Questions, Quotes, Quoting Aphorisms


There are a number of ways that questions can constitute onaas devorim (hurting with words). One is by asking people questions that you know they will be unable to answer (Choshen Mishpat 228:4). I have met someone who is not very scholarly who has memorized about thirty obscure pieces of information on Tanach (the Torah, Prophets and Writings). He goes around asking people who someone's (from Tanach) mother was and what was the name of some other person's wife. He knows in advance that most people don't remember this information and he enjoys watching them squirm. Then with an air of superiority he tells them the correct answer.
Another form of asking questions is when you are displeased with someone's behavior. You might ask:
"Why in the world did you forget?"
"Why weren't you more careful?"
"What's the reason you stepped on that?"
"How come you said that?"
While appearing to be questions, these are really putdowns, implying, "You are forgetful and careless." Most people find these types of questions to be manipulative and annoying. If you feel a need to express your being upset about someone's behavior, give an "I message." "I get annoyed when important things are forgotten or broken." If it clearly was not intentional and not an ongoing matter, work on developing the positive trait of ignoring trivial matters. If you find this hard, and it is for some people, realize that the other person probably finds it equally as difficult to be less forgetful and careless. Be more understanding and you will react more calmly.
A covert subset of pain-causing questions are those that remind a person of painful situations and occurences. For example, you know that someone received a very low mark on a test and you want to tease him about it so you ask him, "What mark did you get on that test?" A person lost a lot of money on a business venture and you purposely ask him, "How much profit did you make on that deal?"
A type of question that is beneficial in finding solutions is a "What" question:
"What can I do to help you prevent this from happening in the future?"
"What traits can you develop that will enable you to use more of your potential?"
"What will help you remember next time?"
These forms of questions focus on improvement and not on complaints. They promote growth and positive feelings.


There is a sneaky technique of insulting others through the use of quotes. People who use this method find it easy to mention heavier insults than usual. For example, "Some people who see someone who looks like you might say, 'You sure look ugly.' But I wouldn't say that to you." Or, "I once heard someone say to another person who did what you did, 'You are a real idiot for doing that.'"
No subterfuge renders it permissible to insult people and cause them pain with words. Even if you are very subtle in your use of quotes and the person will only feel uncomfortable later on, it is still a violation of a Torah commandment.

Quoting Aphorisms

Aphorisms are short statements of wisdom which contain insights. A person quoting an aphorism can do so to enlighten and console. But aphorisms can also be employed to sting and deflate. While an aphorism in a classroom or speech will be educational and can at times contain humor, it is a violation of the prohibition against onaas dvorim (hurting with words). The recipient will find it hard to defend himself against the quote because the concept itself can be valid but it was wrong to mention the aphorism at that time.
For example, as soon as someone starts to speak, another person might quote the statement that "empty containers make the most noise." Regardless of what the person was going to say, this quote can cause him distress.
Someone who is knowledgeable enough to know how to quote aphorisms should also be compassionate enough to utilize this knowledge to help people grow.

From the Power of Words by Rabbi Zelig Pliskin 1988 pp. 252-255

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