The Torah relates that when Tamar, who was widowed from each of the first two sons of Yehudah, was found to be pregnant, presumably from someone to whom she was forbidden, Yehudah ruled that she should be burned. As she was taken out to be executed, Tamar displayed three items in her possession which belonged to Yehudah, and declared that the owner of these items had fathered the child she was carrying. Upon recognizing the items, Yehudah admitted that she was in fact correct (Bereishit 38:24-26). Acknowledging that Tamar did not actually identify Yehudah as the father, which would have humiliated him in public, and was prepared even to die rather than allow that fact to be discovered had Yehudah not ultimately admitted it himself, the Gemara in Bava Metzia (59a), among other places, states that it is better for one to cast himself into a fiery furnace than to shame someone in public. Rashi there (s.v. hi mutzeit) writes that this was why Tamar did not explicitly say that Yehudah had impregnated her, but rather left it to him to admit it on his own; Tosafot (s.v. dichetiv) add that Tamar remained steadfast in her refusal to embarrass Yehudah even as she was drawn ever so close to the burning fire. Both the Rif there in Bava Metzia (33a in his pagination) and the Rosh there (4:22) quote this story as reflecting the accepted halachic position; it would appear, then, that one must actually give up one’s life rather than publicly humiliate another person.
The question, as raised by Tosafot in Sotah (10b, s.v. noach), is why this scenario does not then appear along with the other circumstances which require that one make the supreme sacrifice of his very life. The Gemara in Pesachim (25a-b) teaches that there are three sins which one may not violate under any conditions, even to save one’s life, namely, idol worship, sexual immorality and murder. For example, as Rashi (25b there, s.v. u’shefichat and s.v. yehareg) explains, if someone tells a particular Jew to murder another Jew or else he will see to it that this particular Jew will himself be killed, this particular Jew must allow himself to be killed rather than violate the transgression of murdering the other Jew. In short, the halachah demands martyrdom rather than allowing the violation of this transgression (and the other two); the Rambam (Hilchot Yesodei HaTorah 5:2) and the Shulchan Aruch (Yoreh Deah 157:1) rule accordingly. If, however, one must also give up one’s life rather than embarrass someone else in public, why doesn’t that Gemara mention this requirement together with the requirement to give up one’s life rather than violate the other three transgressions of idol worship, sexual immorality and murder?
The answer suggested by Tosafot there is that that Gemara dealt only with prohibitions which are explicitly mentioned in the text of the Torah; the prohibition against publicly humiliating somebody is not expressly formulated in the Torah (but is rather derived from the narrative in our parashah concerning Yehudah and Tamar) and was thus ignored by that Gemara. Clearly, though, the opinion of Tosafot is that one must indeed give up one’s life rather than shame someone in public; it is due only to a technicality that this case is absent from the Gemara’s list of situations which demand martyrdom. Rabbeinu Yonah, in his Sha’arei Teshuvah (III:139), writes as well that the halachah, as derived from the story of Tamar, is that one must indeed let himself die by hurling himself into a fiery furnace rather than publicly humiliate someone, just as one must let himself be killed rather than murder someone. While not dealing directly with the question of Tosafot (ibid.) as to why this requirement of martyrdom is left off the list in that Gemara in Pesachim (ibid.), Rabbeinu Yonah notes that shaming someone is similar to murdering him (see Bava Metzia 58b), as the blood in a person’s face drains and he turns white when experiencing intense embarrassment, and the pain of shame is in some ways more bitter than death. The prohibition against humiliating someone is thus in fact a subcategory of the prohibition against murder; perhaps for that reason it is not listed independently, even though the requirement to sacrifice one’s life indeed applies to it.
It would appear, however, that the Rambam disagrees with this entire notion that one must give up one’s life rather than humiliate someone in public. In his Sefer HaMitzvot (Lo Ta’aseh 303), the Rambam enumerates the prohibition against embarrassing someone else, deriving it not from the story of Yehudah and Tamar, but from a pasuk later in the Torah (Vayikra 19:17) which Rashi there (s.v. velo tissa) likewise learns is a warning against shaming someone in public. (This is in contradistinction to the position of Tosafot cited above that this prohibition is not rooted in an explicit commandment in the Torah.) Similarly, in his introduction (“koteret”) to Hilchot De’ot, the Rambam lists the prohibition to embarrass as the seventh of the eleven mitzvot to be discussed in that section. Later (Hilchot De’ot 6:8), he uses strong terms to describe the prohibition against humiliating others and the need to avoid violating it, identifying it as a grave sin and one for which one loses one’s share in Olam HaBa, as stated in the Mishnah in Pirkei Avot (3:11). Strikingly, though, the Rambam does not say anything about giving up one’s life rather than committing this transgression. As for the aforementioned statement which seems to require martyrdom in such a case based on the conduct of Tamar, the Rambam may perhaps hold like the Meiri in his Beit HaBechirah to Berachot (43b, s.v. le’olam), who implies that the statement was not meant to be taken literally (see also Beit HaBechirah to Sotah 10b, s.v. le’olam).
Alternatively, it is possible to suggest that when that Gemara in Bava Metzia (59a) speaks of casting oneself into a fiery furnace rather than humiliating someone in public, the intent is not that one is obligated to do so, but that one may do so (see Pnei Yehoshua there, s.v. beGemara, and Iyun Yaakov in Ein Yaakov there, s.v. mitato). According to Tosafot in Avodah Zarah (27b, s.v. yachol), one may indeed voluntarily sacrifice his life for the sake of fulfilling any mitzvah, even if it is not one of the three referred to above where such a sacrifice is required. In this vein, the Gemara in Shabbat (49a) tells the story of someone who was willing to risk his life in order to be able to wear tefillin, and escaped death only due to a miracle, while the Gemara in Ketubot (3b) speaks of Jewish brides who risked their lives to defy a decree that they must first sleep with a Roman official before going to their husbands. The Rambam himself, however (Hilchot Yesodei HaTorah 5:1,4), does not allow martyrdom other than in those situations where it is specifically mandated, as he holds that sacrificing one’s life when that is not obligatory is forbidden. The Rambam therefore does not rule in accordance with the statement that one may give up his life rather than humiliate someone in public.
It must be noted that even if there is no requirement to sacrifice one’s life to avoid this transgression, one who humiliates somebody else in public is certainly subject to significant penalties. The Sefer HaChinuch (Mitzvah 240) writes that while Beit Din cannot mete out the punishment of lashes for this crime because no physical action is involved, Hashem has many ways to see to it that the person gets what he deserves. The Rama (Choshen Mishpat 420:38) cites a view that although one indeed cannot be given lashes on a Torah level for this transgression, he is to be given lashes imposed by the Rabbanan (see S’ma there No. 49). The Rosh (Bava Kamma 8:15) quotes from Rav Sherira Gaon that one who embarrasses somebody verbally should be excommunicated, and the Rambam (Hilchot Chovel U’Mazik 3:5) suggests that it is up to each Beit Din in each individual situation to determine the appropriate punishment; both of these ideas are mentioned in the Shulchan Aruch (Choshen Mishpat ibid.).
Finally, as noted above, the Mishnah in Pirkei Avot (3:11) teaches that one who humiliates another has no share in Olam HaBa despite the many other good deeds that he may have done; the Rambam in his Peirush HaMishnah to Sanhedrin (10:1) indicates that this is not so much a punishment as a fact, since a person who engages in such conduct is surely of a character that is lacking something significant and is thus not fit for Olam HaBa. Rabbeinu Yonah adds in his Sha’arei Teshuvah (III:141) that because unlike a murderer, who may eventually understand the enormity of his crime and thus regret it and do teshuvah, one who shames someone in public often fails to recognize that what he did is indeed so terrible, despite the fact that the Gemara in Bava Metzia (58b) states that the damage caused by the public humiliation of another is irreparable; he thus will not do teshuvah and his transgression will therefore never be forgiven, precluding his being granted a proper share in Olam HaBa.