The Mishnah in Masechet Baba Metzia (58b) teaches, “Just as there is a prohibition to cheat in business, there is likewise a prohibition to verbally hurt someone else, as the verse states (Vayikra 25), ‘And one shall not oppress his fellow and you shall fear your G-d.’” Hurting someone with words is worse than cheating someone in business, for the funds derived from monetary cheating can be returned to their rightful owner while one cannot return the angst one has cause another by verbally hurting him. The Gemara (ibid.) states, “Rav Chasda said: All gates are locked besides for the gates of (verbal) oppression.” This means that when one cries to Hashem as a result of pain caused to him by others, Hashem shall heed the cries of the oppressed.
The Gemara adds that one should be especially careful regarding oppressing a convert and we are warned about this issue several places throughout the Torah. It is therefore forbidden to tell a convert who wishes to study Torah, “How can a mouth that has eaten non-kosher meat and all manner of creeping insects speak words of Torah given by Hashem?” for these scathing words cause pain and humiliation to the convert and this is a form of verbal oppression.
One should always take care regarding verbally hurting one’s wife, for the Gemara states, “Because her tears are common, her oppression is close.” This means that since it is forbidden to oppress anyone so that they are not hurt, thus, the prohibition to verbally oppress someone is dependent on the pain of the individual being oppressed. Women are naturally more sensitive than men and it is easier for them to cry as a result of their deep pain. One must therefore be very careful not to hurt one’s wife in an oppressive manner, for it is easier for her to be hurt by these words and one will be held accountable for this pain. The Tur and Maran Ha’Shulchan Aruch rule likewise.
It is well-known that the irritation and pain of a woman is a very grave matter and can cause tragic repercussions, even inadvertently. Indeed, the Gemara (Ketubot 62b) recounts that Rav Rechumi studied Torah under Rava and would return home only once a year, on Erev Yom Kippur (this was the practice of many Torah scholars in those times who were very young). Once, on his way home, Rav Rechumi was delayed as a result of his involvement in what he was studying. His wife waited for him anxiously, for she missed him terribly. Eventually, because she believed that her husband was not coming, a tear fell from her eye; at that moment, her husband was seated in an elevated place and because of the pain he caused his wife, he fell and died. We can clearly see the power of tears that emerge as the result of pain and suffering. (This was especially true regarding Rav Rechumi, for Hashem is very exact regarding the actions of the righteous; this is why the attribute of judgment struck him.)
The Gemara (ibid. 59a) states, “Rav Chelbo said: One should always be careful regarding the honor of one’s wife, for blessing is only found in one’s home because of one’s wife, as the verse states, ‘And to Avraham He (Hashem) did good because of her,’” meaning because of his wife, Sarah. Indeed, Rava told the people of Mechoza, “Honor your wives and as a result, you shall be wealthy.” In the following Halachot we shall, G-d-willing, discuss some practical applications of the laws of verbal oppression.