Protecting Others' Dignity

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Shabbat Shalom.  Welcome to this week’s installment of “The Ethical Torah.”  


By tradition, there are 613 mitzvot, or commandments, in the Torah.  None of them explicitly states that we must preserve the dignity of others or that we must protect them from public embarrassment.  But these obligations are deeply and widely suffused among the mitzvot.  They are also a very high priority among the rabbinic rulings that interpret and apply the mitzvot.


For example, when the offering of the First Fruits (Bikurim) was brought to the Temple, a number of verses had to be read with the offering. (We are familiar with these from the Passover seder).  Initially, those who could not read repeated the words that were pronounced for them by a reader.  The rabbis then instituted a rule that permanent readers should read for everyone, to avoid embarrassing those who could not read.[1]  This is the practice adopted today in most American synagogues for Torah reading. Since most people today cannot chant the Torah with the proper melody, a Torah reader reads for everyone, even those who can read, in order to avoid embarrassment.


Similarly, it was the custom to bring food to a shiva house (house of Jewish mourning). However, the poor used to bring food in plain baskets while the rich brought food in fancier baskets or on trays, which caused embarrassment to the poor. Therefore, the rabbis instituted a custom whereby everyone had to bring food in a plain basket to the house of mourning.  Similarly, rich mourners would serve wine in clear glasses and the poor in colored glasses; to protect the dignity of the poor, the rabbis ordered that all must use colored glasses.[2]  


Sometimes, the Torah’s concern for human dignity isn’t as obvious, although it is no less real or important.  This week’s Torah potion, parashat Tzav, sets forth the circumstances and procedures by which sacrificial offerings were to be brought.  During the days of the Temple, for instance, some sacrifices were obligatory, some were voluntary donations of thanksgiving, and some were brought to atone for sin.  In this last category were the hattah (sin–offering), brought for an unintentional transgression; the asham (guilt–offering), brought, for example, for the sin of swearing falsely; and the olah (burnt-offering), sometimes brought for improper thoughts, although it could be brought for other reasons as well, unrelated to sin.  


If different locations at the Temple had been designated for bringing the various sacrifices, or if this had been left to the priests to decide, spectators would know the nature of a person’s sacrifice.  The Temple would become a place of public humiliation.  To prevent this, the rabbis observed[3] that the Torah specifically commands: "In the place where the olahis slaughtered shall the hattah be slaughtered"[4] and "In the place where they slaughter the olah shall they slaughter the asham".[5] Under this system, spectators would never know whether a particular sacrifice was a voluntary offering or something obligatory in expiation of a sin. This is one way the Torah sought to protect dignity and esteem, even of the sinner. 


Have you ever wondered why we say most of the Amidah silently?  The rabbis used these Torah verses about sin offerings as their source for a regulation that the Amidah is to be recited quietly in order not to embarrass people who confess their sins. 


Maimonides ruled that a person may violate any rabbinic (although not biblical) injunction in order to preserve human dignity.[6] Since most of Jewish practice is rabbinic, rather than biblical, most practices in Judaism can be violated if doing the mitzvah would necessitate violating a person's dignity. 


Of the many instances in the Torah which depict preservation of an individual’s dignity, two stand out for me.  Tamar was willing to be burned to death rather than reveal that Judah had impregnated her.  And G-d changed his account to Abraham regarding what Sarah had said rather than embarrass Abraham with her actual statement.  These certainly demonstrate that one of our most important responsibilities is to save others from public embarrassment.  That includes making our criticisms in private and stopping others from causing embarrassment even when the target has indeed misbehaved.  It also includes protecting others from potentially embarrassing situations, even if we must inconvenience ourselves to do so. 


Rabbi Joseph Telushkin relates the following incident: 


For many decades, Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik taught the shiur (class) in Talmud at Yeshiva University. His lessons generally lasted two or three hours. One year, one of his students, Ezra Lightman, was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s disease, for which he was receiving chemotherapy treatments. In those days, people kept such information to themselves. Rabbi Soloveitchik was a family friend and therefore knew of the illness, although none of the students in the class was aware of it. Rachel Wiederkehr, Mr. Lightman’s sister, recalls, ‘Once a chemotherapy appointment meant that Ezra would have to leave the shiur early. Aware that my brother's departure would arouse the curiosity of his classmates, Rabbi Soloveitchik dismissed the entire class early that day so that Ezra would not feel conspicuous and so that his secret would remain safe.”[7]   


Are you leading a Seder tomorrow night?  Before inviting someone to read out loud, or indeed to perform any action, such as lifting a heavy seder plate, be sure that they will not be embarrassed in complying or in declining.  


May we be guided in all of our actions by remembering the importance of preserving others’ dignity. 


Shabbat shalom and Hag Pesach Sameach

[1] Mishnah, Bikurim 3:7

[2] Mo'ed Katan 27a

[3] Sotah 32b, Yerushalmi Yevomos 8:3

[4] Leviticus 6:18

[5] Leviticus 7:2

[6] Hilchot Kelayim 10:29.

[7] A Code of Jewish Ethics, Vol. 1, Bell Tower, 2006; pp. 289-90



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A bird that you set free may be caught again, but a word that escapes your lips will not return.
Jewish Proverb