Rabbi Bernard Fox
“When you make a sell to your friend or make a purchase from your friend, one person should not aggrieve his brother.” (VaYikra 25:14)
“And a person should not aggrieve his friend. And you should fear your G-d. I and Hashem your G-d.” (VaYikra 25:17)
The first passage above commands us against ona’ah – overcharging or underpaying in a commercial exchange. A seller is entitled to a reasonable price for his product and a buyer is entitled to bargain for a reasonable sale price. However, it is not permitted to charge an unreasonable price that takes advantage of the buyer’s situation or ignorance. Neither is it permitted for the purchaser to take advantage of the ignorance of the seller or the situation in which the seller may find himself.
A few passages later the Torah returns to this theme. It tells us that we are prohibited from aggrieving one another. This behavior is also referred to as ona’ah. Our Sages were concerned with the meaning of this second passage. The first passage already indicates that ona’ah is prohibited in trade. This second passage cannot be a repetition of the same prohibition against inappropriate commercial dealings. What is the new message in the second passage?
The Sages were troubled by a second issue. The second passage warns us that we should fear Hashem. Of course it is important to fear Hashem! Why does the Torah suddenly admonish us to fear Hashem? The Sages concluded that this admonishment must in some way be related to the first portion of the passage that commands us to not aggrieve our neighbor. What is this connection?
The Sages explained that this second passage is not referring to ona’ah of one’s neighbor in commercial dealings. Instead, it is a prohibition against ona’at devarim – aggrieving another person with words. In other words, we are prohibited from verbally abusing a person.
The Sages explained that this interpretation of the passage accounts for the inclusion of the admonition to fear Hashem. Ona’at devarim – verbal abuse – can often be justified or rationalized. Sometimes the abuse is subtle and not overt. We can tell ourselves that we really meant no harm. Also, sometimes we can rationalize the manner in which we speak with others by claiming to ourselves that our intention was only to correct the other person and not to embarrass or harass him. Therefore, only the one who delivers the abuse and Hashem know the true intent of the statement. The passage tells us that we may be able to fool others regarding our intent. But we cannot deceive Hashem. Perhaps, the Torah is telling us that we often keep our behaviors within the boundaries of civility because we do not want to loose the respect of our peers. In instances of ona’at devarim, we can sometimes explain away our behavior and retain the respect of our peers. This removes one of the fundamental motivators that regulate civil interaction – our desire to be perceived by others in a positive light. The Torah forewarns us that in order to motivate ourselves in the observance of this command, we must recognize that although we can delude our peers regarding our intention, we cannot mislead Hashem.
Maimonides’ treatment of the prohibition against ona’at devarim is somewhat odd. In his code of law – the Mishne Torah – Maimonides places his discussion of this prohibition in the laws regulating commerce. Specifically, after his discussion of the laws regarding overcharging or underpaying in commerce – ona’at mammon – Maimonides discusses the laws of ona’at devarim. This is not the location in which we would expect to find this discussion. Instead, we would expect that Maimonides would place his discussion of ona’at devarim in Hilchot Dayot. Hilchot Dayot discusses healthy behaviors and personality disorders. Included in this discussion are the prohibitions against improper speech. For example, in Hilchot Dayot, Maimonides discusses the prohibition against defamation and gossip. We would expect Maimonides to include the prohibition against ona’at devarim in this discussion. Why does Maimonides instead place the prohibition against ona’at devarim in the laws regulating commerce?
It is helpful to consider Maimonides’ examples of ona’at devarim. Not all forms of verbal abuse are included in this prohibition. Maimonides provides four basic examples. First, it is prohibited to embarrass a person regarding his past or family history. For example, one may not remind a convert that his ancestors were not Jewish. Neither is it appropriate to remind a person who has repented from various wrong-doings of his former errors. Second, it is prohibited to say to a person who is suffering from misfortune that his misfortune is due to some failing in his righteousness. Third, it is prohibited to provide someone with false directions. For example, if a person asks for directions to the bank, one may not provide the person with directions to a different location. Fourth, ona’at devarim prohibits asking a person a question that one knows he cannot answer, simply to embarrass the person. What is the common factor in these examples?
It seems that according to Maimonides, ona’at devarim always involves hurting a person through taking advantage of a weakness in the person or in his background. Simply insulting a person is not included in the prohibition. In each example given by Maimonides, the victim has some weakness or some area of sensitivity in his life or background. The person who violates the prohibition of ona’at devarim has used this weakness of area of sensitivity as a basis for hurting the victim. Essentially, the prohibition of ona’at devarim sanctions against taking advantage of a person’s weaknesses.
This provides some insight into Maimonides’ placement of this prohibition in the laws governing commerce. These laws are designed to assure fair, reasonable, and honest trade among the members of society. The laws are needed because the Torah recognizes that without regulation it is not likely that fair, reasonable, and honest trade will be assured. Commerce takes place among trading partners that are not necessarily equals in power and influence. Without regulation, the rights of all parties in a commercial endeavor would not be established or protected.
The prohibition against ona’at devarim expresses this objective. The prohibition is designed to prevent a buyer or seller from taking advantage of the ignorance or weaker bargaining position of the opposite party in the negotiation in order to secure an unreasonable price. Essentially, it prohibits taking unfair advantage of a person in business dealings. In short, all of these laws that govern commerce are designed to foster and nurture healthy, ethical relationships within a society.
We can now begin to appreciate Maimonides placement of the prohibition against ona’at devarim among the laws of commerce and not among the laws regulating inappropriate speech. As explained above, Hilchot Dayot discusses the elements of a healthy personality and the proper behaviors that are associated with a healthy personality. Apparently, Maimonides feels that the Torah’s primary objection to gossip and tale-bearing is that these behaviors are expressions of personality flaws. It is true that these behaviors hurt others. But the Torah’s prohibition focuses on the damage done to the person involved in these self-destructive behaviors. Therefore, the prohibitions against these forms of improper speech are placed in Hilchot Dayot.
However, Maimonides understands ona’at devarim as a prohibition against verbally taking advantage of a person’s weaknesses and sensitivities. Ona’at devarim is prohibited because it is divisive and destructive to society. Therefore, Maimonides places this prohibition among the laws of commerce. The prohibition against ona’at devarim and the laws of commerce share the common theme of fostering healthy, constructive relations among the members of society.
Maimonides’ treatment of ona’at devarim is reflected in the comments of Sefer HaChinuch. In describing the objective of the prohibition against ona’at devarim, Sefer HaChinuch comments that the law is designed to foster peace and discourage discord among the members of society. These comments seem to clearly reflect Maimonides’ understanding of the prohibition.
Finally, it is worth noting that Maimonides’ understanding of the prohibition against ona’at devarim is reflected in our parasha’s treatment of the law. The prohibition against ona’at devarim is juxtaposed to the prohibition against ona’at mammon. This implies that both prohibitions share a common theme. Maimonides suggests that this theme is the importance of creating and nurturing social cohesion and cooperation.
“Then the land will be appeased for its Sabbaths – all the years that it s desolate and you are in the land of your enemies. Then the land will rest and be appeased for its Sabbaths.” (VaYikra 26:34)
Parshat BeChukotai begins with a promise of rewards and a warning of punishment. If Bnai Yisrael is faithful to the Torah they will be rewarded with peace and prosperity in the Land of Israel. Disregard for the Torah will be punished by disease, famine, invasion and eventually exile from the land.
The above pasuk is part of the narrative of the punishments. We care told that while we are exiled from the Land of Israel, the land will be appeased for the Sabbatical years that were not observed by the nation. In order to understand the meaning of this passage, it is important to review the mitzvot of the Sabbatical year and the Jubilee year. These mitzvot are discussed in last week’s parasha. In the land of Israel the years are divided into cycles of seven years. The seventh year of each cycle is the Shemitah year – the Sabbatical year. During the Shemitah year the land is not worked. Seven of these cycles include forty-nine years. The fiftieth year is the Yovel – Jubilee year. During Yovel the land may not be farmed. In addition, the land is redistributed. Land returns to the descendants of the individuals who originally inherited the Land of Israel. Another law of the Yovel is that all Jewish slaves are freed.
With this explanation of the Shemitah and Yovel years we can begin to understand the message of our passage. The first exile from the land of Israel lasted for seventy years. Rashi explains that this period of seventy years corresponded with the number of Shemitah and Yovel years that Bnai Yisrael neglected to observe. Rashi explains that the meaning of our pasuk is that during the exile the land will be desolate. It will not be cultivated and its produce will not be collected. The land will be in the same state that is required during the observance of the Shemitah and Yovel years. These seventy years of desolation will atone for the seventy Shemitah and Yovel years that the people did not observe while they occupied the land.
It is interesting that the Torah characterizes the exile as a response for the failure to observe the mitzvot of Shemitah and Yovel. Of course, these are important mitzvot. However, it is interesting that the Torah specifically warns us about these mitzvot and warns us that the neglect of these mitzvot will be punished by exile. What is special about these mitzvot?
In order to answer this question, it is important to recognize who the Torah is addressing in this weeks parasha. Of course, this message is relevant to us, but it is addressed to the generation that was to emerge from the wilderness and take possession of the land. Sforno develops this idea in his commentary on last week’s parasha – Parsaht BeHar. Parshat BeHar deals primarily with the mitzvot of Shemitah and Yovel and the laws related to these mitzvot. Sforno asks why these laws are discussed by the Torah at this point. He observes that originally, the generation that was redeemed from Egypt was to travel through the wilderness, emerge from the wilderness and then take possession of the Land of Israel. This plan changed only later when this generation proved unworthy of taking possession of the land. Moshe tells this generation that they will take possession of the land and must observe the mitzvot of Shemitah and Yovel. He warns the people that their failure to observe these mitzvot and their related laws will result in their exile from the land. Sforno’s comments provide a first step towards answering our question. It is clear from Sforno’s comments that observance of these mitzvot is fundamental to establishing a proper relationship between the people and the Land of Israel. Because of these mitzvot are directly relevant to this relationship, failure to observe them results in exile from the land. However, Sforno does not explain why are these mitzvot so fundamental to the nation’s relationship with the land?
Before we can fully appreciate the answer to this question, we must identify the transition that was to inevitably take place with the possession of the land. In the wilderness the nation was completely and obviously dependant upon Hashem. The wilderness did not contain adequate water or food. The survival of the nation during its travels in the wilderness was only possible through the intervention of Hashem. At every encampment Hashem provided the nation with a source of water. Each day – except Shabbat – manna fell from the heavens and provided the nation with sustenance. Bnai Yisrael were constantly reminded of their dependency on Hashem and their own helplessness. This would change with the possession of the land. The people would enter a land “flowing with milk and honey.” They would plant crops and reap bountiful harvests. This would create an obvious challenge.
In the wilderness, the presence of Hashem was constantly evident in the lives of the people. Hashem was not just an abstract theological concept. His presence was evidenced by the daily experiences and the very survival of the nation in this hostile environment. Once the people entered the land they would live off the prosperity of the Land of Israel. Hashem’s presence would not be clearly evidenced each day. It would be easy for the people to forget about Hashem and to begin to believe that their own efforts were the source of their comfort and prosperity. In other words, possession of the land presented a strange paradox. The abundance of the land of Israel was a blessing. It was provided to the people so that they would be free to develop spiritually without the distraction of a struggle for material survival. However, the real danger existed that the land’s very abundance might result in exactly the opposite outcome. The people might be seduced by their material wealth and begin to believe that there efforts were the true determinant of their fates. They would become absorbed in material lives and deny the dependence of all human beings on the benevolence of Hashem.
We can now appreciate the mitzvot of Shemitah and Yovel. These mitzvot directly address this danger. Sefer HaChinuch explains that the seven year Shemitah cycle reinforces the Torah’s contention that the universe is not eternal. The land is worked for six years and rested in the seventh year. This recalls that Hashem created the universe in six days and rested from creation of the seventh day. In addition, resting the land and the requirement to share the produce of the seventh year express Hashem’s authority over us and the land. He has this authority as creator. Similarly, Yovel reinforces the idea that everything belongs to Hashem. He gives the land and all other elements of the material world to whom He pleases. In this case, He wishes that the land should be redistributed according to the distribution that was established when the land was initially divided. In short these mitzvot are devised to remind us that the land is really Hashem’s. He is the creator. He is the true master of the land and He has the ultimate authority over its use. Through observing these mitzvot that land becomes a reminder of the presence and authority of Hashem. The natural tendency to forget Hashem is countered by a powerful reminder of His presence and authority.
Of course, the mitzvot of Shemitah and Yovel can only achieve these goals when they are observed. If they are neglected they cannot act as reminders of Hashem’s presence and authority. This results in an interesting dynamic. The possession of the land can undermine our relationship with Hashem. The mitzvot of Shemitah and Yovel are designed to counter this tendency. If we neglect these mitzvot, our relationship with the land and with Hashem will quickly, further deteriorate. Therefore, the Torah directly links possession of the land with observance of these mitzvot. If we are to retain possession, these mitzvot must be observed. We are warned that if we abandon these mitzvot, we will be exiled.
In short, The Torah recognizes that the very blessings that the nation will enjoy in the land can act as a distraction from spiritual growth and observance of the mitzvot. Therefore, it stresses the importance of the mitzvot of Shemitah and Yovel and warns that failure to observe these mitzvot will result in exile.
 Rabbaynu Shlomo ben Yitzchak (Rashi), Commentary on Sefer VaYikra 25:17.
 Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Mishne Torah, Hilchot Mechirah 14:13-14.
 Rav Aharon HaLeyve, Sefer HaChinuch, Mitzvah 341.
 Rabbaynu Shlomo ben Yitzchak (Rashi), Commentary on Sefer VaYikra 26:34.
 Rabbaynu Ovadia Sforno, Commentary on Sefer VaYikra, 25:1.
 Rav Aharon HaLeyve, Sefer HaChinuch, Mitzvah 84.
 Rav Aharon HaLeyve, Sefer HaChinuch, Mitzvah 330.