INSULT, disparagement or defamation of the character or injury to the feelings of another (Heb. boshet, ona'at devarim, halbanat panim, hoẓa'at shem ra). The rabbis of the Talmud distinguished between two main types of insult: that which causes embarrassment and verbal oppression. The primary biblical injunction against the first type of insult is, "Thou shalt surely rebuke thy neighbor, and not suffer sin upon him" (Lev. 19:17). Thus, wrongdoing should be admonished, but in a way that will not cause embarrassment. Even more so, embarrassing one who is innocent of wrongdoing is prohibited (Ar. 16b). The talmudic formulation of the sin of insult is halbanat panim (lit. "blanching of the face") which, when committed in public, is equated with murder and deprives the offender of his share in the world to come (BM 58b). This idea is emphasized in the talmudic statement: "Let a man rather cast himself into a fiery furnace than shame his fellow in public" (BM 59a). For this reason, the rabbis often did not deny unjust accusations against themselves and allowed misdeeds of which they were innocent to be attributed to themselves, rather than cause embarrassment by revealing the identity of the true culprits. They derived this ethical principle from such biblical sources as, "And Shechaniah … said unto Ezra: We have broken faith with God and have married foreign women …" (Ezra 10:2). Shechaniah included himself even though he was guiltless (Sanh. 11a). Included in the type of insult that causes embarrassment is the application of a derogatory nickname or epithet to one's fellow even if he is accustomed to that appellation (BM 58b). Related to the injunction against shaming is the commandment, "Ye shall not oppress one another" (Lev. 25:17), which the Talmud interprets as the second type of insult, namely, verbal oppression (ona'at devarim). Any taunt or expression of derision or gloating directed at someone which results in his mental anguish is prohibited. Thus it is forbidden to remind a repentant sinner or a proselyte of their past; or to quote to one who is suffering, "… who ever perished being innocent?" (Job 4:7); or to ask someone for an opinion on a topic of which he is known to be ignorant. In the view of the Talmud verbal oppression is more heinous than financial oppression, because it affects the victim's inner self, and because no real restoration is possible (BM 58b; Maim. Yad, Mekhirah, 14:18). The Torah enunciates additional prohibitions against insulting orphans and widows (Ex. 22:21), because of their sense of dejection (Maim. Yad, De'ot, 6:10), and proselytes (Ex. 22:20; Lev. 19:33), because of their vulnerability (Sefer Ḥinnukh, 63) and for fear that they may revert to their former state (BM 59b). Likewise, the Talmud prohibits insulting one's wife, "for she is readily moved to tears" (BM 59a). One who insults a Torah scholar (talmid ḥakham) is particularly condemned in the Talmud as one who "has spurned the word of the Lord" (Num. 15:31) and is considered a heretic (apikoros; Sanh. 99b). According to halakhah, a person may receive financial redress for intentional embarrassment (boshet) caused him through a physical assault. The amount of compensation is determined by considering the degree of shame, and the status and reputation of the offender and the injured party. Although this compensation is limited to embarrassment arising from physical acts, the rabbis of the post-talmudic era prescribed a variety of penalties for purely verbal insult, including excommunication (niddui), flogging, and fines (ḤM 420:38). However, in cases where the insult is derived from a false statement, i.e., calumny (moẓi shem ra), the rabbis of the Talmud did prescribe penalties commensurate with the nature of the slander (Kid. 28a). Despite the strong injunctions against and penalties for the various types of insult, one is permitted to insult inveterate and unrepentant sinners, after the manner of the prophets, in order to secure their repentance and correction (Maim. Yad, De'ot, 6:8; Sefer Ḥinnukh, 240). Although some authorities maintain that when one is being insulted he may justifiably defend himself by responding in kind, the sages nevertheless praise the person who chooses to suffer indignities in silence: "Those who are insulted but do not insult, hear themselves reviled but do not answer … of them the Scriptures say, 'They who love Him are as the sun when He goeth forth in His might'" (Shab. 88b).


Y.M. Kagan, Ḥafeẓ Ḥayyim (1963), passim; M. Lichstin, Mitzvot ha-Levavot (1924), 37–41; I. Epstein, Judaism (1959), 132ff.

[Joshua H. Shmidman]

Source: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.