Bein Adam le-Havrutato? Arguments and Insults in Halakhic Literature


Over the course of Elul the yeshiva put a strong emphasis on Hilkhot bein adam le-haveiro. There were various shiurim quoting numerous sources from gemara, Rishonim, and others, about the importance of mutual respect and common decency. But strikingly, when we look at the texts from which these sources are taken, we see language that is less than decent and respectful. In fact, the language is often out right offensive.

There are several cases in the Talmud itself which display this unexpected behavior. Rav Nahman bar Yitzhak used to call other Amoraim “black pot” when they said or did something he disagreed with.[i]  On several occasions, Rebbi said of his student Levi that it seems that he has “no brains in his skull.”[ii] Rabbi Yishmael accused R. Eliezer of telling the Torah to give him “silence while I expound,” to which Rabbi Eliezer replied, “Yishmael, you are a mountain date palm.”[iii] Rabbi Dosa bar Harkinas even refers to his brother as a “first-born of Satan” for following the opinion of the School of Shammai.[iv]

Although regarding most interactions this is not the case, the sheer existence of insults in halakhic literature raises questions. We struggle to comprehend how two colleagues, let alone two talmidei hakhamim, could insult each other in such a way. Specifically, people who insult each other or call each other names are transgressing up to three prohibitions; namely, ona’at devarim, leshon hara[v], and embarrassing someone in public. This final prohibition should apply here as well due to the public nature of these interactions. In light of these prohibitions, the difficult conclusion arises that the Tannaim and Amoraim were violating halakha as they were deciding it.

However, such a conclusion is unacceptable to us students of these great transmitters of halakha and mesorah. It is almost senseless to claim that the sages cared so little about halakha that they would blatantly and publicly violate it. Moreover, these insults are mostly found in debates over deciding halakha; if one’s goal is to have his own halakhic logic or theory followed, then breaking halakha to accomplish this goal is both hypocritical and counterproductive. Thus, the question of “how can the sages speak like this” transforms from a rhetorical and critical question to a literal halakhic question that cannot be simply dismissed.

The answer of the insulting language as being “le-sheim shamayim” is, at first, a tempting and plausible answer. In fact, there is a clear distinction given between disputes for the sake of heaven and those not for the sake of heaven in the fourth chapter of Avot, and in this distinction the disputes between the sages is the prime example of acceptable conflict. Furthermore, if someone’s intentions are godly, should not there actions be considered godly as well?

Yet, this answer is only relevant to teach us about starting and maintaining argument, but it in no way insists that one would be able to speak harshly to the point of sin. To illustrate this point further, Rav Chaim Shmulevitz zt”l quotes[vi] the famous story in Sefer Shmuel regarding Hannah and Peninah: Hannah was barren and depressed and Peninah would taunt and tease her to no end, resulting in the death of Peninah’s ten children. The Sages in Baba Batra 16a point out that Peninah’s motive was purely for the sake of heaven. They explain that Peninah only teased Hannah so that she would turn to God in prayer and merit having baby; but despite her motives, she was still punished. Rav Shmulevitz deduces from this source that even if you have the best and holiest intentions, hurting someone with your words is unacceptable.

In a similar strain, one may point to establishing truth as adequate reason for aggressive speech. The argument posed here stresses that one should not give up values and opinions in the name of friendlier debate and conduct. It seems logical to say that if someone is spreading falsehoods there is no reason to respect his opinion, and that it could even end up being detrimental if he is given proper ear. This attitude places fact over feelings in the Jewish conscience.

However, the gemara in Yebamot 65b states in no uncertain terms that peace is a much stronger and important force than truth. The gemara lists several cases throughout the Torah where peace was put before truth. The most striking point brought in this gemara is that Hashem himself forsook truth to create peace with Abraham and Sarah! In perek 18 in Bereishit, angels come and tell Sarah that she will conceive a son. Sarah then laughs to herself and questions Abraham’s ability to father children at his old age. When Hashem relates this to Abraham he says that Sarah questioned her own ability to mother a child due to her old age. If Hashem gave up truth to foster peace, would the sages not also be expected to do the same?

In truth, this response is flawed because the concept of truth in both cases has different ramifications. The cases brought in Yebamot were all cases of interpersonal peace prevailing over a historical truth, whereas the common theme in halakhic debates is the community following the true rule of the law. Perhaps knowing the truth and following the truth are given very different statuses. It just may be that when it comes to creating a social and halakhic norm, the knowing of the true halakha outweighs the responsibility for respectful language.

Nevertheless, even though the true following of halakha can be considered more important than peace, the insulting and embarrassing of others is still unnecessary for its attainment. One could just as easily state his opinion and sources before exclaiming that the other “has no brain in his head”[vii] or that he “must have been sleeping”[viii] when he gave his opinion. In fact, respect and tolerance in debate is considered a virtue and even a necessity[ix]. The mishnah in Eduyot[x] asks why it is that the opinions of both Beit Hillel and Beit Shamai must be mentioned, when we only follow one. The answer given is that we should learn that just as the “fathers of the world” were not persistent in their views, so too we should not be persistent in our views. Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm explains this mishnah in a manner very relevant to this topic:

What the Mishnah means is that Hillel and Shammai, the fathers of the Oral Torah, the chief channels for the transmission of the sacred Jewish tradition, were people who were constantly engaged in disputes and debates and polemics, but never without mutual respect between them. They were valiant advocates of differing opinions, but they were always intellectually honest, and when one saw that his opinion was weak and that of his opponent was more substantial, he did not hesitate to admit the truth and to yield. Hillel and Shammai teach us that we must be vigorous in the pursuit of our ideas, but never stubborn; resolute, but never relentless; incorruptible, but never immovable.[xi]

The mishnah, according to Rabbi Lamm, is telling us that not only is it not necessary to put your colleague down, but also that, no matter what, there should always be that element of mutual respect.

The gemara gives a rather meaningful allegory regarding this idea. The gemara in Hulin[xii] states that the moon came to complain to Hashem that he should be bigger than the sun. Hashem was upset with the moon and decided to punish him by making him much smaller. The gemara goes on to say that every Rosh Hodesh the Jewish people would bring a korban hatat on behalf of Hashem, because instead of making the moon smaller, He could have made the sun bigger. The point made here is quite poignant: in the search for precedence it is worthier to build one’s self up rather than to put others down.

Until now, the main assumption has been that every case of Talmudic banter is one of disrespect and personal offense. Or, as the Havot Yair put it, the hakhamim were “dancing and screaming and picking on each other.”[xiii]  However, this may not be entirely true. While it is true they were speaking to each other in ways we view as improper, it all depends on how they themselves viewed it. Insults are relative to the setting and people involved. The Ben Ish Hai writes[xiv] that in order for a nickname or put-down to be considered as violating a prohibition, either the intention of the speaker or the sensitivity of the recipient must be negative. Similarly, the Shulhan Arukh holds[xv] that if the intention of the statement was to embarrass the subject, it is considered a violation.

This explains why the insults are predominantly found in the Babylonian Talmud. It was not that the Babylonians sinned while the Jerusalemites did not; it is that to the Babylonians this was not a sin. They had a mutual understanding that insult was an accepted and expected part of the discourse, and that it was not to be taken personally or with offense. This is why putting one’s friend down is mentioned in the Jerusalem Talmud[xvi] as a sin from which the transgressor forfeits his portion in the world to come, while in the Babylonian Talmud[xvii] it did not make the cut.

An interesting example of the liberal use of insults in this culture is the debate between R. Tarfon and R. Akiba[xviii]. R. Akiba ruled that the levi’im who blew the shofar had to be unblemished. R. Tarfon, in extreme disagreement, said “How long will Akiba keep piling upon us (groundless teachings): I cannot tolerate it any longer!” but after the point was proven to him, R. Tarfon praised his adversary and said “be happy o Abraham our father, that Akiba went forth from your loins!” The insult here was merely a product of disagreement, not of personal malice. An accepted part of the conflict was that of emotional intensity. It was their own way of “sitting down as enemies”[xix] in learning.

Additionally, the subjective nature of each sage’s banter is highlighted by the fact that it was up to the sages themselves to determine when something has gone too far. The gemara in Bava Metzia[xx] relates that Rav Hisda and Rav Huna each spent 40 days fasting as an atonement for accidentally insulting each other. This was not a requirement, and cases like this are extremely unique, but it is truly important to point out that what caused the regret and subsequent repentance was purely the perception of the parties involved, and not an objective rule. Therefore, as long as the system of dispute, whether by societal or cultural norms, was set up that both parties understood and acted under the awareness that there was no real personal attack, but just the intensity of a passionate debate of theory and fact, no prohibition would apply. Some may even be flattered by forceful opposition. The Maggid of Mezeritch expresses this possible flattery through a parable. He relates that “a highway robber attacks the man who bears jewels, he never bothers with a man who drives a wagon of straw or refuse.”[xxi]

Regardless of the reason a sage chose to incorporate heavy language, as long as no embarrassment or intently personal attacks are found, it can be used. This rule is not limited to ancient Babylonia, but it is true to any society where dispute carries with it, in a healthy manner, the element of verbal jabs and attacks. If you and your Havruta are in agreement, and realize that this element will positively add excitement and intensity to your learning, there is no prohibition in implementing it. But do so with caution, because even Rav Huna and Rav Hisda let the debate become personal, and even Hashem regrets, as it were, knocking someone else down.



Sam Dratch is a sophomore in YC from West Hempstead, New York and attended Yeshivat Netiv Aryeh.

[i]Pesahim 88a, Megillah14b

[ii] Yebamot 9a

[iii] The Sifra based on Vayikra 13:47. For an interesting explanation of this insult see Website staff, june 1, 2011 “Tazria 2” at

[iv] Yebamot 16a

[v] The point of hurtful speech being connected to lashon hara is stated clearly in Rambam, Hilkhot dei’ot 7:5.

[vi] Sichot Mussar quoted by Rabbi Baruch Simon, this teaching also appears in article form by Eliahu Meir Klugman, entitled “Rabbi Chaim Leib Shmulevitz: Rosh Yeshivah in Mir-Poland, Mir-Shanghai, and Mir-Jerusalem” and can be found at

[vii] Yebamot 9a

[viii] Yebamot 24b

[ix] See the Rama and the Sma on Hoshen Mishpat 228:1, as well as Responsa Shevet Halevi, for more detailed examples of when proper speech is necessary.

[x] Chapter 1

[xi] Rabbi Norman Lamm, The Ethics of Controversy, June 21, 1969

[xii] Hulin 60a

[xiii] Responsa Havot Yair 152

[xiv] Responsa Torah Lishma, 421

[xv] Hoshen Mishpat, 228:5

[xvi] Cited by the Rambam Hilkhot Deot 6:3

[xvii] Sanhedrin 90a

[xviii] Sifre Num. 10:8

[xix] Tehilim 127, for explanation relevant to this topic see Kiddushin 30b

[xx] Baba Metzia 33a

[xxi] Rabbi Norman Lamm, The Ethics of Controversy, June 21, 1969