Rabbi Malcolm Matitiani discusses the power of words


Every morning we Jews recite the following blessing: “Blessed is the One who spoke and the world came to be, blessed is the One, blessed be the One who maintains creation, blessed is the One who speaks and does… “

This blessing acknowledges the power of the spoken word and praises the Almighty whose words and decrees become reality when creating the world. This ability of creating realities through verbal communication was bestowed on human beings who, like God, can articulate the abstract and thereby transform ideas and thoughts into concrete reality. Thus Targum Onkelos, understands Genesis 2:7 to mean that on blowing the breath of life into Ad-am’s nostrils, God gave Adam “the spirit of speech”. Onkelos recognised that the gift of language distinguishes humanity from the other animals of the earth.  

The destruction of the Second Temple in 70CE led to the transformation of Judaism from a religion dependant on a fixed sacred space to one based on the portable ‘sanctuary’ of books. This enabled the Jews to survive persecution and expulsion and allowed them live meaningful, God-fearing lives wherever they relocated. Unlike material wealth and possessions, knowledge and the ability to express ideas and debate opinions can never be taken away by the persecutor as is illustrated by the examples of Rabbis Akiva (Berachot 61b) and Yehudah ben Bava (Sanhedrin 14a).

While language has the potential to create and promote life, it also has the potential to create negativity, hatred and destruction. Torah and rabbinic teaching counsel care in the use of language and especially the spoken word which is often used in anger and impetuously.  Lashon ha-ra, “’vil speech’ or slander is considered by the sages as a transgression akin to murder (Bava Metzia 58b) and punishable by the loss of a share in the world to come (Avot 3:12).  

Jewish history teaches the danger of hate speech and slander.  Thousands of Jews were murdered as a direct result of false accusations about Jewish practice and behaviour. The blood libels of medieval and even twentieth century Europe testify to the destructive capabilities of language. The most tragic and evil result of the misuse of language was the Shoah which led to the physical murder of six million Jews and the destruction of Jewish Euro-pean culture.  This mass genocide was the direct result of the anti-Semitism of ruthless madmen who used the power of language to express their noxious ideas.  Joseph Goebbels, Minister of ‘Public Enlightenment and Propaganda’ used the spoken and written word to convince the people of Europe that the Jews and other ‘undesirables’ needed to be exterminated. 

Today the State of Israel faces a similar propaganda campaign launched by extremists in the Muslim world that wish to see the eradication of the Jewish State and a second genocide of the Jews. The most despicable slur is the statement that the Shoah is a figment of the Jews’ imagination designed to gain sympathy for the Israeli cause.  It is a sad indictment on humanity that thousands of people believe these and other examples of hate speech and are motivated by these untruths to murder innocent men, women and children.  These examples from history point to the profundity of the Talmudic statement that there is not much of a leap from hate speech and slander to physical murder. 

The dangers of misusing language are not always as dramatic.  Speaking about another in their absence can lead to dire social consequences by destroying that person’s standing in the community as well as diminishing his or her spiritual and emotional self-worth.  While a physical wound eventually heals, an emotional scaring caused by the written or spoken word can often fester through generations. The Talmud (Ta’anit 20a-b) relates a teaching of Rabbi Eleazar ben Rabbi Shimeon: “A man should always be gentle as the reed and let him never be unyielding as the cedar. And for this reason the reed merited that of it should be made a pen for the writing of the Torah, Tefillin and Mezuzoth.” May all that we say and write be gentle and yielding as the reed.  Then we shall create positive realities that promote the sanctity of life, thus using the power of language as God intended.

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