Shemiras Halashon: Standing Guard

Rabbi Yosef Levinson

As important as Ahavas Yisrael, fostering love between our fellow Jews, and shemiras halashon, guarding our tongues is throughout the year, watching our speech during the Three Weeks is imperative, for we are taught that the Beis Hamikdash was destroyed because of sinas chinam, baseless hatred.1 At this time of year, when we mourn the destruction of the Beis Hamikdash and yearn for its rebuilding, we must strengthen our Ahavas Yisrael and eradicate sinas chinam from our midst. The Chafetz Chaim writes, if Hashem destroyed the Beis Hamikdash because of sinas chinam and lashon hara, evil gossip, all the more so He won't permit it to be rebuilt if we have not cured ourselves of these spiritual maladies.2

We may even ponder the propriety of mourning if we do not undertake to be more vigilant with our speech.This can be compared to one whose car ran out of petrol and broke down. Instead of trying to obtain petrol, the motorist cries, bemoaning his sorry predicament. Yes, it might be difficult to get petrol when the petrol gauge is on empty, especially if one was driving on a deserted highway and the nearest service station is ten kilometres away in either direction. Still, wallowing in self-pity will not get their car back on the road. The only solution is to make the long trek to the nearest friendly service station. Since we know that sinas chinam and lashon hara are the causes of our long exile, if we do not first endeavour to rectify these sins, our mourning is empty and useless - we are no better than our pathetic stranded motorist.

We are all painfully aware of the tremendous crisis in Eretz Yisrael. The Palestinian terrorists have been responsible for murdering and maiming hundreds of Jews and placing the rest of Eretz Yisrael in the grip of fear. Our brothers and sisters there are living in turmoil. As we shall see, now more than ever, we must focus on shemiras halashon.

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.

Chazal actually compare, the aveira (sin) of lashon hara to the cardinal sins of idolatry, immorality and murder.3

The Torah admonishes us: "Lo seilech rachil b'amecha." - Do not go around as a slanderer among your people.4 Besides the prohibition against slandering and spreading lashon hara, about our fellow Jew, the Torah also exhorts us to learn from Miriam about the severity of defaming someone. The passuk states: 'Remember what Hashem, your G-d did to Miriam on the way, when you were leaving Egypt'.5 The Rambam explains that the Torah is encouraging us to reflect on the details of Miriam's sin of speaking lashon hara 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.6 The Sifri also adds that she had Moshe's best interests in mind.7 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.8 The Ramban considers this one of the 613 mitzvos. He also writes that it is a mitzva to declare verbally what happened to Miriam. The Torah commands us to reflect on this episode and to repeat it out loud because of the destructiveness of lashon hara. 9

This does not mean one must remain silent. 'Death and life are in the power of the tongue'.10 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 and campaigned his entire life for shemiras halashon, was talkative by nature. He actually 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. It is speculation, but perhaps it was due to the Chafetz Chaim's vigilance with shemiras halashon and his constant devotion to learning Torah that he merited to live well into his nineties. Rabbi Zalman Sorotzkin zt'l writes that this is hinted at in the passuk, 'These are the words that Moshe spoke'.11 Moshe did not indulge in idle words. A person's main topic of conversation should be the Torah and related subjects.

Not only do we ourselves receive life through using the power of our tongues to toil in Torah and pray before Hashem, we also grant life and protection to our fellow Jews facing persecution. We must realize that the battlegrounds in the current conflict in Eretz Yisrael are not only in Yerushalayim and Tel Aviv and in Jenin and Nablus. The battle is being waged from Melbourne to Moscow, from London to Lakewood, and throughout the world. No matter where a Jew lives, he can come to the aid of his brethren in Eretz Yisrael.

David Hamelech reminds us: "Eileh varechev va'eileh vasusim, va'anachnu b'sheim Hashem Elokeinu nazkir. Heima karu v'nafalu, va'anachnu kamnu v'nisodad." - 'Some come with chariots and some come with horses, but we call out in the name of Hashem. They stumbled and fell but we arose and were strengthened.'12 One must not place his trust in armed forces alone. Our true security also depends upon those who learn and teach Torah and those who daven to Hashem. In the merit of Torah and tefilla, Hashem will protect us, and our army will be successful in defending us. This is what the Sages teach us concerning the verse: "Hakol kol Yaakov v'hayadayim yedei Eisav" - 'The voice is the voice of Yaakov and the hands are the hands of Eisav.'13 When Yaakov's voice resonates in the synagogues and study halls, in prayer and learning, then Eisav will have no hands to rise up against us.14

The Aznaim l'Torah comments further that Yaakov's voice was a natural part of him. He learned Torah in his father's house, in the yeshivos of Shem and Ever, when he was watching Lavan's sheep and when he returned to Eretz Canaan. By contrast, his "hands of Eisav", were an artificial, temporary 'adornment' of goatskin so that he could resemble Eisav when necessary. If we must resort to armed combat to defend ourselves against our enemies, we must only don 'Eisav's gloves' on our hands. Our hands themselves and our hearts must be faithful to Hashem, and the voice of Yaakov, our heritage must not be weakened.15 It is incumbent upon each and every Jewish man, woman and child to enlist in this struggle. We must come armed with our Gemaros and Chumashim, our Siddurim and Tehillim. We must toil in Torah and storm the Heavens with our prayers. "Ein lanu ela Avinu shebaShamayim" - ''We have no one to rely on but our Father in Heaven".

Nonetheless, Torah and tefilla are not enough for us to win this war. Even the members of the most elite army unit, who have the most advanced and sophisticated weaponry available, would be vulnerable to attack if they ran out of ammunition, or if their weapons were damaged. Even as we daven fervently to Hashem and learn His Torah, we must be vigilant not to engage in any conduct which might prevent Hashem from hearing our prayers.

Chazal teach that if one speaks lashon hara, his prayers are not accepted before Hashem. By speaking lashon hara, one causes spiritual impurity to descend upon him, which can only be removed by teshuva, returning to Hashem.16 The Chafetz Chaim adds that we can now understand the following maamar Chazal (teaching of the Sages). The metzora (one afflicted with tzara'as) must publicly proclaim that he is tamei (spiritually impure), so that the community may pray on his behalf. The Chafetz Chaim explains that the public must pray for the metzora, because his own prayers are unwelcome before Hashem.17

Why are the Heavenly gates locked for one who engages in lashon hara? The Torah describes Hashem's creation of man: "And He blew into his nostrils the soul of life, and man became a living being."18 Targum Onkelos understands this passuk 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 writes: "Through speech, and its form in writing, man's practical and theoretical innovations in all realms of knowledge are transmitted to his neighbour, 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." 19

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 that he has no appreciation for what distinguishes him from the animals.

This is true for all of humanity, for Hashem has bestowed all of mankind with the power of speech. As Hashem's Holy nation, we were elevated and granted the opportunity to learn the Davar Hashem and pray before Him. This was the purpose of creation, and through learning and tefilla, we sustain the universe, as Shimon Hatzaddik taught: "On three things the world stands, on Torah, Avoda (Divine service, i.e., prayer) and acts of kindness".20

One who was given an instrument to serve the King, would not defile this tool by using it for a lowly purpose. And surely he would not use this tool for activities that the King finds abhorrent. Rather, he would treat it with the utmost care and respect. This instrument actually identifies him as a servant of the King and is a badge of honour. One who speaks lashon hara and uses his tongue against Hashem's wishes, is belittling the Divine gift and privilege of speech. Surely, he is most unwelcome to stand before Him in prayer.

If a person was to bar our entry into the Beis Hamedrash and Beis Hakenesses, we would consider this person a rasha (evildoer). Yet if we engage in lashon hara, that is exactly what we are doing! Let us resolve to refrain from lashon hara. In this way we will sanctify our mouths as holy vessels. In this way our mourning will also be more meaningful and will be viewed by Hashem as sincere.Then, let us strengthen our learning and tefilla. The pure words will then soar to Shamayim and we will triumph over our enemies.

May we merit to see the fulfillment of the words of the Sages: "Kol hamisaveil al Yerushalayim zocheh u'ro'eh b'simchasa - All who mourn for Yerushalayim will merit to witness her joy,"21 may it be speedily in our days.


1. Yoma 9b.
2. Chafetz Chaim, introduction.
3. Erchin 15b; Yerushalmi Peah 1:1.
4. Vayikra 19:16.
5. Devarim 24:9.
6. Hilchos Tumas Tzara'as 16:10.
7. Sifri to Devarim 24:9.
8. Rambam, ibid.
9. Commentary to Devarim 24:9; Hasagos HaRamban to Sefer HaMitzvos L'haRambam, Additional Mitzvos Mitzva Asei 7.
10. Mishlei 18:21.
11. Devarim 1:1 with Aznaim L'Torah.
12. Tehillim 20:8,9.
13. Bereishis 27:22.
14. Pesikta to Eicha Rabba, 2. The Midrash (ibid) relates that R' Asi and R' Ami traveled throughout Eretz Yisrael to inspect its security. When they would enter a city, they would say "show us the guardians of the city." The town's people would then show them the police and armed guards. R' Ami and R' Asi would then respond: "Are these the protectors of the city? These are the destroyers of the city!" If one relies solely on the armed forces and does not turn to Hashem, he is doomed to fail.
15. Aznaim l'Torah to Bereishis 27:22.
16. Zohar, Parshas Metzora.
17. Shemiras Halashon vol. 1,1:7.
18. Bereishis 2:7.
19. Aznaim l'Torah to Bereishis 2:7.
20. Avos 1:2.
21.Taanis 30b.

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