“Striving for Refined Speech”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Matot, we learn of the laws that govern vows and oaths, known in Hebrew as nedarim and sh’vu’ot. The fact that these laws immediately follow parashat Pinchas, which is concerned with the daily, Shabbat and festival offerings, raises questions about the relationship between sacrifices and oaths.

The Sefat Emet (Rabbi Yehudah Aryeh Leib Alter of Ger, 1847-1905, second Gerrer Rebbe, renowned Bible commentator and talmudist), noting that prayers have now replaced the sacrifices that were once brought in the Holy Temple, suggests that just as the Temple offerings were dedicated exclusively to G-d, so too must our mouths and hearts be entirely dedicated to G-d. It is through the power of human speech, specifically through vows and oaths, that a Jew has the power to sanctify mundane items. So must all human speech be sanctified.

The opening verse in parashat Matot states (Numbers 30:2): “Vah’y’dah’ber Moshe el Ra’shei ha’ma’toht liv’nei Yis’ra’el lay’mohr,” Moses spoke to the heads of the tribes of the Children of Israel, saying…–Obviously, the laws of oaths and vows apply to all the people of Israel. Why then does the Al-mighty instruct Moses to specifically speak to the heads of the tribes? The Chatam Sofer (1762-1839, Rabbi of Pressburg, leader of Hungarian Jewry) suggests that leaders and public figures often make promises that they cannot keep. Therefore, the Torah places special emphasis on them, warning the leaders that they must keep their word and meticulously guard their speech. It is in this manner that the leaders are to teach the people that human speech is sanctified, and, in turn, the nation will come to appreciate that the words of a faithful leader must be accepted as if they were the words of G-d.

The Torah then addresses all the people of Israel, saying (Numbers 30:3): “Eesh kee yee’door neh’dehr la’Ha’shem oh hee’sha’vah sheh’voo’ah le’eh’sohr ee’sar al naf’shoh, lo ya’chel d’va’roh, k’chol ha’yoh’tzei mee’peev ya’ah’seh,” If a man takes a vow to G-d or swears an oath to establish a prohibition upon himself, he shall not desecrate his word; according to whatever comes from his mouth he shall do. From the phrase “lo ya’chel d’va’roh,” He shall not desecrate his words, we learn that every word is sacred, and every falsehood, a desecration of G-d.

The Torah thus teaches that human beings, who possess superior intelligence, must recognize the importance of not making statements indiscreetly or rashly. They are expected to weigh their words carefully, and once uttered, abide by them. It is particularly harmful when leaders, parents or teachers, who frequently serve as paradigms, offer rebuke to others but fail to live up to the words that they themselves speak.

Maimonides (the Rambam, great Jewish philosopher, codifier and physician, 1135-1204) cites the example of Joshua (Joshua 9:15-27) who made a treaty with the Gibeonites, despite the fact that the Gibeonites were of the seven Canaanite nations and forbidden to live in Israel. Even though the Gibeonites had tricked Joshua into thinking that they were a non-Canaanite nation, Joshua allowed them to remain in Israel in order not to renege on his commitment to them, which would have constituted a desecration of G-d’s name (Laws of Kings 6:5).

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (1808-1888, the great Bible commentator and leader of German Jewry) interprets the word “ya’chel” to mean that a person should not allow his words to be without a result, to become “choolin,” void. A person’s word must be binding.

The Chofetz Chaim (R’ Yisrael Meir HaKohen of Radin, 1838-1933, a foremost leader of Jewry, famous for his saintly qualities) wrote many treatises on “shmirat ha’lashon,” guarding one’s speech, that has inspired the development of a virtual “Guard Your Speech” industry, featuring massive campaigns sponsored by the popular Chofetz Chaim Foundation promoting proper speech.

The Jerusalem Talmud in Brachot 1:2 cites the following narrative: Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai said, “Had I been at Mount Sinai at the moment when the Torah was given to Israel, I would have demanded that man be created with two mouths–one for Torah and prayer, and the other for mundane matters. But then I retracted and exclaimed that if we fail and speak ‘lashon hara‘ (evil speech) with only one mouth, how much more would we fail with two mouths?”

Rabbeinu Yona (Jonah b. Abraham of Gerona, c.1200-1263, Spanish rabbi, author and moralist) noted that if the Jew guards his mouth correctly, reserving it for only holy purposes, then it itself becomes a holy vessel (Avot 1:17). More than any other organ of the body, the mouth has the potential for holiness. Not only do humans praise G-d and pray to G-d with their mouths, but they also learn Torah with their mouths, remember the Sabbath with their mouths, and remember what Amalek did with their mouths. No other organ or limb of the body is used as often in the worship of G-d.

The Talmud, in Pesachim 3a and 3b, quotes the school of Rabbi Yishmael who taught, “One should always discourse in refined language.” After recording a series of prooftexts from the Bible to show how the Bible goes out of its way to avoid unseemly speech, the Talmud cites the following story: Two disciples sat before Hillel, one of whom was Rabbi Johanan ben Zakkai. One said, “Why must we vintage [grapes] in purity, yet we need not gather [olives] in purity?” while the other said: “Why must we vintage in purity, yet may gather [olives] in impurity?” [Hillel] observed, “I am certain that the latter [probably referring to Rabbi Johanan ben Zakkai who used refined language] will be an authorized teacher in Israel.” And it did not take long before he was an authorized teacher in Israel.

As the Chofetz Chaim teaches, one must not only avoid negative speech, but always strive to use the most positive speech. Obviously, it is not prohibited to mention the word “impurity” with respect to olives. But, because the teacher saw that the other disciple was excessively careful with his speech, striving to raise his common speech to higher levels, Hillel saw him as an exemplar for the people of Israel.

Clearly, one must not speak forbidden speech or wanton speech. When the Bible says “lo ya’chel d’va’roh,” one must not speak profanely, it is meant to serve as a clarion call to all to promote greater care in the proper use of language.

May you be blessed.