In a number of places the Talmud reports a tradition that people prefer - or at least should prefer - throwing themselves into a fiery furnace rather than publicly shaming another person (B. Brachot 43b; B. Sota 10b; B. Bava Metzia 59a).
In each place the same source is cited: the story of Tamar and her father-in-law Judah (Genesis 38). After the sale of Joseph, Judah moved away from his brothers. He married and had three sons - Er, Onan and Shelah. When the time came, Judah found a wife - Tamar - for his oldest son Er. Er, however, was not a righteous person and the Almighty brought about his death. According to the ancient custom, which later became normative Jewish law, Er's brother Onan was called upon for levirate marriage. Onan indeed cohabited with Tamar, but he knew that any children from this union would not be considered his own and thus assiduously avoided impregnating Tamar. The Almighty did not look favorably upon this course, and Onan too died at the God's behest.
Since Tamar had still not had any children it was now time for the third son, Shelah, to perform levirate marriage. Judah told his daughter-in-law to return to her father's home and wait until Shelah would be old enough to fulfill the obligation of levirate marriage. Judah, however, had no intention of giving his third son to Tamar for he feared that Shelah too would die like his two older brothers.
As the days passed, Tamar realized that Judah was not going to allow her to marry Shelah, so she devised a cunning plan. She dressed as a harlot and Judah, not realizing who she was, offered her a kid for her services. As a guarantee for payment Judah deposited his signet, cord and staff in her hands. Later when Judah sent the payment, his consort was nowhere to be found. In fact, all the locals denied that there had ever been a harlot there. In the meantime, Tamar had changed her clothes, once again wearing the garments of a widow.
About three months later when it became obvious that Tamar was pregnant, Judah was told that his daughter-in-law had been promiscuous and was with child. Without hesitation Judah declared: "Take her out and let her be burned!" As she was being lead to her death - rather than announcing to all that she had been forsaken by Judah - Tamar sent a message to her father-in-law: "By the man to whom these belong I am with child. Please recognize who this signet, cord and staff belong to." Judah chose the right course: "She is more righteous than I, since I had not given her Shelah my son." While Jewish law would later limit levirate marriage to the brothers of the deceased, in early biblical times the obligation could be fulfilled by any relative. Tamar's ruse was designed to fulfill the obligation of levirate marriage.
Though she was about to be burned, Tamar chose not to publicly embarrass Judah, leaving the decision whether to take responsibility in his hands. From here the sages derived that it is preferable to be thrown into a fiery furnace rather than publicly embarrass someone.
Some of the commentators discuss the crime of embarrassing another in almost legal terms. One commentator suggested that the crime is as serious as the three sins for which one must forfeit his life rather than transgress: idolatry, adultery and murder. The only reason that it was not included in the famous list of three was because it is not mentioned explicitly in the Torah (Tosafot, 12th-14th centuries, France-Germany).
Another commentator took a slightly different line: Embarrassing another is not listed together with the big three sins for it is included in the category of murder. As the blood drains from the face of the person who was just embarrassed, it is as if he has just been killed (Rabbeinu Yona Gerondi, 13th century, Spain).
An earlier mishnaic statement goes further listing the crime of embarrassing another as one of the grave sins that even if the culprit is a Torah scholar and has done many good deeds, nevertheless he forfeits his share in the world to come (M. Avot 3:11).
The tale is told of Rabbi Yehoshua Leib Diskin (1818-1898), one of the leaders of the Old Yishuv after arriving in Jerusalem in 1878 from Russia. Rabbi Diskin suffered from diabetes in his later years and once while teaching Torah his attendant prepared him a glass of tea. To replenish the sugars in his body, he heaped teaspoons of sugar into the tea and placed the glass in front of Rabbi Diskin. Alas, the attendant mistakenly put salt instead of sugar in the tea! Rabbi Diskin did not flinch, he drank the salty tea despite the awful taste and notwithstanding the health risk for a diabetic. Later the students discovered what had transpired and they questioned Rabbi Diskin: "How could you have endangered yourself by drinking the salty tea?" He explained that he preferred to drink the dreadful tea and risk his life rather than embarrass the attendant.
When relating the story the famous storyteller of Jerusalem, Rabbi Sholom Mordechai Hakohen Schwadron (1912-1997) explained: For Rabbi Diskin it was indeed "preferable" to drink the salty tea rather than embarrass the attendant. So preferable was it that his body must not have felt the salty tea! While Rabbi Diskin's conduct might be beyond many of us; it certainly sets a standard for which we can strive. Perhaps we can offer a further angle on the talmudic passage, given that we are rarely faced with the choice of risking our lives or embarrassing another. While fiery furnaces are not a regular feature of our lives, the challenge of not embarrassing others is all too prevalent: The thought of shaming another person should be so scathing, our insides should burn with disgust, so much so that we prefer to jump into temporal fires rather than scorch our soul by embarrassing another.
The writer is on the faculty of Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies and is a rabbi in Tzur Hadassah.