Words That Wound

The rabbinic and Hasidic understandings of gossip focus on the impossibility of repairing the damage it causes.


The following article is reprinted with permission from CLAL: The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership.

The most famous event in Beha’alotkha is the punishment God inflicts on Miriam, Moses’ sister, for speaking ill of him with Aaron (Numbers 12: 1ff.). God confronts Miriam and Aaron. God is furious with them for gossiping about Moses and as punishment makes Miriam’s skin turn leprous. Aaron appeals to Moses, who directs a five-word prayer to God, "O God, pray heal her;" and Miriam is immediately cured.

The rabbis see in Miriam’s sufferings a punishment for the grave sin of lashon hara, gossiping. Elsewhere, the Torah teaches, "Do not go about as a talebearer among your people" (Leviticus 19:16). The rabbis understand this law as forbidding one from saying anything negative about another person, even if it is true, unless the listener has legitimate need of this information.

In the Talmud, the rabbis compared gossip to murder (Tractate Arachin 15b), for it too is irrevocable. The impossibility of undoing damage done by harmful gossip is underscored in a Hasidic tale about a man who went through his community slandering the rabbi.

One day, feeling remorseful, he begged the rabbi for forgiveness and said he was willing to do penance. The rabbi told him to take several feather pillows, cut them open, and scatter the feathers to the winds. The man did so, but when he returned to tell the rabbi that he had fulfilled his request, he was told, "Now go and gather all the feathers."

The man protested, "But that is impossible."

"Of course it is. And though you may sincerely regret the evil you have done and truly desire to correct it, it is as impossible to repair the damage done by your words as it will be to recover the feathers."

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Rabbi Joseph Telushkin is the author of Jewish Literacy and Words that Hurt, Words that Heal, along with other widely-read books on Judaism and the "Rabbi Daniel Winter" murder mysteries. He lives in New York City and lectures widely throughout North America.

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