SALT - Thursday, 22 Iyar 5777 - May 18, 2017

  • Rav David Silverberg

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This week's SALT shiurim are dedicated in memory of
David Moshe ben Harav Yehuda Leib Silverberg z"l, 
whose yahrzeit is Sunday 18 Iyar, May 14.

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            The Torah in Parashat Behar (25:17) famously commands, “Ve-lo tonu ish et achiv” (“A person shall not mistreat his fellow”), which Rashi, citing Chazal (Torat Kohanim), interprets as a reference to ona’at devarim – causing emotional harm through speech.  The verse concludes, “you shall fear your God,” and Rashi explains that the Torah here demands honesty in regard to the prohibition of “lo tonu.”  It oftentimes happens that we cause emotional distress to another person without any intent, entirely unaware that the words we spoke were harmful.  We cannot always foresee the way our words would be interpreted, and we are not always aware of a person’s particular background or orientation which could make him or her emotionally vulnerable.  The Torah recognizes our limited ability to recognize the emotional impact of our words upon any given individual, and so it concludes this command by admonishing, “you shall fear your God.”  While we are not held accountable for truly innocent mistakes, we must be honest in our social conduct, and make a sincere effort to avoid causing harm through our words.  The obligation to “fear your God” means that we must not feign innocence, knowingly causing people emotional distress but pretending that this result was unintentional. 

            It is interesting to note the contrast between Chazal’s interpretation of this command and the simple reading of the verse.  The plain meaning of this command is that it refers to the preceding laws, which discuss the transactions of property as they are affected by the observance of yovel.  The law of yovel requires buyers to return bought land to the original owner with the onset of the jubilee year, and the Torah commands taking the eventuality of the land’s return on yovel into consideration when setting a sale price for land.  The Torah begins this discussion by commanding, “al tonu ish et achiv” (25:14), warning against taking advantage of buyers who purchase land before yovel.  It then later repeats, “ve-lo tonu ish et amito,” a repetition which appears to be intended for emphasis, though the Midrashic reading of the verse, as we have seen, interprets it as a reference to ona’at devarim.

            Setting a fair price for land purchases when the law of yovel applied is something very specific and clear-cut.  As the Torah (25:16) itself explains, the seller is to set the price in accordance with the number of years remaining before yovel, which is the number of years during which the buyer will enjoy rights to the property.  One avoids taking unfair advantage of the buyer through simple arithmetic – by calculating the benefit that the buyer will receive from this land, which is determined based on the number of years remaining until yovel.  The command of ona’at devarim, however, is precisely the opposite – it requires a certain “sixth sense” and careful consideration.  Whereas fair and unfair pricing is something that can be precisely calculated, hurtful speech is very subjective and often difficult to determine.  While some forms of ona’at devarim are clear and obvious, many times, as Rashi noted, harm can be caused by words spoken innocently without any malicious intent.  This contrast perhaps teaches us to try, as much as possible, to be as careful, precise and discerning with our speech as we must be in our financial dealings.  While innocent mistakes are bound to happen, the Torah expects us to strive for the same standard of precise calculation in choosing our words as we must be in our commercial affairs, and try, as much as possible, to avoid speech that could have a harmful emotional effect on other people.