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Why You Should Think Twice About Pranks

The Talmud equates embarrassing a person publically to a murder, and thus states “It is better for a man that he should cast himself into a fiery furnace rather than that he should put his fellow to shame in public” (Talmud Berachot 43b). I have been taught this lesson repeatedly since I was in first or second grade. On more than one occasion, either as a victim or as a witness, I had the unfortunate opportunity to fully appreciate the pain and agony resulting from public humiliation, but comparing it to a murder seemed a bit farfetched. That was until recently, when we all learned how real it could be when Nurse Jacintha Saldanha became the victim of a radio prank and committed suicide. 

"We had the idea for a simple harmless call" said the now infamous DJs Christian and Greig. "At every single point it was innocent on our behalf. It was something that was funny and lighthearted and a tragic turn of events that I don't think could have been predicted" added Christian.  

The DJs, who are not likely to be students of the Talmud, are right in their claim that it was hard to predict an outcome of suicide as a result of their prank. I even concede that it seems like there is a missing link between the cause and the effect. But calling their act "harmless" is misleading.  

I don't know how radio stations work, but I assume that like any individual or organization, before they execute their plan they take time to consider some plausible outcomes.  For such a prank, death would not make the list, but the top 3 would probably be: 1) Someone in the hospital would become a laughingstock, 2) Would be reprimanded by the supervisor, 3) May lose his or her job. The most likely scenario would be all of the above (and I am not even talking about the harm caused to the young royal expecting parents).  

Another common theme in the Talmud is the prohibition against onaat d'varim (verbal wronging). In a list of examples (that includes cruel pranks) we learn that the psychological injury caused by words may be worse than a physical injury. Jacintha Saldanha, who dedicated her life to being a nurse and alleviating the physical pain of others, was not able to bear her own emotional agony. The public shame, the fear of losing the respect of her family and friends, and perhaps even her job, was just too much for her to handle. 

The biblical phrase “an eye for an eye” was never meant to be taken literally, but it seems like the “harmless” consequences the DJs considered for their prank’s victim, befell upon them instead. They were reprimanded by their bosses, their show was cancelled and their future employment is unclear. They didn’t exactly turn into a laughingstock, as any hint of laughter vanished with the news of Saldanha’s death, yet they will be remembered as the irresponsible heartless pranksters who pushed an innocent woman to take her own life.  

Humor is essential to our lives, and pranks are a legitimate way to induce laughter. But before we prank anyone we must consider the price its target may pay. A good laugh should never be a justification for shaming, or stripping one of his or her dignity. I hate to disagree with popular nursery rhymes, but in light of the sad event, a small change is necessary: Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words may even kill me.  

Rabbi Alon Levkovitz 

Wed, December 2 2020 16 Kislev 5781