Harvey S. Hecker Character Development Series: Our words are a powerful force to build – and destroy.
#7: Ethical Speech
Originally published by Rabbi Shraga Simmons on aish.com
At mankind’s birth on Rosh Hashanah 5777 years ago, God blew into Adam a “living soul” – defined as the power of speech.1 Ergo, verbal communication is our highest creative power, what distinguishes man from beast. With proper use of speech, we tap into our greatest potential; its misuse is a grave offense. “Whoever desires life,” King David advised, “should guard his tongue.”2
Words are our primary vehicle for expression, the bridge between ethereal thought and the tangible projection of self onto reality. Language enables us to share perspectives and learn from one another, fueling our quest for wisdom.
Speech is at the core of humanity. Our world was created with 10 utterances3 (“God said: “Let there be light”),4 and God transmitted the code of ethics at Sinai by speaking the Ten Commandments.5 In defining the differences between wise and foolish, the Talmud relates solely to the use of speech.6
Animals may communicate as a survival mechanism, but only mankind uses speech to access the magic that unites us all.7 The great Rabbi Shlomo Freifeld would pass a neighbor on the street every day with a big smile and a friendly “hello.” After time, the neighbor’s life transformed for the better – all on the strength of the rabbi’s single warm word that communicated: “You are important, worthwhile, recognized and loved.” Words that come from the heart, enter the heart.
Negative speech causes anguish and can kill at great distance.
Speech, the tool of creation, can be either a vehicle for unity, building and healing, or the opposite – division and destruction.8 “Life and death are in the hand of the tongue,” declared the wise King Solomon.9 Negative speech – worse than the sword – causes great pain and anguish, and can kill many people even at great distance.10
Lack of ethical communication is the source of great tension, misunderstanding, even war. The adage “Sticks and stones can break my bones but words can never hurt me” is antithetical to elevated human behavior. Hitler’s first barbaric weapon was words.
Low self-esteem is the prime cause of speaking badly about others. Negativity toward self can be assuaged, the rationale goes, by putting others down – a self-congratulatory ego boost of “I don’t have such faults.”
Recognizing the great of speech to build or destroy, Jewish life is filled with mitzvot – spiritual guidelines for ethical speech.11
Derogatory Speech – Loshon Hara
Loshon Hara – derogatory speech 12 – is a broad category of anything that may arouse animosity between people. This applies even when the derogatory statement is true.13 (“Lying” is a separate prohibition.)14
The litmus test of ethical speech is whether is raises other people up or puts them down – even when intended as a joke and you intend no harm. 15
If the result is the lowering of another’s esteem, it’s an ethical penalty flag.
The problem of negative speech is even more pronounced in our digital age, with instantaneous global communication and a record rarely erased.
It is also considered unethical to listen to Loshon Hara, since listening ultimately enables the speaker to negatively communicate.16 Try to avoid gossip situations, and always have an escape hatch – e.g. change the topic of conversation.
In the event you happen to hear Loshon Hara, be suspicious and check it out – but don’t accept it as fact.17 “Judge others favorably” until proven otherwise.
Are there exceptions to the “no negative speech” rule? In certain situations, it is actually obligatory to reveal negative information. You can speak negatively in order to prevent future damage – e.g. warning someone about a crooked business partner.18 (Note: conditions apply.19)
Wronging with Words
In Jewish consciousness, money is peripheral to self, but feelings are essential. That’s why harming someone with words 20 (Onas Devarim) is considered worse than harming their property.21
We are enjoined to never embarrass another person – e.g. publicly pointing out faults; using an insulting nickname; or recalling past mistakes.22
It is also unethical to deceive others, which is akin to “stealing thoughts.” One example is offering someone bad advice.
We must also be careful not to give a false impression. For example, when entering a store, realize that the salesperson now has a raised expectation to sell. If you have no intent of buying, you should make that clear from the start.
We also strive for “clean speech” that avoids coarse or negative connotations. To illustrate, the Torah does not refer to a particular animal as “unclean,” but prefers the subtly more positive formulation, “not clean.”23 Every word has a powerful effect on the soul.
The Kabbalists speak about having a limited number of words in a lifetime.24 Indeed, human anatomy is constructed to reduce negative speech. We have two eyes, two ears, and two nostrils – but one mouth. The tongue is hidden from view, and the mouth is guarded by gateways – teeth and lips – reminding us of a more thoughtful approach to speech.25
Imagine a planet where polluted speech is shunned like cigarette smoke. That’s a world less critical, more tolerant, and keenly focused on the virtues of others. And that’s a good step to world peace.26
High Holiday Speech
Prayer, a primary way of serving God, is an exercise in proper speech.27 The central Amidah prayer begins with asking God to “open my lips,” and ends with a prayer to avoid using speech for bad.28 The central component of the Yom Kippur service – the Al-Chet prayer – focuses largely on transgressions involving speech.
The High Holy Days are a special opportunity to practice ethical speech. Beyond the Rosh Hashanah shofar and fasting on Yom Kippur, this is an auspicious time to open a conversation with God – to articulate your dream and share a strategy to achieve it. “God,” we say, “here’s how I can best serve You this year. Please grant me the means to fulfill it.”
During these Ten Days of Teshuva, we focus on articulating our mistakes, and pledging to learn from them. This confession (“Viduy”) is a totally private matter between you and God.29 We articulate a specific mistake and say: “God, I regret my actions, and am taking steps to never do it again.”30 This self-judgment is our best defense; God only wants us to admit the truth to ourselves.31
It is important to verbalize the Viduy out loud. As intelligent, thinking, imaginative beings, we have all sorts of thoughts flashing constantly through our mind. Even sublime thoughts of remorse and self-improvement arise, but they may quickly flutter away. For thoughts to have lasting meaning, we must distill them into words.
1. Targum Onkelos – Genesis 2:7
2. Psalms 34:13-14
3. Talmud – Avot 5:1
4. Genesis 1:3
5. Exodus 20:1
6. Avot 5:9
7. See Genesis 11:1, where prior to the Tower of Babel, all humanity spoke one language. See also Talmud – Bava Kama 27a.
8. Maimonides – Deyos 7:2
9. Proverbs 18:21
10. Talmud – Archin 15b
11. See Maimonides – Avot 1:17
12. Leviticus 19:16
13. Chafetz Chaim 1:1:1.
14. One who speaks outright falsehood is called a “spreader of evil” (motzi shem ra).
15. Chafetz Chaim 1:3:3
16. Maimonides – Deyos 7:2; Chafetz Chaim (Hilchot Loshon Hara 6:1-2)
17. Chafetz Chaim 1:6:2, based on Talmud – Nida 61a
18. See Chafetz Chaim 1:10
19. Chafetz Chaim 1:10 lists key conditions including:
The information is objectively true, not a matter of taste or opinion.
You have first-hand information, not hearsay.
You do not exaggerate in any way.
You first give the perpetrator a chance to respond to the allegations, or try to resolve the issue in another way.
You have no ulterior motive or personal gain from what you say.
You avoid mentioning names whenever possible.
20. Leviticus 25:17
21. Midrash Yalkut Shimoni – Tehillim 3:621
22. Talmud – Baba Metzia 58b
23. Genesis 7:8; Talmud – Pesachim 3a
24. Chochmah U’Mussar
25. Talmud – Arachin 15b
26. Talmud – Yoma 9b
27. see Hosea 14:3
28. See Talmud – Brachot Brachot 4b, 9b
29. “Confession” in Hebrew – Li-heet-vadot – is the reflexive form of acting upon oneself.
30. Maimonides – Teshuva 1:1
31. As the prophet Jeremiah says, “God will judge us when we say, ‘I didn’t sin.'” (Jeremiah 2:35)
32. ArtScroll Machzor