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Reacting to Verbal Abuse: Response in Kind or Kind Response?

In addition to the Torah prohibition against verbal abuse of one’s fellow Jews there are specific commandments prohibiting verbal mistreatment of a convert. An exploration of the parameters of these halachos

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Our celebration of the Yom Tov of Shavuos includes the public reading of Megillas Ruth the story of a righteous convert from the nation of Moav who merited to become the progenitor of the royal House of Dovid. The Rema (Orach Chayim 490:9) cites the Avudraham (Hilchos Tefillas HaPesach) who gives several reasons for this custom. One is that our forefathers used the same process in preparing to accept the Torah on the very first Shavuos that a proselyte uses to convert to Judaism. Since Megillas Ruth is the source for many of the practical laws of conversion it is appropriate to read it on Shavuos when we commemorate our nation’s acceptance of the Torah at Har Sinai through the conversion process.

In the following pages we will explore how the Torah addresses treatment of the convert by other Jews. We begin with a discussion of the general obligations that exist regarding treatment of all Jews before turning to the specific halachos governing treatment of converts.


The Gravity of Verbal Abuse

The Torah (Vayikra 25:17) commands us not to cause distress to another person with our words. This prohibition encompasses a very wide range of verbal harassment since as the Sefer Hachinuch (mitzvah 338) writes “It is impossible to write every detail that can cause a person to feel hurt.” The Chinuch also explains that this prohibition applies even when the words used are not openly offensive but only hint to a meaning intended to cause emotional pain.

He warns that although transgression of this commandment is not punishable by lashes “there are many lashes without the strap that are available in the hands of Hashem.” The reason given by the Chinuch for why one who violates this prohibition is not punished with lashes is that in general lashes can only be administered for sins committed through action and although words can be very hurtful speech is not considered action and thus this sin is not punishable by a human court.

In contrast to the explanation of the Chinuch the Chofetz Chaim (Introduction #17) writes that a person violating this prohibition is not punished with lashes because there are no lashes for violating a lav shebichlolos i.e. a general negative commandment that includes multiple prohibitions. Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach (Minchas Shlomo 1:81) wonders where the Chofetz Chaim found a source for categorizing this prohibition as a lav shebichlolos.


Responding to Verbal Abuse

Given the prohibition on verbal abuse what is the appropriate response of a person who is the victim of such treatment? Is he also commanded not to use hurtful words in response to such an attack or is the prohibition not to cause distress not applicable in this situation?

The Chinuch (ibid.) writes that “it seems plausible to assume that when one is being verbally attacked he may answer back. A person is not expected to be a motionless stone. By not responding it might appear as if he agrees to what is being said. A person is not obligated to allow his friend to hurt him.”

Nevertheless, the Chinuch advises people to avoid these predicaments and adds that a person who never fights can avoid most situations. He further counsels that even when one is allowed to respond, he should do so in a calm voice. He ends with this statement: “The pious ones who conduct themselves strictly and listen without responding have great rewards awaiting them.”

The Sma”g (Lo Taaseh 171) and Yerei’im (180) quote a midrash indicating that one is permitted to respond to the taunts of another, but they give a different reason as to why one may do so. They base their reasoning on the Gemara (Bava Metzia 59a) in which Rav Chinana bar Rav Idi analyzes the words of the pasuk (Vayikra 25:17) prohibiting verbal harassment, which states, “Each of you shall not cause stress to his fellow.” The Sma”g explains that the word “his fellow Jew — amiso” indicates that one is only prohibited from causing distress to another Jew who is also his “fellow,” referring to someone who is observant of mitzvos. Therefore, this prohibition is not applicable vis-à-vis a nonobservant Jew.

The Sma”g writes further that a person who initiates a confrontation in which he attacks his fellow Jew verbally has violated the Torah prohibition against verbal abuse and has thus removed from himself the title of “fellow.” Therefore, the victim of such abuse may retaliate with words of his own, since he is not causing distress to someone who qualifies for purposes of this commandment as a “fellow Jew.”


Who May Respond?

There are practical differences regarding the circumstances under which one may respond to his attacker, depending on whether we adopt the reasoning of the Chinuch or that of the Sma”g for why one such response is permissible. For example, when someone properly fulfills the mitzvah of giving rebuke to another Jew, may the recipient of the tochachah respond with harsh words?

According to the Chinuch, he should be permitted to respond, since his reasoning is that a victim cannot be expected to be as emotionless as a stone, and this rationale should be applicable even when the initial words are those of someone who fulfilled the mitzvah of rebuke properly.

According to the reasoning of the Sma”g, however, since the “aggressor” in this situation has not violated this prohibition, but instead has actually fulfilled a mitzvah, he has not forfeited the halachic status of a “fellow Jew,” and thus, one would be prohibited from responding in kind.

Another practical difference may arise in the event a third party seeks to respond to the initial verbal attack on behalf of its victim. The Chinuch would presumably hold that since the outsider was not personally attacked, he should be expected to withhold his response, and is thus not permitted to respond. The Sma”g, however, might hold since that the original attacker lost his status as a “fellow Jew,” anyone — victim or otherwise — is now permitted to respond to him.


When to Respond

The Chofetz Chaim (Introduction, #8, 9) quotes the Chinuch’s rationale that a person is not expected to remain stony-faced in response to abuse, and adds that given this reasoning, when the victim responds, he not only doesn’t violate the prohibition against verbal torment, but he also doesn’t violate the two negative commandments of “do not take revenge” and or “do not bear a grudge” (Vayikra 19:18).

The Chofetz Chaim does, however, limit the timing of a permissible response. He rules that the victim may only respond in kind at the moment of the attack, but after that time has passed, one would violate the prohibitions of taking revenge and bearing a grudge, as well as the command not to distress another person with our words.

Meiri (Yoma 23a) appears to disagree, writing that “if someone bothered another, whether by hitting him or cursing him, or any type of abuse, if the person does not try to appease him he may take revenge any place he sees fit.” This implies that his right to respond to his abuser is unrestricted in time.

Chavos Yair (65:10) engages in a lengthy discourse on this topic in which he distinguishes between two different types of abuse with regard to the allowable response time. He holds that one who was verbally attacked may respond until the end of the day on which the attack occurred. Once he goes to sleep, however, his emotional turbulence can be expected to have subsided, thereby enabling him to withhold his response and making a response the next day impermissible. A victim of bodily harm, however, has the right to retaliate so long as the injury or the pain it inflicted is still present.


Forms of Permitted Response

The sefer Yosef Avraham (Parshas Korach, p. 118) writes that even when permitted to defend himself verbally, the victim’s response must be measured, and if, instead, it is excessive to the point that the instigator is left heartbroken or brought to tears, the victim, too, will be punished by the Heavenly court.

He brings proof for this position from the story of Sarah and Hagar (Bereishis 16:6), where, according to the halachah, Sarah was allowed to respond to Hagar because Hagar had started the quarrel between them. Nevertheless, the Ramban writes that Sarah sinned in her treatment of Hagar, and as a result, Sarah’s descendants are fated to be oppressed by those of Hagar’s son, Yishmael. Yosef Avraham explains that although Sarah was permitted to respond, she did so in excessive fashion, and it was for that impermissible retaliatory response that she was punished by Heaven.

The sefer Shiurei Taharah (Ma’areches 5:33) quotes the above comments of Yosef Avraham, but asks: If we hold that the victim may only retaliate until nightfall, but not beyond, perhaps Sarah was held accountable for harassing Hagar day after day, rather than for responding excessively. If so, this episode cannot serve as a source that an excessive response by a victim is prohibited. (See ibid., Ma’areches 5:45, quoting Chavos Yair, and Ma’areches 70:83, and Ma’areches 90:19.)

It should be noted that Riva al HaTorah quotes Rav Elyakim, who writes that, according to the above-cited Sma”g, that one is only prohibited to verbally harass a Jew who has the title “fellow” and that the person whose words provoke a verbal altercation loses that title, then halachically Sarah did not violate any prohibition, since she was allowed to respond to Hagar, who had instigated the quarrel between them.


Thinking Clearly

From Igeres Teiman, a letter written by the Rambam to Rav Yosef ben Gabar, we learn of how the Rambam held one should respond to verbal abuse.

The background of the letter is that Rav Yosef ben Gabar had defended the Rambam against defamatory accusations that some people in Baghdad had leveled against him. He wrote a letter to Egypt detailing these events, to which the Rambam responded as follows: “What has been reported to us, that there is someone speaking ill of us, and trying to lift his stature by diminishing mine, might be true and might not be true. As well, we have heard that you are protesting their attitudes in my honor, and have been slightly successful.”

The Rambam instructs Rav Yosef, “Do not proceed this way.” He explains, “We forgive all who act this way based on foolishness, and certainly if there is a purpose to what he is doing that has no substantial effect on us. The halachah is that we force people to not behave like the people of Sedom — which means when one is benefiting and the other loses nothing, we pressure the person to give in.”

The Rambam’s position seems to be that since words never really harm the person and the attacker feels he benefits through these very words, the one being maligned should not be permitted to respond, because the response is classified as middas Sedom.


Commandments Concerning the Convert

We now move on to address the treatment of the convert. The commandment appearing in Vayikra 25:17 that prohibits causing pain through words is concerned with verbal harassment of any Jew, as it states, “each of you shall not aggrieve his fellow.” But there are additional prohibitions (Shemos 22:2) regarding causing distress to the convert. The Gemara (Bava Metzia 59b) states that one who taunts a convert violates three negative commandments: the one in Vayikra 25:17 mentioned above, in addition to one in Shemos 22:20 and another in Vayikra 19:33, both of which speak specifically of abusing a convert.

There are also another three violations for oppressing the convert. The Gemara quotes Rabi Eliezer Hagadol as saying that there are 36 places in the Torah that warn us to treat geirim compassionately to ensure that they will never return to their previous lifestyle. And, the Gemara adds, there are those who say that there are as many as 46 such admonitions in the Torah, all intended to secure the spiritual well-being of the righteous convert.

Although the Mishnah (Bava Metzia 58b) gives as the specific example of verbal torment one who tells the child of a convert “remember what your parents have done,” it seems clear that any derogatory comments that cause distress would be included in these violations, since a convert, no less than any other Jew, is included in the other pasuk prohibiting verbal abuse of any kind.

In addition to the prohibitions against taunting the convert, there is also a positive command to love him, as the pasuk states, “You shall love the convert, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Devarim 10:19). The Chinuch (431) points out that although the convert was already included in the general commandment of “love your fellow man as yourself,” this pasuk adds another command to love the convert, just as there are added negative commandments regarding how one may speak to a convert. He adds that when one taunts a convert, he not only violates the negative ones we mentioned previously, but has also failed to fulfill the two positive commandments directing us to love every Jew and a convert, respectively.


The Offensive Convert

What is the halachah about responding to a convert who initiates the taunting? We have established that one may respond to negative comments, but does this include responding to a convert who provoked this confrontation? Do all of the additional commandments prevent a person from responding to the taunts of a convert?

The Minchas Chinuch (63:2) assumes that the reasoning of the Sefer Hachinuch to permit a response to verbal abuse — that a person cannot be expected to remain emotionless in the face of such an attack — should be equally applicable to a case in which one is being attacked by a convert. Although the Minchas Chinuch finds the logic of this position compelling, he writes that it is difficult to make such a lenient ruling without an explicit supporting source, given the seriousness of the prohibition on causing distress to a convert.

As noted above, the Sma”g provided another basis for permitting a response by one being verbally attacked: That the attacker forfeits the status of “fellow Jew,” thereby giving the victim license to respond to him in kind. Would this rationale apply when it is a convert who is attacking another Jew? The Minchas Chinuch (63:2) addresses this question, writing that one might, indeed, not transgress the prohibition of “each of you shall not aggrieve his fellow” (Vayikra 25:17) by taunting a convert. Since, however, one who taunts a convert violates a total of three negative commandments, including those set forth in Shemos 22:2 and Vayikra 19:33 pertaining specifically to a convert, and those pesukim do not have the limiting word “his fellow — amiso,” one who taunts a non-“fellow” convert will violate those two prohibitions.


A Strategic Defense

As stated, the Mishnah (Bava Metzia 58b) gives as a specific example of verbal torment one who tells the child of a convert “remember what your parents have done.” Accordingly, Shevet HaLevi (vol. 5, section on the 613 commandments) suggests a middle-ground position under which a victim of taunting by a convert may indeed respond in defense of himself, as per the words of the Chinuch (338), but cannot respond with words that target his tormenter for being a convert.

Based on this distinction, we might be able to explain why the Chinuch chose not to state the permissibility of responding to a verbal abuser in mitzvah 63, which is the specific proscription on harassing convert, as derived from the pasuk “you shall not taunt nor oppress a stranger” (Shemos 22:20), but instead waited until mitzvah 338, which is the general prohibition against verbally mistreating any Jew, as derived from the pasuk “each of you shall not aggrieve his fellow” (Vayikra 25:17) to teach that such defensive response is permitted. In choosing the latter mitzvah as the context for that permit, the Chinuch conveys that only a response that steers clear of targeting the convert’s lineage is acceptable.

An intriguing question remains: In a confrontation between two converts, in which one party taunts the other about his status as a convert, would it be permitted for the victim to respond in kind?

Rabbi Moshe Hubner is a rebbi at HAFTR High School in Cedarhurst, New York, lecturer and author of several seforim, in both Hebrew and English. He is currently working on an English adaptation of the Minchas Chinuch, of whom he is a proud descendant.


(Originally featured in Kolmus, Issue 39)

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