“The Evil Tongue”: A Speech Lesson from a God-intoxicated Rabbi
by Rabbi Moses M. Yoshur
In the early part of the twentieth century, Rabbi Israel Meir HaCohen of Radun, known as the the Chofetz Chaim (also spelled “Hafetz Hayim”), was a guiding moral light for Jews throughout Europe and the Middle-East. He was revered as a “Cohen Gadol”, “a crystalline figure of genuine purity and simplicity, of creative faith and optimism, of unbroken consistency of purpose and action” who was “an embodiment of all the attributes and virtues of the true hassid.” In this passage from Rabbi Moses Yosur’s biography, Saint and Sage, Hafetz Hayim admonishes us to always practice right speech.
THE EVIL TONGUE
The writer recalls an instance which he himself witnessed, and which demonstrates the summit of piety the Hafetz Hayim achieved in the government of his tongue.
One of his household related that when Mr. M. had visited their home, he had told a self-reproachful story. “Please stop talking evil about others. I have plenty of my own defects to talk about!” the saint indignantly protested. The relator then apologized by saying that Mr. M. himself had told the story in front of everybody. “Nevertheless, you must not repeat it, for though one may like to assail himself, yet he never likes to be assailed by others.”
He added that talking evil even of an animal might sometimes cause a calamity to a human family.
Once there was a man who derived his livelihood from driving a horse and wagon.
One of his neighbors opined that his horse was scrawny and feeble. The news spread throughout the community. People began to avoid employing the driver. As a result the latter, together with his large family, were subjected to penury and starvation.
Thus it followed that slandering a horse caused the death of eight human souls.
In his books (Hafetz Hayim, Shemirath Halashon, Hovath Hashemirah, and Zachor L’Miriam) the Hafetz Hayim dwells on the various phases and angles of calumny and talebearing. He makes a diagnosis of this social disease. After summarizing the characteristic symptoms and motives he suggests the remedies. In his prefatory note to the first fruit of his pen (Hafetz Hayim) he states in part:
“I have thus pondered—if men will read this book of mine, which contains the declarations of our early writings on this matter, and will fully comprehend its contents, then the evil inclination will not prevail over them, and bring them to this dreadful iniquity.
“By accustoming oneself little by little to fight off this inclination one will ultimately rid oneself of the evil altogether.”
The author provides a thorough discussion of the laws concerning the evil tongue, which includes making slighting remarks about a neighbor, or talebearing—the act of informing a third party of the evil that someone has spoken or performed against him. He quotes from the sages:
“Many are prone to theft and a few to incontinence, but all to slander, for if there be found one who is not chargeable with slander in a direct manner, he surely has not escaped from the dust of slander
(Avok Lashon Hara) ; that is, they are guilty of some shade of the offense.” 1
Also: “Let no man praise another too much, for excess of praise may provoke the disclosing of something to the other’s discredit.” 2 After summarizing many Biblical and Talmudic records, the author concludes:
“The iniquities arising from an evil tongue undermine the moral order of creation. Israel’s dispersion and the prolongation of their exile are attributed to this guilt. It was as a result of this crime that Israel went down into Egypt. For it is said of Joseph, who spent his time with his half brothers: And Joseph brought evil reports of them unto his father.’3 As retribution, Heaven decreed that Joseph be taken to Egypt as a slave. The chief iniquity of the spies, according to Rashi and Rambam, was the evil tongue. They brought false reports concerning the promised land. Because on that day, which was the ninth of Ab, they shed hypocritical tears, it was decreed that Tisha B’ab become a day of mourning. On it they were to be driven out of their Promised Land, and dispersed throughout the world.
“The City of Bethar was destroyed because of evil statements carried to Bar Cochba. Our great martyrs went to their death for similar reasons.
“The evil tongue causes the divine presence to depart from Israel. The declaration, `Cursed be he who smiteth his neighbor in secret,’ applies to the dissemination of calumny.
He who spreads evil with his tongue magnifies iniquity unto heaven. As it is said: They set their mouths in the heavens and their tongues walketh busily on earth.’ 4 This means that though the tongue wags on earth it has its effects on high.”
The author quotes Maimonides: “Although culprits are not lashed for violating this prohibition, it remains a great sin, in so far as it may cause the loss of many souls in Israel. For this reason, the law against the evil tongue is found near the words, `Thou shalt not stand by the blood of thy neighbor.’ ” He then continues:
“Although there are many other wicked attributes mentioned by the Torah, such as undue wrath, cruelty, and levity, which are harmful to the soul’s beauty, yet only the crime of the evil tongue is actually included as one of the negative provisions of the 613 commandments of Judaism. It is obvious that the Torah made a strong effort to restrain us from this tremendous sin by stating definitely: `Thou shalt not go up and down the land as a talebearer among thy people.’ 5
The receiver as well as the spreader of tales is guilty of transgressing the negative command. `Before the blind shalt thou place no stumbling block.’
For those who listen to tales make talebearers possible.
The repeated employment of the evil tongue may be compared to a silk thread, strengthened by the use of hundreds of strands. Thus, this sin, which is in itself most grievous, is made ever stronger through the many occasions on which it is repeated.
When Reuben tells Simeon, `Levi has said things about you,’ Reuben transgresses by repeating evil reports, and Simeon by believing them. Thereafter Simeon meets Levi and begins to revile him—another transgression. Levi asks why he is being assailed, and Simeon blurts out that Reuben has told him all (again the crime of talebearing). Upon which Levi is at pains to explain his true words, intimating that Reuben’s story is not a truthful one. Then, when Simeon again meets with Reuben, he angrily de¬nounces Reuben for having brought about the quarrel with Levi. Thereupon Reuben says, `Come with me; together we shall make the charge against Levi; we shall know the truth.’ This is done; Levi blanches, and admits saying these things, but declares that the interpretation and stress on his words are faulty. Simeon replies, Now, if you denied them a thousand times, I would not believe you!’
“Thus does one transgression mount on another when one begins the grievous sin of talebearing.
“The evil inclination employs various methods in preventing man from restraining his tongue. The ordinary man is left under the wrong impression that to talk evil is only prohibited in matters of falsehood.
On the other hand, the learned man who is fully aware that even in matters of truth this sin is banned, is frequently made to believe either that the particular thing said does not fall in that category, or that the Torah did not mean to apply to a man such as this one. And if a man’s wicked nature cannot overcome his scruples in these ways, it overwhelms him so greatly with widespread evidences of the evil tongue as to convince him that practically all intercourse may fall within that designation, and that therefore one can not live the life of an ordinary human on earth without employing it. This is the sly wisdom of the serpent, telling Eve, `Hath God indeed said, ye shall not eat of every tree in the garden?’
“Leprosy, the most dreadful disease to the ancients, according to our sages, was inflicted as a punishment for the sin of slander. The Biblical phrase, This shall be the law of the leper (metzora)’ the Talmud paraphrased, `This shall be the law of him who spreads slander’ (motzi-ra) . Like leprosy, slander is slightly perceptible at the beginning. An inclination for prattle, a ready ear for gossip leads to mischief and scandal. In a moral sense a slanderous tongue is as contagious and detrimental as leprosy is physically. Says the Midrash, `Because the slanderer separated husband from wife, and brother from brother, and friend from friend, he is afflicted with the disease which separates him from society. Just as the venom of a serpent affects every part of the body, so does the leprosy of calumny wound the soul of mankind, and as the virus of the viper injures from a distance, so slander may be hissed forth by one living in Rome to slay one living in Syria.’
” `Only a change of his evil habit and an atonement for his sins caused by his chattering may help the talebearer to return into society. On the day of his purification the Torah commands the leper to bring in atonement, two birds. These birds symbolize his evil tongue. As the birds chirp and chatter, so did he babble and prattle. The voice of the bird shall thus affect forgiveness for the voice of calumny.’
This is illustrated in the Midrash by the following episode: “Once a certain peddler went from town to town and shouted, Who wants to buy the elixir of life?’ When Rabbi Janai heard of this strange article for sale he offered to buy it. The peddler replied: This is not for you, nor for sages like you.’ But when the rabbi insisted, the pack-peddler drew out the Book of Psalms and pointed to the thirty-fourth chapter, verse thirteen: Who is the man who desireth life? Keep thy tongue from evil and thy lips from speaking guile.’ `This,’ added the peddler, is the elixir of life.’
“Therefore,” concludes the Midrash, “Moses says, `This shall be the law of the leper—the law for him who spreads slander.’ ” 6
“Who is honored? He who honors others.”7 The Hafetz Hayim interpreted this to imply that a person must be prompt in honoring all men, for therein he proves himself worthy of honor. A quotation which he used frequently was from the Testament of Judah ben Asher: “A sage said that he found reason for honoring almost everyone he knew. `I have never come across one in whom I failed to recognize superiority over myself. Were he older, I have said he has done more good than I; were he richer, I said he has been more charitable; were he younger, I said I have sinned more; were he poorer, I said he has suffered heavier tribulation; were he wiser, I honored him for his wisdom; were he not wiser, I said his fault is the lighter.’ “
The Hafetz Hayim particularly admonished his followers to train themselves to think before they speak, utter words if they be profitable, suppress them if they would profit nothing, and maintain silence if there be the slightest possibility that they would in any manner cause the least suffering to others. As Rabbi Simon ben Gamliel said: All my days I have grown up among the wise and I have not found anything better for a person than silence.” 8
1. Baba Batra, 165a.
2. Arakhim, 16a.
4. Psalms LXXIII, 9
5. Lev. XIX, 16.
6. Leviticus R. XIV. 2.
7. Aboth IV, 1.
8. Aboth I, 17.