Once upon a time in American culture, defiant children who uttered certain improper words would have their mouths washed out with soap. Today, the profanities litter the world of common media. But just because society has allowed the vulgar to become the norm does not mean that this is the proper way for anyone to speak.

Crass language, referred to in Jewish sources as nivul peh, is discussed in several places in the Talmud. For instance, Rabbah ben Shila said in Rabbi Chisda’s name: “He who puts his mouth to folly, Gehinnom [Hell] is made deep for him, as it is said (Proverbs 22:14), ‘A deep pit is for the mouth [that speaks] perversity.” (Talmud Shabbat 33a).

It is the ability to speak that defines humanity from the rest of the “animal world,” and how one uses that gift often reflects how a person views him/herself and the world. Rabbi Joshua the son of Levi said, “One should not utter a gross expression from one’s mouth” (Talmud Pesachim 3a) while the School of Rabbi Ishmael taught: “One should always discourse in decent language… and it is said (Job 15:5), ‘and you shall choose the tongue of the subtle,’ and it is said (Job 33:3), ‘and that which my lips know they shall speak purely'” (Talmud Pesachim 3a).

Maintaining purity of speech is not limited to simply refraining from cursing, but should also include being conscious of all the words that one uses. It is interesting to note that most expletives in English are based on body functions, particularly “romantic” functions. Jewish texts, however, are filled with euphemisms. “Said Rabbi Chanon the son of Rab, ‘All know for what purpose a bride is brought into the bridal chamber, but whoever disgraces his mouth and utters a vulgarity, even if a [Divine] decree of 70 years of happiness were sealed for him, it is turned for him into evil'” (Talmud Ketubot 8b). 

This post was originally posted on May 8, 2017.

Copyright © 2020 NJOP. All rights reserved.