Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat Behar- Behukotai 5770/ May 8, 2010

Lectures on the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of Bar- Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel. A project of the Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Published on the Internet under the sponsorship of Bar- Ilan University's International Center for Jewish Identity. Prepared for Internet Publication by the Computer Center Staff at Bar-Ilan University. Inquiries and comments to: Dr. Isaac Gottlieb, Department of Bible,



Insulting Words


Dr. Yoel Shiloh


Ashekelon College


Insulting words (Heb. ona’at devarim) refers to the prohibition about saying something to another person that causes pain. [1]   The Sages deduced the prohibition of painful words from the verse in this week’s reading, “Do not wrong one another [lo tonu], but fear your G-d; for I the Lord am your G-d” (Lev. 25:17), and said:  “Scripture is referring here to insulting words,” [2] since the prohibition against cheating and fraud (Heb. ona’at mammon) is deduced from a different verse in the same chapter. [3]   The Mishnah (Bava Metzia 4.10) says:

Just as there is fraud by overreaching in buying and selling, so there is wrong done by words.  One may not say to another, “What is the price of this thing?” if he does not wish to purchase it.   If a man had repented, one must not say to him, “Remember your former deeds.”  If a man were descended from proselytes, one must not say to him, “Remember the deeds of your forefathers.”

The Talmud cites further examples of things that are forbidden on the grounds of being hurtful words: [4]

If a person is a proselyte and he comes to study Torah, one must not say to him, “How does a mouth that ate animals that had not been slaughtered ritually, and ate forbidden animals and creeping things come to study Torah, which comes from the mouth of the Almighty?”   If donkey-drivers ask to by grain from him, one should not say to them, “Go to so and so, he sells grain,” knowing that he never sold grain, but meaning to scoff at the seller or the donkey-drivers. [5]

Thus we see that one is forbidden to say anything that causes pain to another person.

In the laws concerning insulting words the Sages included guidance to a man and his wife regarding proper relations between the two. [6]   The Sages went to great pains to remove a husband’s sense of ownership over his wife.  A wife is not the husband’s possession, but rather is in full partnership with him, even if there are differences between them in their level of education, income, social standing, or roles in the house and without.   The Sages made pronouncements against a husband who abused his wife, be it verbally or physically.   Maimonides quotes the Sages as saying, “A man should respect his wife more than his own self and love her as he loves himself…  and should not be excessively formidable towards her, but speak to her gently, being neither sad nor angry.” [7]   Of a person who behaves in this way, “who loves his wife as himself and respects her more than his own person … Scripture says, ‘You will know that all is well in your tent’ (Job 5-24).” [8]   They said further, “A person should always be mindful of respecting his wife, for there is no blessing in a person’s home save for the sake of his wife.” [9]

The Mishnah [10] cites the opinion of Rabbi Eliezer that a man may make his wife swear “on her spindle or her dough.”  In other words, if a husband does not believe his wife regarding the money she spends, he may demand that she swear by oath that she has not spent more than she claims.  The Talmud rejects Rabbi Eliezer’s view, arguing that it is the woman’s prerogative to live in peace, without her husband suspecting her in mundane matters. [11]   The woman may claim, “Since you are being so strict with me, I do not wish to live with you,” which Rashi interprets as meaning that since the husband distrusts his wife and is strict with her, he no longer loves her or believes her.   The discussion there concludes with the caustic remark, “One cannot expect a person to live side by side with a snake,” meaning that such a husband is called a snake for good reason:   he treats his wife in a patently intolerable way, contravening the basic rights of a wife to respect, trust and appreciation.

Regarding insulting words, the Sages said they constitute a greater violation than fraud.  In other words, quarreling between a couple and causing insult is more serious that cheating in monetary matters.  Why?   “Because restitution can be made for the one, but not for the other.” [12]   When one person cheats another, wrongfully extracting money from him, the cheated party can obtain his money back.   But with insults, words that have been said cannot be taken back; they cannot be unsaid.  The term ona’at devarim, wronging someone through words, is a legal and moral term denoting a wrongdoing for which the offended party has no legal recourse to undo the hurt, and it is in no uncertain terms forbidden.

Adam Barukh summarizes this idea in his book, Seder Yom, as follows: [13]

Why is hurting through words more grave an offense than defrauding of money?  Because money can be returned, capital or capital plus interest.  Whereas the wrongdoing to one’s wife – who can undo that, and how? … A fool might think that hurtful words to one’s wife, and hurtful words in general, are not a serious offense because charges cannot be brought for them, and because it is only a matter of words, of thoughts.   But the Halakhah says to the fool:  You will be punished by Cosmic justice, by Divine justice.  Hurtful words are an example of sub-justice and supra-justice in the Halakhah, actions that do not result in formal charges against the perpetrator, yet nevertheless clearly constitute an offense.

A husband who disrespects his wife and behaves reprehensibly towards her provides grounds for divorce, [14] i.e., for the court to oblige the husband to give his wife a divorce on the grounds of verbal abuse.  “A man who habitually gets angry and kicks out his wife, the court always insists that he give his wife a divorce and pay her her ketubbah.” [15]   All the more so, if the husband is also physically violent in addition to being verbally abusive.   The following case once came before Rabbi Simeon ben Tzemah Duran: [16]

A woman appealed, whose husband had caused her grief so much so that she came to detest him, and everyone knew that he was a very difficult person and she could not tolerate him for all the fights and quarrels, and also that he starved her to the point that she hated life; but she could not come petition the court because a person of legal authority had intimidated her, saying that if she were to ask for a divorce settlement she would lose…

This pathetic woman not only suffered insult from her husband, but also was afraid to lodge a complaint, lest the accusation be turned against her.   One of the rabbis in the community had taken the trouble to “advise” her that if she were to lodge a complaint against her husband, in the end she would only cause herself harm.   In response, the rabbi ruled that the husband must be forced to give his wife a writ of divorce:

He must divorce her and pay her divorce settlement, as we have in our hands, since she was given “for life, not for distress,” … insofar as a person cannot be expected to live side by side with a snake…  for contention is harder than lack of food, and what good does the woman enjoy with a husband who distresses her by fighting with her every day…   If, out of such distress and anger she goes to the court to ask for a divorce, she loses nothing; may the Merciful One save her from insult.  And is this how one should answer the oppressed?  The court ought to rebuke him (the rabbi who advised her not to lodge a complaint) with the words of Scripture, “Would you murder and take possession?,”   for it is harder than death…   The judge who forces her to return to her husband if she rebels acts like the Ishmaelites [i.e., Arabs] and ought to be ostracized.

Rabbi Simeon ben Tzemah Duran not only recommended that the husband be forced to give his wife a divorce, but also rebuked the judge who dared intimidate the woman and force her to return to her husband.  As he says, such a judge ought to be ostracized.

In our day, as well, if a husband behaves improperly towards his wife that may constitute grounds for demanding he give her a divorce.  For example, in 2007, the Rabbinical Court in Netanya handed down a decision forcing a husband to give his wife a writ of divorce: [17]

Even though there was no mention of the husband beating his wife, nevertheless he caused her distress.  We learn from this that even when he causes his wife distress and emotional abuse he is obliged to divorce her; and when the distress that is caused is great, force may be applied to get the husband to give his wife a divorce.

In conclusion, the Sages were mindful of the respect due to a wife and applied some of the laws pertaining to insulting words to the relations between husband and wife.  



[1] On the general idea of insulting words, see Shamai Leibowitz, “Ha-Kavana ha- Mistateret me-ahorei ha- Milim,” Daf Shavui le-Farashat Be- HarBehukotai 5762 (no. 433).  For details on the laws concerning insulting words, cf. David Mescheloff, “Al ha- Shekilah ha-Me’uzenet shel Tzarkhei ha- Briyot be-Mitzvot she- bein Adam le-Havero,” Daf Shavui le- Farashat Be-Har 5767 (no. 185).  This article does not seek to repeat or take issue with what has been written, rather to present the particular issue of insulting words between husband and wife.

[2] Bava Metzia 58b.

[3] “When you sell property to your neighbor, or buy any from your neighbor, you shall not wrong one another” (Lev. 25:14).

[4] Ibid.

[5] Cf. Kesef Mishneh on Maimonides, Hilkhot  Mekhirah 14.14.

[6] Bava Metzia 59a.

[7] Mishne Torah, Hilkhot Ishut, 15.19.

[8] Yevamot 62b.

[9] Bava Metzia, loc. sit.

[10] Ketubot 9.4.

[11] Ketubot 86b.

[12] Bava Metzia 58b.

[13] Seder Yom:  Hayyei Yom-Yom bi-Re’i ha-Halakhah, Jerusalem 2000, p. 46.

[14] Cf. Beit Yosef, Even ha-Ezer, par. 154, citing many posekim who took such a view.

[15] Resp. Rashba, part 1, par. 693.

[16] Resp. Tashbetz, part 2, par. 8.   Rabbi Simeon ben Tzemah Duran (1361-1444) was a posek in Algiers.

[17] Case no. 1-21-9465, from 26 Shevat 5767 ().  In this case, as in most of its type, there were also additional causes for demanding a divorce.