He’s A Communist!
‘If He Calls Someone A Rasha…’
(Bava Metzia 71a)
Our sugya teaches us that if someone calls his fellow a rasha, the insulted person may “ruin his life.” According to some commentators, the Gemara allows the insulted person to undermine his insulter’s livelihood by, for example, starting a competing business. Rashi (s.v. “yored imo…”) questions this interpretation: “It is hard for me to accept,” he writes, “that our sages allow people to take revenge or ‘get even.’”
Tosafos (s.v. “adam kore l’chavero …”) cites Teshuvas Hageonim in the name of Rav Tzadok Gaon that the insulted person may even go so far as to burn a third of the crops in his insulter’s field. Yet Tosafos too finds this sentiment very odd and questions Rav Tzadok’s reasoning. Rashi, commenting on Kiddushin 28a (s.v. “rasha yored imo…”), adheres to the literal meaning that one may “go down to his livelihood.”
Some commentators point out that the Gemara (Kiddushin, ibid.) mentions similar halachos: 1) A person who calls another a slave is punished with niduy (a form of excommunication) and 2) a person who calls another a mamzer is flogged. What is the reasoning behind these two halchos? By calling another a slave, a person includes himself in the Torah’s damnation, “Cursed is Canaan” (Bereishis 9:25), and therefore is placed under the curse of excommunication. As for a person who calls another a mamzer: He hints that the targeted person intends to sin (or has already done so) by pretending not to be a mamzer in order to marry a proper Jew. The one who insults him is therefore flogged as though he himself transgressed this prohibition.
In light of the reasoning behind these two halachos, let us return to our case: A person who calls another a rasha causes him considerable harm. The Torah stares, “If your brother becomes poor… support him” (Vayikra 25:35). Our Sages teach us that excluded from this mitzvah is a rasha, who does not deserve support. Therefore, a person who calls another a rasha in public is causing others not to support him. That is why the insulted person may undermine the livelihood of his insulter (Nimukei Rabbi Menachem meReseburk, s.v. “din hakorei”; Shittah Mekubbetzes in the name of Rabbi Yonasan).
However, a person is not allowed to undermine the livelihood of one who calls him a rasha in a casual manner (perhaps in the heat of an argument). He may only do so to a person who spreads rumors in a malicious manner, seemingly in rebellion to the Torah.
About 450 years ago, two people had a vehement argument. One of them called the other a slave, and the insulted person asked a beis din to flog his detractor, as taught in the Gemara. The question was sent to Rabbi David ben Shlomo ibn Zimra (Responsa Radbaz 3:480) who replied that as people ascribe little importance to curses voiced in arguments, they do not harm one’s reputation and are not covered by the Gemara’s discussion.
The Radbaz concludes, though, that “the one who insults should be shamed verbally and warned to desist from calling another such a name…even if the other starts the argument.”
A person who makes it a regular practice of calling others derogatory names should suffer excommunication if the names are those mentioned in the Gemara. The Maharam Galanti (Responsa 33), therefore, rules that a beis din should not flog someone who calls another Salak-el-din (apparently a reference to Saladin, the Muslim warrior who conquered Eretz Yisrael from the Crusaders) even though the one so dubbed is deeply hurt. He is, however, “regarded as one of the derisive scoffers who do not meet the Shechinah.”
A Slap On The Cheek
A similar question was referred to HaGaon Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, zt”l, in the McCarthy era when hatred for communism engulfed the United States. People suspected of having communist links had their reputations ruined and anyone so accused was very insulted. One such person asked Rabbi Feinstein if he could undermine his insulter’s livelihood. Rabbi Feinstein replied that “communist” is not synonymous with rasha (Igros Moshe, Choshen Mishpat 1:38) and one who forces his ideas on others in a communist fashion is not necessarily a sinner. Rabbi Feinstein also cited Rashi’s comment (on our daf) that there is no explicit permission to undermine the livelihood of one who calls another rasha.
In conclusion, we note the explanation of some commentators that “yored lechayav,” usually understood as “ruining his life,” actually means that the insulted person may slap the cheek of the one who insulted him: “lechayav – his cheeks” (see Tashbetz, Responsa 3:204).Rabbi Yaakov Klass