19 - Hurtful Speech part 1

From the pasuk, "lo sonu-do not aggrieve one another, and you shall fear HaShem", Chazal learn that it is forbidden to hurt people with words. This is the issur of ona'as d'varim.

We are stretching in ahavas yisrael together to create z’chusim for K’lal Yisrael in these urgent times.


Last week’s stretch of the week was: Make an extra gesture of respect toward an authority figure, whether a rov, a teacher, or an elder.

Please allow ONE person to share her experience with this exercise for ONE minute.

Taking A Deeper Look - Lesson #19


 PART 1 – What is ona’as d’varim?


From the pasuk, “lo sonu--do not aggrieve one another, and you shall fear HaShem”, Chazal learn that it is forbidden to hurt people with words. This is the issur of ona’as d’varim. People sometimes mistakenly think that words are of little substance and cannot cause real harm. “Sticks and stone will break my bones but names will never hurt me” is the opposite of the Torah outlook. When someone has been hurt by words and cries out to HaShem in his pain, he is answered instantly, and punishment is meted out quickly to the offender.

The details of the prohibition of ona’as d’varim are many, and often, whether or not a comment is hurtful is a very relative issue, depending on how it is being said or to whom. As a general definition, we can say that any words or actions that embarrass, humiliate, hurt, frighten, cause suffering, or anger or shock another person would be prohibited as ona’as d’varim.

The prohibition may be violated at times without saying a word. Merely showing an angry face or hinting at something negative using body language, or in other ways that do not use words, constitutes ona’as d’varim as long as we intend to hurt the other person.

Since the interpretation of hurtful words or actions often depends on the speaker’s intentions, the Torah concludes the pasuk with the words, “And you shall fear HaShem.” Neither the victim nor the bystanders may know that you meant to hurt him, but HaShem knows your innermost thoughts and whether you really spoke innocently or not.

Many so-called pranks or practical jokes are actually serious violations of the prohibition of ona’as d’varim. At times there may even be financial loss involved for which the offender might be liable. Examples of this would be calling for a taxi for nothing or ordering a pizza to be delivered to an address “just for fun.” Making anonymous prank calls can cause real anguish to the recipients. If someone frightens another person, such as by sneaking up behind him and screaming, the offender would be liable for punishment by dinei Shamayim. If the prankster also made physical contact at the time, such as by pushing him, he would be liable to pay the victim compensation.

(Excerpt from the Code of Jewish Conduct by Rabbi Yitzchok Silver)

Story:  (based on a true story) 

“That was so great! Best shpiel ever!” my best friend Chaya squealed as we left the gym.

“Seriously,” I agreed. “The last skit and song was the best. It was all about the pizza shop around the corner. I especially liked the part about the greasy workers and how they dropped the dough on the floor and then baked it anyway. Boy, was that funny! How did you come up with that? ”

“I just took what I always see and exaggerated it. Shulamit wrote the song, and the dough thing happened in rehearsal yesterday and Faigie improvised it. We loved it so much that we kept it in.”

“So great,” I repeated. “You should be shpiel head every year.”

Next to me, my other best friend Tzipora was very quiet. It was strange--she’d been laughing along with me through the earlier skits, but she’d sat very still during the last one. Now, as we walked back to class, she kept giving me side-glances that told me something was up. I didn’t want to kill my happy mood, though, so I didn’t ask.

By the end of the day, it was clear that something was really wrong, so I pulled her aside and asked her.

“You know how I’m friends with Serena Friedman, in eleventh grade?” she asked.

“Sure, I guess,” I answered.

“Well,” she said quietly, stopping for a breath, “her older brother works in that pizza shop.”

Huh? I don’t know that I’d thought about the fact that there were real people working there, people with relatives in our school. But still…

“Tzipora, it was just a joke. Nobody cares--everyone knows it was exaggerated. That’s what you do in shpiel--you make it funny. ”

“No,” she answered, still using her quiet, reproachful voice, “you make the girls funny after they agree. You make the teachers funny and have it approved by the principal. At least, that’s how it should work. And somebody did care--Serena was crying. Her brother’s not like that, and neither are the people he works with. She’s really embarrassed and mad.”

Now I went quiet. What could I say?

“Plus,” she continued, “maybe it’s funny that someone in school always knows every Rashi on every pasuk, or that someone else always wears headbands, but the things in that skit about the pizza shop were mean things. There was no way they could be good, or could have been meant as anything but negative.”

Tzipora has this way of giving mussar that actually sticks. It’s like she speaks right to your neshama, with no yelling or extra words or gimmicks--just truth; and this was truth. The skit was a problem. And not a problem easily fixed.

I remembered the parable told about the dangers of bad speech--when you empty out a feather pillow in the wind, you can’t possibly re-gather all the feathers. Over a hundred girls had watched this skit. They might tell their families, who might tell others. “What a funny thing my daughter saw!” they would repeat to a neighbor. And that was without thinking about the girls who had taken videos. And, if people thought that even a drop of the skit was true--that the pizza shop served dirty food--they might stop going, and the store would lose business.

“We can’t fix this, can we?” I asked Tzipora. 

“I don’t think so,” she said. “But we can talk to Chaya so she understands too. She can apologize to Serena. And, she can make sure that every single thing in shpiel next year gets approved before the public actually sees it performed.”

“And we can watch our own speech,” I added. “Just because everyone says something, doesn’t mean it doesn’t hurt anyone. I don’t think I realized how often I say stuff like that.”

“Neither did I until today,” Tzipora agreed. “But there’s always tomorrow.”

Discussion Question Options: 

How do our jokes reflect our inner concerns?

Why do we tend to notice and care less about negativity when it’s couched in humor?

Are we always responsible if our words cause negative consequences?

Stretch of the Week: 

Before you tell a joke or say something sarcastic, stop and think if it will hurt anyone.


Stretch Of The Week