Harmful Words

Question

 

Yankel wishes to sell his apartment, but does
not know what price to ask for it. He sees that Berel, who lives in a similar apartment in
an adjacent building, is also interested in selling his home. Can Yankel call Berel and
ask him how much he wants for his apartment, even though Yankel is not a potential
purchaser?


Answer

In Vayikro (Leviticus) 25:17 we read, "And no man among you may
abuse his fellowman." In Tractate Bovo Metzia (58b) we are informed that this verse
refers to verbal abuse. The Mishna and Beraisa give examples of what constitutes verbal
abuse. These include: reminding a repentant Jew about his former misdeeds, reminding a
"ger" (proselyte) of his origins, sending potential purchasers of a particular
item to a trader who does not sell that product and asking the price of goods when one has
no intention of making a purchase. What these cases have in common is that the offender is
causing another Jew pain or distress through his speech. Any person who has an item for
sale and receives an enquiry as to the price of that item, assumes that the enquirer is
interested in making a purchase. Moreover, the prohibition applies even if the speaker had
no intention of causing any pain. This type of verbal abuse is considered more severe than
monetary cheating. Any money which has been wrongfully taken can be returned. Such a
remedy is not available for verbal abuse.

Although we have mentioned making a purchase, the same principle also applies to hiring
workers or craftsmen. If you have already employed a decorator to paint your house and you
just want to know whether he is charging a fair price, you may not ask another decorator
how much he would charge for such a job. Once again, the decorator thinks he is speaking
to a potential client. Since this is a false impression, you are causing him distress.
This falls under the prohibition of verbal abuse.

Thus, the only way to find out what is the correct price is to honestly tell the
merchant or craftsman the true purpose of your enquiry. One may make a price survey before
one makes a purchase or hires a worker. In this case, you are a potential client of each
merchant or craftsman, even though you will only purchase one item or hire one worker. It
is accepted practice to make extensive enquiries before making a deal. There is therefore
no deception involved in making such enquiries, even if your intention is to take the
cheapest offer.

There are certain categories of people who are particularly sensitive to verbal abuse.
These include widows, orphans and women. The Torah warns us to take special care when
speaking to such people. Use your tongue with great care!

THEREFORE, Yankel may only ask Berel how much he is asking for his apartment if
he first informs him that he is not interested in purchasing it. Failure to mention this
fact constitutes verbal abuse.