Types of Speech
Vows and oaths are speech acts that are also carefully regulated, in light of the Torah's insistence that after a person takes such a step, “he shall not break his pledge; he must carry out all that has crossed his lips” (Numbers 30:3). But just the biblical text made some provision for releasing a person from his or her vows, so the larger Jewish legal tradition endow sages with the power, under limited circumstances, to free someone from self-imposed restrictions, even when speaking them aloud has endowed them with the force of law. That is a last resort, though; Jewish tradition discourages us from using language that even smacks of such formulations. In that way, many difficulties and transgressions may be avoided.
Fraud may be committed in ways that do not cause financial harm, but are no less harmful for that. One may defraud another by words alone, robbing someone of self-respect or self-confidence, or raising his or her hopes unfairly. The early rabbinic sages defined a category of “fraud by words” (ona’at devarim), and included it in the biblical prohibitions against the more common fraud whose effects are primarily material, not emotional. Thus, for example, one may not remind another person of his humble origins or ignominious past, nor may one “give the runaround” to a person in need, sending him to supposed sources of aid that will provide only disappointment. Even the use of a seemingly harmless nickname can inflict suffering—and thus qualify for this broad label of ona’at devarim.
Closely related is the category of geneivat da‘at, literally “stealing someone’s mind,” which refers to activities that build up false positive impressions of one’s intentions, as, for example, by offering to do a favor for someone you know is not in need of such assistance.
The victim of another person’s harmful acts, be they verbal or more concrete, is encouraged by biblical and rabbinic prescription to confront the offender verbally, rather than bear a grudge or harbor hatred. In the biblical book of Leviticus, these rules are the prelude to the well-known admonition to “love your neighbor as yourself”: “You shall not hate your kinsfolk in your heart. Reprove your kinsman, and incur no guilt because of him. You shall not take vengeance, or bear a grudge against your countrymen” (Leviticus 19:17-18).
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