’t have.  On a practical level, connecting the need to conduct oneself ethically in business with the need to watch one’s words constitutes an added lesson about keeping one’s priorities straight when involved in speech connected to money making.


There might be a halakhic explanation for this interconnection as well.  The Ohr Ha-chayim explains that despite the fact that even though ein onaa le-karkaot, there is good reason for the juxtaposition of onaa and land sales.  He explains that any case of onaa which, for whatever reason, is not included in the technical definition of onaat mamon — such as overcharging on real estate — still falls into the category of onaat devarim.  Essentially, the two types of onaa are linked in the sense that even if one tries to outsmart the system and overcharge on items in such a way that the sale won’t be revoked, the use of sweet talk will ensure that the act will be a violation of the more severe onaat devarim.


Learning by Example


Onaat devarim is unique in the tremendous scope of cases included in the prohibition.  The prohibition of onaat devarim is not limited to outright defamation or other forms of clearly harmful speech.  In fact, it includes a broad array of cases which one might initially think are not so bad.  Any form of causing pain with words is included in the prohibition; the examples extend beyond the expected.


The Mishna (Bava Metzia 58b) lists a number of examples of onaat devarim, one at least that is commonplace even among “good-hearted” individuals:


One should not ask a merchant “How much does this item cost?” if one has no intention of buying it.


The Talmud proceeds to provide examples of onaat devarim, including reminding an individual about a difficult past.  This includes reminding a penitent individual about his former lifestyle or misdeeds, reminding a convert about his ancestors’ misdeeds or acting contemptuously towards a convert who wants to study Torah.


While these examples are readily understandable, the line to be drawn is not so simple.  The Talmud essentially tells us that regarding every individual one interacts with, one has to think twice before speaking, to try and figure out whether their words may strike a negative chord, even unintentionally (sometimes just by reminding one about something “funny” from the past).  Mistreatment of others includes not only saying things which are outright negative, but also hurting others by playing on their weaknesses.


Similarly, the Talmud notes that telling people in distress that their misdeeds are the cause of their predicament falls under the same prohibition.  At some points, one might mean well, trying to influence others to repent for their misdeeds; however, the severity of onaat devarim is expressed in the fact that one may violate the prohibition even unintentionally (see Sichot Musar of Rav Chayim Shmuelevitz, pp. 328, 447).


Practical Jokes are Halakhically Impractical


The Talmud specifically lists pranks and practical jokes as part of onaat devarim, and the Rishonim add cases of putting people on the spot.  The Talmud mentions as an example of onaat devarim directing potential buyers to a merchant who does not sell the object they are interested in buying.


If donkey-drivers seek grain from a person, he must not say to them, “Go to so and so who sells grain,” knowing that he has never sold any.  (Bava Metzia 58b)


The commentators debate how this falls under the rubric of onaat devarim.  The Kesef Mishneh (Hilkhot Mekhira 14:14) quotes two possibilities:


He may have sought to embarrass the presumed vendor who has never sold fodder.  This is also Rashi’s explanation.  Alternatively, he may have tried to discomfit the donkey-drivers, presuming the merchant would rebuff them by saying: “What have I to do with the sale of fodder!”


Essentially the two opinions debate who the victim of onaa is in this case: the merchant or the drivers.  However, the sources indicate that all forms of practical jokes played on others are included in onaat devarim.  Yet it is here that the uniqueness of the prohibition really takes shape.


The Rambam (Hilkhot Mekhira 14:14) adds another example:


When asked a scientific question, he should not say to someone ignorant in the field: “What is your answer on this point?” “What is your opinion on this matter?”  The same applies to all similar instances.


For all intents and purposes, one must not use his words to hurt others even if their discomfort is only the outgrowth of recognizing their ignorance; similarly, one may not use his words to set up a situation which may lead to the pain of another.  The examples of the Talmud are in no way all-inclusive, as the Chinnukh (338) notes:


Nothing should be said to another Jew that may hurt or grieve him or leave him frustrated… but it is impossible to list all the examples.


In fact, while referring to the prohibition as onaat devarim would seem to indicate that words need be spoken to violate the prohibition, it is clear that the prohibition includes other cases as well.  Body language, as well as any means employed to be hurtful to another, is encompassed by this transgression.


It’s All about Intention


After listing the numerous forms of onaat devarim, including cases where one feigns interest in buying a product he or she cannot afford or has no interest in, the Talmud comments again on the Torah’s mention of yirat Elokim in the context of onaat devarim.  One must cognizant of the fact that many examples of onaat devarim include cases where one’s true intentions are hidden.


For the matter depends on a person’s intent, and concerning matters which depend on a person’s true intent, the Torah says, “And you shall fear your God.”


Rashi explains:


“For the matter depends on a person’s intent” — this is why it says “And you shall fear your God”…  For one’s good nature or bad nature is not discernible, but in the heart of the one performing the action.  Are his motives pure or crooked?  He may say, “I only acted for the good; I thought that you had produce to sell,” or “I honestly intended to buy this product.”


For the very reason that onaat devarim is so expansive and includes numerous circumstances where one’s verbal abuse is hidden and undetectable to others, the Torah specifies how one needs a special dose of fear of God to overcome the urge to hurt another.  When one’s bad intentions can be covered up with false claims of having meant something else, one deserves to be treated more harshly.  The cover-up is a sign of erasing God from the picture.  This is similar to misleading others in the context of yovel, as if one doesn’t recognize God’s true ownership over the land, which supersedes any human’s.


The severity of the prohibition requires that we rethink our interactions with others to determine if any of our actions fall into these categories.  Beyond indicating that onaat devarim is more severe than onaat mamon, the Talmud also states that God provides an immediate and direct response to victims of onaa, even when all other avenues of prayer to God are closed.  Thus, before speaking, one must think one step ahead and consider in advance whether his or her remarks could cause another person any pain.  Certainly one should realize that feigning innocence when using words or body language to hurt another only makes one more deserving of severe punishment.


Personal development is determined not only by one’s interactions with others, but by one’s behavior bein adam le-atzmo, the type of individual one becomes inside (as discussed in Year 1).  What type of person would one be if he or she is constantly searching for avenues to maliciously malign others while hiding behind a guise of good intentions?


Exploiting Weakness


As we saw in the words of the Chinnukh and Rav Hirsch, the essence of onaat devarim is to “aggrieve him when he is incapable of defending himself.”  Nechama Leibowitz explains that the reason why people behave in this disdainful manner is “the sense of superiority experienced by the one who lectures to his fellow man or preaches to a person in distress” (Iyunim, Vayikra, p. 550). However, weakness manifests itself in many different areas.  Onaa can take the form of overcharging those unknowledgeable in business, committing practical jokes against merchants, using nicknames or any of the other examples we have seen.


The Torah teaches that there is no tolerance for mistreating others with words, as God knows our true intentions.  The punishment for maltreating others is so severe because one who does so expresses a lack of understanding of all of the messages mentioned above.


The Torah goes beyond warning us about mistreating those who are in a unique position that prevents them from defending themselves; in a number of places, it specifies certain underprivileged individuals who require special treatment with extraordinary care so as not to hurt their feelings.  In fact, the Torah requires that we go out of our way to show them compassion.


The unique prohibitions of mistreating the disadvantaged and unfortunate will be discussed next week.

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