The Tisch: Abusing the power of speech

“Do not wrong one another, but fear your Lord, for I am God your Lord” (Leviticus 25:17).

The classic reading of this biblical verse is to explain that the Torah is warning against ona’at devarim, verbal abuse or abuse of the power of speech.
The Mishna provides three examples of ona’at devarim: (1) One should not ask for the price of an item for sale if he has no intention of purchasing it; (2) one should not say to a repentant person, “Remember your previous misdeeds”; and (3) one should not say to a convert, “Remember the deeds of your ancestors” (Bava Metzia 4:10).
The mishnaic examples of ona’at devarim are not a closed list, but include other abuses, such as maliciously giving bad advice. Hassidic masters offered further foci for the prohibition of verbal abuse or abuse of the power of speech.
Rabbi Ya’acov Leiner of Radzyn (1828-1878) recalled that the Talmud warns people to beware of verbal abuse, particularly when talking to a spouse (Bava Metzia 59a). He noted that the last letters of the first five words of the biblical verse spell the Hebrew word ve’ishto (“and his wife”), as if to say that one should be careful of verbal abuse when talking to a peer – and when talking to a life-partner. Since it is the end of the words, perhaps we could even add that your spouse is the last person you should verbally abuse! Rabbi Ya’acov went further in search of scriptural allusion on exercising care in how we speak to our spouses. The verse warns against abusing the power of speech when talking to “amito,” a peer. Our sages define amito as the community of those who study Torah and keep the commandments. Rabbi Ya’acov offered a further angle: The Talmud says that whoever is without a spouse is without Torah (Yevamot 62b). A spouse is likened to Torah and therefore amito could also be read as warning against verbally abusing a spouse.
Another hassidic reading was shared by a scion of the Ruzhin hassidic dynasty, Rabbi Mordechai Shalom Yosef Friedman of Sadigora (1896-1979). Born in Sadigora (today Sadhora, Ukraine), Rabbi Mordechai Shalom Yosef moved to Vienna during World War I. In 1934 he opened a yeshiva in Przemysl, Poland, and settled there.
About six months before the outbreak of World War II, he moved to Palestine, settling in Tel Aviv.
He reported that his great-great-grandfather, the regal Rabbi Yisrael Friedman of Ruzhin (1796-1850), included in the prohibition of ona’at devarim even a gut vort, a good, pithy “word” (i.e. explanation) of a Torah concept. The holy Ruzhiner Rebbe did not elucidate his statement; if the “word” is on Torah, why is it a misuse of speech? It would appear that a cute or ironic commentary is often devoid of real substance. Real Torah aims to stimulate introspection or promote growth, whereas a vort is meant to impress. It is therefore conceivably a misuse of speech.
Rabbi Yisrael of Ruzhin focuses further on overcoming the temptation to show off: If a person exercises self-control and holds back from saying a gut vort, it is the spiritual equivalent of fasting 84 fasts! An innovative reading of the verse was offered by Rabbi Yitzhak Meir Rotenberg (1799-1866), the founder of the hassidic dynasty of Gur (Gora Kalwaria, Poland), and most commonly known by the title of his writings, Hiddushei Harim. The Hiddushei Harim noted that the verse ends with a call to fear God, for besides yourself only the Almighty knows whether you intended to give bad advice or were merely mistaken.
He suggested that the verse should be read slightly differently as promising reward for exercising prudence in the use of speech: When a person is seduced by the evil inclination to offer bad advice and courageously overcomes the temptation to abuse the power of speech, then that person will fear God. The reward granted for not abusing the power of speech is an inner sense of feeling awe before the Almighty.
Rabbi Cooper is on the faculty of Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies and is a rabbi in Tzur Hadassah.