In centuries past, public shaming was a go-to mode of punishment. Colonial America, for example, commonly employed the stocks and pillory, with nearly every sizable town stationing such instruments of public humiliation in the town square. But even that humiliation was limited in audience and finite in time.
Times sure have changed.
Although judicial punishment by public humiliation is now deemed cruel and unusual punishment prohibited by the United States Constitution, today’s culture of public shaming is far more explosive than in the past. Weaponized by the advent of social media, children and adults alike can be humiliated by the unthinking click of the mouse; what’s worse, the audience is not just the populace of some little hamlet but the entire plugged-in world—and embarrassing material can remain posted for posterity.
This is just the trend bucked by Yosef when revealing his identity. Knowing it would humiliate his brothers, who had mistreated him and conspired to kill him, Yosef refused to reveal himself until he dismissed all Egyptians from the room, even though sending away his bodyguards left him vulnerable to attack by his brothers (Bereishis 45:1 and Rashi ad loc.). Despite a wave of emotions, Yosef took great pains and risks to avoid humiliating his brothers.
Public humiliation is the greatest of torments (Sefer HaChinuch, Commandment No. 240; see also Tosfos, Shabbos 50b), and, in some respects, is “worse than death” (Shaarei Teshuva 3:139). The body perceives humiliation as a physiological threat, causing the veins to dilate and pump blood and oxygen to the face and neck. After this initial shock causes the face to turn red, blood drains from the face giving off a pale, ghost-white appearance (R’ Ovadya MiBartenura, Avos 3:15). The term for “embarrassment” therefore is “malbin p’nei chaveiro”—literally, a “whitening of the face.”
The Torah contains ample caution against public shaming. One who embarrasses another publicly has no share in the World to Come, and “it is better for a person to cast himself into a fiery furnace than humiliate his fellow in public” (Bava Metzia 59a; Berachos 43b; Sota 10b, Kesubos 67b), a lesson learned from Tamar, who was prepared to suffer that fate rather than embarrass her father in-law, Yehuda (Bereishis 38:24-25). And “one who humiliates another publicly is as if he committed murder” (Bava Metzia 58b).
There is some debate as to whether this last comparison is to be taken literally. Tosfos likens the prohibition against public humiliation to the three cardinal sins for which one must sacrifice his or her life (Tosfos, Sota 10b), implying that the comparison to murder is literal (Chiddushei HaGriz, Sota 10b). Several authorities agree (Shaarei Teshuva 3:139; Rashbatz, Avos 3:15; Binyan Tziyon 1:172; Mayim Chaim, Yesodei HaTorah 5:2).
Indeed, this view is supported by an incident involving Mar Ukva, who secretly supported a poor man by hiding money in the man’s door each day, remaining anonymous so as not to embarrass him. One day, the poor man decided to discover the identity of his generous benefactor, so when Mar Ukva and his wife deposited the money, the poor man followed them. The Ukvas soon realized they were being followed, and they hid in a hot furnace as to not embarrass the man (Kesubos 67b). Apparently, one must indeed sacrifice life rather than humiliate publicly another person.
Other authorities disagree and regard the comparison between public shaming and murder as an exaggeration intended to emphasize the gravity of the sin (Meiri, Sota 10b and Berachos 43b). This view has logical appeal, for if public humiliation truly was tantamount to murder, one who intends to embarrass another person may be killed under the rule that permits (or requires) killing someone attempting to murderer—but that is not the case (Minchas Asher, Bereishis 38:24-25). Likewise, if public humiliation truly were the equivalent of murder, a Kohen who shames another person publicly would be disqualified from transmitting the priestly blessings under the rule that disqualifies a murderer from conveying the blessings—but that is not the case (Shevet HaLevi 8:172). Indeed, as a practical matter, the obligation to sacrifice one’s own life to avoid embarrassing others has not been codified by latter day authorities.
R’ Yehoshua Leib Diskin rejected categorically the notion that one must surrender his life to avoid humiliating others. It is said that when R’ Yehoshua Leib was informed of Tosfos’s comparison (implying that one must sacrifice life to avoid embarrassing others publicly), he was disappointed at having forgotten Tosfos—but he stood by his ruling.
That’s not to say R’ Yehoshua Leib took the matter any less seriously. During his popular post-Shabbos lectures, his assistant would always bring him a cup of tea with a healthy serving of sugar mixed in. One week, the assistant mistakenly poured salt, not sugar, into R’ Yehoshua Leib’s cup, and, given the generous amount of sugar he ordinarily used, the salt was of such quantity that it not only made the tea undrinkable, it would be downright hazardous to drink it.
Nevertheless, R’ Yehoshua Leib drank from the cup without any negative facial expression or other reaction. None of the assembled would have been the wiser had R’ Yehoshua Leib’s wife not discovered the mistake and come running from the kitchen, announcing, “It’s salt! Don’t drink!”
But R’ Yehoshua Leib still exhibited no reaction. And as for the threat to his health from consuming such an unhealthy quantity of salt, he explained, “Surely that hazard pales in comparison to jumping into a fiery furnace.”
Rather than accomplishing anything, humiliating another person in public often backfires on the perpetrator.
R’ Chaim of Zanz was renowned for his unsurpassed efforts on behalf of the needy, and it is said that, in his time, there was no man more charitable than he. He provided for thousands of poor folk, while his own household lacked even basic necessities. In particular, he made extra efforts to assist in marrying off poor orphans, supplying them with dowries and clothing and rejoicing at their weddings as if they were his own flesh and blood.
One day, R’ Chaim’s son, R’ Yechezkel of Shiniva, was visiting, when a local, poor schoolteacher came to R’ Chaim. R’ Chaim knew the schoolteacher had a daughter of marriageable age and asked whether a wedding was in the works. The schoolteacher explained that he was unable to afford a tallis and shtreimel (fur hat) for a future son-in-law.
“That’s strange!” blurted R’ Yechezkel. “Just a day or two ago, I saw this very man purchasing a tallis and a shtreimel!”
Completely humiliated, the teacher ran out of the house, causing R’ Chaim to grasp his beard in horror. “How could you disgrace a fellow Jew like that? For all you know, he has not yet paid for the tallis and shtreimel you saw him purchase, or perhaps he lacks some other necessities but was too embarrassed to say so and he used the excuse of the tallis and shtreimel as a cover. You shamed him publicly! What will you answer to the Heavenly Court when it comes time to account for your conduct?”
R’ Yechezkel immediately ran after the schoolteacher, determined to make things right. At last, he found the man standing alone in the street, and he begged his forgiveness. But the man would hear nothing of it; he insisted that the matter be brought as a formal litigation before R’ Chaim.
Standing before his father with the schoolteacher, R’ Yechezkel redoubled his efforts at appeasement, but to no avail. Whereupon R’ Chaim turned to the schoolteacher and advised him not to forgive R’ Yechezkel unless and until he agreed to buy a tallis and shtreimel—and cover the entire cost of the wedding. And so it was: R’ Yechezkel happily agreed to assume the financial undertakings to avoid the severe penalties otherwise destined for him, and the school teacher forgave him.
In the end, embarrassing others is self-defeating—the perpetrator loses as much as the victim. For while the sin may seem insignificant (relatively), it is indicative of defective spiritual wiring (Rambam, Sanhedrin 10:1).
And, whether or not it is immediately apparent, the one who embarrasses another person in public essentially embarrasses himself too.