Themes & Theology of Speech

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Another warning against using speech deceptively is built on a verbal connection between a denunciation of pagan "trickery" in the Book of Jeremiah and the Genesis story about Jacob's reluctance to mislead his father into thinking he is Esau lest he be found out as a "trickster." From the use of the same rare word in those two settings--one about deceptive speech and the other about idolatry--the Talmud concludes: "One who does other than what he has said is virtually guilty of idolatry" (Babylonian Talmud Sanhedrin 92b).

talk and gossip quizStanding by one's word is another character trait to be learned from God, of whom it is said, "Each and every statement [promising] benefit that emerged from God's mouth, God did not retract" (Babylonian Talmud, Berakhot 7a).

Caution in speech is expressed (although not ensured) by brevity of expression. "Bar Kapparah used to sell words for a dinar [each]"--not a trifling sum--the Talmud reports allegorically (Berakhot 8a). This is a compromise between the need to communicate and the dangers of verbosity; without the former, we could make do with the rabbinic wisdom that "a word is worth one sela, silence--two" (Babylonian Talmud, Megillah 18b) and "silence is a [protective] fence around wisdom" (Mishnah Avot, Chapter 3).

Speech is also revelation. Through it we reveal ourselves to others, and there again God's speech is the paradigm. God spoke to prophets and was heard by all those assembled at Sinai. The divine word, however, can transcend our simple speech. Noting that the Torah uses different verbs at the opening of the fourth of the Ten Commandments when they are listed in Exodus and Deuteronomy, the rabbis observed: "'Keep' and 'remember' were said in one expression, something that the mouth is incapable of saying and the ear is incapable of hearing" (Babylonian Talmud, Rosh Hashanah 27a).

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