I recall hearing a few years ago about a law in scripture regarding one's speech that had a particular Jewish interpretation that resonated with me. The problem is, I don't remember what it was called, or all of the specifics of the interpretation.

As I recall, much the spirit of the interpretation was about putting people down or making them feel stupid. One example might be if an expert in a field (say, a lawyer) asked a known non-expert (a non-lawyer) if he could explain the intricacies of some concept in that field of expertise with the intent of exposing him as someone who does not know what he is talking about.

If I recall, asking a question to which you know the answer already was another aspect of that same interpretation.

The law might have been translated as something like "bad mouth", though I think that slander might not have been included because that implies that the bad-mouthing is false.

So here's the three-parter:

  • What is the law?
  • Did I understand it aright?
  • Is there a "standard" set of aspects to this law/interpretation? If so, what are they?

2 Answers 2


It's known as ona'at devarim. Taking advantage by words, or as Rabbi Torczyner calls it, verbal abuse.

The example of asking someone unknowledgeable to put them down is discussed here, by Shulhan Arukh in the laws of Ona'at Devarim.

Leviticus 24:14-17:

כה,יד וכי-תמכרו ממכר לעמיתך, או קנה מיד עמיתך--אל-תונו, איש את-אחיו. כה,טו במספר שנים אחר היובל, תקנה ... כה,יז ולא תונו איש את-עמיתו, ויראת מאלהיך

When you sell to your fellow, or buy from him, one person should not take advantage of one another: you shall buy according to the number of years after Jubilee ... [additionally], and one person shall not take advantage of one another, and you shall fear your G-d.

The Talmud notes that the first prohibition was on cheating someone when selling; the second is something that requires fear of G-d as no one may ever know whether I said something innocently, or with intention to put someone down: taking advantage of them with words.

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch explains that the root here ona'a is related to koneh, to acquire ownership of something. Often putting someone down is a way of trying to own them.

See Torczyner's link above for more.

  • This is a very helpful and detailed answer, but, (I hate to say it), I don't think this was the one that I had in mind. :-\
    – Ray
    Commented Sep 1, 2011 at 1:43
  • 1
    @Ray, If there's any additional detail that you could add to your question to get us closer to what you're looking for, it could be helpful.
    – Isaac Moses
    Commented Sep 1, 2011 at 2:13
  • I've added some more detail.. if my memory serves correctly. I hope I'm not conflating a couple of different concepts.
    – Ray
    Commented Sep 1, 2011 at 2:24

Based on the addition to your question:

The law might have been translated as something like "bad mouth", though I think that slander might not have been included because that implies that the bad-mouthing is false.

— I have to say you must be referring to lashon hara, "evil speech", which is (very generally) telling true tales that hurt someone. Yes, there are standards of this. Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagan/Kahan (died 1933) wrote a law book about it, called Chafetz Chayim, and a morality book about it, called Sh'miras Halashon. Both are now available in their entirety (I think) in English.

  • That's the one!
    – Ray
    Commented Sep 1, 2011 at 2:36
  • 2
    For the record, the Biblical prohibition against ona'at devarim is one of the many that the Chafetz Chayim lists as transgressed when one speaks lashon hara.
    – Isaac Moses
    Commented Sep 1, 2011 at 2:59
  • 1
    I see! Very interesting, and it definitely gives a broader perspective on ways that we might make people feel inferior, and what's going on when we do that. I'm going to accept this answer, since it was the term I was looking for, but upvotes all around :)
    – Ray
    Commented Sep 1, 2011 at 11:43
  • 2
    It's Lashon HaRa even if it's true; if it's false it's even worse, it's called motzee shem ra. If the hurtful words are heard by their subject it's also ona'at devarim; if I just spread it around his back it's not ona't devarim, but I have violated the curse of striking one's fellow secretly (he walks in to work one day and finds he's fired; he never found out it was because someone sent a false report to HR.)
    – Shalom
    Commented Sep 1, 2011 at 14:08

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