Life and death are in the power of speech


Rabbi Perl responds to Newsday’s cover story on Tuesday reporting that athletic staff at Long Island public schools have resigned because of “invective from coaches, parents and spectators.”

What is the Jewish stance on cursing and curse words?

Researchers have found that about 0.7 percent of a typical American’s speech is made up of swear words. That might not sound like a lot, but given that an average person utters about 15,000 to 16,000 words each day, that adds up to a whopping 80 to 90 curses.

So which crime is worse — financial exploitation or verbal abuse?

“Money can be reimbursed,” the Talmud notes, “but the hurt from words is irreparable; money is a person’s property, but words hurt the person himself.”

Whether due to circumstance or nature, some people are more emotionally vulnerable than others. The Torah repeatedly tells us to watch our words with the widow, the orphan and the immigrant. Men are enjoined to speak sensitively to their wives.

The truth is that using bad language does more than keep you from being one step above. It actually pulls you down.

The Talmud speaks very harshly about vulgar speech. Although we generally think of speech as just a superficial act, in truth it has a strong impact on one’s inner self. The words that leave your mouth make an imprint on your mind and heart. No matter how high up you are on the rope of fine, noble character, a few rotten words can throw you back down to the ground.

And the flip side is also true — a crude person can become more refined if he improves the way he speaks.

So is a choice word after stubbing a toe a horrible sin? Perhaps not. But being careful that all words that leave your mouth are holy is an important part of a living the “holy” life.

Saying many coarse words has an effect on us over time. Obscenities are called “dirty words” for a reason: Using them sends a message that we don’t care enough about our speech to monitor what we say and choose cleaner options instead.

Many of us intuitively realize that when we want to seem intelligent and successful, swearing is out of the question. Few people would swear during a job interview or a first date.

In Judaism, important occasions aren’t reserved only for special moments — the Torah encourages us to take ourselves seriously and try to grow and reach our potential. Part of that is refining our speech and not allowing degrading expressions to drag us down.

There is an enigmatic instruction in the Torah — kedoshim tihyu, “be holy.” The sages explain that the Hebrew word kadosh, which is normally translated as “holy,” actually means to be “distinct” or “separate.” Separate from what? From vulgar language, for one.

It reflects a key Jewish truth that what we say matters. The Talmud speaks disapprovingly about people who use crude or vulgar language, but it goes beyond that. In Jewish thought, the way we interact with people and the comments we make shape us. If we speak and act kindly to people, we become kind. When we talk gently to others, we become gentle.

Three thousand years ago, King Shlomo wrote, “Death and life are in the power of the tongue” (Mishlei 18:21). The words we say shape us in both clear and subtle ways; engaging in crude speech drags down both the speaker and the listener. With vulgarity and swearing such a huge part of everyday speech, maybe it’s time to experiment with going obscenity-free. 

Consider giving up swearing for a week. It might not be easy, but the rewards — in clarity of thought and a more refined way of communicating — are well worth it.