Bava Kamma 86

Shame on you.

A few days ago, we learned that a person is assessed a penalty for humiliating another. On today’s daf, we find a mishnah that states: 

One who humiliates a naked person, or one who humiliates a blind person, or one who humiliates a sleeping person is liable.

The mishnah disabuses us of the assumption that these three types of people aren’t due the prescribed penalty, but for different reasons. Regarding the latter two categories, one might presume that a blind person can’t see that she’s been humiliated, and a sleeping person is unconscious and therefore unaware of the humiliation. But what of the naked person, who might lack clothing but not awareness? 

First, the Gemara quotes a beraita (early rabbinic text) that notes a difference in penalties for humiliation: higher if the person is clothed rather than naked, and higher if the shaming happens in the marketplace rather than in the bathhouse. Why is that? 

Is a naked person subject to humiliation? Rav Pappa said: What is naked? Where a gust of wind came and lifted his clothes, and then this one came and raised them higher and humiliated him.

The Gemara asks if it is even possible to humiliate a naked person, who presumably has no shame about their body since they are walking around without clothing. Rav Pappa envisions that the mishnah is referring to the action of a playground bully. The wind lifted up someone’s garments, and the bully came by and pulled them up even more. Remember, this was a time when people typically wore long tunics without undergarments.  

But what of the bathhouse, where everyone is naked? 

Rav Pappa said: Where he humiliated him on the bank of the river.

According to Rav Pappa, the incident took place not in an actual bathhouse, but by a river where people bathe one body part at a time, adjusting their clothing to preserve a modicum of modesty in a public place. Again, Rav Pappa imagines an assailant taking advantage of a partially naked person and lifting up their clothing further than the person intended. Being unclothed isn’t tantamount to shamelessness, and it doesn’t absolve the one who shames a naked person of liability.

To deepen our understanding, it is worthwhile to explore the word rendered here as humiliation: boshet. According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, humiliation comes from the Latin humiliare, meaning “to make low or humble,” and from humus, meaning “earth” (not the chickpea spread). When someone humiliates another, they bring them low in order to lord it over them. This is as true of playground bullies as of adults seeking to shame their neighbor in a moment of vulnerability. 

Best translated as “shame,” boshet is found in many places in the Torah. The disabled son of King Saul is named in the book of 2 Samuel as Ish-Boshet, which means “man of shame.” His similarly disabled son Mephiboshet’s name translates to “from a shameful mouth.” 

Here’s where it gets really interesting: Those names are reconfigured in the Book of Chronicles as Ish-baal and Mephi-baal. Baal, of course, was the primary god of the Canaanites. Several scholars have posited that boshet was used as a stand-in for the name of the foreign deity in the way those in Harry Potter’s world uttered “the one who shall not be named” as a substitute for Voldemort. 

Perhaps the opposite can also be true. Perhaps the Talmud is using boshet not only for its literal meaning, but to help us understand that one who humiliates another is no better than an idolator. In the next tractate we will learn that the rabbis believed that someone who humiliates another publicly is destined for Gehenna, the rabbinic equivalent of hell. This sort of behavior is so ungodly that the perpetrator doesn’t deserve to spend the afterlife with God. On today’s daf we learn that this is true even if the object of the humiliation is already standing naked.

Read all of Bava Kamma 86 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on January 27th, 2024. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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