Jewish World Review Sept. 2, 1999 / 21 Elul, 5759

The ethics of language

By Brigitte Dayan

I MADE a resolution recently.

But before I share it with you, let me tell you why I made it. Having spent all of my teenage and college summers in Israel, and many of them studying in yeshiva, I have grown to appreciate the Hebrew month of Elul.

The month prior to the High Holidays, it is traditionally considered an auspicious time to prepare ourselves and our souls for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. In Jerusalem, the searing intensity of Elul is palpable; it's as if the stones themselves are our accomplices in molding our characters to stand before our Creator during the Days of Awe. I remember feeling particularly inspired during the Torah reading each holiday, having spent the previous month studying the texts in an environment devoted not just to their intellectual message, but more importantly, to their moral potency.

Now that I no longer have the luxury of traveling to Israel each summer, my Eluls have been, well, no different than my Kislevs. I've tried reading thematically appropriate books or texts, but that has largely been a poor substitute for immersion.


So this year, seeking to restore a measure of the moral intensity of my Eluls gone by, I've turned my attention to a concept that I find particularly important: the ethics of speech. I've decided, at least for the month of Elul, to watch my words very carefully. In simpler terms, I've resolved to make a stronger effort to curb lashon harah, harmful speech, or gossip.

I'm fueled in this quest by an appealing mental image conjured by the author of Proverbs:

Kesef nivhar lashon tzadik.

The speech of a just person is like choice silver.

Getting to that choice silver, of course, is a difficult task, especially given the ease with which we (or at least, I) often let harmful words slip out of our mouths. Yet, I'm attracted to the notion that restraint in speech is a refining process, freeing a precious metal of its dross. What we refrain from saying is just critical as what we do say. As one rabbi told me, lips that say Shema Yisrael, one of the central Jewish prayers, should not utter despicable words.

I was discussing my resolution with a friend and we got into a discussion on the various types of speech Judaism deems harmful. There is gossip that is true, gossip that is false, and gossip that is meant to defame someone's character (for a comprehensive take on the Jewish view of lashon harah, read Zelig Pliskin's Guard your Tongue, although beware: it may make you afraid to open your mouth ever again. Or click here to reach the sign up page for Project Genesis' Ethics of Speech study group on the subject.) The ethics of speech "what we may say, when we can reveal negative information, and the like" are intricate indeed, which prompted my friend to comment that while they do seem "restricive" on the surface, they can serve as a tool for character refinement.

Leiters Sukkah

The first few days after my resolution, I attended Shabbes services where a guest from out of town was asked to lead the prayers. Not a big fan of drawn-out davening, I complained later about the length of the service, and my description of his singing was less than flattering. Whereupon my friend promptly chastised me that I was breaking my resolution. This is not going to be easy, I thought.

While this may be an innocuous example (maybe because it is so innocuous), it illustrates how hard it is to control one's speech. Perhaps it's because we are attuned to speaking our mind, and in the split second before we utter a word, we aren't likely to think of its consequences.

I decided I needed to learn more about the topic, so I called the Chofetz Chaim Heritage Foundation, which is dedicated to spreading awareness of the Jewish view on speech (the foundation bears the name of the famous Eastern European scholar, who died in 1933 and who wrote treatises on this topic, among other legal works). The woman on the phone was very friendly, and told me about their e-mail lessons.

"Do you want to receive the daily digest, or the inspirational quotes, which come several times a week?" she asked.

I signed up for both. Maybe an inspirational quote will stick in my mind and pop up before a negative statement does.

In this spirit of encouraging one-liners, I think of a question posed in Pirkei Avos, Ethics of the Fathers: "Who is a strong person?" The Mishna gives the following answer: "He who can control his will." While that clearly applies to a broad category of urges, it reminds me of the effort to refine one's speech, and by extension, one's character. Implicit in this is the idea that negative speech has a destructive impact not only on the person maligned, but on our own character. In a foretoken of modern psychology, the mishna suggests that people who utter negative statements will ultimately live negative lives.

My foray into the mental training invoked by the ethics of speech is still in process, and likely will be for a long time. But as another mishna in Pirkei Avos says, "It is not up to you to finish the task, but neither are you free to desist from it."

Here's to a good start during this month of Elul.

Shanah tovah tikaseivu.

JWR contributor Brigitte Dayan is managing editor of the JUF News, a monthly published by the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago. Contact the author or the magazine by either clicking here, or calling (312) 444-2853.


©1999, JUF News