In the previous Halachot we have discussed the primary laws of verbal oppression or hurting someone with words. We must now explain an important rule regarding these laws.
The laws of verbal oppression are divided into two categories: The first is verbally misleading another (a form of trickery), such as asking a salesman how much a certain item costs when one has no intention of purchasing it which is misleading since the salesman is only replying because he believes the inquiring individual is actually interested in purchasing it, as we have explained.
Similarly, one may not enhance one’s merchandise in a misleading manner. For instance, if one is selling strawberries which are close to being rotten already and are only fit for cooking, if one places them in a box under other fresher and nicer looking strawberries, this is likewise a transgression of verbal oppression. Indeed, Maran Ha’Shulchan Aruch (Choshen Mishpat, Chapter 228) rules that one may not color a cow in order to beautify its fur so that it appears full-bodied and healthy when, in fact, it is actually skinny and weak, for the seller is misleading the buyer and is a form of verbal oppression (besides for when it is customary to do so in the given place and everyone is aware that this is the way of the merchants, see commentary of Me’irat Enayim, ibid, Subsection 16).
The second form of verbal oppression is the simple understanding of the term, i.e. causing another to suffer with one’s words, such as what our Sages teach us that one must take care not to hurt one’s wife because her tears are close to the surface. This prohibition does not only apply to misleading one’s wife; rather, any suffering that one causes her is considered verbal oppression.
Addtionally, included in this form of verbal oppression is the prohibition to tell a “Ba’al Teshuva” to remember his past deeds, for Hashem has already forgiven him and this individual is merely reminding him of his sins in order to cause him pain.
The Kenesset Ha’Gedolah writes that sometimes, one must be more careful regarding verbal oppression regarding a matter that is true more so than if it is untrue, for the truth will hurt the recipient much more than something he knows is a lie. Hagaon Harav Shmuel Ha’Levi Wosner Shlit”a writes (in his Responsa Shevet Ha’Levi, Volume 8, Chapter 309, where he discusses this issue) that this rule is not set in stone, for there are situations where the truth will hurt the recipient more than a lie and there are other situations where the opposite is true.
Thus, there are two forms of verbal oppression: verbally misleading or tricking another and verbally causing pain to another. Included in this is the commandment of “And you shall love your friend as yourself,” for if one causes pain to another for no reason, one is certainly transgressing the Mitzvah of treating every Jew in a loving manner.