Relationships Are Not Just a Personal Matter
Our Gemara on Amud Aleph discusses the famous principle of Kim Ley Bederabba Miney, that if one incurs a death penalty, he is no longer subject to financial penalties. That is understandable to a degree, as any judicial system needs to take into account with compassion how much punishment a person can absorb. What is more difficult to understand is Debey Chizkiya’s formulation that even in situations of error, when no actual death penalty will be imposed, the perpetrator is exempt from making financial restitution. This includes sins which incur heavenly penalties such as kares. Nonetheless, Tosafos (Kesuvos 30b, “Zar”) states that even according to this opinion, when it comes to violating hekdesh (sacred objects dedicated to the temple), even though the punishment for violation is heavenly death penalty, a financial penalty is still simultaneously imposed.
Using this idea, Parashas Derachim (Derush 26) gives more meaning to a verse from Yirmiyahu (2:3):
קֹ֤דֶשׁ יִשְׂרָאֵל֙ לה׳ רֵאשִׁ֖ית תְּבוּאָתֹ֑ה כׇּל־אֹכְלָ֣יו יֶאְשָׁ֔מוּ רָעָ֛ה תָּבֹ֥א אֲלֵיהֶ֖ם נאום ה׳
Israel was holy to GOD, The first fruits of God’s harvest. All who ate of it were held guilty; Disaster befell them —declares GOD.
The verse describes the Jewish people as a holy sanctified object. The prophet assures that the nations who consume them, will pay for their actions. Parashas Derachim says, they will have to make financial restitution as well. They will not be exempted because of Kim Ley etc. since the Jewish people are considered as Hekdesh.
That explains the “what”, but not the “why“. We could say logically that since it is sacred matters, greater compensation is required, and therefore, both heavenly and financial punishments are imposed. However, we might also consider the opposite. We don’t want the person who committed the trespass to feel that by paying a penalty he has sufficiently “bought off” his guilt for his transgression. But not even allowing him to pay, the message is that his crime is great, and will not get off easy. He will have to sincerely repent, even for a lapse or in attention that led to trespassing out of ignorance. On the other hand, that would be a rationalization that someone would make by interpersonal actions and damages. Because people can think, after all, “I’m paying them back, so what other repentance is required? However, when trespassing on sacred matters, this severity will be naturally understood, and therefore there’s no need to withhold the opportunity to make financial restitution, especially as that could further facilitate forgiveness due to the inherent additional sacrifices made in order to repay financially.
If this second reading is correct, we see something remarkable. Though at first glance, matters belonging to hekdesh are treated with more severe and harsh punishment, in reality the Torah wants you to regard transgressions that are interpersonal in the same serious light as transgressions before God. This is precisely why one is not required to make financial restitution to forestall any rationalization that paying back money would be good enough. This sensibility is reflected in other Torah perspectives. For example, the rabbis were more strict when it comes to rabbinic rules in certain areas than biblical rules, precisely so that they should be taken more seriously out of fear of the tendency to minimize them (see for example, Kesuvos 83b.)
Whether it is l’shon hora via gossip, slander, insults or verbal abuse, we are likely to rationalize and view it as a matter between two people, instead of a matter between man and God. We don’t treat the sin the same as eating ham. Yet Torah ethics says for interpersonal matters we must ask forgiveness from Hashem AND humans (Mishna Yoma 8:9). And this way of treating people extends to the lowest rungs of society. In the ancient world one might assume that a Canaanite slave was hardly given respect, rights or attention. In contrast, here is what the Rambam says (Laws of Slaves 9:8):
“It is [technically] permissible to subject a Canaanite slave to excruciating labor. Although this is the law, the attribute of piety and the way of wisdom is for a person to be merciful and to pursue justice, not to make his slaves carry a heavy yoke, nor cause them distress.
He should allow them to partake of all the food and drink he serves. This was the practice of the early Sages who would give their slaves from every dish of which they themselves would partake…
Similarly, we should not embarrass a slave by our deeds or with words, for the Torah prescribed that they perform service, not that they be humiliated. Nor should one shout or vent anger upon them extensively. Instead, one should speak to them gently, and listen to their claims.”
Rambam requires not merely decent working conditions, but no verbal abuse and further, to listen to their complaints! I hope one day to be a decent enough human that I could reach the level of treating my family and loved ones to the standard that Rambam holds we should do in relation to slaves.
Nicknames: More Harmful than Sticks and Stones?
Our gemara on amud beis records Shmuel calling Rabbi Yehuda, “Shinnenah”, which seems to be a nickname for a fellow who has big teeth. (Hafla’ah ShebaArakhin on Sefer HeArukh, Letter Shin 85, quoting Rav Hai Goan.)
This would seem to indicate that it is permitted to call someone a nickname, at least if it is meant in a non-offensive manner. This runs against the sentiment stated in Bava Metzia’a (58b):
Anyone who descends to Gehenna ultimately ascends, except for three who descend and do not ascend, and these are they: One who commits adultery; and one who humiliates another in public; and one who calls another a derogatory name. The Gemara asks with regard to one who calls another a derogatory name: That is identical to one who shames him; why are they listed separately? The Gemara answers: Although the victim grew accustomed to being called that name in place of his name, and he is no longer humiliated by being called that name.
This sounds like one must be exceedingly careful about using a derogatory nickname, even when it is commonly used, and so not so humiliating. To resolve these contradictory sources, Shu”t Torah Lishmah (421) rules that if the nickname is common and not taken as derogatory, it is permitted. He says, apparently the nickname “Toothy” was not considered an ugly epithet, but just a description, such as calling someone “slim”, “big guy”, or maybe even “old man”. However, if it has a pejorative slant, it is forbidden even if others use it often.
It is easy for parents to forget that all the halachos l’shon hora and bein odom la-chaveiro apply to children, equally as adults (see for example, Chofetz Chaim, L’shon Hara 8:3.) Kids are people too. If so, we might assume that a child appreciates a nickname, especially if we or family members mean it out of love. But, as a child grows in independence and identity, we should check if “Mo-mo” still works. Even diminutive endings, such as “Malka-leh”or “Duvidel”, which literally mean, “Little Malka” or “Little Duvid” could give subliminal messages about smallness and lack of importance. Not to say that cute nicknames aren’t a healthy normal part of society and social process. Rather, we should employ some degree of discretion and not assume that a longstanding nickname is still ok.
According to research done by Bowles, Moreno, Psaila, and Smith (“Nicknames”, European Journal for Qualitative Research in Psychotherapy, 2009 Issue 4):
- Nicknames have an importance on sense of self.
- Nicknames are inextricably linked to the concept and experience of shame.
- Name-calling and nicknames are prevalent and hurtful features. They are hurtful because they threaten the person’s (child, adolescent and adult) identity.
- Names are central to a person’s identity and even playful mockery or teasing about one’s name can hurt.
The above researchers shared their thoughts and anecdotal comments from the study participants: “Some participants commented upon the infantilising effect of the perpetuation of names they were given when very young. “When I was a kid I couldn’t say Andrew. For years I became Nanoo. When you are growing up and you want to become an older person you are still held back by this, “Oh what’s your name? Nanoo. It still grates on me.” Another example in which names challenge a sense of self is when one sibling is treated differently from the rest, “I think it is not being a person … all my brothers are called by their real names.”
The researchers concluded with the following penetratingly perceptive and sensitive observation: “Nick-names permeate all aspects of our lives. They begin before or immediately after birth, take hold in childhood, and they can endure after death. Profound feelings emerge when we begin to discuss them, and these can result from even the subtlety of a spelling change or modified pronunciation.”
The Animal Within
Our Mishna on Amud Aleph rules that even if an ox will become forewarned, that is, established as one who tends to gore its own kind, it is not established as dangerous to other species. Likewise, if it is established to gore humans, it is not automatically established to gore animals.
Based on this, Yismach Moshe (Vayeshev) raises an aggadic contradiction. The Gemara Shabbos (151a) teaches:
An animal does not overpower a person until he appears to it as an animal, as it is stated: “But man does not abide in honor, he is like the beasts that perish” (Psalms 49:13). However, animals do not attack people who are human in their spiritual character.
Yismach Moshe asks, if this teaching is true, why is an animal who is established to gore humans not established to gore animals ? After all, based on the Gemara above, the true reason for the attack is that the person behaves and manifests as an animal, so to the animal it’s all the same, this human and any random beast. Yismach Moshe answers based on an Akeida (Gate 15), that the animal part of each human can manifest as different animals, e.g. some might be brave as a lion, or wiley as a fox, predatory as vulture, etc. Thus, true a person may be an animal, but since he is not a specific animal, as we have learned in the Mishna, this does not create a bona fide pattern of goring.
The idea that humans have an animal aspect is probably not unlike some aborigines who believe they have a spirit animal that guides them. In the human experience, different mystical ideas try to convey or express deeper truths of human nature. As it states in Koheles (3:19), “The superiority of Man over beast is nothing, for all is nothingness.” Within each person is an animal, and it is an essential part of our nature that can inform and guide us, allowing for intuition and creativity, as it comprises our raw instincts and desires. (Carl Jung understood the unconscious as an animal instinct and intuitive aspect of human nature.) However, we are more than animals. Mental health involves the proper balance between all our parts so nothing is overly repressed and denied, nor out of control and disinhibited.
Our Gemara on amud aleph records a discussion between Ulla and the Babylonian sages, where Ulla takes a strong position regarding how one should be careful in what he says and implies at a mourner’s home:
Ulla said to them: What business do I have with the consolation of Babylonians, which is actually heresy? As they say while consoling mourners: What can be done? This seems to suggest that if it were possible to do something, acting against the Almighty’s decree, they would do so, which is tantamount to heresy. Therefore, Ulla declined to accompany the Babylonian Sages.
Whether the halakha is in accordance with Ulla or the sages is a matter of some debate, (for example, see Shalah Shaar Haosiyos, Shetika). Regardless of whether this is technically permitted or not, it brings to mind the importance of being careful with what you say at a Shiva house. We know that out of the anxiety that proximity to death brings, people say the most foolish things, mostly to ward away their own sense of helplessness. Some examples include:
- People suggest doctors and hospitals that cured their uncle, even though clearly the niftar is no longer alive and beyond cures.
- People come at late hours in order to fulfill “their” mitzvah.
- People tell mourners how they should feel: “You should feel happy, at least he didn’t suffer.“
- “You should feel happy, at least he didn’t live like a vegetable for five years like my aunt Henya.”
- “You should feel terribly sad at the loss of such a great and wonderful Tzaddik that he/she was (meanwhile, this child suffered under an abusive and tyrannical parent.)
- And of course, last but not least, they decide how long the person should have lived. “She lived until she was 90, she had a full life. You should be grateful.” Yes, that makes a lot of sense. Most people who are 90 and healthy say to themselves, “I have lived long enough. I’m perfectly fine with suddenly dropping dead of a heart attack right now.“
It is actually forbidden to begin speaking before the mourner starts to speak (Shulkhan Arukh YD 376:1 and Moed Kattan 28b.) This halakha clearly is designed to promote a fundamental awareness of the urge to blab in the face of death anxiety, and the need to combat it.
Another Talmudic source for respecting the mourner’s needs, and not one’s own psychological projections, comes from Moed Kattan (21b)
Rabbi Meir said: One who finds another in mourning after twelve months and speaks to him words of consolation, to what may this situation be likened? To a person who broke his leg and it healed, and afterward a physician found him and said to him: Come to me, for I will break it a second time and then I will heal it, so that you may know how good my medicines are and how well they work. And it is similarly codified in Shulkhan Arukh YD 385:2.
The idea being expressed by the Gemara is that the person is so in love with his own ability to comfort that he does not care about the actual mourner’s needs. It is like a physician who breaks another person’s leg in order to show how competent he is at healing it.
And then we have those who seem to know why Hashem does what he does, and make pronouncements about mass tragedies. Years ago when there was a shooting at a certain synagogue that was not Orthodox, celebrating a bris of a homosexual couple, some suggested this was God’s punishment. In more recent news, some have suggested that many of the victims of October 7 who were engaged in a rave party, which must have involved dozens of religious transgressions, somehow were specially singled out for God’s wrath. The logical problem with this is that if the hand of God is so swift to punish wrongdoers nowadays, I think many of us have a preferred top hit list. Such as Nazis in hiding or active child molesters. I don’t think hedonistic youth hits the same degree of moral outrage and danger to society, although they do pose dangers to society to be sure. The halakhic problem with such announcements is what the Gemara in Bava Metzia (58b) describes as the error of Iyov’s friends who gave him mussar for his purported wrongdoings instead of comfort and company:
If torments are afflicting a person, if illnesses are afflicting him, or if he is burying his children, one may not speak to him in the manner that the friends of Job spoke to him (Job 4:6–7), implying the cause for his suffering was that he sinned, as otherwise he would not have suffered misfortune.
This is despite Berachos (5a) telling a person who is suffering to examine his actions and repent. The difference is, this is what a person should reflect on his own, and not what others should insensitively say.
Of course, it is the role of Torah leaders to appropriately and compassionately give rebuke and mussar to people, and most especially if there are communal woes and the resultant need for prayer and repentance. But, tact, humility and wisdom is essential.