Cleaning Up Our Speech

“When you sell property to your neighbor, or buy any from your neighbor, you shall not wrong one another... Do not wrong one another, but fear your God; for I the Lord am your God” (Leviticus 25: 14 and 17). Clearly, this commandment concerns real estate transactions. Talmud (which Jews understand to be the Oral Torah) expands the scope of this passage to include other commercial transactions, as well. Price gouging, the Rabbis teach, is legitimate grounds for canceling an agreement, for example. Midrash, rabbinical interpretation and exposition of biblical texts, extends the idea of “wronging one another” in another direction: verbal damage.

It helps to recall that God created the world through utterances to keep in mind just how much power words have and therefore how much damage we can do with our words.

Lashon hara (literally, “evil speech”) is the Hebrew term for inappropriate talk about other people, the kind of speech that includes rumor-mongering and gossip. I see the damage and grief caused by lashon hara on a daily basis. Specifically, the Rabbis taught that often we do more egregious and lasting harm to one another with words than with fists; bodies heal more quickly than psyches. Verbal wrongs are far less reversible than monetary wrongs, which can be remunerated.

A Hasidic story illustrates this well: A man slanders his rabbi, encouraged in his tale-bearing by the interest people show in him when he has stories to tell. Sometime later, realizing that what he has done is a serious sin, he approaches his rabbi to repent, promising to do whatever is possible to make amends. The rabbi tells him, “Go fetch a feather pillow, cut it open, and scatter the feathers to the winds.” The man complies and returns to ask the rabbi if he is now forgiven. “Now go and gather the feathers,” the rabbi instructs the man. What seems a simple task turns out to be an impossible ordeal; the feathers have flown far and wide and the man cannot retrieve even a fraction of them. Upset and deflated, the man returns to the rabbi to admit that he has not succeeded. The rabbi says, “You can no more make amends for the damage your words have caused than you can collect the feathers that have flown far and wide.”

Words fly like feathers on the wind. Their path cannot be predicted; they often go astray. For this reason, Jewish ethics teach that we should avoid talking about others all together, even if what we plan to say is true, even if it is complimentary, even if it is well known, because we can never know which way the wind will blow and how our words will be heard and used. There are two exceptions: in a court of law, and in order to prevent immediate harm from befalling someone.

In a society that promotes easy and quick communication -- e-mail, cell phones, IM, text-messaging -- this is an invaluable lesson.

Rabbi Scheinerman wrote this article for the Carroll County Times.