The power of the word

By Rabbi Malcolm Matitiani

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, blessed is the One who decrees and establishes…”

This blessing acknowledges the power of the spoken word. Referring to the first chapter of Genesis which portrays God as articulating the divine intention of creating each stage of the world through speech, the blessing praises the Almighty whose words and decrees become reality. 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.

It is no accident that Judaism is a text-based religion and culture. The destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE led to the transformation of Judaism from a religion based on animal sacrifices to one based on Torah study, prayer and the performance of mitzvoth; from a faith dependent on a fixed sacred space to one based on the portable “sanctuary” of books. The reliance on text rather than a Temple enabled the Jews to survive persecution and expulsion and allowed them to set up communities and 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, “evil 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 mediaeval and even twentieth century Europe testify to the destructive capabilities of language. Of course 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 European culture, a loss that has not been regained more than seventy years after the end of World War II. This mass genocide was the direct result of the anti-Semitism and paranoia of ruthless madmen who used the power of language to express their noxious ideas.  

Today the State of Israel and Jews around the world face a similar propaganda campaign calling for the eradication of the Jewish State and a second genocide of the Jews. 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 their spiritual and emotional self-worth. While a physical wound eventually heals, an emotional scarring 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 person should always be gentle as the reed and 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 Mezuzot.” It is the gentle and forgiving reed that is used to write the very symbols of our covenant with God. May all that we say and write be gentle and yielding as the reed, thereby creating positive realities that promote the sanctity of life, thus using the power of language as God intended.

Temple Israel

• Published in the February 2024 issue – Click here to start reading.

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