Words Matter

The Hebrew word davar means both “word” and “thing.”  This is one of the first vocabulary words I teach my beginning Hebrew students. They are often surprised that this single Hebrew word carries both meanings.

In the Jewish view, the words we speak are not just hot air.  They are actual things that we create.  Once we speak them, they go out into the world and we have no control over what happens with them next.  A traditional metaphor about lashon ha-ra’: Think of emptying all the feathers out of a pillow into the wind; there’s no way to take them all back.

In Jewish practice we learn that every word we speak matters. Words can help and heal, words can hurt. Words can even kill.

The rabbis taught extensively about the sin of lashon ha-Ra’, which can be translated literally as “the language of evil” or “the tongue of badness.”  Many call it “The Evil Tongue.”  Or simply “Gossip.”  Lashon ha-ra’ is generally defined as speaking badly about another person.   Three people get hurt: the person speaking, the person listening, and the person being spoken about.  Taking it further, the famous Chofetz Chaim taught that the best way to avoid lashon ha-ra’ is to avoid speaking about another person at all, even with good intentions.  You never know how your words might be interpreted by others.

And yet the temptation to speak and listen to lashon ha-ra’ is huge.  Often we do it by such habit that we don’t even notice.  Every day Jews pray,

My Gd,
guard my tongue from evil
and my lips from speaking deceitfully.
To those who curse me, let my soul be silent;
and let my soul be like dust to everyone.

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