Verbal Abuse By Rabbi J Simcha Cohen
Question: I sometimes feel disrespected by my bosses but am hesitant to defend myself. What does Jewish law say about how employers should treat employees? Are there a set of rules that one should follow?
“Sticks and stones will break my bones, but names will never hurt me.” So goes a rhyme learned in childhood. It is a means of teaching children character and pride. The negative names others cruelly use to hurt or denigrate should not be allowed to inflict pain. Words are simply empty, meaningless gestures. No one should be depressed over such words. Physical abuse is a problem to fear. Verbal abuse should have no impact upon a person.
These sentiments are noble but contrary to reality. Verbal abuse can seriously hurt another. It can deflate ego, denigrate self esteem and depress character. It can be remembered for ages and cause the victim to harbor visions of revenge. In fact, to some -verbal brutality is more onerous and painful than a physical attack. The humiliation crystallized can seriously alter a lifestyle. Especially painful are the disrespectful verbal abuses emanating from an employer; Such experiences transform a daily work session into a grueling nightmare.
What does Jewish law say about this situation? How should one respond to verbal harassment and disrespect?
It should be noted that Scripture classifies verbal brutality as a sin, a violation of Jewish law. The Bible states, “V’lo tonu ish et amito”(Leviticus 25:17) A number of translations of the Bible miss the essence of this verse. The Jerusalem Bible(1980-Koren)says,”You shall not, therefore, defraud one another.”The old Jewish Publication Society version(1947) and the Menorah Press edition of the scriptures (1957) state ”and ye shall not wrong one another.” These translations are too general. They simply do not clearly state the specific wrongdoing that the Bible prohibits. The Talmud rules that this verse condemns the verbal slighting of the feelings or sensitivities of another.Jews, for example, are prohibited to make reference to a dubious past., to call someone jeering, nasty names, or even to arouse false hope such as by asking the price of an item that one does not intend to buy. (Bava Metzia 58b-59a)
Based upon the above Talmudic concerns, Samson Raphael Hirsch translates the verse to mean, “Ye shall not hurt the feelings of another.” In other words it is a Biblical command to not hurt the feelings of another. Just as Shabbat is important, so too are the sensitivities of another. One is prohibited to steal. So too is it a crime to make a person feel badly .In other words verbal abuse is comparable to physical abuse. Coupled to this is the position of Hillel who ruled that “what is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow. (Shabbat 31)
The difficulty is that the Talmud and Codes contend that rabbinic courts cannot rectify cases of verbal abuse.(See Bava Metzia 58b, Choshen Mishpat 228:1) In the event that an employer withholds wages, rabbinic courts are the proper vehicles to protect the rights of the employees. In sensitive issues involved with hurting the feelings of others, the problem is that an employer may argue that he never meant to hurt the feelings of his employees.. He may also contend that he truly respects the employee and that his words are really a form of endearment. Such arguments simply mute the power of the courts Accordingly, the Codes state that the recourse of the victim is to cry out to G-d, who is able to detect the true intentions of the employer and will punish him accordingly.(Choshen Mishpat Ibid.,) In other words, Jewish law does not provide to the victim any practical legal recourse..
There is, however, a pragmatic resolution which requires judgment as to whether it galvanizes a positive reolution or a probable negative reaction.
Biblical Jewish law mandates a reaction to the observance of a violation of a positive or negative commandment. One is required to privately admonish the sinner .(Hochai’ach To’chiach et amitecha- you shall reprove your fellow- [Leviticus 19:17])To the extent that it has been manifested that verbal abuse is a sin, this suggests that one may treat the person who is heaping verbal abuse upon another just as one would treat any violator of Jewish law. Namely, the so-called sinner is to be questioned and reproached about his actions.Such a discussion may be gentle and entail the following by a friend.“Are you aware that some of your statements about X really hurt his feelings? You probably do not realize his sensitivity to your behavior which is affecting his attitude during the workplace. I know you do not wish to simply hurt his feelings, so could you be so kind as to refrain from any negative tones or name calling. Please, you will see a changed person should you change.” These words may positively impact the employer. It may also incite him to further treat his employee with contempt. This is the judgment decision.