Sacred Speech

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30 Sep 2022
Yom Kippur

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Naaleh_logo Shiur provided courtesy of

Adapted by Channie Koplowitz Stein

One of the central parts of the Yom Kippur liturgy is the viduy, the serialized recitation and confession of the sins we committed in the previous year. Each of these transgressions acts more as a heading that incorporates many aspects included in that heading. It is worthwhile to study each of the categories of sin. We may uncover elements of our behavior that are not only negative, but actually sinful. Only with this knowledge can we then begin the teshuvah process. Let us now discuss how we may have sinned with “bituy ssefosayim the utterance of the lips.”

ArtScroll provides us with examples of how we may have sinned with the utterance of our lips. Not only would this sin include the obvious, loshon horo, but it also includes speaking harshly to others, shaming them, railing against God, and making promises in haste which we will not be able to keep. This list doesn’t even include the many nuances of using our power of speech improperly.

Rabbi Meislisch adds some frightening caveats. When we speak improperly, we give the Satan an opening to speak accusatorily against us. Among these behaviors are some we often do not think twice about. How often do we talk in shul, either during the davening or during the reading of Hashem’s holy Torah? How often do we make plans or pledge to do something without saying bli neder, for often circumstances arise that prevent us from following through on our plans. Perhaps most ubiquitous, how often do we say a brachah or pray mindlessly without proper focus and intent, thereby saying God’s Name in vain?

It is interesting to observe that the declaration of the sin in bituy sefoteinu is only the first of five expressions in our viduy prayer that refer to speech, notes Rabbi Yossi Cohen. When we remember that the power of speech is what defines us as human beings rather than as animals, we can understand why being on guard to use our speech properly is so central to Jewish observance. As the Maharal notes, speech always reveals our hidden essence and thoughts. It is the only sense that originates within ourselves rather than as a result of external stimuli, like touch, smell, sight, hearing or taste. But before speech can exit our mouths, it must go through the hard barrier of our teeth and then the soft barrier of our lips. Interestingly, notes, R. Moshe Shapiro z”l,  our lips, unlike the rest of our skin, is the same red color of the internal lining of our mouths, a final caution to think before we speak, before we reveal what should be kept inside us. [After all, as the saying goes, people may only think you a fool, but when you speak, you may remove all doubt. Cks].

Rabbi Cohen cites a wonderful lesson from the Sefas Emes. On Sukkot we take two aravot/willow twigs as part of the four species. Why two? Our medrash likens the aravot to the lips. Our lips must work on two levels; they must know when to speak and when to remain silent. The two aravot represent Moshe and Aharon — Moshe who constantly taught and spoke Torah, and Aharon, who, at the death of his two sons, remained silent. The greatness of a talmid chacham, writes Rabbi Wolbe, is that he understands that just as every string of a harp denotes a different note and expression, so does every spoken word reflect a different essence of the speaker.

There may be times when rebuke or other difficult words need to be spoken. However, in those times, one’s tone is important, writes Rabbi Weissblum in Heorat Derech. A soft tone rather than a harsh tone allows the listener to accept and heal, rather than to reject or become angry.

The Torah commands, “Lo sonu ish et amito/A man shall not aggrieve his fellow.” While in the narrowest sense one might assume this refers to financial matters, our Sages unanimously agree that this also refers to aggrieving another through speech as well. One must be careful not to cause pain to another through words that embarrass him, through sarcasm, lying to him, or other caustic comments. [One should be aware that non verbal speech, such as rolling one’s eyes, although not through the lips, is also forbidden. CKS]

Rabbi Walters in The Making of a Mentsch offers some examples of wrongful speech: One may not raise the hopes of a storekeeper by asking prices when he knows he has no intention of buying; One should not recall another’s embarrassing past; One should not blame the ill for his suffering; etc. In short, any speech that will cause ill feeling in unacceptable.

Each of us is responsible for how we speak, writes Rabbi Friefeld. It is important to build people up, not tear them down. If someone has already completed a purchase, find something positive to say about it, even if it is not a wonderful purchase. Only pain will come from your criticizing the purchase after the fact. Another important admonition don’t make negative generalizations from someone’s mistake. If your spouse, or your child, or your student does something wrong, fails in a task, refrain from calling them stupid or inept rather than acknowledging a mistake. That tag may cause long term damage to their self perception and deeply affect a relationship. The error and failure is usually temporary, but the damage of the wrong words may be permanent.

Be careful with the language you blurt out without thinking, writes Rabbi Weissblum. Vulgar, coarse speech usually has no impact on whom it’s directed, but it corrupts the speaker’s inner sanctity. After all, Hashem calls us a kingdom of priests, a holy nation, holy people. As holy people, every action and speech of our daily lives should be elevated.

Ba’al HaTanya finds a hint about the principle of thinking before speaking and using elevated speech from the words used concerning the command  about Shabbat. Hashem spoke two words at the same time, shamor/guard [refrain from the prohibited], and zachor/remember [the positive observances]. Every time we are ready to begin speaking, we should assess the words we are about to speak through both these lenses. Are the words necessary? If it is necessary to deliver a negative message, can it be said less negatively. When Hashem told Noach to gather the animals into the ark, He told Noach to take kosher animals/tehorah and not kosher/lo tehorah, rather than saying temayah/unclean/impure. By being careful with my godly power of speech, I myself am elevated and become a holy person.

Rabbi Tatz notes that the very first sin originated in speech, in the serpent twisting words and their meanings to seduce Chavah into eating the forbidden fruit. Every word is important and should be weighed for truth and for purpose. After all, speaking reveals the spark within us; each word is therefore precious. [For a beautiful portrayal of this idea, read the short story Tehillah by Nobel laureate S. Y. Agnon. CKS]

In Shir Hashirim, Shlomo Hamelech describes the lips as a red thread/kechut hashani siftotayich. Rabbi Meislisch makes a connection between the red thread our lips resemble, and the red thread used in the Beit Hamikdosh in the Yom Kippur service. The fate of the entire world rested on that red thread turning white, signifying forgiveness and regained purity. So, to do our lips have the responsibility of building the world up, of purifying it, through the pure words we allow them to utter. Our speech has the power to create realities, to create blessings or curses.

With flippant speech, we may inadvertently create an opening for the Satan to use against us, warns us Rav Dessler. Do we value our lives so little that we would say something like, “Just shoot me,” over a misunderstanding? These remarks give ammunition that the heavenly district attorney can use against us.

Talking is so natural that many of us don’t think twice about talking in shul during the chazan’s repetition of the Shemoneh Esrei. This is a sin so egregious that it is the only sin the Shulchan Aruch describes as “too heavy to bear.” How could this talking be more severe than so many graver sins? Rabbi Mattisyahu Solomon cites the account of Rabbi Yom Tov Lippman Heller, author of the Tosfot Yom Tov who reveals his dream to the people. Rabbi Heller lived through the Cossack pogroms of 1648 and 1649. His dream revealed to him that these massacres occurred because the people talked during the services. Certainly, the people ran to the shuls to daven fervently as the marauders approached. But, according to the account of the Tosfot Yom Tov, Hashem refused to listen to their prayers at this time because the people had been irreverent and disrespectful of the prayers in the house of worship during the good times. Talking neutralizes the Jewish weapon, our power of speech, of prayer. Just as it is important to know when, what and how to talk, it is also important to know when not to talk.

Prayer is a potent tool for teshuvah writes the Tosher Rebbe z”l. If you think of the beauty of the words you will be inspired by the “talk of our lips.” When you recite a blessing, think of the words. Without proper focus, the blessing remains meaningless, and God’s name is said in vain, adds the Chayei Adam.

Speaking improperly may be even more severe than acting improperly, suggests Rabbi Scheinerman in Ohel Moshe. After all, it is intelligent, reasoning speech that elevates humankind above the animals. When we commit ourselves to do something without thinking and without the reservation of bli neder, we are placing ourselves in a position of vowing with the possibility of not fulfilling our vow. The Tolna Rebbe suggests that this is the reason we begin our Yom Kippur service with Kol Nidrei, to annul our vows and cleanse our mouths so that the words of our prayers will leave our lips in a purified state as they ascend heavenward.

Yosef Hatzadik understood the importance of being mindful of Hashem’s involvement in the world and in each of us, writes Rabbi Wolbe z”l. In speaking to anyone, whether to kings or to paupers, he always mentioned God’s Name as the source of all that happens. When we say, “Im yirtze Hashem,” or, “Bezrat Hashem,” it should not be merely a rote inclusion, but a conscious understanding that without His will, we cannot function.

As a corollary to this idea, how many times do we hear a joke or a story, or even worse, a business  idea and fail to give credit to the person you heard it from, asks Rabbi Weinberg? The Sages in the Talmud always credited the source of their teaching, often through several layers of teachers.

How do we arm ourselves against erring in our speech? If we remember the phrase we use as an introduction to our Shemoneh Esrei, we will use our power of speech properly — “Hashem will open my lips so that I may speak His praises.” This, rather than the constant, empty chatter around us and in our devices, is the purpose of our speech. Rabbi Cohen cites a powerful analysis of the Chofetz Chaim. Every action we do, whether hammering a nail or preparing food, or even lifting food to our mouths requires some intentional coordination of body parts. Yet speech, which involves no less than five body parts [tongue, teeth, lips, throat, alveolar ridge [Prof. Google can give you a total of ten body parts, including the lungs, etc., only emphasizing the point. CKS] Yet, we move effortlessly from one oral sound to another to create words. Hashem wants us to focus our brains on thinking about the content of our words, so He freed us from needing to use our brains to merely produce the words. The best way to use this wonderful gift is to use it to serve Hashem.

Hashem made mankind partners in creation. As He created the world through speech, so has He granted us, created in His image, to create through the power of speech. May Hashem give us the wisdom and discipline to use the expression of our lips appropriately.

May Hashem use His “pen” to write us in the Book of Good Life, and may He then place His seal upon it.