A Corrective to the "Sticks and Stones" Adage

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According to Wikipedia, the children’s adage: “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me” first appeared in 1830 in a book by English travel writer and historian Alexander William Kinglake. It is used as a defense against name-calling and verbal bullying, intended to increase resiliency, avoid physical retaliation and to remain calm and good-living.

While these are positive attributes, we know that the rhyme itself is incorrect.  Words certainly do hurt, and they can cause even more and longer-lasting pain than “sticks and stones.”

That recognition is reflected in our tradition’s interpretation of two verses from this week’s double Torah portion, Behar-Bechukotai. 

In discussing commercial transactions, that is, sales and purchases, Leviticus 25:14 states: אַל־תֹּונ֖וּ אִ֥ישׁ אֶת־אָחִֽיו׃ "Do not mistreat any man his brother.” 

Three verses later, the Torah states:

 וְלֹ֤א תֹונוּ֙ אִ֣ישׁ אֶת־עֲמִיתֹ֔ו וְיָרֵ֖אתָ מֵֽאֱלֹהֶ֑יךָ כִּ֛י אֲנִ֥י יְהֹוָ֖ה אֱלֹהֵיכֶֽם׃

“So, you are not to mistreat any-man his fellow, rather, you are to hold your G-d in awe, for I am Adonai your G-d.”[1]

Proceeding from the rule of interpretation that the Torah is neither redundant nor uses superfluous words, the Rabbis asked what the Torah meant by this second reference to not mistreating one’s fellow.  It couldn’t refer to commercial transactions, since this would be a mere repetition of the first verse.  And what was the significance of the second verse only’s reference to fearing G-d? 

They concluded that the first verse refers to defrauding in a sale, such as overcharging or underpaying (usually by at least one-sixth above or below market value). The second verse refers to causing distress to a person with words: Ona’at devarim. 

What constitutes causing distress with words?   

Rabbi Zelig Pliskin provides many examples in his book, Love Your Neighbor.  They include:  

·      Insulting someone or vexing him with words, even if no one else is present.

·      Teasing someone with the intention of causing him shame. 

·      Hurting the feelings of your spouse.

·      Asking a storekeeper the price of an item that you have no intention of buying.

·      Reminding a person of his past misdeeds, or those of his family.

·      Asking a question of someone who definitely does not know the answer.

·      Calling someone by a derogatory nickname, even if he is used to it. 

·      Using a derogatory name for an entire group.

·      Shouting at others.

·      Pointing out to the buyer the faults in an item he has purchased, or stating that you bought it for less.

Most generally, any words that will distress someone or hurt his feelings are forbidden.  And since we don’t always know the effect of our words, we must be constantly on our guard to consider how they might cause distress or hurt feelings. Think before we speak.  

So, which is worse, overcharging (or underpaying) someone, or hurting their feelings with words?  

Most of us would say that defrauding with money is the greater sin.  After all, words are … just words.  But our sages say that wrongful speech is the greater sin.  

One reason is that, as I mentioned earlier, the verse pertaining to verbal oppression admonishes us to “hold your G-d in awe."  Therefore, causing distress through words is disrespectful of the Divine even more so than monetary abuse.  How so? Commercial overreaching is only a matter of money (b'mamono), whereas oppressive speech is something one does with oneself (b'gufo).  Money is … just money, but oppressive speech is a matter of the heart.

With due respect to Alexander Kingslake, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me” does not reflect Jewish values, and is not what we want to teach our children and grandchildren.  We Jews have our own adage regarding the effect of words: Proverbs 18:21.  ָ֣וֶת וְ֭חַיִּים בְּיַד־לָשֹׁ֑וןמ “Death and life are in the power of the tongue.” 


[1] Translations from Everett Fox, The Five Books of Moses. The Schocken Bible: Vol. I. 

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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