By Rabbi Avraham
Fischer. A publication of the Orthodox Union in cooperation with the Seymour
J. Abrams Orthodox Union Jerusalem World Center
May 17, 2003
As we approach the end of the book of sanctity of Vayikra, we
find that the Torah turns to the subject of fair and just relations between
man and man. We are taught to effect justice in commerce, not to lend money
with interest, not to maltreat a fellow Jew who has sold himself into slavery,
and to redeem a field that had been sold due to dire poverty. Although the
book of Vayikra treats matters of great holiness, the Torah wishes to
communicate that the proof of holiness is demonstrated when morality prevails
over self-interest in financial matters.
Along these lines, the Torah prohibits wronging one another (ona’ah):
And if you sell anything to your fellow or buy anything from your fellow’s
hand, you shall not wrong (AL TONU) one another (Vayikra 25:14)
This means that, whether there is a transaction of land or moveable property,
both the buyer and seller are prohibited from defrauding or overcharging. A
profit of up to one-sixth is permissible; with moveable property, if the
profit is more than one-sixth the sale can be nullified, and if it is exactly
one sixth, the profit is returned and the sale remains valid. Even with landed
property, there is a prohibition against ona’ah, although the sale is still
Since all instances of ona’ah seem to be covered by the above verse, the
following verse seems superfluous:
Nor shall you wrong (V’LO TONU) one another; but you shall fear your G-d, for
I am Hashem, your G-d (verse 17).
The solution to this problem is to be found in Rashi, who quotes Torat Kohanim
and Bava Metzia 58b:
“Here the text prohibits wronging by means of words, not to vex his fellow,
nor to offer him inappropriate advice, according to the way and the pleasure
of the advisor.”
As Sforno explains, the purpose of this additional prohibition is to warn
against any form of maltreatment, even when no monetary gain is involved, such
as verbal abuse or misleading someone.
Earlier, the Torah warned us against oppressing the convert to Judaism (Shemot
22:20; Vayikra 19:33-34). Our Sages understood the primary meaning of those
verses as verbal oppression. This suggests a reading different from that of
Sforno: ona’ah, firstly, means verbal torment, and only secondarily (as we
found in Vayikra 25:14) does it mean economic maltreatment. In any case both
applications of ona’ah have one thing in common: pressing one’s advantage to
the detriment of another.
Our Sages discuss ona’at devarim (verbal oppression) at some length in Bava
Metzia 58b-59b. Among the examples given include:
Reminding a repentant sinner (ba’al teshuvah) of his former
Reminding a convert to Judaism “the mouth that once ate
unclean foods now wishes to utter words of prayer and Torah to G-d?!”
Behaving like Iyov’s companions, who said that his misfortunes
are due to his sins:
Is not your fear [of G-d] your confidence?… Remember, please,
which innocent person ever perished? Or, where were the upright destroyed? (Iyov
Torah Temimah points out that one would be guilty of ona’at devarim in these
cases, even if his intention is to correct the other’s behavior. Noble
intentions do not excuse hurtful speech.
Furthermore, Iyov’s companions - from a purely philosophical perspective - may
have been speaking the truth: Hashem is just, and suffering may well be
punishment for transgressions. However, it is painful for Iyov (or anyone who
suffers) to be told this when the emotional wounds are still fresh.
Other example of ona’at devarim include:
Misleading another to go purchase merchandise from someone one
knows does not have it.
Asking a merchant, “How much does this cost?” - thus raising
false hopes of making a sale - when he has no intention of buying.
Of course, the person who says these things can always claim
that he gave the advice or the admonition in good faith. This is why the verse
But you shall fear your G-d.
As Rashi explains:
“The One Who knows thoughts, knows of any matter that is in the power of the
heart – that no one knows except the one who has the thought in his heart - of
it is said, but you shall fear your G-d.”
Since these utterances depend entirely on intention, one must be honest with
himself and with Hashem as to his true meaning.
Rabbi Yehudah Rosanes (1657-1727), author of the commeratary on Rambam’s
“Mishneh Torah” called “Mishneh la-Melech,” asks a further question: Why does
our verse add the words “for I am Hashem, your G-d” - what additional idea is
being conveyed? Have we not already said that one must fear Hashem?
In order to answer this question, Rabbi Rosanes refers us to a discussion in
Ta’anit 2a-2b. There, it says that one of the “keys” which Hashem does not
entrust to a messenger, but rather wields Himself, is the “key of the revival of
the dead.” The source for this is the verse in Yechezkel (37:13):
And you shall know that I am Hashem, as I open your graves.
Hashem alone revives the dead, and He does not do so through a messenger.
Furthermore, says Rabbi Rosanes, we see in the Passover Haggadah that the words
“ I am Hashem” (Shemot 12:12) - which refers to the Exodus - means “I, and no
one else” will bring you forth from Egypt.
We conclude from this that, in our verse, “for I am Hashem, your G-d” means that
Hashem alone exacts punishment against one who utters vexing words. He does not
do so through a messenger. This, says Rabbi Rosanes, is implied in Bava Metzia
59a. There the Sages expound the verse in Amos (7:7)
…Behold, Hashem stood over a wall [made with a] plumb-line, with a plumb-line in
His hand (UV’YADO ANACH).
Because ANACH (“plumb-line”) could homiletically be read as “your oppression,”
we are taught:
“Rabbi Eleazar said: Every sin is punished through a messenger, except for
ona’ah, as it says UV’YADO ANACH - in His hand is your oppression.”
One who utters words that are meant to be painful has misused his G-d-given
capacity for language. He has sown seeds of disharmony, while pretending to be
righteous and innocent. Hashem does not exact punishment for such hurtful words
through His emissaries, but “handles the case” Himself, since only He - and the
one who spoke them - know their true intent.
Awareness of Hashem’s involvement in every facet of our lives – both ritual and
commercial, in thought as much as in deed - is the fullest expression of the
Torah K'Torat Eretz Yisrael!"- Torah from Aloh Na'aleh*
The Torah introduces
the laws of shemitah, emphasizing that they were revealed to Mosheh at
Sinai. Rashi quotes the Sifra to the effect that the laws of shemitah
serve as a paradigm for all the laws of the Torah. Just as shemitah was
completely formulated in all its details at Sinai, so, too, were all the
other mitzvot with all their particulars given at Sinai.
But why was shemitah singled out for this purpose? Granted that the Torah
wanted to make a point, still, there must be a reason for the selection of
the specific mitzvah chosen to serve as the archetype. In the spirit of
the Maharal's dictum: "Devarim gedolim einam bemikreh," "great things do
not happen by accident," we may reformulate Rashi's famous question as
simply "mah inyan shemitah," "what is special about shemitah"?
The experience of Sinai was first and foremost one of the commitment of
na'aseh venishma - predicated on the people's willingness to accept the
yoke of the Heavenly Kingdom. According to the Ramban, this is the very
meaning of the first of the Ten Commandments - kablu malchuti, "accept My
kingship." In other words, the level of Torah commitment is measured not
merely in its observance, as meticulous as that may be, but also in the
motivation behind that observance.
In an agricultural society subsisting from year to year on its annual
produce, the laws of shemitah are certainly problematic. Far from a
vacation from work, they are a test of allegiance to royal decree, to an
imperial order of the greatest difficulty. It is this characteristic of
shemitah that makes it the paradigmatic representation of all the manifold
commandments promulgated at Sinai. It is the question of what the mitzvot
really mean to a person.
In this spirit, one might formulate a question: Immigrants to Western
countries often saw the abandonment of Shabbat as a condition for basic
survival. Yet, there were those who stood firm and fully observed the
Shabbat. It is to those few that we owe the renaissance of Orthodoxy in
Is not the mitzvah of living in Israel and all its concomitant mitzvot,
the contemporary equivalent of our forebears' Shabbat? Is it perhaps our
modern inyan shemitah as we stand before the eternity of Sinai?
Rabbi David Ebner, Jerusalem
*D’var Torah from Aloh Na'aleh:
an initiative of former North American Rabbis and laymen who successfully
made Aliyah, aimed at highlighting the centrality of Israel and promoting
Aliyah. They send emissaries – Rabbis, academicians, and others – on
speaking-tours throughout the U.S. and Canada.
Tel: 972-2-566-1181 ext. 320