Themes & Theology of Speech

Speech is action. Long before 20th-century analytic philosophers, Jewish sages emphasized that speech is not “mere words” but concrete reality. They noted that in some cases, “one who speaks of a deed [incurs punishment] more severe than one who actually committed it” (Mishnah Arakhin 3:4). The proof that saying is doing comes from the divine realm: “Speech is like action–from where do we learn this? Scripture teaches, ‘By the word of the Lord the heavens were made’ (Psalms 33:7)” (Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 119b).

Therefore the wisdom teachers of Talmudic Judaism urged caution in speech. “Judge your words before letting them emerge from your mouth,” urges the minor tractate Derekh Eretz Zuta (Chapter 3). Thus one may avoid the many pitfalls of speech.

jewish speechAmong those damaging forms of speech is vulgarity. A midrash on Deuteronomy 23:5 examines the warning “Let your camp be holy; Let Him not see among you anything unseemly… lest He turn away from you…” The phrase the Torah uses for “unseemly” is ervat davar, which literally means “a shameful/naked thing.” The midrash asks what that “ervat davar” might be. The  reply: “It is an ervah in dibbur“–a shameful thing in speech–and explains, “This means vulgar speech” (Leviticus Rabba 25).

Speech has more levels of appropriateness that just “acceptable” and “vulgar.” Some levels are higher than the quotidian norm. “Let not your Shabbat speech be like your daily speech,” the Talmud adjures (Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 113b). Appropriate speech is part of the experience of higher spirituality that the Sabbath should provide.

Another reason for caution is that despite its ephemeral medium, speech, once heard, is permanent and irreversible. Precipitous speech can ensnare us in unwise and unwanted obligations. Talmudic sages railed against failure to live up to one’s verbal commitments. “One who retracts his speech–the Sages are unhappy with him” (Tosefta Bava Metzia, Chapter 3).

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).

Standing 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).

Silence, like speech, can also bear revelation. “In the dialogue between God and man,” wrote the 20th century French Jewish scholar André Neher, “… silence is more than simply a pause, a hiatus without significance or content. It is as essential to the understanding of the revealed message as is a musical pause to the understanding of a piece of music. Silence is not an interruption of the word: It is its reverse, its alternative, its other face, or… to use the biblical metaphor, it represents the ‘hidden’ face of God as against the ‘visible’ face represented by the word.”

Perhaps an awareness of the complementary roles of speech and silence in human and divine communication is what led the Psalmist–whose expertise is words, expressed in 150 poems–to note: “To You, silence is praise” (Psalms 65:2).

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