The sages understood the power of words. We state in the morning prayers, “Blessed is the One who spoke and the world was.” God created the world through words. They also understood that words are dangerous.
The majority of Baba Metzia, chapter 3, is concerned with behavior known by the Hebrew term ona’ah, generally translated as fraud or overreaching. There are a variety of ways in which merchants can deceive buyers or buyers can take advantage of sellers. The sages establish boundaries that protect both buyer and seller against such abuses.
Suddenly, about 2/3 of the way through the chapter, the mishnah extends this concept of ona’ah beyond the realm of business and applies it to interpersonal relationships. “Just as a claim of ona’ah applies to buying and selling, so does it apply to spoken words.” (B. Baba Metzia 58b). The examples offered by the mishnah describe the logic that carries this precept forward. One should not ask a merchant for details on merchandise you have no intention of buying because it misleads him. But then… One should not confront a repentant sinner with his past deeds nor a convert with his family’s pagan past. All of these are considered forms of verbal abuse.
In the gemara (B. Baba Metzia 58b) Rabbi Yohanan asserts both that verbal ona’ah is far more common than business fraud and that it is considerably more serious. We soon learn that
“All who go down into Gehenna [the equivalent of Hell] return except for three, who go down but do not come back up, and these are they: (1) he who has sexual relations with a married woman, (2) a person who embarrasses his fellow in public, and (3) he who assigns a mean nickname to his fellow.”Did you know that the consequences of verbal abuse were so long-lasting?
The stakes get raised even higher. The gemara quickly assimilates calling someone by a mean name (the third category) into the idea of embarrassing one in public (the second category). These are two ways of saying the same thing. Only two are subject to this harsh judgment – the adulterer and the one who abuses another through verbal ona’ah.
Then the sages remove the adulterer from the list. How can they do that? After all, adultery is included in the 10 Commandments. Sexual immorality is included on the short list of three commandments that a Jew must die for rather than transgress them (the other two are idolatry and murder). But Rabbah bar bar Hana in the name of R. Yohanan sees it differently. He suggests that “it would be better for someone to have sexual relations with a woman who may or may not be married but not embarrass his fellow in public.” His reason – the adulterer can repent, but the one who commits verbal ona’ah, abuse, cannot.
And then there was one. Only one offender goes down to Gehenna and does not return – the one who commits verbal ona’ah, verbal abuse.
As if that were not bad enough, the gemara goes on to illustrate the long-lasting and devastating effects of verbal ona’ah. This discussion serves as the introduction to the famous story known as the Oven of Achnai (59b). Here a dispute within the academy over whether a new style of oven (created by Achnai) should be considered kosher. Rabbi Eliezer approved of the oven while the sages did not. Rabbi Eliezer forcefully insisted on his point of view leading the sages to excommunicate him. The story is long and the details important, and for our purposes it is sufficient to note that the tale ends tragically. The verbal ona’ah exchanged that day leads to chaos in the academy, destruction in the countryside, and the death of Rabban Gamaliel who was the brother of Rabbi Eliezer’s wife, Imma Shalom (mother of peace).
How bad is it to badmouth others? The sages insist that it leads to death and destruction in the world and consigns the perpetrator to Gehenna. In the end it is better to follow your mother’s advice – if you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.