Kollel Beis HaTalmud
Yehuda Fishman Institute's

Back to This Week's Parsha | Previous Issues

Parshas Devarim

Guard Your Tongue: A Matter of Life and Breath
by Rabbi Yosef Levinson

"These are the words that Moshe spoke to all Yisrael in the wilderness… between Paran and Tophel and Lavan, and Chatzeiros and Di-Zahav." (Devarim 1:1)

Rashi explains that the opening passuk to Sefer Devarim is not detailing the location of Moshe Rabbeinu's address to the Nation. Rather, these were places where various sins had been committed. Each place Moshe mentioned was a subtle hint to the aveira transgressed in that location. Two of the places, Paran and Chatzeiros allude to the sin of lashon hora (derogatory talk), a topic that should be at the forefront of our thinking during the Nine Days. Paran refers to the sin of the meraglim, the spies, which occurred in the wilderness of Paran. According to one explanation, Moshe mentioned Chatzeiros to remind them that they should have learned from what happened to Miriam in Chatzeiros for speaking lashon hara, and should have refrained themselves from speaking lashon hara against Hashem."

It seems that Moshe rebuked them twice for the same sin. However, the Maharal explains that the failure to learn from Miriam was a separate sin from the actual lashon hora. When we see someone getting punished for sinning, we must realise that this a lesson for us. Even though this applies to all mitzvos, the Torah specifically tells us to learn from Miriam about the severity of defaming someone. The Torah states: 'Remember what Hashem, your G-d did to Miriam on the way, when you were leaving Egypt' (Devarim 24:9).

The Rambam explains that the Torah is encouraging us to reflect on the details of Miriam's sin of speaking lashon hora against Moshe. Miriam was older than Moshe, she risked her life saving him when he was an infant, she only sinned by saying that Moshe was on the same level of prophecy as the other neviim and Moshe himself was not offended by her words. The Sifri also adds that she had Moshe's best interests in mind. Yet, despite all these factors, she was afflicted with tzara'as. All the more so, those who (maliciously) speak lashon hara will be punished. Therefore we should avoid their company to save ourselves from the sin of lashon hara. (Hilchos Tumas Tzara'as) The Ramban considers this one of the 613 mitzvos. He also writes that it is a mitzva to declare verbally what happened to Miriam(Additional Mittzvos of the Ramban,Mitzva Asei 7).

The Torah commands us to reflect on this episode and to repeat it out loud because of the destructiveness of lashon hara. As Chazal teach, the aveira (sin) of lashon hara is equivalent to the cardinal sins of idolatry, immorality and murder (Erchin 15b; Yerushalmi Peah 1:1). Let us examine why lashon hara is considered such a terrible sin.

Although speaking lashon hara does not cause bodily harm, often the 'victim' suffers more than if he had been physically abused. Cuts and bruises heal, but the humiliation and shame from lashon hara can leave deep emotional scars that might never heal. In addition, one is oblivious to the scope of damage his words can cause. A gunshot cannot kill out of the gun's range but lashon hara can travel and cause havoc throughout the world. A word spoken in Melbourne could cause someone in Eretz Yisrael to lose a job. A thoughtless conversation in Yerushalayim could break up a shidduch (marriage match) in Chicago, and a letter written in New York could cause humiliation and embarrassment in London.

Furthermore, the speaker of lashon hara is also harmed. The Torah describes Hashem's creation of man: "And He blew into his nostrils the soul of life, and man became a living being." (Bereishis 2:7). Targum Onkelos understands this passuk (verse) to mean 'man became a talking spirit.' Man is distinguished from animals by his power of speech. Although at first glance, one might think that intellect is the essence of mankind, it is through speech that human intellect is expounded and disseminated.

Rabbi Zalman Sorotzkin zt'l writes: "Through speech, and its form in writing, man's practical and theoretical innovations in all realms of knowledge are transmitted to his neighbor, and likewise, each generation passes on the knowledge it inherited from its predecessors, as well as its own additions. In the course of many generations, man has succeeded in working over and refining the new material created by Hashem, achieving an extraordinary level of science and technology. Without speech and writing, the transfer of knowledge would be impossible between generations, or even between contemporaries and man's intellect would stagnate and degenerate" (Aznaim L'Torah, Bereishis).

When one speaks lashon hara or other forms of forbidden speech, one is abusing Hashem's gift to mankind. Instead of using this precious tool to influence others positively, he causes destruction. In effect, by speaking lashon hara, one is undermining his essence and demonstrates he has no appreciation for what distinguishes him from the animals. This does not mean one must remain silent. 'Death and life are in the power of the tongue' (Mishlei 18:21). By speaking lashon hara one brings death to himself. On the other hand if one speaks words of Torah, he grants life to himself. The Chafetz Chaim, who made a career of guarding his speech from lashon hara, was talkative by nature. He used this tendency to avoid sinning. He would talk endlessly to students and visitors about Torah subjects and mussar, ethics. Rabbi Chaim Ozer Grodzinski zt'l testified that the Chafetz Chaim always spoke words of Torah so that there would never be a moment for idle talk. Rabbi Sorotzkin writes that this is hinted at in the passuk, 'These are the words that Moshe spoke'. Moshe did not indulge in idle words. A person's main topic of conversation should be the Torah and related subjects.

If we focus on conversing more in Torah, we can overcome our desire to speak lashon hara. More than this, we will learn to value the gift of speech. No one would ever think to use a worn pair of tzitzis to mop the floor or to wrap a package with the straps of his tefillin. So too, if we view our mouths as the vessel with which we can and should utter the D'var Hashem, the words of Hashem, it will be abhorrent for us to speak lashon hara.

To comment on this article e-mail the author at

Back to This Week's Parsha

For information on subscriptions, archives, and
other Shema Yisrael
Classes, send mail to
Jerusalem, Israel