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Behar(Leviticus 25:1-26:2)

Careful Speech

Parshat Behar discusses the issue of "ona'ah" - harming others. In Leviticus 25:14, the Torah prohibits harming others financially, for example by charging inflated prices. Then in verse 17, the Torah prohibits harming others with words.

Some people would find this impractical, saying that "you can't legislate morality." But that only applies in a non-God system. When we are conscious of God watching over us, then even interpersonal relations have a self-enforced standard of right and wrong. That's why verse 17 concludes with the words, "and you shall respect God."

The Talmud discusses exactly what is included in this prohibition of "harming others with words."

One idea is that we shouldn't remind someone of his negative past. Let's say that Joe was a wild bachelor, who has now settled down into a respectable family man. He has worked hard to put the wild days behind him, and it would be embarrassing - even harmful - for us to recount stories of his escapades.

Acting in a misleading way is another aspect of "harming others with words." Let's say you're not looking to buy a new computer, but are just curious about what new models are available. So you go into the computer store and begin asking a bunch of questions. The salesperson, of course, thinks you're interested in buying, and as the conversation continues - about features and prices - the salesperson builds up hope that you will actually buy.

There is an unstated assumption that you entered the store to buy. Your words are, in effect, misleading the salesperson, even unintentionally. In such a case, the Torah would permit you to satisfy your curiosity in the computer store - providing that you make it clear from the start that you "are only looking, with no intention to buy."

At first glance, we might think that harming others financially is more serious than harming others with words. In fact, the opposite is true. A person's property is only peripheral to him, yet his feelings are an essential part of who he is. Being sensitive to another's feelings is, in the eyes of Torah, a great mitzvah, that we should always strive to fulfill.

Published: April 29, 2006

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Visitor Comments: 4

(4) SusanE, May 6, 2010 3:12 AM

Can Praise and Nice Words Do Harm?

I've heard nice people speak to others in a way that is certainly positive, but not quite truthful. "it was wonderful running into you today, I've been meaning to call you, we must get together soon." When you know the person doing the talking is not one bit interested. It does make the other person feel good tho'. ---------------------- Or is it possible to do harm when someone says to me, " I wish I had some good friends. Is there something I do that makes people stay away from me?" Is it really being kind if I say, "You are a wonderful person, there are many people who would like to be friends with you". Do I keep quiet If I know there is a reason people don't get involved? She talks too much. And its with everybody she meets. Most avoid her even at the market. She is truly lonely. Is it kinder to gloss it over and let her remain lonely, or to help her by suggesting ways to foster friendship?

(3) Anne, May 15, 2009 10:55 AM

How compellingly true!

They say the tongue is a two edged sword! Mightier than a physical blow. How do you forgive someone, specifically a friend who condescendingly tells you during marital conflict "You got what you deserved" or "You think the world owes you something"

(2) Annie, May 12, 2009 5:21 AM

Very True!

Words can build or destroy. Words are very powerful and once uttered, not easy to retrieve. In a nutshell -- love for thy neighbour can be displayed by being sincere and kind in what you say. Thank you Rabbi Simmons 4 your article.

(1) Dennis Cast, May 10, 2007 4:00 PM

interesting

Rabbi Simmons,
I like this article.We can be thoughtfull of others in that what we say can be harmful-Dennis

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