Parshat Behar 5782: Understanding Ona’at Devarim — Verbal Oppression

Shalom Friends;

This week, our Parshat HaShevua, Behar is being sponsored by Ron and Rena Rosenberg and family of Ramat Beit Shemesh dedicated Lilui Nishmas for the upcoming Yahrtzeit of Rena’s Father, Baruch Yecheskal ben Yaakov HaLevi. To the Rosenberg family, many thanks for your sponsorship and for your continued kindnesses.

You can celebrate a Simcha — a birth, a Bar/Bat Mitzvah, a Chassuna or other Simcha event in your life, or commemorate a Yahrtzeit of a loved one, or for whatever other reason by sponsoring a Parshat HaShevua.

Please forward to your relatives and friends and encourage them to sponsor a Parshat HaShevua. And please be in contact with me with any questions, or for further details.

Best Regards,

Moshe Burt
skype: mark.burt3

Parshat Behar 5782: Understanding Ona’at Devarim — Verbal Oppression

by Moshe Burt

Our Parshat HaShavua opens with an excerpt from Rabbi Shmuel Goldin’s Parshat Summary of our Parshiyot Behar – and Bechukotai in his sefer “Unlocking the Torah Text”, Sefer Vayikra (page 221):

Interspersed among the laws of Sh’mitah and Yovel, a series of other edicts are recorded in Parshat Behar, including:

1/ The prohibitions of financial and verbal oppression.
2/ The regulations concerning the redemption of the land before Yovel by the original owner or a close family member.
3/ The prohibition of usury.
4/ The laws of eved Ivri (a Hebrew indentured servant) and eved Cana’ani (a Canaanite slave).

Torah states:

“When you make a sale to your fellow, or when you buy from the hand of your fellow, do not victimize one another.” (As rendered to English in “The Sapirstein Edition – The Torah: With Rashi’s Commentary”, Sefer Vayikra, Perek 25, posuk 14)

In 5781, the Parshat HaShavua, dealt with the first of these prohibitions: financial and verbal oppression, emphasizing financial oppression. Our vort on Parshat Behar will discuss verbal oppression.

Rabbi Goldin cites posukim from our Parsha, provides context and approaches regarding verbal oppression (ibid, pages 228-233):

“And if you make a sale to your fellow, or make a purchase from the hand of your fellow, do not oppress one another.” (Rabbi Goldin rendering to English Sefer Vayikra, Perek 25, posuk 14)

The prohibition emerging from this passage is identified in rabbinic literature as the prohibition of ona’at mamon, financial oppression.

Two sentences later, the text emphasizes: “And you shall not oppress one another, and you shall fear your G’d; for I am Hashem, your G’d.” (Rabbi Goldin rendering to English Sefer Vayikra, Perek 25, posuk 17)

Rather than interpreting this [latter] posuk as a reiteration of the warning against financial oppression, the rabbis explain that here, the Torah references the additional proscription of ona’at devarim, verbal oppression. (Rabbi Goldin citing Talmud Bavli, Bava Metzia 58b)

The specific term “ona’a” (oppression) also appears in conjunction with two other prohibitions in the text:

1/ Ona’at hager: Oppression of the stranger. (Rabbi Goldin citing Sefer Shemos, Perek 22, posuk 20; Sefer Vayikra, Posuk 19, posuk 33)

2/ Ona’at eved: Oppression of a slave. (Rabbi Goldin citing Sefer Devarim, Perek 23, posukim 16-17)

The Torah’s concern over oppression… is not limited only to attacks upon society’s weakest members, but extends to any unfair advantage taken of another individual during the course of the many interpersonal dealings that mark life’s daily routine. Behavior that causes needless mental anguish by highlighting any individual’s weak point falls into the prohibited category of ona’at devarim, verbal oppression…

Practical examples of this prohibition, mentioned in the Talmud [as per the above citing], include:

1/ Disparaging the background of a penitent [Ba’al Teshuvah]

2/ Misleading a prospective customer about the nature of a specific merchant’s business (in order to embarrass the merchant or the buyer).

3/ Suggesting to someone that his suffering is due to his own evil deeds.

Needless to say that through the generations, as well as today, there are numerous other examples of verbal oppression perpetrated by our brethren upon others of us. From the Greek Hellenists, to the Kapos of Nazi Germany, to today’s secular liberal Jews of America — many of whom are ideologically unable to detect that they are nothing more than useful idiots to anti-semites like AOC plus three and, like them, are ideologically unable to define or differentiate between the genders.

Rabbi Goldin continues (ibid):

The most obvious application of the principle of ona’a is found in the arena of ona’at hager. The rabbis understand this prohibition to include any verbal or material advantage taken of someone who occupies a vulnerable position within Judaism’s society, specifically a ger tzedek, a righteous convert [to Judaism]…. Coming to Judaism from the “outside,” the convert may yet feel himself “a stranger,” not fully connected to all aspects of his chosen people and traditions. He remains particularly susceptible to taunts, insults and potential embarrassment, The Torah therefore reminds us of our own national origins as “strangers” in the land of Egypt and cautions us against oppressing the ger in any way. (Rabbi Goldin again citing Sefer Shemos, Perek 22, posuk 20; Sefer Vayikra, Posuk 19, posuk 33)

Individuals guilty of oppressing the convert transgress two sets of laws: the general laws prohibiting the oppression of all others and the specific proscriptions of ona’at hager, designed to protect the “stranger.” (Rabbi Goldin citing Rambam’s Mishne Torah, Hilchot Mechira 14:15)

In this author’s view, the Ba’al Teshuvah and the Oleh (one who made Aliyah and is newly an Israeli citizen) should also fit in with the laws prohibiting ona’at hager. It’s been said by righteous frum-from-birth Jews that born-religious Jews would have difficulty walking in the shoes of a Ba’al Teshuvah. How, then, could an “FFB” Jew dare to denigrate his Ba’al Teshuvah brother because of the latter’s previous background?

And how dare native-borns denigrate their brothers if the Hebrew language and the uniquely Israeli nuances don’t come easy to a middle-aged or elderly Oleh like they would to the adolescent or teen-aged Oleh! How often are Olim bamboozled (defined as: deceived through trickery, flattery, or the like; hoodwinked) by literally fast-talking native-borns who often use uniquely Israeli nuances unknown and not comprehended by Olim?

Rabbi Goldin concludes (ibid, pages 232-233):

Across a wide-breadth of life experience, the uniform laws of ona’a remind us that oppression can take on many forms…. Torah uses the same terminology to consistently communicate Hashem’s demand for ethical behavior in every arena of life and to make one point abundantly clear: the weak will always be protected with the full force of Halachic law.

As with all interpersonal sins, the cost of such behavior is ultimately measured not only in the anguish that we cause to others, but in the ultimate price that we ourselves pay. Any temporary pleasure or gain that we may accrue through the performance of such [oppressive] acts ultimately pales in comparison to the irretrievable harm caused to our own sacred souls.

May we, the B’nei Yisrael be zocha that our brethren — the refugee families from Gush Katif be permanently settled and be made totally whole — be totally restituted for all that was stolen from them, that the thrice expelled families of Amona be restored to their rebuilt homes and the oft-destroyed Yeshiva buildings in Homesh be rebuilt, all at total government expense; due to alt-leftist-agendized, supreme court legalized Yassamnik gunpoint. Baruch Hashem that our dear brother Jonathan Pollard is now free of his parole and restrictions and that he is now in his second year at home in Eretz Yisrael. May Esther Yocheved bat Yechiel Avraham have an aliyah in Shemayim and may her memory continue to lift Jonathan to at least 120 years. May the MIAs be liberated alive and returned to us in ways befitting Al Kiddush Hashem — as with the return in April, 2019, via Russia, of the remains of Zachariah Baumel, as should the remains of the two chayalim from the Gaza War of seven years ago. May we have the courage and strength to stand up and physically prevent the possibility of Chas V’Challila any future eviction of Jews from their homes and prevent Chas V’Challila the handing of Jewish land over to anyone, let alone to enemies sworn to Israel’s and Judaism’s destruction and eradication. And may we soon and finally see the total end to the Communist Chinese corona virus pandemic and all like viruses. May we fulfill Hashem’s blueprint of B’nei Yisrael as a Unique people — an Am Segula, not to be reckoned with as with “the nations” and may we be zocha to see the Moshiach, the Ge’ula Shlaima, as Dov Shurin sings; “Ki Karov Yom Hashem Al’Kol HaGoyim”, the Ultimate Redemption, bimhayrah b’yamainu — speedily, in our time”, — Achshav, Chik Chuk, Miyad, Etmol!!!

Good Shabbos!
Moshe Burt, an Oleh, is a commentator on news and events in Israel and Founder and Director of The Sefer Torah Recycling Network. He lives in Ramat Beit Shemesh.