What does Judaism say about the power of words?

Judaism believes in the opposite of “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” It is through words that worlds are created and that covenants are sealed, and it is also through words that we can hurt and diminish one another and that communities and nations can be torn apart.

That is why Jewish tradition goes to great lengths to protect against malicious speech, gossip, and damaging another person’s reputation.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks zt’l wrote: “We create worlds with words…When we speak disparagingly of others, we diminish them, we diminish ourselves, and we damage the very ecology of freedom. That is why the Sages take lashon hara (evil speech) so seriously, why they regard it as the gravest of sins.”

The Torah prohibits gossip 

The Torah prohibits gossip in Vayikra (Leviticus) 19:16:

לֹא־תֵלֵ֤ךְ רָכִיל֙ בְּעַמֶּ֔יךָ לֹ֥א תַעֲמֹ֖ד עַל־דַּ֣ם רֵעֶ֑ךָ אֲנִ֖י ה’

Do not go around as a talebearer (rachil) among your people. Do not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor: I am the LORD.

Three different prohibitions of speech

Rambam (Maimonides) describes three different prohibitions of speech in the Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Deot (Human Dispositions) 7:2:

אֵי זֶהוּ רָכִיל. זֶה שֶׁטּוֹעֵן דְּבָרִים וְהוֹלֵךְ מִזֶּה לָזֶה וְאוֹמֵר כָּךְ אָמַר פְּלוֹנִי כָּךְ וְכָךְ שָׁמַעְתִּי עַל פְּלוֹנִי. אַף עַל פִּי שֶׁהוּא אֱמֶת הֲרֵי זֶה מַחֲרִיב אֶת הָעוֹלָם. יֵשׁ עָוֹן גָּדוֹל מִזֶּה עַד מְאֹד וְהוּא בִּכְלַל לָאו זֶה וְהוּא לָשׁוֹן הָרַע. וְהוּא הַמְסַפֵּר בִּגְנוּת חֲבֵרוֹ אַף עַל פִּי שֶׁאוֹמֵר אֱמֶת. אֲבָל הָאוֹמֵר שֶׁקֶר נִקְרָא מוֹצִיא שֵׁם רַע עַל חֲבֵרוֹ. אֲבָל בַּעַל לָשׁוֹן הָרַע זֶה שֶׁיּוֹשֵׁב וְאוֹמֵר כָּךְ וְכָךְ עָשָׂה פְּלוֹנִי וְכָךְ וְכָךְ הָיוּ אֲבוֹתָיו וְכָךְ וְכָךְ שָׁמַעְתִּי עָלָיו וְאָמַר דְּבָרִים שֶׁל גְּנַאי. עַל זֶה אָמַר הַכָּתוּב (תהילים יב ד) “יַכְרֵת ה’ כָּל שִׂפְתֵי חֲלָקוֹת לָשׁוֹן מְדַבֶּרֶת גְּדלוֹת”:

Who is a talebearer (rachil)? One who carries things and goes from one to another and says, “So did X say, such and such did I hear about X.” Even though it is the truth, he destroys the world. There is a much greater sin than this — and it is included in this negative commandment — and that is evil speech (lashon hara). And that is the one who speaks disparagingly about his fellow, even though it is true. But one who speaks falsely is called the producer of a bad reputation (motzi shem ra) about his fellow. But about this master of evil speech that sits and says, “X did so and so; so and so were his ancestors; so and so did I hear about him,” and says disparaging things — about this one, the verse states (Psalms 12:4), “May the Lord cut off all flattering lips, every tongue that speaks arrogance.”

Lashon hara is equal to three cardinal sins

The Talmud (Arakhin 15b) states: 

תנא דבי רבי ישמעאל כל המספר לשון הרע מגדיל עונות כנגד שלש עבירות עבודת כוכבים וגילוי עריות ושפיכות דמים

The school of Rabbi Yishmael taught: Anyone who speaks malicious speech increases his sins to the degree that they correspond to the three cardinal sins: Idol worship, and forbidden sexual relations, and bloodshed.

Use fewer words

Pirkei Avot 1:17 states: 

שִׁמְעוֹן בְּנוֹ אוֹמֵר, כָּל יָמַי גָּדַלְתִּי בֵין הַחֲכָמִים, וְלֹא מָצָאתִי לַגּוּף טוֹב אֶלָּא שְׁתִיקָה.
וְלֹא הַמִּדְרָשׁ הוּא הָעִקָּר, אֶלָּא הַמַּעֲשֶׂה. וְכָל הַמַּרְבֶּה דְבָרִים, מֵבִיא חֵטְא:

Shimon [Rabban Gamliel’s] son used to say: All my days I grew up among the sages, and I have found nothing better for a person than silence. Study is not the most important thing, but actions. Whoever indulges in too many words brings about sin.

Lashon hara hurts three people

The Talmud (Arakhin 15b) states: 

במערבא אמרי לשון תליתאי קטיל תליתאי הורג למספרו ולמקבלו ולאומרו

In the West [Eretz Yisrael] they say: Third speech [malicious speech about a third party] kills three people: the one who speaks it, the one who hears it and the one about whom it is said. 

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