Words Matter

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14 May 2019

There are two kinds of people in the world: Those who will say “It’s 12:37” and those who will round the time to 12:40 or even to 12:30.

Often, the latter approach is fine. In many contexts, a few minutes – three, or even seven – won’t make a big difference. But I could never quite understand the impetus. It’s not harder to say “12:37” if I know that’s the answer, so why not be precise? On the other hand, for some reason people tend to think it’s weird, so – in the absence of a good reason for precision, or a desire to be teased – I will often swallow my precision pride and round my answer.

Of course, sometimes there is good reason for precision. If someone wants to know how much time they have until Shabbos starts, or whether it’s too late to daven mincha or too early to count the omer – then rounding is completely unhelpful. Halacha, after all, is exacting.

The tendency to “round” – to speak in approximate rather than precise terms – can also be expressed in areas that have nothing to do with numbers, and though we may not realize it, the misinformation can have consequences at least as serious as a missed shkiyah.

For instance, I make a point of explaining to my kids that we don’t “not keep chalav Yisrael.” The requirement of chalav Yisrael is halacha, not a minhag passed down by family or that one can choose whether to accept. The reason we eat dairy products that some of our neighbors don’t isn’t that we don’t keep the same halacha, but that we rely on different opinions as to which scenarios fulfill that halacha – in particular, the view of Rav Moshe Feinstein that government regulations are an acceptable stand-in for Jewish supervision.

Important difference? Mostly not, if you live in America with those government regulations. We can “round” the topic, and speak in terms of keeping or not keeping chalav Yisrael.

Unless – one of my kids, having grown up thinking that it’s always acceptable to buy any milk in a supermarket, goes traveling to some country without similar regulations and buys nonkosher milk.

Words matter. Precision matters.

Years ago, my mother and I were amused by an approximation in our shul’s announcements: “We have learning programs for everyone: men, women, and boys!” We looked at each other and laughed – but really, it’s nothing to laugh at. I’m quite sure the shul president didn’t intend to imply that “girls” aren’t part of “everyone” – but make that sort of slip enough times, and how will those forgotten girls eventually start to feel and think about themselves and about their place in their community?

Whether or not there are programs for every segment of the shul population, whether or not they are different from each other – we can at least pay attention to how we talk about them, and not say “everyone” when we don’t mean it.

This sort of thing comes up all the time. How many times did I raise my hand, as a teenager at a shabbaton, when someone asked “How many people washed?” We all knew the question was aimed at the boys, to see whether there was a minyan for bentching, and “people” was an approximation – just like we all know that “12:30” might be an approximate response when we ask for the time. And I had zero problem with not being counted for that minyan – but I didn’t appreciate the implication, unintended though it knew it was, that “people” is synonymous with “boys over 13 years old” and didn’t include me.

It’s arguably even worse when these sloppy word choices make their way into publications, codified for all time. The examples are too numerous to count, but here’s one: Rambam states that the mitzvah of sefirat ha’omer applies “to every man of Israel… And women and slaves are exempt from it” (Hilchot Temidin U’Musafin 7:24). The translation on one reputable website reads “Every Jew is required to perform this duty… Women and slaves, however, are exempt from it.”

How many people might stumble on this line and its implication that “women” are not “Jews,” and what ideas about Judaism will that erroneous read create or support? Rambam, living in the Middle Ages, was precise in differentiating the obligations for an ish, man, and for a woman. But in contemporary times, we’re unthinkingly spreading the idea that “woman” is a separate category from “Jew.” Whoops.

We’ve allowed ourselves to fall into habits and modes of speech that are not just imprecise but potentially damaging. Habits are understandable – but that doesn’t excuse them. We can and must say what we mean, and mean what we say, and be careful what we say about who is and isn’t “everyone” or “people” – lest we give the wrong impression about traditional Jewish perspectives on which human beings count.

Because, of course, though women are not counted for a minyan – we most definitely count. That’s the difference one can make with careful, precise wording.

On the subject of public prayer, consider the difference between the phrase “behind the mechitzah” and “on one side of the mechitzah.” The former implies that the men’s section, where all the action is, is primary, while the women are hidden/pushed behind. The latter implies that there are two equal sides, though different things might happen on each. Which is it that we really mean?

Or on the subject of private prayer: Someone recently remarked to me, “well, but women don’t have to daven.” I tried to let it go similarly casually: “Sure we do!” He persisted, “But, I mean, not an obligation.” I pulled out a Gemara Berachos and showed him where the Mishna says women are obligated in tefilah (20a-b). He still couldn’t let it go, arguing that it must be at least that women aren’t obligated to recite specific tefilos, at set times.

It’s true that there are various opinions as to the parameters of women’s obligation in standardized prayer. But when the Mishna says straight out that women are obligated in tefilah, when the Mishna Berurah (ibid. s.k. 4) rules that women are obligated to recite shemoneh esrei for both shacharis and mincha – then where does an Ashkenazi yeshiva guy (who’s probably learned Mishna Berachos, and whose practice presumably tends to be in line with the Mishna Berurah’s rulings) get the idea that women have no obligation to pray?

I can only imagine that it comes from imprecise communication, and the habits of our communities. After all, many women don’t engage in formal prayer as much as many men do, usually for good reason, and I suppose it is a little easier to say “women don’t have to daven” than to say, for instance, “women have to daven shacharis and mincha, but those who have children might need to adopt a more lenient practice while their children are young.” But just think of the consequences to women’s halachic practice, and to male support of women’s prayer, when we neglect precision in favor of saving a few words.

Lest I seem to be overstating the case – consider how often men make comments when a woman shows up in shul any time other than a Shabbos morning, making her feel unwelcome even in the women’s section. I’ve been fortunate not to encounter it myself – though I have experienced the slight awkwardness of entering the women’s section and finding men there, who fortunately (for them) had the sense to leave. But I’ve heard so many stories, at least some of which could perhaps have been prevented if certain men had been given accurate information about both women’s personal responsibilities to pray and the potential for communal prayer to “count” even when one isn’t “counted.”

One final example, still in the realm of gender but in the other direction: Shabbos candles, contrary to widespread opinion, are not just for women. I was once handed a kiruv-oriented pamphlet that explicitly stated women have a mitzvah to light Shabbos candles. What the writer probably meant was that there’s a traditional connection between women and Shabbos candles – but the clear implication (I wish I could remember the precise imprecise wording!) was that men have no obligation. That’s an understandable mistake, given the habits of our communities that have women playing a primary role in this mitzvah, but it’s simply not true. (See, for instance, Rambam in Hilchos Shabbos 5:1-3, regarding both the habits and the halachic reality.) How many men might neglect their Rabbinic responsibility – because their rabbeim didn’t think to teach them about Shabbos candles (since it’s a “women’s mitzvah”), or because they picked up that pamphlet searching for inspiration and truth and found a falsehood buried inside?

Words matter. The more entrenched we become in lazy habits of approximate wording, the more we risk losing sight ourselves of what we really meant, not to mention the potential effects on our audience. We do keep chalav Yisrael; even one minute counts when determining whether lighting Shabbos candles is a Rabbinic requirement, for men and women, or a biblical offense; and women and girls are “people” too, and Jews. These are things we must know, and that we must convey accurately.

And the stakes are especially high in the realm of gender. In an era when women’s place and respect in halachic Judaism has been called into question from so many directions, it is crucial that we pay attention to the messages we send. It is crucial that we give careful thought to what we want to say and how to say it precisely. It’s not harder to say “men” when that’s what we mean, any more than it’s harder to say “12:37” when that’s what we just saw on the clock.

It is beyond time that we be as exacting about halacha as halacha is itself.

Sarah C. Rudolph is a Jewish educator and freelance writer. She has been sharing her passion for Jewish texts of all kinds for over 15 years, with students of all ages. Sarah’s essays have been published in a variety of internet and print media, including Times of Israel, Kveller, Jewish Action, The Lehrhaus, TorahMusings, and more. Sarah lives in Cleveland with her husband and four children, but is privileged to learn online with students all over the world through www.TorahTutors.org and www.WebYeshiva.org. She is also Editor-At-Large at Deracheha: womenandmitzvot.org.

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.