The Word (Ideas #123)
Written by : Rabbi Francis Nataf, Added : 7/05/2009, Viewed : 1161

Most of us do not think that much about the spoken word – it is a means of communication that we use when needed.

In the end of Parshat Emor, however, we see something different. We read that someone who misuses his speech by cursing G-d forfeits his life. In addition, the Talmud tells us that when witnesses are brought to testify, only the first witness can repeat what he heard and all the others simply say that I also heard this. Moreover, not only those who hear the actual curse but even those who hear the witness quoting the curse must still tear their clothes in grief. (1)

In Parshat Bechukotei, we see that even mundane talk should not be treated lightly. One who makes a vow cannot simply say “stam” (I didn’t mean it) as is popular among Israeli children after almost everything they say. Consequently, not keeping a vow is a sin which requires atonement in the same way as not keeping kosher or breaking the Shabbat. Apparently words are serious business

In this context, we might think that the spoken word and the written word are basically the same thing. Yet from the examples above, we see that the Torah gives much more weight to the spoken word than it does to the written one. After all, the letters that we write are mere symbols that we use to represent sounds. If words themselves only represent actual phenomena, the written word is actually a symbol of a symbol. (2)

Getting back to what makes speech so weighty, we should remember that talking is not only made up of words. We inflect our words in different ways, raise our voices or lower them, move our hands and demonstrate facial expressions, all of which combine to make speech into a powerful multi-sensual experience that gives tremendous variety to the content of any given word. Speech is also an interpersonal experience – the person listening responds with his own expression and gestures. And it is an experience with a context. (It is for this reason that we do not propose in a junkyard or hold business meetings in parks.)

Most critically, our words are a part of ourselves. Speech literally comes from us – we emit waves and particles out into the world. And though our words take on a life of their own, we will always remain their source. In this sense, it is not much different than putting a child into the world that, without us, would not be there at all.

As we know, there is no physical object as sacred as a human being and, perhaps for that reason, a corpse has the highest level of ritual defilement. Since our speech is so intimately connected to us, it is apparently also characterized by our singular human sanctity and our unique potential defilement.


The weight that the Torah gives to our speech does not only bespeak the traditional message of avoiding bad speech; it should also make us think about whether we are putting out enough good speech. More specifically, it should make us pause to consider the largely unnoticed disintegration of the spoken word in our time.

Once, if you were not close enough to hear my voice, I would have to send you an oral or written messenger. Since this was rather cumbersome, I would only do so if it was extremely important. Likewise, just the technical obstacles to writing were enough to make speech the vastly preferred mode of communication.

As history marched on and technological development removed many of the obstacles to communicating with those far away from us, live communication was still able to retain its primacy. Up until today – the current proliferation of inexpensive cellular phone service, which has made it so easy to talk with anyone anywhere at any time, has finally challenged that primacy. Since we all enjoy communicating with people with whom we have more in common, be it based on interests or on familiarity, we now spend at least as much time communicating with those people, even when they are not near us, as with those with whom we do share physical proximity. It is resultantly not unusual for people to be sitting next to each other and be completely oblivious to each other’s presence due to the respective phone conversations in which they are involved. 

The problem is that, over the phone, my word is less mine. It is physically removed from me and stripped of its natural context. On some level, it is the closest thing we have to a real ghost.

If the disembodiment of the spoken word were not enough, the convenience and inexpensiveness of email has caused us altogether to use the spoken word less. I am told that offices managers need to contend less with worker chatter than with social email correspondence. (Not only due to the larger pool of people that we can speak to over email, but, I imagine, also because it is easier to hide from the boss.) Although I enjoy email as much as the next person, we should be aware of its costs as well as of its benefits. Written speech is communication only. It is not even a ghost. Rather, it is a one-dimensional shadow of live speech.

And so, as we continue to speak less, we will continue to have less room for defilement… and for sanctity.


(1) Rambam goes even further by making a point of the Talmud’s fairly casual comparison of cursing G-d and idol worship. He tells us that the comparison is so significant that he has made a conscious decision to include these laws in his discussion of idol worship (Avodah Zara 2:6).That is to say, for Rambam, an improper use of words can be tantamount to the worst sin that a man can commit.

(2)It is true that holy writings such as the Torah or tefillin have sanctity, but that is in spite of the medium not because of it. Indeed, when the Torah was communicated orally at Sinai, the Jews needed to prepare for three days before they could be exposed to G-d’s spoken word.