Shabbat Parashat Tazria-Metsora| 5765
We are now in the midst (according to all opinions) of the time when we commemorate the death of Rabbi Akiva’s talmidim, whose sin was that they did not show respect one to another. How bad a sin could that be (and what does this have to do with Jewish civil law)?
One of the major topics in Choshen Mishpat is the prohibition and the legal consequences of ona’ah (mispricing). After completing discussion of this topic, the mishna in Bava Metzia (58b) makes the following strange comparison: “Just as there is ona’ah by commercial transactions, so is there ona’ah with words.” The mishna and the ensuing gemara bring examples of insults one might (but should not) make which could cause emotional pain to his counterpart. The gemara learns this from the seemingly unnecessary repetition of the phrase “lo tonu ish et amito” (Vayikra 25:17). But what is the connection between mispricing and insulting someone, which would allow Chazal to learn one from the other and compare them with the phrase, “k’shem (just like)”? What does the term “ona’ah” mean anyway?
The apparent explanation is as follows. “Ona’ah” is wronging a person. We are used to the concept that stealing from someone or hurting him with “sticks and stones” is considered real damage to a person, financially and personally, respectively. But many feel that one can use cunning to take more money from a customer than is appropriate. Even though the buyer agreed to the sale (and “let the buyer beware”), the seller still violated a serious prohibition. The matter is similar when one uses his tongue in a shrewd manner to cause emotional damage. Although no one asked the subject of the statement to take it to heart, he is likely to take offense and be pained, and the speaker violates the prohibition of ona’ah.
This comparison should teach us to compare the financial and emotional realms. When one wrongs his neighbor monetarily, it can often include hurt feelings, especially when the victim is previously downtrodden. In the other direction, words can certainly harm as much as, if not more than, the physical damages associated with sticks and stones. If we internalize this concept, we have attained a major portion of the lesson of the sefira period.
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