INSULT , disparagement or defamation of the character or injury to the feelings of another (Heb. boshet, ona'at devarim, halbanat panim, hoẓa'at shem ra). The rabbis of the Talmud distinguished between two main types of insult: that which causes embarrassment and verbal oppression. The primary biblical injunction against the first type of insult is, "Thou shalt surely rebuke thy neighbor, and not suffer sin upon him" (Lev. 19:17). Thus, wrongdoing should be admonished, but in a way that will not cause embarrassment. Even more so, embarrassing one who is innocent of wrongdoing is prohibited (Ar. 16b). The talmudic formulation of the sin of insult is halbanat panim (lit. "blanching of the face") which, when committed in public, is equated with murder and deprives the offender of his share in the world to come (bm 58b). This idea is emphasized in the talmudic statement: "Let a man rather cast himself into a fiery furnace than shame his fellow in public" (bm 59a). For this reason, the rabbis often did not deny unjust accusations against themselves and allowed misdeeds of which they were innocent to be attributed to themselves, rather than cause embarrassment by revealing the identity of the true culprits. They derived this ethical principle from such biblical sources as, "And Shechaniah … said unto Ezra: We have broken faith with God and have married foreign women …" (Ezra 10:2). Shechaniah included himself even though he was guiltless (Sanh. 11a). Included in the type of insult that causes embarrassment is the application of a derogatory nickname or epithet to one's fellow even if he is accustomed to that appellation (bm 58b). Related to the injunction against shaming is the commandment, "Ye shall not oppress one another" (Lev. 25:17), which the Talmud interprets as the second type of insult, namely, verbal oppression (ona'at devarim). Any taunt or expression of derision or gloating directed at someone which results in his mental anguish is prohibited. Thus it is forbidden to remind a repentant sinner or a proselyte of their past; or to quote to one who is suffering, "… who ever perished being innocent?" (Job 4:7); or to ask someone for an opinion on a topic of which he is known to be ignorant. In the view of the Talmud verbal oppression is more heinous than financial oppression, because it affects the victim's inner self, and because no real restoration is possible (bm 58b; Maim. Yad, Mekhirah, 14:18). The Torah enunciates additional prohibitions against insulting orphans and widows (Ex. 22:21), because of their sense of dejection (Maim. Yad, De'ot, 6:10), and proselytes (Ex. 22:20; Lev. 19:33), because of their vulnerability (Sefer Ḥinnukh, 63) and for fear that they may revert to their former state (bm 59b). Likewise, the Talmud prohibits insulting one's wife, "for she is readily moved to tears" (bm 59a). One who insults a Torah scholar (talmid ḥakham) is particularly condemned in the Talmud as one who "has spurned the word of the Lord" (Num. 15:31) and is considered a heretic (apikoros; Sanh. 99b). According to halakhah, a person may receive financial redress for intentional embarrassment (boshet) caused him through a physical assault. The amount of compensation is determined by considering the degree of shame, and the status and reputation of the offender and the injured party. Although this compensation is limited to embarrassment arising from physical acts, the rabbis of the post-talmudic era prescribed a variety of penalties for purely verbal insult, including excommunication (niddui), flogging, and fines (Ḥm 420:38). However, in cases where the insult is derived from a false statement, i.e., calumny (moẓi shem ra), the rabbis of the Talmud did prescribe penalties commensurate with the nature of the slander (Kid. 28a). Despite the strong injunctions against and penalties for the various types of insult, one is permitted to insult inveterate and unrepentant sinners, after the manner of the prophets, in order to secure their repentance and correction (Maim. Yad, De'ot, 6:8; Sefer Ḥinnukh, 240). Although some authorities maintain that when one is being insulted he may justifiably defend himself by responding in kind, the sages nevertheless praise the person who chooses to suffer indignities in silence: "Those who are insulted but do not insult, hear themselves reviled but do not answer … of them the Scriptures say, 'They who love Him are as the sun when He goeth forth in His might'" (Shab. 88b).
Y.M. Kagan, Ḥafeẓ Ḥayyim (1963), passim; M. Lichstin, Mitzvot ha-Levavot (1924), 37–41; I. Epstein, Judaism (1959), 132ff.
[Joshua H. Shmidman]
Insult, or railing (convicium ), as a sin refers to an offense, contrary to both charity and commutative justice, against the honor and dignity of another. It is closely related to contumely, or reviling, and to upbraiding or taunting speech (improperium ). Many theologians (e.g., Cajetan, Soto, Sylvius) held that these pertain to the same species of sin, since all put dishonor and indignity into social relations that should be ruled by friendship and fairness. As Aquinas noted (Summa theologiae, 2a2ae 72.1 ad 3), the terms insult (convicium ) and upbraiding (improperium ) are frequently used interchangeably.
Insult may, however, be distinguished from contumely. Contumely refers to words and gestures of reproach for some moral defect involving sinfulness or guilt, whereas insult refers generically to all defects whether they are moral faults or not. To dishonor another by speaking spitefully to him of some physical defect, such as lameness or blindness, would be insult but not contumely. To dishonor him by calling him a drunkard or a thief would be both insult and contumely.
Although of its nature grave because it strikes at the decencies of human association, the sin of insult allows for slightness of matter. Insulting speech for correction or punishment may frequently not be seriously sinful, and allowances have to be made for a sort of insulting humor that is well accepted and may be used sometimes without any moral fault. However, great discretion should be employed when one is using terms that could dishonor another, even if dishonor is not intended.
The intention to dishonor need not always be explicit for the sin of insult. If one sufficiently perceives that his words or actions will have this effect, even though they are prompted by hatred, anger, envy, etc., rather than the deliberate will to dishonor the other, then the sin of insult is present.
The unfair treatment of minority groups frequently involves the sin of insult. The denial of civil rights by public authority can be an offense against distributive justice if it introduces disorder in the equitable sharing of the goods and honors of the community. But the offenses of private citizens against the dignity of someone because of racial differences, national origin, etc., are opposed to commutative justice and to charity as well, for everyone has rights to the honor and signs of respect commonly extended in the community. Since the motive for the offensive conduct is some natural quality (e.g., race, national origin) rather than a moral defect, such an offense would be insult rather than contumely in its narrower sense.
Bibliography: thomas aquinas, Summa theologiae, 2a2ae, 72, esp. art. 1 ad 3. p. palazzini, ed., Dictionarium morale et canonicum, v. 1 (Vatican City 1962) 956–961.
in·sult • v. / inˈsəlt/ [tr.] speak to or treat with disrespect or scornful abuse: you're insulting the woman I love| [as adj.] (insulting) their language is crude and insulting to women. • n. / ˈinˌsəlt/ 1. a disrespectful or scornfully abusive remark or action: he hurled insults at us he saw the book as a deliberate insult to the Church. ∎ a thing so worthless or contemptible as to be offensive: the present offer is an absolute insult. 2. Med. an event or occurrence that causes damage to a tissue or organ: the movement of the bone causes a severe tissue insult. PHRASES: add insult to injury act in a way that makes a bad or displeasing situation worse.DERIVATIVES: in·sult·er n. in·sult·ing·ly adv. ORIGIN: mid 16th cent. (as a verb in the sense ‘exult, act arrogantly’): from Latin insultare ‘jump or trample on,’ from in- ‘on’ + saltare, from salire ‘to leap.’ The noun (in the early 17th cent. denoting an attack) is from French insulte or ecclesiastical Latin insultus. The main current senses date from the 17th cent., the medical use dating from the early 20th cent.
So insult (arch.) attack; affront. XVII. — F. insulte or — ecclL. insultus.