Yesterday, we discussed the prohibition of ona’at devarim – inflicting emotional harm – as it applies, at least according to one view in the Gemara, to falsely showing interest in purchasing a product, which causes the seller by distress by arousing false hopes of making a transaction. The Mishna in Masekhet Bava Metzia (58b) lists this among its examples of ona’at devarim, and the Gemara brings a berayta in which this example is cited in the name of Rabbi Yehuda. After giving this example, Rabbi Yehuda concludes, “…she-harei ha-davar massur la-leiv” – “for this matter is entrusted to the heart.” Meaning, this kind of ona’at devarim cannot be outwardly observed; such a violation is known only to the violator himself, because it depends entirely on his intention. If one studies a piece of merchandise and makes inquiries about it, only he knows whether he seriously considers the purchase, or intends to cause the seller distress. And thus whether such an action is purely innocent or a Torah violation depends entirely on the person’s mind. For this reason, Rabbi Yehuda comments, the Torah in Parashat Behar (25:17) adds after issuing the prohibition of ona’at devarim, “you shall fear your God.” Observance of this law demands fear of God, as only God knows a person’s thoughts, and so only God can know whether one who inquires about a piece of merchandise has pure intentions.
Rabbi Yehuda’s remark about the critical role of intent with regard to ona’at devarim gives rise to the question of whether one violates this prohibition if he intends to inflict harm but his remark does not cause any harm. Perhaps, just as one who sincerely considers purchasing an item does not violate ona’at devarim through his inquiry even if he causes the seller distress by deciding against the purchase, as his intentions were pure, conversely, we might conclude that one who says something to hurt his fellow violates this command even if the remark did not affect the other person.
A possible basis for this conclusion is the Gemara’s discussion in this context of “mekhaneh sheim ra la-chaveiro” – the prohibition against calling one’s fellow by a derogatory name. The Gemara clarifies that this constitutes a grave transgression even if the person has grown accustomed to the nickname. Rashi explains that although the person does not experience embarrassment upon hearing this name, because he has already been called by this name numerous times, nevertheless, using this name is sinful because, in Rashi’s words, “he intended to embarrass him.” The implication of Rashi’s comments is that the determining factor with regard to ona’at devarim is intent, and thus even if the words spoken with evil intent inflicted no harm, the prohibition has been transgressed.
One could, however, refute this proof, and suggest that even if a person has grown accustomed to a derogatory nickname, he nevertheless experiences a degree of shame and humiliation when it is used. The use of an insulting nickname in this case thus constitutes ona’at devarim because it was spoken with hostile intention and because it indeed inflicted pain, albeit limited pain. As such, this does not necessarily prove that an intended insult transgresses ona’at devarim if it ended up not causing any emotional harm at all.
(Based on Rav Moshe Margalit’s Mishpat Ona’a, pp. 99-100)