Talmud Tips

For the week ending 26 November 2016 / 25 Heshvan 5777

Bava Metzia 58 - 64

by Rabbi Moshe Newman
The Color of Heaven Artscroll

A Talmudic Sage taught the following in the presence of Rabbi Nachman bar Yitzchak: “One who embarrasses another in public is as if he is committing murder.”

Rav Nachman agreed with this teaching that he heard, and added a further explanation: “At first, the face of the embarrassed person turns red, and then it turns white, indicating a form of bloodshed. Tosefot notes that the victim’s face first turns red since the person’s blood gathers there in an attempt to “flee from the body of the person”. Although this sounds like a physical change in the person that might be seen as causing him a type of death, the wording “as if he is committing murder” perhaps indicates that it is not to be judged as actual murder.

Our sugya (59a) also states that, “It is better for one to throw himself into a fiery furnace than to embarrass another person in public.” This is learned from the willingness of Tamar to be killed rather than cause embarrassment to Yehuda, as explained in the gemara.

Nevertheless, the question of whether this comparison between homicide and public humiliation is literal or metaphorical is a subject of dispute among the Rishonim.

Tosefot in Tractate Sotah (10b) appears to take the equation of public humiliation with committing murder literally. Tosefot asks why this terrible act is not listed along with the three cardinal prohibitions for which one must choose martyrdom and give up one’s life, rather than transgress. The difference, explains Tosefot, is that those other three prohibitions mentioned in the Talmud as a group that require martyrdom are explicitly mentioned in the Torah as requiring self-sacrifice. Public embarrassment of another person is not explicitly mentioned in the Torah as requiring martyrdom, despite its great seriousness and its being akin to murder.

The Meiri, however, in his commentary to the gemara in Sotah, disagrees with Tosafot on this point. He does not interpret the statement, “It is better for one to throw himself into a fiery furnace than to embarrass another person in public” as an obligation to martyrdom. Rather it is meant to stress the great severity of causing public embarrassment. I once heard from a great Rabbi in Jerusalem that this is hinted to by the words “It is better”, rather than our Sages definitively stating that “It is required.”

Many halachic authorities discuss the ramifications of this extremely serious prohibition in their responsa throughout the ages, and most agree that one is not required to give up his own life if faced with being forced to humiliate another person. (Of course, “Talmud Tips” is never meant to serve as a source for any halachic decision, and each person should approach his own Rav for any actual halachic ruling on any topic.)

  • Bava Metzia 58a

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