In Parshat Vayeishev the Torah records the difficult story of Yehuda and Tamar. Yehuda gave Tamar his staff and signet as collateral and when she was taken out to be burned, she sent a message to her father-in-law hinting to what he had done. Tamar refrained from embarrassing Yehuda at the risk of her own life. She left the choice up to him to admit his act. The Gemara in Bava Metziah makes an intriguing statement based on this story, “It is preferable for a person to allow himself to be thrown into a fiery furnace rather than to publicly humiliate someone.” Is this halacha l’maasah (practical halacha)?
The Rif and the Rosh maintain that it is. However there is a Gemara in Pesachim that says that a Jew may violate any sin to save himself except the three cardinal sins-idol worship, adultery, and murder. Tosfot in Sotah asks, what about humiliating another person in public? Why isn’t this included in the list?
The commentators answer that since the prohibition of embarrassing someone is learned indirectly from the verse, “V’lo sisa alov cheit” (Do not bear a sin on his account), it’s not included. The Rambam understands it differently. The Gemara says, “Noach lo..” (It is preferable), meaning that it is not a requirement. Rabbeinu Yonah maintains that humiliating someone is avak rechitza-an extension of murder because it causes the person’s blood to drain out of his face. Tosfot in Pesachim offers another explanation. In some instances, such as if you are a passive participant, you are not required to give up your life even in a situation of shefichat damim. Therefore it can be suggested that humiliating someone which involves talking is not considered actively killing someone.
The Rambam in Yesodei Hatorah writes that the din is “Yaavor v’al yiharog.”(Transgress rather than forfeit your life), except in times of gezeirot hashmad when it may be permitted. The Gemara tells the story of Elisha Bal Kinfayim who risked his life to wear tefilin in public. Similarly in Gittin, the Gemara records the incident of the group of boys and girls who jumped into the sea to avoid sin. Tosfot notes that there are cases when you may voluntarily give up your life.
Perhaps we can say that the din of “Yaavor v’al yahorog,” only applies to mitzvoth between man and Hashem and not to mitzvoth between man and man. If it means hurting someone, one can possibly give up one’s life. We see that Tamar was ready to die rather than humiliate Yehuda. Similarly, the Gemara in Yoma records the story of Rav Yehuda who suddenly had stomach pains and needed to eat something quickly. He stole some bread. Rav Yossi rebuked him. Sometimes even saving one’s life doesn’t warrant stealing. An ones (one who is forced) is not considered a sinner. This may also be true bein adam l’chaveiro. However since you have harmed another person you can’t pretend it didn’t happen. So maybe even the Rambam would agree that in these cases you may even give up your life.