Talmud Justice and Ethics
Wronging With Words

Wronging with Words -Bava Metzia 58b-59b


I.        Look at portion 1. This is the Mishnah text we’ll consider today. Note as we start that the discussion in this tractate both before and after the text we’ll examine relates to wronging in buying and selling. This focus is itself loaded with law, justice, and ethics issues. We’ll not touch much on these commercial issues, but I must ask your opinion: Why do you think the sages would go off on the tangent, as important as it is, of wronging by words, in this particular commercial discussion?                           


Let’s actually unpack the three areas of speech that get attention in the Mishnah.

Read portion 1.

A.      Look at the first example. What does it mean? And why is it there?

(When we ask the price of something that we have no intention of buying we’re stealing the time and attention of the owner or salesperson. This is, it seems to me, a nice way of transitioning from commerce to words since it actually involves both. Further, as the note suggests, a person who has no intent to buy won’t say so and instead walks away. This adds further insult in that it makes the item seem undesirable or not worth the price. This view might spread, causing further harm to the merchant.)

B. What’s the second? What’s the wrong it intends to prevent?

(Once a person has repented, it’s an offense for another to bring the original wrong back up, as if to further punish a person with these words after punishment has been enacted and repentance achieved.

We’re now away from commerce altogether and into the “transactions of words” alone.)

C. What’s the third? And what’s intended here?

A person has, let’s say, converted to the ways of a particular community. Here it’s a matter of faith. One could see the matter through other similar associations. In any event, using these words might suggest the new member isn’t wholly committed, is untrue, or still is attached to some former way, perhaps even wrongly so. Plus, it’s cruel and/or unfair speech on the part of the speaker.)

D. Why start with these three areas of wrongful speech? There are so many others that could have been used.

(The first is especially useful in that it plays the transitional role we discussed. I think the other two signal a particular sensitivity to protecting the position of the weak against wrongful speech. The penitent and the convert are in a particularly weak state, vulnerable in distinctive ways. If we start by understanding that we can’t wrong them with words, we’re in a better position to learn about the ethics of dealing with people whose position and power are closer to ours, as we both go through the remainder of our study today as well as in our day-to-day lives.)

II. Read portion 2. I want to focus on the logic here because it’s an interesting way to sample a form of Talmud reasoning. Can you see how this baraisa finds a Torah-based explanation for prohibiting verbal wrongdoing?

 (The text looks to two verses in Leviticus, one of which clearly sanctions wronging another in commerce. Yet, there’s a nearby verse that again bans wronging another, but does not specify for what. The conclusion is that this is not repetitious and thus must cover another type of wronging. The sage’s mind jumps to verbal wronging. Is this natural, convenient, a reasonable moral flow, or does it reflect some other reasoning within the Talmud? I’m not asking you to judge the strength or logic of this exercise. It is important for you to see and sample. This sanction from Torah to see the discrete nature  of wronging by words fuels the rest of the discussion.)

III. Read portion 3. This language moves beyond the areas covered in the Mishnah, and in important ways. What’s the wrongful behavior, and why do the sages go to it?

 (Verbal wronging here involves first assuming that a person who is suffering, as Job did, must be doing so because it’s the will of God and then saying as much to the sufferer, as did Eliphaz did to Job. So, what’s the wrong in that?

One, the speaker acts as if he/she has a knowledge of why people suffer in all instances, which is not a knowledge human beings have. Two, it’s hurtful to the sufferer. There are other ways of kinder speech, properly motivated, to remind another to examine his/her deeds, but this isn’t even close to that. Three, it shows how a speaker can use God to abuse another and act in a way that is also abusive of God.

This brings into focus a crucial matter that launches the next piece of the discussion - the importance of God’s involvement in how we live, specifically as to our choices of words in speech. There’s a fine line, though, between acknowledging and acting on that involvement and using God as a cudgel to hurt others in areas where we should be modest about our true knowledge and sensitive to the hurt of others. This caveat is timely placed as the discussion flows into places in which awareness of God’s involvement with us becomes central.

IV. Read portion 4. Intent matters a lot. The note speaks to this, but I’ll ask it: why does fear of God matter to the determination of intent, which helps determine whether there actually was wrongdoing?

(In this tradition, it is the fear of God that causes a person to be careful about acting on bad intentions and trying to cover it. For such people, since God knows what’s in their heart, thus, even the inclination to bad behavior both internally and externally is unacceptable. This is the basis for realistically expecting the speaker to the donkey-driver would advise them  honestly. In other words, there are words that can hurt but for which a person might very well escape punishment (because, for example, the wronged party might never be able to prove intent). These sages say fear of God is the deterrent in such matters.

We’ll not get into faith issues here, but it’s clear to these wisdom writers that reverence for God is crucial in certain ways to maintaining many aspects of living within their ethical structure.)

V. This discussion of fear of God transitions nicely to Portion 5.

Read Portion 5.

Why would wronging another with words be a greater sin than wronging another as to money?

(The cited reason is that the words, “one should fear God” is mentioned next to verbal wronging but not next to monetary wronging. Why else?

It affects the person’s self, not just the outward matter of his/her money, and presumably and generally does greater harm, at least in many cases. It’s less likely to be seen or heard by others and thus corrected than, say, price fraud (though not so always). Often, the speech that wrongs another is done in public or in front of others to lead the others to a false way of seeing the wronged party and/or to draw public support or sympathy for the wrongdoer. So, the wrongdoer both prizes public opinion more than God and believes he/she can get away with it without consequence from God or others. This is grievous.

Finally, it’s easier to effect restitution when the damage is in the equivalent of money and thus is easier and more likely to effect than when the damage is in the harder-to-know and harder-to-measure area of words.)

VI. Now we go to another form of verbal wronging.

Read Portion 6.

A. What’s this matter of saying something that makes a person’s face turn white all about?

(Embarrassing another in public, or perhaps shaming him/her in public. This is so bad, as we read in the next few verses, that two forms of embarrassing or slandering another in public are serious enough (along with cohabiting with another man’s wife) to be the ways that a person is unable to ascend from Gehinnom (then a place regarded as a sort of hell or purgatory). We’ll discuss why that might be so in a moment.)

B. There’s a lengthy discussion that follows about how humiliating a person is actually worse than cohabiting with another’s wife. The text uses a tale about King David and a tale about Tamar to prove up this point. We won’t go into those stories today, but why is there such a concern here about humiliating another in public? This is seen as a particularly bad form of speech.

(Is it that the damage could be incalculable? The negative effects could ripple in so many ways and directions, to and through so many people, one could never measure or make up for it. Is it that there’s no punishment in court, no “human justice” to be brought to the wrongdoer? It’s extremely painful, in that the party wronged feels the pain and anxiety caused by the fear of incalculable damage to reputation, etc.,and lack of recourse, ability to stop it, or get justice. Other?)

VII. A. Now the next piece of text is specifically geared to those of you who are married! I’ve been nicer to my wife just since I’ve recently studied these words!

A. Read Portion 7.

There’s clearly a sense in Jewish sacred text that even when the gates of heaven might be closed to prayer they are open to tears, to our cries. Psalm 39 is used to justify that position, though one can certainly read that psalm to say something different. But here’s my question: what do the notions that the heaven is open up to tears and that a wife might cry upon being verbally wronged by her husband teach us in our study?

(If one hurts another, causing the other who is susceptible to cry, to cry out in pain, God will hear and respond and punish the wrongdoer. In other words, there’s a Divine interest (special importance) in our not causing pain and provoking a cry to God by our words, especially with those, such as our wives, whom our words might particularly hurt. Whether you are religious or not, in what “real world” ways is one punished for using words that cause our spouse to cry out in pain?


B.     Read Portion 8.

We see more here on the matter of heaven’s being open or not. What do we learn that’s important?

(In a God-centered world, there’s a special opening in heaven to the cry of one who has been wronged, as if to say there is recourse here where there may not be elsewhere or otherwise. And God punishes the wrongdoer. I don’t want us to get into a discussion about theodicy. We surely could, but not today. My interest is simply to point out how serious it is to these sages from a faith tradition for one to cause wrong to another, triggering God’s help to the wronged and punishment to the wrongdoer.

VII. This goes on in portion 9. Robbery, wrongdoing, and idolatry are the three offenses that draw an immediate reaction from God. Why would these three rise to the top of the list together in severity?

(There’s again a sense in which these are, as with the most obvious of them, idolatry, offensive to God. They’re in the Divine face, echoing of acts that we discussed earlier that use words to humiliate another; but this time the object is God. We dishonor God, both when we do so directly and in acts that abuse creatures made in the Divine image. Robbery and wrongdoing are often treacherous and harmful, show contempt to others, hurt them, and often in ways in which it’s difficult to assess damage and punish.)

VIII. A. Now we get to another example of hedging. We saw the importance of hedging and examples of it in our first session’s consideration of the Sayings of the Fathers.

Read portion 10.

What’s the hedge, and why do we have it?

(If we don’t quarrel with our wives, we’re far less likely to wrong them with words. In other words, to keep ourselves from the wrongdoing that leads to the severe punishment we discussed a moment ago, we discipline ourselves  from getting into a quarrel in the first place. We’ve actually tried to build this hedge in the Kress household, and it generally works!)

In the discussion here, the Gemara gets very practical.

Read Portion 11.

What is the most common (and presumably dangerous) cause of quarrels? How? In what ways?

(Inadequate food (or perhaps resources). We often hear in our own day the similar thought that money is the chief cause of discontent in marriage. Again, why, and in what ways? Recall the drift here - we’re concerned about wronging the wife with words; we’re advised to avoid quarrels; now we’re told if we prevent scarcity of needed resources, this will help us  prevent quarrels.)

C. The final hedge in this patch of text is in Portion 12. What is it, and how does it help?

(When we honor our wives, there’s blessing in the house. In other words, the more we feel and show honor, the bigger the hedge we build against getting into quarrels as well then as wronging with words.

D. So, pulling away a bit, why the emphasis on not wronging our spouse with words?


IX. Story time!

Now this story we’re about to consider is one of the Hall of Fame stories in Jewish text. It is not in your handout today but it is on the web in our ThirdWell website [here].

It’s used to show that God has already revealed the Divine instructions and, though still interested in our affairs and involved in our lives, God does not come down any longer to make decisions about implementing those instructions. That’s for us to do - the best we can through appropriate and right processes. Yet, while that’s the main lesson that has been extracted for other purposes, there’s a different reason for us to pay attention here, given the nature of our focus on wronging by words.

Here’s the background: there was an issue about whether an oven was constructed in a manner that was, essentially, kosher for use. R’ Eliezer says it was; the other sages say it wasn’t.

Let’s join in.

Read Portion 13.

(Explain words and comments during the reading, such as the reference to “it is not in heaven” quote. Then explain the impact of what’s happened on Jewish jurisprudence and notions of God’s continuing role in such things.)

Before we go on, do take note that, though overruled, R’Eliezer had the correct ruling, that is, one that had the approval of God.

X. Let’s read on, Portion 14. What strikes you about this part of the story?

(It seems excessive. Burning the items in his presence and excommunicating him seem over the top. It has the feeling of something we studied earlier today. What?

It seems like an extreme version of the wrongdoing of public shame and humiliation. We’ll read on, but this is important to note.)

XI. Now the sages need to inform him of their act of excommunication.

Read Portion 15.

What’s R’ Akiva worried about? We’re now back to words! He fears that if Eliezer is informed disrespectfully, it will bring about “the destruction of the world,” meaning what?

We’ve addressed this in a way already. Wronging by words is a serious offense both to the one wronged and God. Let’s recall that although the majority rules, Eliezer had taken a position favored by God. Surely, the Divine wouldn’t be pleased by his humiliation and mistreatment both in words and actions. This is another way of expressing the punishment that would be delivered as a consequence of the wrongdoing.)

XII. Now there are different accounts of what happened next. Let’s read the first in Portion 16. Now, Portion 17. Now, Portion 18.

So many questions arise.

A.      Akiva’s respectful approach didn’t really work? Why do you think it did not?

B.     What does Gamaliel say in his own defense, which, in the second account. seemed to turn the tide and save him?

C.     Yet, the third account has a different outcome for Gamaliel. Why would the Gemara report a completely different account? Is this inconsistent with the previous account? Or did it occur later?

D.     What does all this mean?

(Fundamentally, I think that when people put wrongdoing in motion, mere words to the person who has been wronged, however nicely delivered, are words that still unleash bad results. The treatment of Eliezer (humiliation and excommunication) went very far beyond what was appropriate in simply overturning his views.

Gamaliel makes a decent case that perhaps Eliezer’s actions (in opposing the majority decision, which we really don’t see explicitly) merited excommunication. This seems to turn the tide, for the moment.

But there’s apparently greater weight to the wrong done Eliezer. After all, he spoke for the position favored by God and was treated in a wrongful way. Maybe the Gemara contains both accounts to teach us that very little is black or white. Even when wrong is done, it’s not purely so. It may merit punishment, even when there are certain mitigating facts.

Other thoughts?

XIII. Why do you think this treatment of wrongful words ends with this story instead of a variety of other possibilities?

(I think that it teaches that one must be especially careful in one’s actions and words in dealing with another who genuinely and actually pursues a position in the interest of heaven. That person’s position might not prevail in a debate or in a vote, but humiliating that person and excluding him/her is wrong, and the report of it to him/her, however it is done, amounts to wrongful words confirming wrongful acts. How we use words when we’re dealing with matters important to God and the community, how we treat each other in the enterprise of making such decisions - all of this is crucially important. Indeed we’re led to believe here that how we treat each other, especially in avoiding wrongdoing - here in words - in the process of making decisions is as, if not more, important than the decisions themselves.

Further - and this is a basic flaw in extracting this story out its context to prove the point that God has left the scene for such determinations to be made by a majority - the majority must treat the minority with respect, both in deed and word. As an aside, this is a lesson I think folks in politics today, on both sides, could afford to learn, don’t you think?)

The Genara concludes by returning to the instruction in the Mishnah about not wronging a convert through words. But, we’ll conclude our discussion with the powerful story of Eliezer.


A. The next Mishnah in the tractate gets back to ethics in business practices. But, given what we’ve been discussing today, wronging by words, it should not surprise us that the next topic involves the instruction not to deceive in business through misleading buyers. Nice transition back to commerce, just as we had a nice transition from commerce to the matter we discussed today. As we’ve learned, there are many reasons to avoid wronging by speech. It’s only natural in a text about civil damages that we go back to commercial matters through issues there that involve wrongful speech.

B. Time for final thoughts. What do we take away from todays study, especially considering the way our learning flowed from the Mishnah through the treatment in the Gemara?

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