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Onaat devarim is a biblical prohibition to commit verbal abuse (Bava Metzia 58b based on Vayikra 25:17 "וְלֹא תוֹנוּ אִישׁ אֶת עֲמִיתוֹ וְיָרֵאתָ מֵאֱלֹקיךָ כִּי אֲנִי ה' אֱלֹקיכֶם", "one shall not aggrieve his fellow, and you shall fear your G-d, for I am Hashem your G-d."; Shulchan Aruch Choshen Mishpat 228:1; Sefer Hamitzvot 251; Sefer Hachinuch 338). The Gemara and Shulchan Aruch say it is worse than onaat mamon (overcharging) because it can't be undone and it injures the person himself, not just his money. Rambam (Hilchot Deot 6:3; Hilchot Teshuva 3:14) writes that one who regularly shames others has no portion in the World to Come. Chazon Ish Letters volume 1 #211 says onaat devarim applies even if the discomfort is only momentary (see http://halachipedia.com/index.php?title=Hurting_Others%27_Feelings ).

A counterpoint to this ideal of "Torat Chessed" (Torah of Compassion) is that of the extremely high regard halacha places on the pursuit of truth and intellectual honesty ("Torat Emet"). The Maharshal infers from a passage in Bava Kamma that the principle of presenting halacha accurately is yehareg v'al ya'avor (worthy of martyrdom) even to the extent of endangering the Jewish nation as a whole. In fact, the Talmud is replete with examples where harsh (and seemingly personal) rhetoric is used in disputes of halacha, and the biting tongues of Torah scholars are famously compared to those of venomous serpents. (See also the famous dispute between Beis Hillel and Beis Shammai [כתובות ט"ז ב] regarding how one handles the balance between honesty and avoiding offense.)

Unfortunately, the internet/blogosphere has become a notorious forum for cyberbullying and anonymous harassment, even within the otherwise halachically-observant world and even in forums devoted to analysis of halacha and hashkafa, such as this one. This can sometimes be the case unintentionally where the "victimizer" is not even aware that he is inflicting suffering on his fellow.

It is a frequent occurrence, on this forum as well as others, that a clearly less experienced poster submits an entry that is not particularly knowledgeable. My question is this:

If one doesn't know very much about a poster (e.g. their education level, if they are emotionally vulnerable, if they are a child), is it permitted halachically to e.g. "downvote" a question or answer they have posted, whether on this forum or any other?

[It was suggested that this question is a duplicate of another that discusses the ramifications of "down-voting" with regard to the prohibition of lashon hara. However, these are 2 completely different prohibitions with different laws. Furthermore, while the accepted answer there does cite a view that is possibly relevant to the question of down-voting between peers, it tells us little regarding where a down-vote might be (mis)interpreted as hurtful by a child or new user.]

  • Related (opposite, in a way): judaism.stackexchange.com/questions/9445/… – Isaac Moses Mar 20 '15 at 14:11
  • possible duplicate of Loshon HaRa and the down vote – Shalom Mar 20 '15 at 18:24
  • @Shalom Closely related, but this focuses on אונאת דברים. – Fred Mar 20 '15 at 19:21
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    I fail to see how downvoting violates אונאת דברים; a downvote says nothing about the user and doesn't depend on his/her personality, merely that the question/answer is not helpful – הנער הזה Mar 22 '15 at 5:28
  • @Matt My understanding of onaat devarim is that it includes where it causes a person discomfort. If you're arguing that that's not the case where that wasn't the intent and/or the discomfort was due to a misunderstanding on the part of the victim, an actual source would be useful since that's seems to be a fairly bold claim. – Loewian Mar 22 '15 at 14:54
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According to Rambam, the prohibition of ona'at d'varim is specifically in a case where one intends to hurt the subject. Accordingly, in this case, if the point of the downvote is not to hurt the subject, then the prohibition would not be violated. In this vein, Rambam writes in Perush HaMishna to Bava Metsia (4:10) that onaat d'varim is insidious, for only the speaker knows his own intent and knows whether he intended to hurt, or not. For this reason, the Torah says in regards to onaat d'varim: "And you shall fear your God" (Leviticus 25:17), for only God knows your intent:

האדם יכול לעשותה בתחבולה כגון שעומד על המחיר והוא אינו קונה, ואומר אין דעתי אלא לקנות. או שיציע לאדם שאינו מלומד דבר חכמה ויאמר לו הסבר לי דבר זה כדי לביישו, ויאמר אני חשבתי שהוא מאנשי החכמה. או שיספר ספור ויכלול בו מגרעות איזה אדם ומומיו, ויאמר אני לא נתכוונתי למה שחשבתם. לפיכך אמר ויראת מאלהיך היודע כוונותיך ומחשבותיך, וזהו ענין אמרם כל דבר שהוא מסור ללב נאמר בו ויראת מאלהיך

Similarly, in Hilkhot Teshuva (7:10) in describing the prohibition of onaat dvarim, he writes: "reminding a penitent of his former deeds, in order to embarrass him":

חטא גדול הוא לומר לבעל תשובה זכור מעשיך הראשונים או להזכירם בפניו כדי לביישו

This is the opinion of R. Elhanan Wasserman as well (who generalises this to all interpersonal mitsvot) He writes in Kovets Ha’arot (Yevamot: 70):

ולולי דבריהם היה נראה, דכל האיסורין שבין אדם לחבירו אינן איסורין אלא דרך קילקול והשחתה שלא לצורך...וכן בלאו דאונאת דברים, מותר להקניטו בדברים דרך תוכחה, וכן מותר להלבין פנים דרך תוכחה...ומוכח מכ"ז, דכל האיסורין האלו הותרו לצורך תועלת

If not for their words, it would appear that all interpersonal prohibitions, are only forbidden in the context of degrading and tarnishing others for no purpose...And similarly with the prohibition of onaat d'varim [verbal abuse] it is permissible to hurt him verbally as part of rebuking him, and it is similarly permissible to humiliate him as part of rebuke...And it is evident from all this that all of these prohibition are permitted to achieve an end. (Trans. my own).

That being said, although according to their view the prohibition would not be violated, it goes without saying that you should do everything possible to "love one's fellow as one's own" (Leviticus 19:18) and to avoid hurting others. In this case, this could perhaps be accomplished by explaining to new users how the site works, how voting works, why you voted a you did, and explaining that the intent is not ad hominem.

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    Wow! Three commentless downvotes on a sourced answer! While you haven't violated onaat devarim, you may as well explain yourselves. – mevaqesh Aug 31 '17 at 20:58

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