אַבְטַלְיוֹן אוֹמֵר, חֲכָמִים, הִזָּהֲרוּ בְדִבְרֵיכֶם, שֶׁמָּא תָחוּבוּ חוֹבַת גָּלוּת וְתִגְלוּ לִמְקוֹם מַיִם הָרָעִים, וְיִשְׁתּוּ הַתַּלְמִידִים הַבָּאִים
אַחֲרֵיכֶם וְיָמוּתוּ, וְנִמְצָא שֵׁם שָׁמַיִם מִתְחַלֵּל
Avtalyon says, “Sages, be careful with your words, lest you become obligated in an obligation of exile and are exiled to the place of evil waters, and the students who follow after you will drink, and thus the name of Heaven is profaned.”
Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers) 1:11
Jewish tradition is clinically obsessed with words. I’m no expert in the DSM-V diagnosis of obsessive behavior, but I’m pretty confident that our 24 books of TaNaKH, our 63 tractates of Mishnah, and our 2,711 pages of Talmud meet the requirements. If those are not enough, we also have a couple of thousand years worth of commentary layered on top of those foundational texts, not to mention translations into multiple languages.
The roots of this obsession are found in the notion that the Torah is divine. Whether you believe that it is literally the words of Hashem, the words divinely inspired humans, or filled with spiritually potent wisdom, the words form the core of the text. The other source of this obsession is that the Rabbinic form of Judaism most of us engage with today was crafted by sages who shared a deep insight about the incredible power of words to heal and harm; to persuade or dissuade; to build or destroy individuals and even entire cultures.
The Mishnah above, the eleventh in the first tractate of Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers), is a clear example of the obsession with words. It paints a picture not only of the impact of words on the speaker, but also the potential ripple effect on multiple simultaneous listeners. The translation doesn’t do the Hebrew justice: the word “hizharu” is less “be careful” and more like “watch out;” it is the same root you might find on a sign in modern Israel warning you about a significant danger in the road ahead.
During these Ten Days of Teshuvah (repentance, returning) between Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur, we commit ourselves again and again to the importance of reflecting on how we use words. Most of the time we take for granted the incredible power we have at our disposal when we speak or listen. The power to forgive, the power to heal, as well as the power to do indescribable harm. 99.9% percent of the time we sail through our conversations on auto-pilot, choosing words without much intention in those choices. During these special days we pause to consider the immense power and responsibility that comes with the gift of language, and we consider ways in which we can direct our use of that power for positive impact as often as we can.
I’ve written often that in Judaism actions are considered more important than words—if this is how we do words, then how much more so should we obsessed with right actions?
This Shabbat coincides with Yom Kippur, also known as Shabbat Shabbatot (the Shabbatiest of Shabbats). I encourage you to spend some time with your children talking about the power of words. Ask them if they can think of times that their words have made a difference in someone else’s day, for better or worse, and share your own examples.
Wishing you a Shabbat Shalom and a meaningful Yom Kippur,