Speech Background

Speech is a defining characteristic of human beings, part of our self-definition as individuals and members of groups. Judaism sees speech as a fundamental theological and ethical category, warning that “death and life are in the power of the tongue” (Proverbs 18:21).

Themes and Theology: The biblical book of Genesis portrays the creation of the world as accomplished by speech. Step by step, from formless light to the fully formed human being, God constructs the universe through no more than a series of “Let there be…!” statements. Biblical wisdom literature is aware of both the help and the harm that may be done by language, and the Psalmist advised anyone who desires a good life to “guard your tongue from evil and your lips from speaking deceit” (Psalms 34:14).

The tradition of rabbinic learning is replete with moralistic guidance and, to a lesser degree, explicit legislation about the use of speech. Malicious speech is said to expel God’s presence from the world, and God is portrayed as saying of one who indulges in malevolent talk, “I and he cannot both dwell in the world.” With some bombast but equal earnestness, the Babylonian Talmud suggests that one who speaks maliciously denies basic theological principles, and the Palestinian Talmud ranks such behavior as equivalent to the three cardinal transgressions—idolatry, murder, and forbidden sexual unions—put together.

Types of Speech: Slander—the deliberate dissemination of damaging untruths—is banned by Jewish law. So is the malicious dissemination of damaging truths, which is labeled leshon ha-ra (“evil speech”). In fact, every sort of talk about others, true or false, comes under a cloud of suspicion in Jewish moralistic and legal literature.

One should not infer from the lack of a clear distinction between the treatment of truth and falsehood here, however, that truth is not valued over deceit, but that spreading even truth can be destructive--and that, on the other hand, Jewish sources recognize that competing values may occasionally need to take precedence over the importance of being truthful. These include the protection of life and limb and the maintenance of tranquil relations among family members, friends, and acquaintances. However, one must protect oneself against verbal attack, and the Jewish ethical tradition recognizes our legitimate need to confront someone who has done us harm.

Another sort of regulated speech is the taking of vows and oaths. The seriousness with which the Bible treats such self-imposed undertakings leads post-biblical Jewish sources to discourage the use of language in this way. We also encounter in Jewish tradition legal and moralistic discussions about speech intended to deceive and defraud others, robbing them of their emotional well being or valuable time or building up false expectations, even if no financial harm is inflicted. Such speech, too, is banned by Jewish law.

The “Hafetz Hayyim,” Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagan of Lithuania (1838-1933), is universally recognized as one of his generation’s greatest scholars of Jewish law, despite his having held no formal rabbinic position. He established his reputation on the basis of his first book, in which he developed the laws banning malicious speech, and it is by the title of that landmark work, “Hafetz Hayyim”, that he is known.

Types of Speech: Slander: Slander—the deliberate dissemination of damaging untruths—is banned by Jewish law, but curiously, without solid biblical precedent. Nonetheless, in premodern Jewish society, a slanderer (in Hebrew, a motzi shem ra) was subject to punishment on the basis of rabbinic authority.

Talebearing: We are equally discouraged from engaging in what is known as leshon ha-ra` (“evil speech”), a term usually applied to the spreading of information which, while factually accurate, causes damage of one sort or another to its subject. In fact, on the basis of the biblical ban on talebearing ("Do not go about as a talebearer among your countrymen” in Leviticus 19:16), Jewish moralistic literature attempts to dissuade us from any sort of talk about others, true or false.

Gossip: There are those who defend what some pejoratively call "gossip" [known in Hebrew as rechilut] as necessary for social cohesion and as a potentially beneficial practice. The literature of Jewish speech ethics, however, attempts to minimize the amount we say about others, even of a complimentary nature, because of the foreseeable and even the unforeseeable ways in which it may cause them to be hurt, materially or emotionally. Therefore, unnecessary gossip is discouraged, and both speaker and listener are considered transgressors. With realism and resignation, however, the Talmud notes that this is one of the forbidden practices committed by each of us on a daily basis.

Truth: “Truth is God’s seal” (the image is that of a signet ring), we are told in the Talmud, but one rabbinic midrash or interpretive tale finds a precedent for censoring or bending the truth, in the actions of no less a biblical figure than that same God. In this interpretation, God took care to avoid insult and domestic strife by a deliberate act of misquotation: God told Abraham that Sarah had laughed at the notion that she could bear a child at her old age (rather than accurately reflecting her skepticism at both her husband’s and her own ability to produce offspring in their elder years). Other values as well, such as the preservation of life, “trump” truth-telling, allowing and at times even requiring one to speak a lie for a higher purpose.

Vows and Oaths: Vows and oaths are speech acts that are also carefully regulated, in light of the Torah's insistence that after a person takes such a step, “he shall not break his pledge; he must carry out all that has crossed his lips” (Numbers 30:3). But just the biblical text made some provision for releasing a person from his or her vows, so the larger Jewish legal tradition endow sages with the power, under limited circumstances, to free someone from self-imposed restrictions, even when speaking them aloud has endowed them with the force of law. That is a last resort, though; Jewish tradition discourages us from using language that even smacks of such formulations. In that way, many difficulties and transgressions may be avoided.

Fraud: Fraud may be committed in ways that do not cause financial harm, but are no less harmful for that. One may defraud another by words alone, robbing someone of self-respect or self-confidence, or raising his or her hopes unfairly. The early rabbinic sages defined a category of “fraud by words” (ona’at devarim), and included it in the biblical prohibitions against the more common fraud whose effects are primarily material, not emotional. Thus, for example, one may not remind another person of his humble origins or ignominious past, nor may one “give the runaround” to a person in need, sending him to supposed sources of aid that will provide only disappointment. Even the use of a seemingly harmless nickname can inflict suffering—and thus qualify for this broad label of ona’at devarim.

Closely related is the category of geneivat da‘at, literally “stealing someone’s mind,” which refers to activities that build up false positive impressions of one’s intentions, as, for example, by offering to do a favor for someone you know is not in need of such assistance.

Rebuke: The victim of another person’s harmful acts, be they verbal or more concrete, is encouraged by biblical and rabbinic prescription to confront the offender verbally, rather than bear a grudge or harbor hatred. In the biblical book of Leviticus, these rules are the prelude to the well-known admonition to “love your neighbor as yourself”: “You shall not hate your kinsfolk in your heart. Reprove your kinsman, and incur no guilt because of him. You shall not take vengeance, or bear a grudge against your countrymen” (Lev. 19:17-18).

For definitions of terms used and more in-depth resources on Speech, please visit MyJewishLearning.com.