Embarrassing People, Parshat Vayayshev

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Resource Goal


  • To learn what Halbanat Pnei Chaveiro is

  • To understand why we should try to refrain from embarrassing people

To learn a little about Ahavat Yisrael

Resource Contents


halbanat panim:

causing someone to blanch by public embarrassment (lit. whitening the face)

In Pirke Avot we read that one should "cherish another's honor as one's own." (Avot 2:15) Even more dramatically, a little later in the text, Rabbi Elazar HaModai warns us that someone who shames another in public has no share in the world to come! (Avot 3:15) The later halachic texts pick up on these early statements and expound them both legally and morally, really driving home the point that we must be careful of each other's feelings.

Urhcj hbp ,bckv- lit. Embarrassing people- is evidently considered a very serious action in our halacha. When you embarrass someone else, you are really saying that you are special, have something to offer to the world and have worth. On the other hand, the other person has no such worth and you can demonstrate that in public by embarrassing him. By making the other person feel self-conscious, ill-at-ease and worthless, you have symbolically testified that the person has no Tzelem Elokim- (G-dly Image), and that in effect is like killing him!

We must be very careful in all inter-personal relationships not to cause embarrassment and shame. Remember:

à That which is hateful to you do not do to others! ß

Parsha Link

Heres the story so far

Yehuda is one of Yosef's brothers, in fact the one who suggested selling him. After their father Yakov is grieved over the loss of Yosef, Yehuda goes off and marries and has three sons, Er, Onan, and Shelah. He found a wife named Tamar for his first son Er, but Er spilled his seed and died as a result.

Yehuda had his second son fulfill the mitzvah of Yirbum, of marrying his childless deceased brother's wife, but he also, spilled his seed and died. Yehuda hesitated to give his third son to Tamar, so she returned to her father's house as a widow.

Eventually, Yehuda's own wife passes away and he goes on a business trip. Tamar dresses like a prostitute and sits by the side of the road. Yehuda doesn't

Rabbeinu Yonah rules explicitly thatOne must sacrifice his life rather than publicly shame his fellow Jew.

Shaarei Teshuvah (3:139)

recognize her and visits her and leaves his signet ring, and she becomes pregnant. A few months later, when her pregnancy is evident, Yehuda orders her to be burned.

A terrible scandal was brewing. Tamar, Yehudahs daughter in law, was about to be taken out to be burned to death, yet she refused to tell anyone that it was Yehudah who was her real husband. Shed rather allow herself to be burned to death than to embarrass him in public. Under no circumstances would she reveal the secret, since she didnt want to shame Yehudah.

Now that the court had sentenced her to be burned according to the laws of those days she had every reason in the world to reveal the secret and save not only her life but the life of her two twin children that were about to be born. Yet she remained silent. If not for the fact that Yehudah had the great courage to admit his guilt, she would have actually been burned at the stake and died an innocent and tragic death, taking her two children with her. No wonder her reward was so great. Kings and prophets descended from her. Only the noblest women in the world could have shown such sensitivity to the shame of others.

Yet the Gemara learns from this story, (and by the way it is also a law in the Shulchan Aruch), that a person is required to throw himself into a burning fire rather than put someone to shame in public. This means that one cannot say that only a great righteous person like Tamar must act this way, but even the simplest person is required to act in such a way.

It's Embarrassing to Embarrass

Our sages wrote in the Gemara Bava Metzia that embarrassing someone is like spilling their blood.

Our sages further tell us in Gemara Ketuvot, 'It is better for a person to throw himself into a fiery furnace than to shame someone in public.'

Before you say something about someone, think twice. Then think again. Could this thing be embarrassing?

à He got a low grade on the test.

à Her clothes are not so nice.

à He is always late.

à He is doing much better than last year.

à The teacher told her off today.

All of these things, besides being lashon hara, can also be embarrassing. We learn from Tamar how terrible it is to embarrass someone. Don't get caught. Stop before you say it!

Time for a story of inspiration:

Rabbi Akiva Eiger once invited a poor man to his home on Friday night. At the meal, a beautiful white tablecloth covered the Shabbos table. When the poor man lifted his glass of wine, it slipped out of his hand, and the red liquid spilled over the pure white cloth, leaving an ugly blotch. Seeing the poor man squirm in embarrassment, Rabbi Eiger immediately lifted his own glass of wine, and also "accidentally" spilled it over the tablecloth. As the poor man looked on in great relief, Rabbi Eiger remarked, "it seems as if the table or the floor is shaking, doesn't it?" He had been willing to make himself look careless (and to soil a nice tablecloth) just to spare the shame of another.

It is fine to express our thoughts and feelings about things. But it is very important to think before speaking and make sure that our words won't embarrass or offend anyone else.

The Torah relates that when Moses, the great Jewish leader, knew that his life was drawing to an end, he realized that it was his duty to speak to the Nation of Israel. He wanted to inspire the people he had led for forty years to face what the future would bring as well as to remind them of their past mistakes so that they wouldn't repeat them.

Yet Moses was very careful not to mention any of these mistakes straight out in a way that could embarrass anyone. Rather he tactfully hinted in a way that would get his point across as painlessly as possible.

The Torah is teaching us here how important it is to be sensitive to the feelings of others and do whatever we can never to embarrass anyone.If Hashem's Torah laws deliberately avoid the shaming of others, then we should certainly be careful not to embarrass our fellow man.

Our Rabbis say that whoever insults his fellow man in public forfeits his place in the world to come. (Bava Metziah 59a). The reason is a simple one. One can kill a man only once with a knife, but he can slay him many times over with a shameful word.

The Chafetz Chayim (Introduction to Shimirat Halashon) stresses that the prohibition for us not to

"Man is the only animal that blushes. Or needs to."
--Mark Twain--

shame one another is not limited to public humiliation. Even shaming one privately is a violation of a negative commandment. The Torah (Vayikra ) warns us to rebuke our peers with sensitivity, lest we embarrass them, and thus bear sin. (Based on Gemara Erachin 16b). This prohibition does not distinguish between public or private shaming. In addition, even one who shames in private violates the general imperative of "lo tonu" (Vayikra 25:17), not to cause pain or sorrow to another Jew.


Think back to the last time someone embarrassed you in public. How did you feel? Pained? Hurt? Mortified? Since the Torah teaches us not to embarrass another person, the Sages suggest one think along these lines when he or she is in a position to embarrass another person. How far must a person have to go to avoid embarrassing a fellow man? Let us address this question with a story about Rabbi Boruch Ber Lebowitz, one of the greatest scholars and rabbinical authority of the twentieth century:

This story may seem extreme but remember- our Sages teach us that a person should throw himself into a burning furnace rather than embarrass someone


Rabbi Boruch Ber and his wife often had guests at their Shabbos table. Rav Boruch Ber's wife would first serve everyone their food, and would she would then herself sit down at the table. One Shabbos, as his wife was still serving the cholent (a hot dish primarily served on the afternoon of Shabbos), and Rav Boruch Ber had already been served his cholent, Rav Boruch tasted his food, quickly ate his portion, and then asked for more. He soon finished his second portion and asked for a third helping. He continued to ask for more cholent. As this behavior was very uncharacteristic of Rav Boruch Ber, his wife realized that something was going on. She came to the table to find that everyone other than her husband had barely touched the cholent. She tasted her portion of cholent and spit it out. It tasted so awful that she could not understand how her husband had found it so tasty.

However, in reality, Rav Boruch Ber had not found the food to be tasty at all. After he had tasted the cholent he had immediately realized that his wife had accidentally poured kerosene instead of oil into the cholent. He knew that his wife would be very embarrassed if she discovered her mistake. He had therefore tried to consume the entire pot of cholent so as to spare his wife the potential embarrassment!

In addition to not embarrassing others, we are prohibited from causing others emotional hurt. Yet we often do so. For instance, when sitting among friends or colleagues, we think of a witty remark to contribute to the conversation. The remark is amusing and sure to cause alot of laughs, but it is also offensive and may hurt or embarrass someone.

Rabbi Dovid Orlofsky, explains that in this all too common scenario we justify our verbalizing this funny one liner by rationalizing; "but it's funny", we tell ourselves. However, in this situation it is best to overcome our desire to share this remark and realize that the self-satisfaction of not having hurt someone lasts longer than the giggles. Not only should we not embarrass or hurt others, but also bear in mind that the way we treat others is the way they will treat us in turn.

Let us recall how far Rav Boruch Ber Lebowitz went to avoid embarrassing his wife. Through remembering his example and similar stories of numerous torah luminaries, which illustrate the requisite sensitivity, and caring, we will become more sensitive to the feelings of others. We will then become more sensitive people and thereby better fulfill the commandment to not embarrass or hurt others.

We must always remember not to embarrass people but rather greet them with a smile and always go that extra mile for our friends and even people we do not know.

"A person who is only concerned with himself, will wake up one morning and question his worth. A person who gives his time and effort to others will know his worth when he sees the fruits of his labour."Yoni Jesner

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