Likewise when Rav Avigdor Miller (a Slabodka-educated American rav from the 20th century) emphasizes the same points — even word for word at times! — as Rav Eliezer Papo (a Sefardi rav living in Muslim Bulgaria in the late 1700s-early 1800s), then you know that means that is core Torah value that must be taken to heart.
Rav Avigdor Miller has discussed the importance of taking care not to hurt people with words. (Please see Destructive Words & Healing Words: Rav Avigdor Miller on Parshat Behar-Bechukotai.)
And Rav Papo does the same in his masterpiece Pele Yoetz.
(The following points are gleaned from the chapters Ona'ah/Deceit & Fraud, pg. 86-87, and Klilot 1/General Principles I, #26, pg. 666-667.)
I Think Sticks & Stones Might be the Better Option Here...
Many of us struggle to get our head around that idea.
Due to outside influences, verbal abuse and other harmful words are often shrugged off as "Oh, he's just letting off steam; he doesn't mean anything by it" or "That's just how she is — blunt! Don't take it so much to heart" or "Just kidding!"
However, if someone steals or tricks a person out of money (even a small amount), does anyone ever say, "Oh, he's just greedy like that, but he doesn't mean anything by it" or "That's just how she is — a fraudster! Don't take it so much to heart" or "Just kidding!"?
At the same time, the Pele Yoetz gives the benefit of the doubt by acknowledging that many people stumble in this prohibition because they do not know what hurtful speech entails.
So here is Rav Eliezer Papo's definition:
והכלל הוא שכל שמצער את חברו בדבריו הוי אונאת דברים
The rule is that anyone who pains his fellow with his words — this is ona'at devarim.
So if you say something hurtful to someone who hurt you (even in jest!), says the Pele Yoetz, then in addition to the prohibition of hurtful speech, you are also transgressing the prohibition against taking revenge.
And exactly how careful do we need to be with the prohibition against hurtful speech?
Here's the Pele Yoetz again:
ולא יעשה ולא ידבר שום דבר שיש לחוש אחד למני אלף שיכול לגרום צער לחברו
And he must not do and must not say anything for which there is even a one-in-a-thousand chance that it could cause pain to his fellow.
At one point, the Pele Yoetz goes on to emphasize the Heavenly punishment for such things: "total destruction."
Is your stomach clenching at these words? Are you getting that "Uh-oh" feeling?
Is your heart sinking as you remember all the times you were "just kidding" or "just being honest" or only doing to them what they did to you — or even the innocent words said when you do care about feelings, but simply weren't aware of how they affected the other person?
(That's how I felt reading the above.)
Well, never fear!
The Pele Yoetz has some helpful tips for us.
Here's the main one:
"That which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow."
— Gemara Shabbat 31a
Just do your best not to do those to others.
Here is another tip to know how to avoid ona'at devarim:
Be careful to avoid hurting another person via:
- speech (dibur)
- action (ma'aseh)
- looking (r'eya)
- hinting (remizah)
It's very interesting to note that ona'at devarim also includes hurting someone via non-verbal methods, like facial expressions or staring, and also via purely physical non-verbal acts.
Yeah, I knew they were prohibited, but I didn't know they were prohibited as ona'at devarim — hurtful words.
(This is why it is so important to review mussar on a regular basis. How many times have I read this section and missed the point that your eyes & actions can also transgress ona'at devarim without saying a word?)
Also, hinting, looking, and action all fall into the realm of emotional abuse (as "forgetting," accidentally-on-purpose behavior, sabotaging, "gas-lighting," etc.).
That's pretty heavy.
Who Knew that Stand-Up Comedy & Amusing Tweets are Just a Big Bloodfest?
Let's look at some situations addressed by the Pele Yoetz:
• Situation #1
"He hurt me first."
As mentioned above, this is revenge and severely prohibited by the Torah.
• Situation #2
"He is a total jerk — I mean REALLY bad. He deserves it."
Unless this is an open admonition from love, says the Pele Yoetz, then it is not only revenge, but you are being used as the punishing stick to punish this wicked person.
Why is that a problem? (After all, the jerk really does deserve it!)
The answer is in Shmuel I:24:14 — "From evil people comes evil — Mershaim yetzeh resha..."
As Rashi says there: As punishment, Hashem decrees that a bad man falls into the hands of another man bad like himself.
So in a nutshell, Hashem uses unpleasant people to carry out unpleasant tasks.
It's already problematic enough that the jerk is a bad person. "Why should [you let him make] his fellow wicked like him?" asks the Pele Yoetz rhetorically.
(Meaning, why should you insert yourself into the category of reshaim by being the punishment for the jerk?)
• Situation #3
"Just kidding! LOL! I'm not being serious. It's all in jest. Anyway, everyone loves it — they're literally rolling on the floor with laughter. And the comment got so many likes and retweets..."
If it's in a joking manner, says the Pele Yoetz, then:
נמצא שעושה שחוק מדמו של זה
...it's as if he's making a joke from the blood of the other.
That's very strong imagery.
It's as if you stab your friend, then extract his blood and produce a comedy skit from it.
Along these lines, the Pele Yoetz answers the excuse: "I'm joking! — Misachek ani!" with the following:
הרי אתה שעושה שחוק בדמך ובנפשך כמתלהלה היורה זיקים
Behold, you are making a joke with your own blood and your own soul like "one who exhausts himself slinging firebrands" [Mishlei 26:18]
Don't Worry about not being Psychic! The Main Thing is Simply to TRY.
At the end of Ona'ah/Deceit, Rav Eliezer Papo reminds us that we must constantly strive (yishtadel) to cultivate in others a favorable attitude toward ourselves, so that they'll feel comfortable around us.
Hashem doesn't expect us to be perfect, but He does expect us to TRY.
And as long as we try, then Rav Papo promises that the attitude of Hashem will likewise be favorable toward us.
(This should also be some comfort for times when we're forced to deal with bitter or abusive people who insist on playing the victim or who actively seek out "faults" in order to justify their abusive behavior, and do not wish to view their victims in a favorable light. As long as you TRY to avoid hurting others, you're still okay with Hashem.)