The power of speech

The unique quality of man to which so much of the Viduy – the confession that we recite repeatedly during the many days leading up to and on Yom Kippur – is devoted

By: Aron Ziegler

On Rosh Hashana we commemorate ‘the birthday of the world’. The first of Tishrei, Rosh HaShana, is actually the anniversary of the creation of man, who was created on the 6th day of creation.[1] The principle feature of man that distinguishes him as being in a totally unique class of creation from all of the rest of Hashem’s world is his ability to articulate intelligent speech.[2]

Our Sages highlight[3] some of the features of speech. “…if not for speech, man would not have sociality with his fellow, and he would be (solitary in the world) like an animal. It is through speech that the superiority of people is ascertained…through speech a man can correct his wrongs and request forgiveness for his sins, and this is the strongest evidence of the nobility of man. Speech completes the definition of man, as man is defined as a living – speaking – mortal, and this (ie. the power of speech) distinguishes him from animals.”

Being that man’s most treasured quality is his power of speech, it is no wonder that the misuse of this faculty is frequently mentioned in the Viduy, the confession that we recite repeatedly throughout our davening leading up to and on the day of Yom Kippur. Dibarnu Dofi – we have spoken hypocritically. Tafalnu Sheker – we have connected to falsity. Ya’atznu Ra – we have given bad advice. Latznu – we have scorned. And even more so in the Al Chet’s (literally: “On the sin..”) that we say, which upon the saying of each we strike our fist against our chest: B’vituy Sefasayim – expression of the lips. B’dibur Peh – harsh speech of our mouth. B’viduy Peh – insincere confession (ie. lip-service confessing of our wrongdoings). B’tifshus Peh – foolish chatter. B’tum’as Sefasayim – impurity of lips. B’latzon – scoffing. B’lashon Hara – slander. B’siach Sifsoseinu – idle chatter. B’rechilus – tale-bearing. And B’shevuas Shav – swearing falsely.

It is with this background that I wish to share part of the introduction of a book called Milei D’Brachos by Rabbi Tzvi Hirsch Grodzinsky, z”l, cousin of the well-known Rabbi Chaim Ozer Grodzinsky, z”l. I came across this book among the old books in the Doornfontein Lions Shul, and over a few weeks at the early morning Shabbos minyan, I managed to read through the introduction.

The behaviour of the pious

The Talmud[4] discusses what behaviour a person should undertake if he wants to be considered a chassid (pious). Rav Yehuda said that a person who wants to be a chassid should fulfil the matters related to damages. Rava said that the person should fulfil the matters related to the ethical and moral teachings of Pirkei Avos. Others said that he should fulfil the matters of brachos (blessings).

An obvious question is why would the Talmud describe someone as a chassid who observes matters of damages? A chassid is defined as a person who behaves above and beyond the requirements of the basic law[5]. Refraining from inflicting harm or damage against his friend’s possessions is an absolute elementary obligation. For example, we are not allowed to hit others[6], and we are not allowed to damage other’s property[7]. This is why the expression that Rav Yehuda used was not that “one should observe laws of theft, damages, fraud, etc.”. What he literally said was not “matters of damage”, but “words of damage” – ie. damaging words. Rav Yehuda said that one who wants to be pious should be meticulous in his words so that he does not inflict any harm or hurt against his fellow through his speech.

Even this, however, we must again qualify, as Rav Yehuda also cannot be teaching that a person shouldn’t speak lashon harah, slander, against his friend because, just as before, such behaviour cannot be described as pious, but what is basically required. The many laws of lashon harah and hurtful or harmful speech are explicit prohibitions and should be observed by everyone. As the Rambam codifies[8], “One who gossips about his fellow transgresses a biblical negative command, as it says, “Do not go as a talebearer among your people”[9], and, even though there are no lashings administered for this prohibition, it is a great iniquity and it causes the killing of many lives of Israel…”

And as if those prohibitions weren’t enough to obligate us in the welfare of our fellow, we would find them included in the mitzvah obligating us to “love your fellow as yourself”[10], as our Sages teach[11] that one who loves his fellow as himself will not steal his fellow’s money, commit adultery, cheat him with money, afflict him with words, or harm him in any way.

To be careful, even where no harm is meant

So what did Rav Yehuda mean by his answer that one who wishes to be pious must avoid damaging words? Rabbi Grodzinsky explains that it means that such a person must be careful from speaking words regarding one’s fellow even though there is no harmful meaning to them or intention to harm with them.

We see an illustration of this idea in the Talmud[12]. Rabbi Shimon the son of Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi was sitting before his father and was reading sections from the book of Tehillim (Psalms). Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi exclaimed, “How neatly and straight this text of Tehillim has been written.” Rabbi Shimon responded, “I didn’t write it, it was written by Yehuda Chayatta.” Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi replied to his son, “Turn away from this lashon harah – bad speech.”

Now what could possibly be bad about crediting the neat and tidy writing of the text of that scroll of Tehillim to Yehuda Chayatta? We find often enough in the words of the Sages where they would praise and acclaim the traits and virtues of scholars and pious people. For example, our Sages note[13] an entire list of great qualities which disappeared once certain Sages, who each excelled in those specific qualities, passed away. “Once Rabbi Meir died, the composers of parables ceased; when Ben Azzai died, diligent students of Torah ceased; when Rabbi Chanina Ben Dosa died, people of extraordinary deeds ceased; when Rabbi Yossei Katnussa died, chassidim (pious people) ceased; when Rebbi (Yehuda HaNasi) died, humility and fear of sin ceased.”

In illustrating the eleven qualities that King David[14] describes as a condensed summation of Torah, the Talmud lists[15] various Sages as being exemplary models of some of these traits. For example: “Does what is right/works righteously” – this was exemplified by Abba Chilkiyah, who, while working on a job digging in a field, would not interrupt his working for his boss even just to greet scholars that were sent to ask him to please pray for rain[16]. “Speaks the truth (even) in his heart” – this was illustrated by Rav Safra, who, on one occasion, was busy saying the Shema when someone approached to purchase wine from him. He was intent on accepting the offer, but didn’t respond as he was busy reciting the Shema. By the time he had finished saying the Shema, the purchaser had upped his offer to a larger sum, as he thought Rav Safra was not responding to him because the original offer was just too low. Once he had finished saying the Shema, Rav Safra sold the item to the fellow at the lower price as he said he had been willing when he first heard the original offer to go ahead with the sale.[17]

A backhanded complement

So what exactly was so wrong about crediting the tidy script of the Tehillim to its real scribe, Yehuda Chayatta?

We have to say that there must have been some indication of negativity that could be implied by praising the high quality of the hand writing of Yehuda Chayatta. As it could connote, for example, that Yehuda Chayatta was overly devoted to scriptural study and that he had devoted his main interest to matters of Mikra (ie. the study of Tanach, the Hebrew Bible) at the expense of other critical areas of Torah study, and that is why he has such meticulous hand writing in his scriptural texts. Solely devoting oneself to Tanach study is considered by the sages as being somewhat unfavourable and not the ideal, as the Sages say[18], “One who is only involved in scriptural study (ie. study of Tanach) – it is a virtue but not a (complete) virtue,” as such a person is omitting the study of Mishnah and Talmud.

So, even though Rabbi Shimon’s intention was entirely positive in crediting Yehuda Chayatta with the writing of the copy of Tehillim that he was reading, there was still a slight element of lashon harah in his praising of the neat hand writing, as another person could come away with an assumption that Yehuda Chayatta was only a scholar of Tanach because he specialised in writing Tanach texts. The Rambam codifies[19] that one should not relate the praises of one’s fellow in front of those who don’t like him, as they will steer the discussion to his negative points. This is what is called avak lashon harah – (lit: “dust of bad speech”) – which refers to speech which is not itself lashon harah, but may lead to the speaking of lashon harah. So this is why Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi said to his son that he must “turn away from his bad speech” that was praising Yehuda Chayatta.

An uncommon teaching

Although it seems from this story that this consideration – “not to talk about the praise of ones fellow” – would be a mainstream instruction and should not necessarily be considered a pious undertaking, we actually find that it wasn’t known absolutely among the rabbis. For example, the Talmud tells[20] us that Rav Dimi the brother of Rav Safra fell ill. Rav Safra went to check up on him. Rav Dimi said to those present that he hopes to recover, as he must have merits because he has fulfilled all that the Sages instruct. Rav Safra asked Rav Dimi, “Have you fulfilled the instruction not to talk about the good of one’s fellow, as from discussing the good one will come to derogatory talk?” Rav Dimi replied, “I have never heard that instruction. If I had heard it, I would have fulfilled it.”

From this incident, we see that it was not so well known that talking about the virtues and praises of others was cautioned against because of the possibility that it could lead to negative things being said. Accordingly, Rav Yehuda came to emphasise and teach that this is a feature of pious people, that they are extra careful in this area. Rav Yehuda himself acknowledged that practically all of us stumble in avak lashon harah, and Rav Amram said this is a daily occurrence.[21]

So we can now understand the ‘piety’ of Rav Yehuda’s statement. One who wants to elevate his stature to that of a chassid should be so considerate and calculating with “words that may cause damage”, so much so that he will be alert about speaking even the praises of his fellow. And, such a person will be so careful that he will restrain himself from speaking even if there is only the very slightest or far-fetched chance that others may in any way misconstrue his words to hint at an implication of something negative. This can be a pious mode of behaving that is above and beyond the basic requirement of the law and that earns its practitioner the label: chassid.

Fulfilling the words of Avos

The Gemara that we originally quoted[22] continues with what Rava[23] suggests be an undertaking that is appropriate for one who wishes to be considered pious. He says that one wanting be considered pious should fulfil the matters of Pirkei Avos. Rabbi Tzvi Hirsch Grodzinsky explains that Rava was not deviating from the words of Rav Yehuda and saying to study and fulfil the dictates of Pirkei Avos, but rather he was saying ‘fulfil the words of Avos’. In other words, he was referring to the way Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai would describe the praises of his students. As we read in Pirkei Avos[24], Rabbi Yochanan Ben Zakkai who received the Torah from Hillel and Shamai had five main disciples, and he used to recount their praises/main virtues/qualities: Rabbi Eliezer ben Hurkenus is a plastered cistern that doesn’t even lose one drop (ie. he never forgets anything from his studies[25]); Rabbi Yehoshua Ben Chananya – fortunate is the woman who gave birth to him (ie. he had the most wonderful personality traits so much so that all would exclaim how fortunate was his mother); Rabbi Yose HaKohen is a pious man, a chassid (ie. he conducts himself beyond the letter of the law); Rabbi Shimon ben Nethanel is a person who is fearful of sin (ie. he restrains himself even from permissible matters as precautions for possibly coming to sin); Rabbi Elazar ben Arach is a spring that always grows stronger (ie. his heart is so broad and he is able to develop analysis and reasoning on his own).

Unlike Rav Yehuda’s suggestion to refrain entirely from talking about one’s fellow’s praises, Rava is saying that if one wishes to be pious, he still can mention the praises of his fellow, but in such a refined and careful way that he will not allow any negative nuance to be inferred from his words. In other words, Rava is saying that a person should be so meticulous even in his praises of others to eliminate the possibility of any harm ensuing to his fellow from his speech, whether it be personal, financial, or even reputational. And this is the meaning of “words of Avos” – the words recorded in Pirkei Avos that Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai is quoted as having used – to list the praises of his five students. Rabbi Yochanan Ben Zakkai was very precise in his itemising the praises of his students in such a way that he left no space to err and twist his words to connote any negative elements.

For example, when Rabbi Yochanan Ben Zakkai said that, “Rabbi Eliezer ben Hurkenus is a plastered cistern that doesn’t even lose one drop,” he was specific, as a plastered cistern has both good and not so good qualities. The water of a plastered cistern is not as sweet and fresh as a freshwater spring, but, on the other hand, it is reliable, as it doesn’t fail or ever lose any of its water throughout the seasons. So Rabbi Yochanan Ben Zakkai was careful to specify that this that he was praising his student as being like a plastered cistern was only and specifically regarding the quality that a plastered cistern never loses a drop. But any other possible innuendo that could be negatively extracted from this comparison would, therefore, not be under consideration, as it is just this one aspect that he is borrowing from a plastered cistern to praise Rabbi Eliezer ben Hurkenus. And, so too was the case with the other four students; Rabbi Yochanan Ben Zakkai was meticulous and specific so that no negativity could be attributed to his students from his praising them.

Precision in language

Regarding the third suggestion to how a person that wishes to be pious must behave, that such a person must fulfil the “matters of blessings”, Rabbi Grodzinsky also interprets it to refer to words and speech, more precisely the texts of our blessings and davening that were established for us by the Men of The Great Assembly, who included among its members Prophets and Sages – every letter and word was carefully chosen, measured, and balanced. Accordingly, we dare not meddle by adding to or even adjusting any of the texts of the prayers that they established for us. Furthermore, the greatest of our Sages were incredibly precise in the language that they used, so that any students and any others who might come to read their words will not, chas v’shalom, misinterpret those words and err in their understanding of the Torah.

So, we see how our Sages highlight the human power of speech as being the area wherein a person who wants to be considered pious must absolutely excel. As we move into a new year, we should hopefully feel motivated to strive for improvement in the area of carefulness with our speech. By using this unique quality with which Hashem has elevated us in His creation, may we bring nachas to Him and maybe even gain for ourselves special blessing, as the gift of speech which makes us different from the rest of creation, if mastered, can be an indication of our living on a loftier state, even to be considered Hashem’s chassidim (pious ones).

Based on Sefer Milei D’Brachos by Rabbi Tzvi Hirsch Grodzinsky of Omaha, Nebraska


Aron Ziegler has learned for over 15 years at the Yeshivah Gedolah of Johannesburg, including five years full-time. He was among the first students of Hirsch Lyons School. For more than 10 years, he served as the spiritual leader of the Kensington Hebrew Congregation. He regularly leins at the Doorfontein Lions Shul Shabbos Morning Minyan and also leads a learning group weekday mornings at Cyrildene Shul. He strives, in the words of his beloved Rosh Yeshivah’s rebbe, to be a ‘Torah Jew’.

  1. This is according to R’ Eliezer but see also Tosafos Rosh HaShanah 27a
  2. See Targum Onkulos on Bereishis 2:7: “…He blew into his nostrils the breath of life and man became a living being,” which Onkulos translates as: “He blew into his nostrils a soul of life – and it was in man as a speaking spirit.”
  3. Chovos Halevavos – Sha’ar HaBechina, Chapter 5
  4. Baba Kama 30a
  5. See for example: Shulchan Aruch, Choshen Mishpat 272:3, Rashi on Avos 6:1 and on Rosh HaShsanah 17b
  6. Devarim 25:3, Rashi from Talmud Kesubos 33a
  7. Shulchan Aruch Choshen Mishpat 378:1
  8. Hilchos Dei’os 7:1
  9. Vayikra 19:16
  10. Vayikra 19:18
  11. See e.g., the Sefer HaChinuch on this mitzvah
  12. Baba Basra 164b
  13. Mishnah Sotah 9:15
  14. In Psalm 15
  15. Makkos 24a
  16. See Ta’anis 23b
  17. Rashi from Sh’iltos 36
  18. Bab Metzia 33a
  19. Hilchos De’os 7:4
  20. Arachin 16a
  21. Baba Basra 165a and 164b respectively
  22. Baba Kama 30a
  23. Some say it was Ravina
  24. 2:8
  25. This and the other parenthetical explanations all follow the Bartenura

Related posts