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Who Ate the Garlic?- Jewish Teachings on Not Embarrassing Others

Updated: Dec 9, 2023

As part of our Bar/Bat Mitzvah studies, I have the pleasure of walking to Starbucks with our young people and hearing each of their unique perspectives on life. Of course, Starbucks was closed on the day Ben and I tried to go there, but we still had a good chat and he told me, among other things, how he had worked as a young man to raise money for Smile Train, as he was so touched by the idea of how hard it would be to live with a cleft palate. Interestingly, Gabriel and my conversation also moved in the direction of the pain of being embarrassed, and it gave me pause to think about how much Jewish wisdom there is to guide us in our relationships with others, and the need for extreme sensitivity about feelings.

I asked Gabe if he knew why we cover the challah before we say haMotzi and he had two great ideas— one was practical- to prevent people from eating it. The other was deeper- to protect its holiness. I explained to him that, more than protecting the holiness of the challah, the goal was to protect the FEELINGS of the challah! Now- we all know that challah doesn’t have feelings. Yet, the tradition was concerned that since we bless the candles and wine prior to blessing the challah, the challah might feel neglected. Therefore, we cover it, so that it won’t know that it is last. Such a sweet folk custom and such a sensitive teaching. Clearly, if we are to be concerned about the feelings of a challah, how much more so should we be concerned with the feelings of another human being.

Avot d’Rabbi Natan (15:1) comments on the text in Pirke Avot (2:15) which reads, “Let the honor of another be as dear to you as your own.” The commentary says that just as we are concerned about our own honor, so we should be concerned about that of another. Just as we prefer to keep our good name, so we should not smear the good name of others. When it became obvious that people were competing for the most elaborate outfits in which to bury their loved ones, the rabbis decreed that we should all be buried in the same plain shroud with no pockets- thereby no one would be embarrassed about their financial status.

The Rabbis go to great lengths to caution us against embarrassing another person, especially in public. The Talmud tells us that as a person’s cheeks turn red when they feel ashamed, so embarrassing someone is the equivalent of committing murder. And, indeed, in a way we are killing their soul- this sin has been referred to as “emotional homicide.” If there has been a hanging in someone’s family, the Talmud cautions us not to even use the word “hang” in conversation with that individual. The Talmud relates this intriguing example of sensitivity regarding potential embarrassment- It once happened that while Rabbi was giving a lecture, he smelled garlic in the room. ‘The person who has eaten garlic must leave,’ he announced. Rabbi Khiya stood up and left, and then all the other scholars followed him out. In the morning, Rabbi Shimon, the son of Rabbi, met Rabbi Khiya and said, ‘Was it you who caused that annoying odor?’ ‘Heaven forbid,’ said Rabbi Khiya. Conversely, we learn, refraining from benefitting from another person’s shame offers the promise of longevity for those who are caring and sensitive. (Megillah 28a)

While the Torah requires that we admonish those who do wrong, Leviticus further says, “and do not incur sin on their account.” Some understand this to mean that we should rebuke in such a way that we do not incur sin by causing pain or shame to the other person. Rabbi Joseph Telushkin offers these wise questions to ask ourselves before we offer negative feedback to others- “Before you criticize someone, ask yourself three questions: 1. How do I feel about offering this criticism? Does it give me pleasure or pain? 2. Does my criticism offer specific ways to change? 3. Are my words nonthreatening and reassuring?”[1]

We need to be so sensitive to the feelings of others that we do not participate in even “avak lashon ha-ra,” the dust of lashon ha-ra, things like non-verbal communication which diminish others without us even saying a word! Calling someone by an obnoxious nickname, even if it is commonly used, is another example of negative speech that the rabbis say will even bar a person from any reward in the world to come!

The Talmud tells the story of Rabbi Elazar ben Simeon who was so impressed with how own learning that he came to disdain other people. Here is how he learned the value of not oppressing others with words and causing embarrassment and pain.   Once he noticed a very ugly-looking person coming his way. The man greeted him but Rabbi Elazar did not reply. Instead he asked whether all his townsmen were as ugly as he. The stranger’s comeback was: “I don’t know, but I suggest you go to my Maker and tell him: ‘How ugly is this vessel you have made!’ Rabbi Elazar begged for forgiveness, which he ultimately received.

Even if our words are true, we still should be guided by the ultimate desire for shalom, for peace. If you suspect that a statement made by one person about another may cause trouble, don’t repeat it. In the Torah, the eighty-nine-year old Sarah, overhearing an angel of the Lord predicting that she will give birth to a child within the year, laughs to herself and says, ‘Now that I am withered, am I to have enjoyment, with my husband so old?’ In the next verse, God asks Abraham, ‘Why did Sarah laugh, saying, ‘Shall I in truth bear a child, old as I am?’’ (Genesis 18:12-13) Compare Sarah’s words with God’s, and you will notice that the Lord leaves out the words, ‘with my husband so old,’ presumably because these words might hurt or anger Abraham. On the basis of this verse, the Rabbis conclude, ‘Great is peace, seeing that for its sake even God modified the truth’ (Yevamot 65b).[2]

I am so proud of these two young men and the kindness and sensitivity that they have already evidenced. As they take their place as Bnai Mitzvah, as leaders in our community, I would leave them with this beautiful guidance offered by Henry James- “Three things are important in life: The first is to be kind, the second is to be kind, and the third is to be kind.” Wise words for all of us to take to heart!




[1] quoted in Telushkin, Words Words That Hurt, Words That Heal, NY: William Morrow and Co., 1996, p. 176


[2] Telushkin, Joseph, A Code of Jewish Ethics: You Shall Be Holy, Volume One, op. cit., pp. 333-334

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