20 - Hurtful Speech part 2

The main obligation of the prohibition of ona'as d'varim is to refrain from intentionally saying or doing things that will shame or cause pain to another Jew.

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

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

Taking A Deeper Look - Lesson #20

PART 2 – Maintaining a Sensitivity Toward Others




The main obligation of the prohibition of ona’as d’varim is to refrain from intentionally saying or doing things that will shame or cause pain to another Jew. Nevertheless, we should take precautions to keep our distance from anything that might lead us to cause pain to another, even inadvertently.

In the words of Chazal on Sefer Shmuel, we see the extent of the punishment HaShem extracts from someone who causes pain. Penina, wife of Elkana, teased Elkana’s other wife Chana about her childlessness, with the finest of intentions-in order to get her to pray harder for children. Yet even though she meant well, she was punished severely for the pain she caused Chana, and she lost most of her own children.

Avoiding ona’as d’varim requires developing a sensitivity to the tender points of each individual. For example, if a person has a facial blemish or physical defect, avoid mention of any related topic. Likewise, when speaking with someone who comes from a family of geirim, do not remind him about the misdeeds of his parents and grandparents.

The same is true regarding any shortcoming or defect that exists in a person’s community, family, spouse or children; the speaker should be sensitive enough to avoid mentioning that sore point when speaking with the person, or even when speaking in his presence.

When speaking with a person who is suffering from an illness, has lost a child, or has undergone some other misfortune, do not say to him, as Iyov’s friends said to Iyov, “Has anyone innocent ever perished?” - implying that there must be something wrong with him if HaShem sent such suffering. If you deem it necessary to convey such a message in order to arouse the person to do teshuva, it should be presented indirectly and very delicately, to avoid causing pain.

The excuse of ignorance of simple derech eretz and human decency is not acceptable, since everyone is responsible for being aware of what is proper behavior and for thinking before he speaks and acts, taking into account the situation, the place, the time and the people involved, so that he will not cause anyone pain, even unintentionally. Common examples of thoughtlessly hurting others include cutting in line, davening a long shemoneh esrei in a spot that blocks others, and smoking in the company of others.

If one does violate the prohibition of ona’as d’varim, whether intentionally or not, if the offender can placate the victim and obtain his forgiveness, he will be spared severe punishment from shamayim.

(Excerpts from Code of Jewish Conduct by Rabbi Yitzchok Silver)

Story:  (based on a true story) 

The phone rang at 9:15 while I was mindlessly washing the breakfast dishes. Caller ID said it was my friend Aliza from up the block, and I was thrilled for the company the call would bring. I didn’t even mind the wet phone hitting my check as I cradled it between my head and my shoulder and said hello.

“Hi. Sorry I didn’t get to call last night,” Aliza responded. “How did the meeting go?”

“Not great,” I told her. “Akiva’s teacher just doesn’t seem to get what I’m asking her to do to deal with his behavior. She keeps saying, ‘He needs discipline.’ I didn’t even get to explain the new ideas from the therapist.”

Akiva needs help--at least that’s what the school keeps telling me. He has a problem with authority, also known as a chutzpa issue. Basically, when he’s pushed, he pushes back. We’ve been working on it for a while, and this new therapist thinks we need a different approach in addition to the classic, “You will listen or you will be punished.” Yesterday was my meeting with the school to ask them about modifying things, and by the time I left, I realized that nothing was going to be changed.

“Not good, Chava, not good,” Aliza was saying. “Let me guess. You started to tell them about the new stuff, but you could barely get a sentence out.”

“Exactly!” I love when friends understand you like that. Somehow, scrubbing out the baby’s bottle seemed a little easier, and I watched the bristles of the bottle brush spread out in patterns.

“The thing is,” she continued, “that you need to be more assertive. You’re too weak sometimes, especially in situations like this.”

My hand pulled the brush out of the bottle rapidly, and water droplets sprayed in my eye. What did she just say? I managed to squeak out a “Huh?”.

“It’s happened before,” she answered. “When you want something for one of your kids and someone else says, ‘I don’t think so’, you just let it go.”

“No I don’t!”

“Yes, you do. And for yourself, too. You let anybody who sounds sure of themselves have the last word. It’s like you’re the opposite of Akiva--you never push. You’re quiet; I get that. But you need to be stronger so you can help your kids more.”

So now I was weak with “anybody”, not just “sometimes”. I had no words. I couldn’t even get a “huh” out. I just stood there, leaning forward against the sink edge, listening to the water run uselessly into the drain.

Aliza said nothing for a minute or two. Maybe she was also listening to my water running. Then, she began to realize something was wrong.

“OK, I’m sorry I called you weak. I wasn’t trying to be mean. I’m trying to help you.”

“Yes,” I was able to respond, standing up a bit straighter and shutting the faucet, “but it did hurt a bit. Maybe you could say it differently?”

Aliza had said things like this before. I usually let them go, but they built up, and each one hurt on its own. She’s what people tend to politely call “blunt”. She’s a great person, with great ideas, and she really does care. She could have offered to help me with a mock conversation, or just given me some tips from her experience, giving more subtle but useful help. But instead, she just puts things out there, assuming everyone will take things in the manner she intended them, not realizing they can be very hurtful comments.

Who can easily brush off having a good friend tell them they’re weak-willed and that it was causing harm to their children? Not me. I was hurt. Every time I saw Aliza, I heard her calling me weak and the hurt came back at least a little. Even though she eventually apologized, I know she meant what she said. And while I did reevaluate and work on my assertiveness, there was definitely a better way to get me there.

Discussion Question Options: 

How can we realistically avoid ona’as d’varim when giving mussar?

How can we train ourselves to be more sensitive to what may bother another person?

Do different groups of people have different levels of tolerance for certain comments and practices, and can that change what is considered ona’as d’varim?

Stretch of the Week: 

When speaking with a family member or friend who is extra sensitive, be conscious to speak in a soft and gentle tone.


Stretch Of The Week