17-5770 Mitzvah N-79
March 15, 2010
Negative Mitzvah 79 – This is a negative commandment: Do not shame another person.
Hafetz Hayim – As Scripture says: “and you shall not bear sin because of him.” (Lev. 19:17) – and all the more certainly so in public. It is a great wrong; the Sages of blessed memory said “Whoever shames his fellow man in public has no share in the world-to- come.” (Talmud; Bava Metzia59a) We must therefore take care not to disgrace anyone, be he of low or high stature. Nor should we call him by any name of which he is ashamed. This applies, however, specifically to a matter between one man and his fellow-man. In matters of Heaven, though, if a person [sinned and he] did not repent when he was rebuked in private, he is to be shamed publicly, and his sin is to be made known in public, until he returns to the good path.
This applies everywhere and always, for both men and women.
Shaming another person, according to the Sages is similar to killing that person. The Hebrew term for embarrassment implies that his face has turned pale, that all the blood has rushed out of his face. That is why they compare embarrassment to shedding blood. What actually constitutes shaming another person may depend on who that person is, what they are doing and their status in the community. And yet, all of these differences are not relevant to our discussion. If it is embarrassing to another person in any way, we should keep as far away from it as we can.
If someone once had a nickname that he or she has outgrown or if there was a school yard name or street name that he or she was once known by but now does not use, these names should not be used anymore lest you shame the person who was once called by that name. We all outgrow our childhood/adolescent nicknames, and they should not be a source of embarrassment when we mature beyond them.
The restriction on this law has to do with a person who ignores a ritual law (law between one man and Heaven). The rule is that when a person publicly violates a ritual law, it is assumed that he or she did it in error and should be advised, privately, about the error and given a chance to repent and to correct their action. If, after being advised privately, and rebuked privately, he or she continues to ignore the ritual law, it is then permitted (according to the Hafetz Hayim and other sages) to publicly shame that person into compliance. For example, if a person were to violate the laws of Shabbat and make purchases on the holy day, that person should be privately advised that spending money, making purchases and conducting business is all forbidden on Shabbat. If after this, that person continues to go shopping on Shabbat, he or she can be publicly admonished in synagogue that this behavior is not permitted, and this person can be disqualified from communal office and the reason, violating Shabbat, can be given as the reason for the disqualification.
In our modern era, I find this last restriction disturbing. In a world where Jews lived together, worked together and prayed together, this kind of public chastisement might have made a lot of sense. But today, when there are so many options for Jews to find community and to operate in the free open market, such a tactic to promote “conformity” in ritual seems to be counterproductive. It will not draw a Jew to reconsider ritual observance; it seems to me such a stance will drive that Jew farther away from his faith. Perhaps in insulated communities public embarrassment may work, but in the modern world of self-directed faith, such public embarrassment will not motivate anyone to change their behavior and may, instead, in the realm of public opinion, embarrass Judaism as a religious way of life.