On Speech

This week’s Torah reading is Acharei Mos – Kedoshim in Eretz Yisrael and Tazria – Metzora elsewhere. Both readings relate to the sin of evil speech (loshon hara). In parashas Kedoshim, the Torah commands us to refrain from evil speech, saying (Vayikra 19:16): “You shall not be a talebearer among your people.” Tazria – Metzora deals with the affliction of tzaraas, of which one of the causes is loshon hara (Arachin 15b). Accordingly, this week I present a digest of the closing two chapters of the Maggid’s Sefer HaMiddos, which deal with the topic of guarding one’s speech (shemiras ha-lashon).
The main function of the tongue is to serve Hashem through Torah study and prayer. Now, when a person offers a gift of homage to a nobleman, he must make sure the gift is fitting: that the gift item itself is respectable, and that it is conveyed in a respectable vessel. Similarly, when a person offers Hashem a prayer, he must make sure that he does so with proper devotion and humility, and that the mouth that conveys his prayer is pure – not sullied by sins of speech such as vulgarity, deceit, and lashon hara. Our Sages condemn is the strongest terms those who engage in lashon hara. In Arachin 15b, the Gemara teaches that one who speaks loshon hara is like one who denies that Hashem is the master of the world. And in Vayikra Rabbah 16:6, the Midrash teaches that speaking lashon hara is tantamount to violating the entire five books of the Torah. The Maggid expounds on why the sin of lashon hara is so grave. He notes three key characteristics of speech: its importance, its rapid and free flow, and its delicateness.
Speech is of prime importance in that it is one of the two key features that distinguish man from the animals. The faculty of thought is man’s internal distinguishing feature, while the faculty of speech is his external distinguishing feature. The faculty of thought was given to man solely to enable him to recognize his Creator, to love, fear, and trust in Him, to absorb His teachings, and to carry out His will. Similarly, the faculty of speech was given to man as a sacred vessel for praising Hashem and thanking Him for all His kindnesses, the greatest of which is His giving us the privilege of serving Him. As noted above, the tongue is the instrument through which we carry out the sacred duties of Torah study and prayer. Even without an explicit command in the Torah against improper speech, we could recognize by reason alone that an instrument designed for such exalted duties should not be profaned through lowly uses. Thus, the Gemara states (Yoma 19b): “One who talks idly transgresses a positive commandment, as it is written (Devarim 6:7), ‘And you shall speak in them [words of Torah].’” The reason this is so is not simply because one who talks idly is squandering an opportunity for Torah study, for the same could be said of one who keeps silent. Rather, the transgression arises from employing the tongue, which is meant for Torah study, for an improper use.
Regarding the rapid and free flow of speech, we can note that, although a person has the power to keep silent, once he starts talking he must guard his tongue with extreme care; unless he exercises the utmost vigilance, he almost surely will slide into improper speech. In this vein, Shlomo HaMelech declares (Mishlei 10:19): “In a multitude of words there will be no lack of sin.” Accordingly, at the end of the Amidah prayer, we entreat: “My God, guard my tongue from evil and my lips from speaking deceit.” It is so easy to commit sins of speech that we plead to Hashem to help us avoid them.
The delicateness of speech is like that of a special knife designed for precision work. If the knife is used indiscriminately, it grows blunt and less effective for its intended use. The same is so of speech, which is the instrument we use for the lofty spiritual pursuits of Torah study and prayer. Regarding devout Jews, David HaMelech writes (Tehillim 149:6): “Exaltations of God are in their throats, [like] a double-edged sword in their hands.” Our prayers are the sword with which we battle our enemies. Our mouths have a wondrous power to tear down the barriers that separate us from Hashem and generate beneficial effects in the upper worlds. But if we use our faculty of speech indiscriminately, it grows blunt and less effective. We must therefore guard our mouths carefully. We should strive to minimize the use of our mouths for mundane matters. Indeed, R. Shimon bar Yochai said that if he had been at Mount Sinai, he would have asked for two mouths, one for Torah study and prayer and one for mundane speech (Yerushalmi, Berachos, ch. 1, halachah 2). Surely we should do our utmost to avoid idle chatter, coarse talk, and loshon hara.
Improper speech not only diminishes a person’s subsequent capacity for Torah learning, but even displaces the Torah learning that he previously accumulated. Thus the Sages teach (Shir HaShirim Rabbah on Shir HaShirim  1:3): “Every frivolous word that a person speaks displaces from him correspondingly a word of Torah that he previously learned.” This principle sheds added light on the teaching we mentioned earlier, that a person who speaks idly transgresses the commandment “and you shall speak in them” – we can say that idle talk, in displacing a person’s learning, nullifies his previous fulfillment of this commandment.
In this vein, Shlomo HaMelech teaches (Mishlei 5:1-2): “My son, listen to my wisdom and incline your ear to my understanding teachings. To keep hold of wise strategies and let you lips guard knowledge.” One who restrains his mouth from idle talk keeps hold of his wisdom, while one who speaks indiscriminately lets his wisdom leave him. We must therefore keep close watch on what we say. May Hashem help us do so, and thereby enable us to behold the light of His Torah.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

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