The rule governing defamation may be considered lenient or strict. How so? Whether one defamed the girl of the most prestigious priestly family, or the girl of the most humble Israelite family, he must pay a fine of 100 sela. This shows that what one says orally is treated more severely than a physical outrage! [cf. the previous mishnah, which fined a seducer only 50 sela] And so too we find that the decree that our ancestors [must die] in the wilderness was sealed only as a result of defamation, as it says, “they have tested me these ten times, and have not heeded My voice.” (Num. 14:22)
This tractate of Mishnah, Arakhin, deals with pledges to the temple that are pegged to the market value of a person in the slave market. It also considers the “cost” of various types of damage one person might do to another, and how to determine restitution. Our mishnah demonstrates an egalitarian principle. Defaming a woman’s honor is fined equally whether the woman (or girl) came from an elite or common family. This flat fine of one-hundred sela is “strict” if one defamed a commoner, but “lenient” if the victim was high-class, since one might expect penalties to rise according to class. The second half of the mishnah focuses on the surprising severity of penalties for defamation compared to those for physical violation. Midrashically, it then connects this concept to the incident of the spies, saying that only when the Israelites defamed the land did God finally punish them.