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Taking Advantage

By: Rabbi Barak Bar-Chaim

“Do not wrong one another, but fear your God; for I the LORD am your God.” (Leviticus 25:17)

This verse, one of the 613 commandments in the Torah, instructs us not to wrong other people. It is not clear from this verse what wronging other people entails.

Our sages explain this prohibition refers to wronging people with words. What does it mean to wrong people with words?

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch explains that the Torah uses the very same expression (“wrong one another”) with regards to monetary transactions. Specifically, overcharging someone ignorant of the actual value of an object falls under the prohibition of wronging someone in a monetary sense. Taking advantage of someone’s ignorance or weakness and, thereby, profiting is prohibited. Similarly, we are prohibited from using words that take advantage of someone’s ignorance or weakness and, thereby, inflict emotional pain upon the person. Here are a few examples of this prohibition as codified by Maimonides and others:

1) One should not remind who has repented of their previous sins, thereby causing them embarrassment and pain.

2) One should not ask someone a question knowing that they do not know the answer? Taking advantage of their ignorance in this way may upset them.

3) One should not ask a store owner how much an item costs if one has no intention to purchase the item. The seller’s hopes have been unnecessarily dashed.

4) One should not tell a person that their suffering is due to their sins as Job’s friends did to him saying “has anyone perished who was totally innocent?”

5) One should not give someone advice that is not in the person’s best interests even if no monetary damage results from the advice.

These are some examples of prohibited speech. In Sefer Hamiztvoth (Mitzvah 251), Maimonides summarizes the prohibition as follows: “… we are forbidden from verbally wronging another person by telling them things that will distress and humiliate them and make them discouraged.”

The Talmud teaches us that 24,000 students of Rebbi Akiva perished in a plague between Passover and Shavuot, because they did not show sufficient honor to one another. Receiving the Torah on Shavuot requires us to be united, as if we are one person with one heart. Let us be more careful with our words, ensuring we do not cause any pain to others, and share words of upliftment and encouragement with others.