The following letter was published recently in the Israeli press and then in the American frum press. In it, Rav Aharon Leib Shteinman writes about how rabbeim and teachers have to be careful not to talk too strongly toward students or engage in verbal abuse. What follows is a translation of the letter:
It is well-known that in our holy Torah there are laws that relate to the relationship between a man and his Maker, and others that relate to the relationship between man and his fellowman. In the Aseres Hadibros there
are laws that relate to the relationship between a man and his Maker and also restrictions on doing evil to his fellows.
Verbal oppression (ono’as devorim), it is explained in Bava Metzia (58b), is more serious than financial crimes (ono’as mommon). And this applies to a man with respect to his wife and to a woman with respect to her husband. It is explained in Bava Metzia (59) that since a woman is more prone to tears, oppressing her is a more serious transgression. This applies to all things that can cause pain, and in particular, the suffering of widows and orphans is a very serious matter.
On the other side [of the ledger], the merit that one can accrue for doing chesed is incalculable. The Rosh (beginning of Maseches Pei’ah) explains that HaKodosh Boruch Hu has a greater desire (cheifetz) for mitzvos that also fulfill the will of our fellows than for mitzvos that apply only to the relationship between man and his Maker.
There are things that people sometimes allow themselves to do. A teacher or a rabbi may think that in order to secure discipline they can [verbally] abuse (levazos) without limit. This is not correct. [They are allowed] only what is necessary, to criticize (lehochi’ach) but [in any case] not to abuse. It is very serious to abuse someone in public.
A rebbi or any other educator must criticize, but must not add additional statements that cause embarrassment. Generally this is a result of wanting to react when he is attacked, but his reaction is double the original [provocation], and thus it is certainly not outside the prohibition against verbal oppression. One must be very careful in this matter.
Parents must also not embarrass their children. I was also shown mitzvah 338 in the Sefer HaChinuch (Verbal Oppression).
Even though from several places [in Chazal] it seems that generally the main punishment [a person receives for sins] is in Olom Habo, and in Olom Hazeh one is not punished that much for sins, however for causing pain people are punished even in Olom Hazeh. Everyone should pay attention to what he [or she] does or speaks to ensure that it is not something that causes distress to his fellow.
In truth when we are punished in Olom Habo the punishment is worse. But since people are not affected as much by what they do not immediately see, therefore we are talking in terms that everyone understands well. Look into the Sefer Chinuch in the abovementioned mitzvah: “You should not oppress your fellow.” There he concludes by saying that even though there are no malkos for this sin since it does not require a physical act, nonetheless there are many possibilities of blows without using a leather strip that are available to the Master Who commands us thusly.
He who is careful not to cause pain to people will have upon his head all the blessings that are said in the Torah, and he will have pleasure in This World and the Next.
26 Sivan, 5769
(signed) Aharon Yehuda Leib Shteinman