Bava Metzia 58

Verbal exploitation.

After extensive discussion of ona’at mekach, exploitation or fraudulence in business, the Gemara turns to a new mishnah to discuss the topic of ona’at devarim, verbal exploitation. Further down on the daf, the Gemara will derive the two types of ona’ah from the twice-repeated prohibition of lo tonu (“do not exploit/defraud one another”) in Leviticus 25:14 and 25:18. The mishnah explains what verbal exploitation means:

Just as there is a prohibition against exploitation in buying and selling, so is there verbal exploitation. One may not say to a seller, “For how much are you selling this item?” if he does not wish to purchase it. If one is a penitent, another may not say to him: “Remember your earlier deeds.” If one is the child of converts, another may not say to him: “Remember the deeds of your ancestors,” as it is stated: And a convert shall you neither exploit, nor shall you oppress him. (Exodus 22:20)

Each of the mishnah’s example statements can be unnecessarily hurtful and denigrating. I get a store owner’s hopes up for a sale, then I decide not to make a purchase. I remind a person of their sinful past or non-Jewish ancestry, implying that they are somehow chained to their backgrounds and thus not authentic members of the community. Still, this list seems selective and idiosyncratic. Why doesn’t the mishnah include more overt examples of verbal wronging such as humiliating another person, cursing at them or gossiping about them? Maimonides explains the deeper thread binding these examples:

“The Mishnah provides us with instances in which the person speaking can act with cunning deceptiveness. For example, a person claims that he wants to purchase an object, then says, ‘I don’t want to buy it.’ Or he asks another person who’s ignorant about a specific matter to explain it to him, to humiliate him. He then argues, ‘I thought he was knowledgeable about that topic.’ Or he tells other people stories about that person to denigrate him then claims, ‘It was never my intention to hurt him, as you thought.’ To this kind of behavior, the Torah responds, “You shall fear your God.” (Leviticus 25:18) God takes note of your true intentions when you make these kinds of statements, even if other human beings can’t.” (Mishnah Commentary on Bava Metzia 4:10)

For Maimonides, verbal ona’ah involves statements that are plausibly innocent but intentionally cruel. This kind of behavior constitutes verbal fraud of the worst sort, just as exploiting someone in buying and selling constitutes business fraud.

Commenting on the mishnah, the Gemara cites a beraita which expands the examples of verbal ona’ah:

If torments are afflicting a person, if illnesses are afflicting him, or if he is burying his children, one may not speak to him in the manner that the friends of Job spoke to him: Is not your fear of God your confidence, and your hope the integrity of your ways? Remember, I beseech you, whoever perished, being innocent? (Job 4:6–7) 

At the simplest level, implying that someone who is suffering must have done something sinful to deserve that suffering is just cruel. Judaism demands that we sit in compassionate silence with those who suffer and forbids us from bombarding them with “holy harassment” as Job’s friends did to him. At a deeper level, these theological bromides constitute an even more insidious form of verbal fraudulence. We might say these things to a sufferer out of callousness, “sincere” piety or deep discomfort with suffering that makes us try to reassure ourselves: After all, if their suffering is the result of their bad behavior, then we who are righteous don’t have to worry it will happen to us. Whatever our motives, with these words we defraud both ourselves and the sufferer with arrogant dogmas that have no basis in verifiable fact and no place in the business of supporting those in crisis. Worse, we fraudulently represent God, who suffers when others suffer.

Read all of Bava Metzia 58 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on April 26th, 2024. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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