כ״ב במרחשון ה׳תשע״ז (November 23, 2016)

Bava Metzia 58a-b: The Transgression of Verbal Mistreatment

The Mishna on today’s daf teaches that ona’a – a term that we have defined as “monetary exploitation” or “unfair business transactions” – applies not only to buying and selling, but to other areas of personal interaction, as well. Thus, it is prohibited for a person to ask a shopkeeper for the price of an object that he has no interest in purchasing. This ona’at devarim (verbal mistreatment) applies in a range of other situations, as well – the Mishna includes reminding a ba’al teshuva (a penitent) of his earlier sins, or the child of a convert of the sins of his parents.

According to the Meiri, the main concept of ona’at devarim is the emotional pain and suffering that one person causes to another, whose linguistic root can be found in a passage in Yeshayahu (49:21). As we have seen, the Mishna opens by describing a case of ona’at devarim that is connected with a commercial transaction, but then continues by including personal matters in this category, as well.

The baraita quoted by the Gemara assigns a passage in Vayikra (25:14) as the source for ordinary, commercial, ona’a, and a later pasuk (Vayikra 25:17) as the source for ona’at devarim. Rabbi Yohanan quotes Rabbi Shimon bar Yohai as teaching that ona’at devarim is the more severe of the two, since the Torah includes a comment that “you shall fear your God” in the passage from which we learn ona’at devarim. The Maharsha explains that this may stem from the fact that a person who is committing ona’at devarim will often deny the accusation, showing that he fears his fellow man – who cannot know his true intention – more than he fears God, who certainly knows what truly is his intent.

Sages in the Gemara are quoted as pointing to a number of reasons that ona’at devarim is considered so severe. Rabbi Elazar suggests that it is the difference between making the individual suffer personally or making his money suffer; Rabbi Shmuel bar Nahmani argues that money can always be returned, but ona’at devarim cannot be undone.

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