The Gemara (Yevamos 79a) tells us that Yidden have three characteristics: we are rachamanim, merciful; baishanim; and gomlei chasadim, kind to others.

The Mishna (Avos 2:5) tells us that a baishan cannot learn.

This leads us to the following syllogism:

Yidden are baishanim.

Baishanim cannot learn.


Yidden cannot learn.

We seem to have a problem here.  Our syllogism has brought us to a false conclusion.  Obviously, BH, Yidden can and do learn.  What went wrong with our syllogism?

Is it because we have an untranslated term in our syllogism: baishanim?  Could baishan have different meanings in different contexts and that is derailing our syllogism?


Let’s back up a step.  What does baishanim mean?

It means people who experience shame.

Rabbeinu Yonah explains that the middah of baishanus is good in all situations except for learning, as we see from Tehilim 119:46, “va'adabeira b'eidoseicho neged melochim, v’lo eivosh, I will speak your testimonies (Torah) and not be a baishan.”  So our syllogism didn’t work because learning is an exception to the rule of being a baishan.

The Maharsha on Yevamos 79a points out that the middah of rachamanim and the middah of gomlei chasadim are inherited from Avraham Aveinu, but not the middah of baishanim.  On the contrary, the Maharsha continues, we were the azzim, the impudent ones among the nations.  The Torah was given to us because we were azzim, the antithesis of baishanim! (see Beitza 25b)  When did we become baishanim?  When we received the Torah.  This is why shame is a good sign in a person.  If a person is never ashamed, you know that his ancestors were not present at Har Sinai.  (Nedarim 20a)

There is an important difference between “shame” as a noun and “shame” as a verb. 

Shame as a noun is what you experience on your own.

Shame as a verb is what someone does to you.  It is better described as humiliation.

When we realize we’ve done something inappropriate, we feel busha, shame, because we are baishanim.  This is a sign of our presence at Har Sinai.

When someone else tells us in a hurtful way that we have done something wrong we feel hashpala, literally, knocked down.  In English, that is called humiliation.  It is deathly painful and it causes us to blush.

Darwin called blushing "the most peculiar and the most human of all expressions."

He proposed that blushing is not a manifestation of shame.  It is the pain of humiliation that makes us blush.  “A man may feel thoroughly ashamed at having told a small falsehood, without blushing,” he wrote, “but if he even suspects that he is detected he will instantly blush, especially if detected by one whom he reveres.”  (The Expression Of The Emotions In Man And Animals, Page 333)

Especially if detected by one whom he reveres.  Which brings us to parenting.

When you invite a child to think about the impact of her actions on others, she may come to feel ashamed of what she did.  Over time, these experiences of healthy shame will motivate her to behave in a more considerate way in the future.  This is the result of shame experienced by the child based on her own evaluation of her behavior under the gentle guidance of her parents.

When the guidance comes in the form of humiliation, the results are tragically different.

When limit-setting and "no" are accompanied by parental anger or negative comments that assault a child, the "healthy, developmental shame” of a child simply learning to curb his or her behavior now is transformed into more complicated "toxic shame” and humiliation. One view proposes that toxic shame involves not simply the sense of having done something wrong, which can and needs to be corrected, but the painful sense that one's inner self is defective. And this belief that the self is damaged is felt to be an unchangeable condition of the child-not a behavior that can be modified. Some researchers consider this move from "behavior to be changed in the future" to a "self that is fundamentally flawed" as the outcome for children who experience repeated parental hostility in response to their behavior.  Toxic shame and humiliation can continue through childhood and into adulthood, even beneath the surface of awareness, leaving individuals with a hidden "secret" that they are permanently and deeply defective. A cascade of negative consequences including having trouble with close relationships that might reveal this hidden secret, feeling unworthy, being driven to succeed in life but never feeling satisfied, can dominate the individual's life. You as a parent can avoid giving your child this negative cascade of toxic shame by learning how to create needed structure without humiliating your child…[E]ncourage kids to look inside themselves, consider the feelings of others and make decisions that are often difficult, even when they have the impulse or desire to do things another way.  Allow children to put into practice the emotional and social abilities we want them to understand and master.  (No-Drama Discipline, Siegel and Bryson, pg 62)

As a clinician, I see the pain experienced by individuals with a hidden "secret."  I also see the pain inflicted by these individuals onto their spouses and children whom they perceive as a threat of exposing that secret.  Victims of toxic shame face a long road through treatment, although with work, the impact on everyone involved can be significantly reduced.

The alternative is to guide your child to healthy shame.  When you calm yourself before working with your child you will help your child to accept his failings, feel healthy shame, and identify satisfactory alternatives.  Your display of rachamim and gemilas chesed will help your child become a baishan in the best sense of the term.


Rabbi Ackerman is the author of Confident Parents, Competent Children, in Four Seconds at a Time

Available at bookstores and on Amazon.

He can be reached at 718-344-6575