Is it written anywhere in the Torah that it is forbidden to embarrass someone?

Hocheiach tochiach es amisecha, v’lo sisa alav cheit, admonish your fellow and do not bear a sin because of him.”[1] If someone sees another person doing something or having done something wrong, it is a Mitzvah to approach the individual and steer him in the right direction. Despite the valor of accepting such responsibility, there is a warning. It should not be done in a way that the face of the person receiving the reprimand turns white from shame. If that were to occur, then the person who was seeking to correct someone else’s behavior, would be guilty of a transgression. Therefore, the sentence states, “Do not bear a sin.” What is the sin? Embarrassing the violator.

Now that the sin is identified, one may wonder why it was presented in the context of a violator who was offended, rather than more clearly as an independent law that applies regardless of the circumstances. The Torah thereby addresses the fact that even when there is good reason for critique, care must be exhibited to make certain that it is not done in a manner that is forbidden. Certainly, when there is no compelling reason to cause anguish, the violation applies.

The perpetrator is also in violation of another commandment, “V’lo sonu ish es amiso, you may not aggrieve your fellow,” with words that cause a person distress.[2] [3] Does this need instruction? Isn’t it obvious that such behavior is wrong? 

Indeed, that is the case. However, there may be circumstances that a person might justify paining another person. If, for example, one person caused someone grief, let’s say by insulting him, a person might reckon, “I’ll do to him what he did to me,” and return the insult. The Torah therefore instructs that even under those circumstances, one may not aggrieve another. It is noteworthy, that a person who hurls insults in return for what was thrown to him, is additionally in violation of, “Lo sikom, you may not take revenge.”[4] [5]

Rabbi Pinchas ben Yair was a great Tzaddik. His righteous daughter married the famed personality Rav Shimon bar Yochai. In one of his travels with his students, when reaching Ginai River that stood in his path, Rabbi Pinchas ben Yair proclaimed, “Ginai, Ginai, divide your waters for me!” The water did his bidding and split so he could go through. When he reached the other side of the river, his students called out to him, “Rebbe, what will be with us? Is it possible for us to go through the river as well?”

He responded to his students, “If you never shamed anyone and if you never treated the honor of someone else lightly, if you never caused anyone anguish, you can pass; the water will split for you.”[6]

How mindful are we to make sure that we, and others that we might be able to influence, do not cause anyone distress?  Do our words and actions show our consideration – will the Ginai River split for us?

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Hershel D. Becker

[1] Kedoshim 19:17

[2] Behar 25:17

[3] Chafetz Chaim Introduction Be’er Mayim Chaim 14

[4] Kedoshim 19:18

[5] Pele Yoeitz Ona’ah

[6] Jerusalem Talmud Demai 1:3), see Chullin 7a