One of the distinguishing features of human beings from other species is that we can talk. And one of the distinguishing features amongst human beings is how we use the gift of speech. Do we speak in an elevated manner or in a crass manner? The way we speak says a lot about us -- who we are, how we perceive ourselves, who we identify with.
The Torah teaches that human beings were created in the image of God (Genesis 1:27). Since God has no corporeal image, the Torah is telling us that we were created in a spiritual image of the Almighty -- that we can emulate the Almighty in doing kindness and that we can use speech to perfect this world.
Many times, people are not aware of how they speak. Use of curse words demean the speaker who, after all, should look upon him/herself as a holy individual created in the image of the Almighty! Also, people need to be aware of how they use speech when talking with someone or about someone.
Lashon hara (literally, "evil speech") is derogatory speech and is forbidden by Jewish law even when it's true -- unless there is a compelling requirement to share the information. Lashon hara is the fuel for hatred, jealousy and contention. It can break an engagement, end a marriage, destroy a partnership, ruin a life. However, proper speech can bring harmony and build relationships. Words can hurt, words can heal.
How do we know what to say, when to say and how to say it? Many of the laws governing speech were compiled by Rabbi Yisroel Meir Kagan in a book entitled "Chofetz Chaim (desires life)". He entitled his book after the verse in King David's Psalms 34:12-14, "Who is the one who desires life ...? Guard your tongue from evil and your lips from speaking deceit." Here are a few guidelines:
10 Practical Guidelines for Positive Speech
Do not express damaging or derogatory information about someone that might cause him physical, psychological or financial harm, even if it is true and deserved.
Promote people's well being. When in doubt, don't speak out.
Humor is great, but make sure jokes aren't at someone else's expense.
Be kind to yourself. Speaking badly even about yourself is unethical.
Don't listen to gossip. If you can't change the direction of the conversation, it is advisable to leave.
If you inadvertently hear damaging information, you should believe that it is NOT true.
Always give others the benefit of the doubt and focus on the positive.
Words once spoken can't be erased. Think before you speak, especially if you are angry, hurt or jealous.
Use kind and supportive words with your children and spouse whenever possible. Harsh words can cause irreparable harm as can speaking derogatorily to others about the ones you love most.
10. It is not only permitted, but required, to warn a person about potential harm –
for example, that a potential business partner has a repeated record of
Why do people speak lashon hara, derogatory speech? The Chofetz Chaim (as Rabbi Kagan was called in the tradition of referring to a rabbi by the name of the book he wrote) enumerated 7 basic reasons:
1) Anger -- losing control
2) Joking -- seeking a laugh no matter who the joke hurts
3) Arrogance -- to aggrandize oneself at the expense of others
4) Giving up hope -- thinking that it is impossible not to speak lashon hara
5) Seeing that others aren't careful -- following the bad example of others
6) Judging others unfavorably -- we tend to see the negativity in others that we have
7) Ignorance -- not knowing the laws governing proper speech.
If we understand what motivates us to speak poorly of others, we can correct our ways in order to speak properly.
The Torah continues with the laws of physical and spiritual purity. The focus of this portion is upon tzora'at, a supernatural physical affliction sent to warn someone to refrain from speaking badly about others. The disease progressively afflicted home, clothes and then one's skin -- unless the individual corrected his ways and followed the purification process stated in the Torah.
There are two types of speech transgressions:
1) Lashon Hara (literally "evil tongue") -- making a derogatory or damaging
statement about someone even though you are speaking the truth ... and 2) Rechilus (literally "tale bearing") -- telling someone the negative things another
person said about him or did against him.
"And God spoke to Moshe and Aharon saying, 'When a man shall have in the skin of his flesh a rising, or a scab, or a bright spot and it becomes in the skin of his flesh the plague of tzora'as, then he shall be brought to Aharon the priest or unto one of
his sons the priests' " (Leviticus 13:1-2).
What is the significance and meaning of these different types of tzora'at?
The Chasan Sofer comments that the different types of tzora'as are illustrative of reasons why people might speak against others:
1) Sais (a rising): A person might speak against others to raise his own stature.
2) Sapachas (a scab): A person might join (sipuach) a group of people who speak against others. In ordinary circumstances, he would not speak lashon hara, but to be sociable or to fit in, he would.
3) Baheres (a bright spot): A person might have done something against someone else, and in an attempt to exonerate himself, he speaks against that person. He clarifies (bahir) the reason for his behavior. If one is aware of the motivation for his speaking lashon hara, he can work on correcting himself.
The Chofetz Chaim, Rabbi Yisroel Meir Kagan, points out that from the severity of the tumah (spiritual uncleanliness) of the metzora (the person afflicted with tzora'at), we have an indication of the severity of lashon hara. This is the only type of tumah in which the person is required to stay entirely out of the camp or city where other people live.
If one is careful not to speak negatively about others, he may never have to whisper again!