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Death and Life are in the Hand of the Tongue: Yom Kippur 5764

Ethics
High Holidays
Prayer and Liturgy
Responsa by David Golinkin
Synagogue Life

A professor at the Jewish Theological Seminary once came home after officiating at a synagogue during the High Holy Days and said to his teacher, Rabbi Simon Greenberg (z”l): “Professor Greenberg, I simply can’t take the Al Het anymore!. Forty four sins repeated nine times – it’s just too much!” And Prof. Greenberg replied: “Of course it is! I haven’t said them all for years”.

The professor was taken aback. Could it be that his teacher, who was such a genuinely pious person, had not recited the Al Het in years? “What do you mean?”, he asked.

“It’s very simple,” said Prof. Greenberg. “Each time I choose one of the sins on the list, one that applies to me. I think about its implications and meditate on how and why I committed it – and by the time I am finished thinking about that one sin, the rest of the people have finished the whole list.” (Rabbi Jack Riemer, The World of the High Holy Days, Miami, 1991, p. 301)

This is very good advice. Jewish law requires us to confess our sins at every service on Yom Kippur (Yoma 87b), but we are not required to say the exact list of Al Het, which has grown steadily longer throughout the centuries (see the Rema to Orah Hayyim 607:2). Therefore, as a way of preparing for Yom Kippur this year, I would like to zero in on two of the Al Het phrases connected to speech. Indeed, ten of the 44 phrases, almost one quarter, refer to sins committed through speech. Among other things we say:

For the sin we have committed before You by the utterance of our lips.
And for the sin we have committed before You in the speech of our mouths.
For the sin we have committed before You by impure lips.
And for the sin we have committed before You by the foolishness of our mouths.
For the sin we have committed before You by slander.
And for the sin we have committed before You by tale bearing and gossip.

I) Gossip and Slander

The first four verses are a general confession of our mouth’s ability to sin, but the last two verses refer to two specific commandments mentioned numerous times in the Bible and Talmud and codified by Maimonides. They are called lashon hara, which means slander, and rechilut or rechiluss, which means tale bearing or gossip.

The basic prohibition against rechilut or gossip is already found in the Torah in the book of Leviticus (19:16): “Do not go about as a talebearer among your countrymen… I am the Lord.”

What exactly is a rachil, a talebearer? Rashi explains (ibid.) that it comes form the word rochel or peddler: just as a peddler peddles merchandise from one house to another, so a talebearer or gossip carries overheard information from one person to another. (cf. Yerushalmi Peah 1:1 and Rambam, Hilkhot Deot 7:2)

Many centuries later, the book of Proverbs (10:18) condemned another kind of sin committed by the mouth: “He who spreads slander is a fool.”

In rabbinic literature, slander is called lashon hara, which literally means “the evil tongue”. The Rambam defines lashon hara as a person who says bad things about his fellow man even if he is telling the truth (Hilkhot Deot 7:2).

The rabbis of the Talmud and Midrash ranked lashon hara among the worst types of sin. They said:

“Slander is worse than the three cardinal sins of murder, forbidden sexual relationships and idol worship” (Tanhuma Metzora, par. 4 = Midrash Tehillim 52, ed. Buber, p. 283 = Arakhin 15b).
“Whoever tells lashon hara, God says of him: ‘He and I cannot inhabit the same world’ ” (Arakhin 15b).
“Whoever slanders deserves to be stoned” (ibid.)
“Because there are slanderers in this world, I have removed My presence from among you” (Devarim Rabbah 5:14, ed. Mirkin, pp. 106-107).
“Whoever slanders has no place in the world to come” (Pirkei Derabi Eliezer 53, fol. 127a).

Furthermore, the rabbis emphasized the fact that a number of prominent biblical figures were severely punished for the sin of lashon hara: Ten of the twelve spies sent by Moses to spy out the land of Israel slandered Eretz Yisrael. As a result, they were punished by death (Numbers 14 and Arakhin 15a). Miriam the sister of Moses uttered lashon hara against Moses on account of his Ethiopian wife. As a result, God punished Miriam with leprosy (Numbers 12).

As you may know, Moses himself was not allowed to enter the promised land because when God told him to bring forth water from the rock by speaking to it, he struck the rock instead (Numbers 20). However, according to Rabbi Simone, he was not punished for striking the rock, but rather because he called the Jewish people “hamorim”, “rebels”. In other words, Moshe was severely punished for speaking lashon hara against the Jewish people (Shir Hashirim Rabbah to 1:6, ed. Vilna 9a).

Lastly, one Sage did not allow his colleague to slander a certain Jewish community – even though his remarks were probably true. In Talmudic times, Caeserea was known as a city of assimilated, Greek-speaking Jews. As a matter of fact, the Jews there were so assimilated, that they used to recite the Shema in Greek, because they did not know Hebrew (Yerushalmi Sotah Chap. 7, fol. 21b)! The midrash relates that

Rabbi Abbahu and Resh Lakish were entering the city of Caeserea. Said Rabbi Abbahu to Resh Lakish: “Are we allowed to enter a city of cursing and blasphemy?” Resh Lakish dismounted from his donkey, gathered some sand, and stuffed it into Rabbi Abbahu’s mouth. Rabbi Abbahu exclaimed: “Hey, what are you doing?” Resh Lakish replied: “God is not pleased with one who utters slander against the Jewish people!” (Shir Hashirim Rabbah to 1:6, fol. 9b)

Thus far we have seen that rechilut or gossip and lashon hara or slander are forbidden by Jewish law. We have also seen that these sins were the subject of rabbinic hyperbole, and that even biblical figures were roundly criticized by our Sages for the sin of lashon hara.

II) Words Can Kill

But why? What’s so terrible about a little gossip or rechilut? What’s wrong with some harmless slander or lashon hara? After all, doesn’t the children’s ditty say: “Sticks and stones will break my bones but words will never harm me”? Children may believe that ditty, but adults know better. Words can not only harm, they can kill! This is even evident from the idioms for slander in various languages. In English it’s called “character assassination”. In Biblical Aramaic it’s called “akhalu kartzeihon di” (Daniel 3:8, 6:25), which literally means “they ate the flesh of…”. And the medieval Hebrew poet Moshe Ibn Ezra wrote: “a talebearer is like a cannibal” (Shirat Yisrael, ed. Halper, 1924, p. 40).

The deadly power of our tongues is emphasized in a famous verse from Proverbs (18:21): “Mavet v’hayyim beyad lashon” – “Death and life are in the hand of the tongue”, upon which the Talmud (Arakhin 15b) comments: “Does the tongue have a hand? This comes to teach us that just as the hand can kill, so can the tongue kill.”

Another rabbinic dictum takes this analogy with murder one step further: “A person who slanders, kills three – the teller, the listener, and the victim” (Midrash Tehillim 52, ed. Buber, p. 284 and ibid. 120, p. 504 and parallels). The Sages derived this from the story of Doeg the Edomite who told King Saul that Ahimelekh the Priest helped David. This lashon hara led to the death of Doeg the teller, King Saul the listener, and Ahimelekh the Priest whom Doeg had slandered. However, this teaching need not be taken so literally. Even when they do not kill, lashon hara and rechilut destroy the character of the teller, the listener, and the victim. The devastating power of our tongues is illustrated by two stories from our own day:

Dr. Paul Tournier, the Swiss Psychiatrist, tells of a woman he treated. She was experiencing a distressing sense of unworthiness and emptiness in her life. After a period of counseling, the patient recalled a telling incident from her childhood. She had been in another room and overheard her mother say to her father about her: “We could have done without that one!” That one bit of lashon hara had twisted her entire life out of shape. (Rabbi Sidney Greenberg, Lessons for Living, Bridgeport, Conn., 1985, p. 93)

The second story is well known to all of us. In 1995, right-wing demonstrators in Israel began to call Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin z”l a boged/traitor and a rodef/pursuer on a regular basis. Rabin himself dismissed this kind of talk as nonsense. Yet, there is no question that these “mere words” – boged and rodef – influenced Yigal Amir and contributed to the assassination of Prime Minister Rabin.

III) Slander is Irretrievable

In addition to its destructive power, there is another reason why Jewish tradition is so opposed to lashon hara – slander cannot be retrieved. Once uttered, it has a life of its own. It spreads like wildfire in every direction and cannot be controlled. This point is emphasized in a very powerful midrash on two verses from Psalms (120:3-4). The verses read: “What can you profit, what can you gain O deceitful tongue? A warrior’s sharp arrows…”. The midrash comments:

The tongue is compared to an arrow. Why? Because if a person draws a sword to kill his fellow man, the intended victim can beg mercy and the attacker can change his mind and return the sword to its sheath. But an arrow, once it has been shot and begun its journey, even if the shooter wants to stop it, he cannot” (Midrash Tehillim 120, ed. Buber, p. 503).

Our tongues are like arrows – once we have shot off our mouths in slander and gossip, our words proceed to destroy the victim’s character and there is nothing we can do to stop them. Or, as another midrash on those same verses states: “So it is with slander; it is uttered in Rome and kills in Syria” (Bereshit Rabbah 98:23, p. 1269).

The irretrievable nature of lashon hara is clearly illustrated in the following story:

A woman came to her rabbi on a wintry day with a terrible sense of guilt. She had spread a very unkind story about another woman in town, and had just learned that the story had no basis whatsoever in fact. What should she do?

The rabbi told her that she would have to do two things. First, she would have to take the feathers from one of her pillows and place one feather on the doorstep of each of the houses in the little town. After she completed this task, she should return and the rabbi would give her a second task. The woman left and returned the following day. “What shall I do now?” she asked. “Now,” said the rabbi, “go gather up all the feathers from each of the houses where you put them.”

“But rabbi,” protested the woman, “that is impossible. The wind has already scattered them far and wide.” “Indeed, it has,” said the rabbi. “To gather up those feathers is as impossible as to take back the harsh words you spoke. You would do well to remember that before you speak in the future (Rabbi Sidney Greenberg, Lessons for Living, pp. 92-93).

IV) Some Other Pernicious Effects

Slander and gossip have a number of other pernicious effects. Frequently, they destroy lifelong friendships. As the medieval proverb states: “If you believe all the gossip around you, you will be left without one good friend” (Reuven Alkalay, Words of the Wise, no. 1811; Israel Davidson, Otzar Hameshalim V’hapitgamim, no. 369).

In addition, even when you scoff at lashon hara and dismiss it as sour grapes, it still leaves a residue. This is brought home by an Aramaic proverb found in the midrash (Bereishit Rabbah 56:4, p. 599 ): “If slander does not wholly penetrate the listener’s heart, at least it fills half of it”. Thus, even when not taken seriously, slander has a pernicious effect on the listener.

Furthermore, slander and gossip frequently backfire; the perpetrator becomes the victim. This phenomenon is described in an oft-quoted medieval Hebrew proverb. One version says: “Whoever speaks against other people, other people will speak against him.” Another version says: “He who slanders others for things they have not done, will be slandered in turn for things he has done” (Israel Davidson, Otzar Hameshalim Vehapitgamim, no. 1402).

Lastly, lashon hara ultimately serves no purpose. The slanderer has harmed his victim but gained nothing in return. That is why the Talmud compares a slanderer to a poisonous snake – it kills others with its bite but derives no benefit from that act (Arakhin 15b).

V) How can we eliminate gossip and slander?

We have seen that rechilut and lashon hara, gossip and slander, kill the teller, the listener, and the victim. They are irretrievable and unstoppable. They destroy friendships, they frequently backfire, and ultimately they are pointless. Clearly, then, the family, the Jewish community, and society as a whole will benefit, if we make a concerted effort to eliminate rechilut and lashon hara from our lives. But how do we do so? Isn’t that a pretty tall order? Yes it is, but the solution is really quite simple: we must stop lashon hara at both ends of the line – the telling end and the listening end.

The need to stop telling lashon hara can be neatly summed up in a proverb attributed to Rabbi Yisrael Salanter, the famous nineteenth-century moralist. He said: “Jews must be as careful about what comes out of their mouths as about the food that goes into their mouths”.

The other method, however, is not so obvious: The other way to stop gossip and slander is to refuse to listen to it. We all have a natural tendency to gravitate toward gossip and slander. This tendency is expressed in the quip attributed to Alice Roosevelt Longworth: “If you haven’t got anything good to say about anyone, come and sit by me”. It is also evident in Norman Rockwell’s painting “The Gossips”, first published in 1948. In it, a tidbit of gossip is transmitted from mouth to mouth by fourteen people. If any of those people had just said “no”, the gossip would have been stopped dead in its tracks. But, in each case, listening to the gossip led to that person telling the gossip to someone else. (Christopher Finch, Norman Rockwell’s America, New York, 1975, figure 19)

That is why the Talmud says (Ketubot 5a-b): “If a person hears something unseemly, he should put his fingers in his ears!” In the fourteenth century, Eliezer ben Shmuel Halevi of Mainz admonished his children in a similar fashion: “Do not stand next to slanderers, because if not for the receivers and believers of lashon hara, people would not tell lashon hara” (Israel Abrahams, Hebrew Ethical Wills, Philadelphia, 1926, p. 215).

We shall conclude with three classic pleas for controlling our tongues:

1. The first is found in Psalm 34 (verses 13-14) and is recited every Shabbat and holiday morning in the Psalms of Praise:

Who is the man who desires life,
who desires years of good fortune?
Guard your tongue from evil,
and your lips from deceitful speech.

2. The second passage is a story found in Leviticus Rabbah (16:2, pp. 349-351), which is based on the verse just quoted:

A story is told of a peddler who was making the rounds of all the towns near Tzippori and announcing: “Who wants to purchase the elixir of life? – let him come and take!” He entered the town of Akhbera and approached the house of Rabbi Yannai who was sitting and studying in his dining room. Rabbi Yannai heard the peddler announce: “who wants to purchase the elixir of life?” He looked out at him and said: “Come up here and sell it to me”. The peddler retorted: “Not to you nor to anyone like you”. Rabbi Yannai persisted and the peddler went up to him and took out the Book of Psalms and showed him the verse (34:13): “Who is the man who desires life” and the verse which follows “Guard your tongue from evil”…

3. The last passage is found in the Talmud (Berakhot 17a) and is recited after the amidah three times a day, all year long:

O Lord,
Guard my tongue from evil
and my lips from speaking guile.

This, then, is our challenge in the year ahead: to avoid spreading gossip and to refuse to listen to rechilut; to stop slandering our fellow man and to close our ears to lashon hara. If we do so, we will have happier families, a more peaceful Jewish community, and a healthier society.


Bibliography

I) Primary Sources

1) Bialik and Rawnitzki, eds., Sefer Ha’aggadah, Tel Aviv, 1947 and reprints, pp. 543-546 (also available in English)
2) Israel Al-Nakawa, Menorat Hamaor, ed. Enelow, Vol. 4, New York, 1932, Chapter 18, pp. 337-370
3) Yehudah Moriel, B’derekh Tovim, Jerusalem, 1985, Chapter 6, pp. 102-115
4) Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon, Mishneh Torah, Sefer Mada, Hilkhot Deot, Chapter 7 (also available in English)

II) Secondary Sources

1) Encyclopaedia Judaica, s.v. lashon ha-ra and s.v. slander
2) Greenberg, Rabbi Sidney, Lessons for Living, Bridgeport, Connecticut, 1985, pp. 92-94
3) Hakohen, Rabbi Yisrael Meir, Sefer Hafetz Hayyim, Vilna, 1873 and reprints
4) Idem, Sefer Shemirat Halashon, Vilna, 1879 and reprints
5) Hurwitz, Simon, The Responsa of Solomon Luria, New York, 1938, pp. 95-99
6) Pliskin, Zelig, Guard your Tongue: A Practical Guide to the Laws of Loshon Hara based on the Chofetz Chayim, New York, 1975
7) Potok, Rabbi Chaim, The Ethics of Language, LTF, New York, 1966, pp. 17
8) Telushkin, Rabbi Joseph, Words That Hurt, Words That Heal: How to Choose Words Wisely and Well, New York, 1996
9) www.WordsCanHeal.org


Prof. David Golinkin is the President of the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem. Feel free to reprint this article in its entirety. If you wish to abbreviate the article, please contact Rabbi Golinkin at: golinklin@schechter.ac.il.

David Golinkin is President of The Schechter Institutes, Inc. and President Emeritus of the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies. For twenty years he served as Chair of the Va’ad Halakhah (Law Committee) of the Rabbinical Assembly which gives halakhic guidance to the Masorti Movement in Israel. He is the founder and director of the Institute of Applied Halakhah at Schechter and also directs the Center for Women in Jewish Law. Rabbi Professor Golinkin made aliyah in 1972, earning a BA in Jewish History and two teaching certificates from The Hebrew University in Jerusalem. He received an MA in Rabbinics and a PhD in Talmud from the Jewish Theological Seminary of America where he was also ordained as Rabbi. For a complete bio click here.

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