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The Torah on Dirty Words

The Torah on Dirty Words

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Question:

Just curious, what is the Jewish stance on cursing and curse words? I’ve heard the line that our bodies are a temple, and that defaming G‑d’s name is very bad, but what about a little curse here or there when you are really mad? Thanks. :)

Response:

Think of someone wise, kind and caring. The type of man or woman you deeply respect and look up to as a role model.

Could you imagine such a person spewing out filthy language in a sudden moment of rage? Probably not. And for good reason. It just isn’t a holy thing to do.

In the beginning of the Torah portion of Kedoshim,1 we read an enigmatic instruction: Kedoshim tihyu, “Be holy.” This is different from the many other commandments that follow, which pertain to specific matters such as marital and ritual purity or holiness. The sages2 explain that the Hebrew word kadosh, which is normally translated as “holy,” actually means to be “distinct” or “separate.” Thus, these words are actually a commandment to separate ourselves.

Separate from what? From vulgar language, for one.

To paraphrase Nachmanides,3 while the Torah forbids various behaviors and foods, at the same time it does permit intimacy between husband and wife, and the consumption of kosher meat and wine. Thus, there can be a glutton who eats only kosher food; a drunkard who drinks only kosher wine; and a married man whose behavior with his wife is lewd, even though she is permissible to him. Or there may be a person who speaks in a disgusting manner, something that is not specifically prohibited in the Torah. Thus, it is possible for a person to actually be—in the classic words of Nachmanides—“disgusting with the permission of Torah.”

In other words, Torah itself demands that you go beyond the parameters it sets for you, and live a life that is truly distinguished and uplifted. The Torah tells you that to be holy; it’s not enough to “do this and don’t do this.” There’s something you have to do on your own to get up there: to go beyond just following instructions, at least a small step.

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

The Talmud4 speaks very harshly about one who speaks in a vulgar way. Although we generally think of speech as just a superficial act, in truth it has a strong impact on your inner self. The words that leave your mouth make an imprint on your mind and heart. No matter how high up you are 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. This is why shemirat halashon, “guarding one’s tongue,” is considered one of the first steps that need to be taken before correcting more serious character flaws.

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 of a Jew.

Footnotes
2.

Sifra ad loc.

3.

Ad loc.

4.

Talmud, Ketubot 8b.

Rabbi Yisroel Cotlar is a Chabad rabbi in Cary, North Carolina. He is also a member of the Chabad.org Ask the Rabbi team.
Sefira Ross is a freelance designer and illustrator whose original creations grace many Chabad.org pages. Residing in Seattle, Washington, her days are spent between multitasking illustrations and being a mom.
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Avi Keslinger Ofra, Israel March 20, 2017

The power of speech differentiates us from the animals. It is connected to the divine image in us. By using bad language a person sullies his soul. Reply

PAUL DUBOIS TRINIDAD AND TOBAGO May 14, 2016

Something I need to start practicing myself. Reply

realist Houston May 11, 2016

I feel that cursing is just not that big a deal. as a matter of fact, I genuinely adore when I have a senior / manager / shareholder who casually curses (not like getting angry cursing, just casual cursing. Anger cursing is a problem about anger, which is a totally separate subject). Casual cursing brings down the tension and makes everything more relaxed, more at ease, like saying, "hey guys, we're amongst friends here."

Overall, I seriously struggle with the commandment "kedoshim tihyu", and much more emphasize with the interestingly debatably contrary quote that the Gemara says regarding making extra vows to distance ourselves from permitted things, "is it not enough for you what the Torah forbade?"

I feel that the commandment to "be holy", which go beyonds all other mitzvos, was worth striving for in generations bygone and ages long departed. Today? I can think of extremely base aveiros that we transgress daily. Why would we focus on not cursing? Cursing is the least of our probl Reply

arthur yanoff May 11, 2016

we spoke Yiddish and loved the language so much that even curses took on the quality of that which rises upwards. one might say that in this context the medium is the message. in our own minds we sometimes think that we elevate the mundane. Reply

Anonymous April 30, 2015

I believe bad words are ineffective. Once somebody says something that sounds gross but true, it's difficult not to want to repeat it. Thanks for the reminder to put a fence on the words we use. If we are not careful, it could become a habit, an ugly one. Reply

Brian Arizona October 10, 2014

Isn't there a difference between using a word as a curse versus using a word as an exclamation of joy. As in, "that cake was ___ gorgeous."

Because words, especially in English, can take often opposite meaning depending on the attitude/person using them. And I truly believe that even if a word that some find offensive is used in a positive way, people do not become any less holy. Rather, I think it's upon the offended to look within. Reply

Evan Loiterman January 30, 2014

Dare I stand out?

It behooves me to extrapolate that there is a LARGE degree of haughtiness and condescension amongst those of us who feel their hearing is indeed too sensitive. Such people should they be offended by by words as benign as one that describes flatulence, or 'h' -double hockey sticks -really need to lighten up.

To imply that a person such as myself that can sling big vocabulary words with the best of 'em, is reduced by throwing in some slang every so often -not even in reference to any immoral acts is just plain silly!

I fell the larger problem is the amount of GAIVAH some self impressed stodgy types some of us are forced to suffer, those who seem to be born without a sense of humor, really need to drop the " OH MY G-D did HE just say that?" act and lighten up.

on the other hand,
IMO people who can't lift the subject matter of their discussions beyond discussions of part of the human anatomy, bodily functions, need to go away. Reply

ruth housman marshfield hills, ma April 18, 2013

B'reshit

I am following a Language Based Story so IF G_d is providing these connects they are not trivial. I am crossing Babel in putting down a story, and I won't be put down for doing this, because G_d is talking to me, in sign, in symbol, in metaphor, and through the experiential connectivity that is bringing for me Heaven to Earth.

We are all approaching Union Street and merger, as in the signs on the streets we take, is the Sign for a greater story too, that is found in mirroring connectivity. It's ALL G_D, and this apperception is going to sweep the world.

In totality, This Story Is About Love. The sacred and the profane do merge, and we cannot have the one, without the other. On this plane we can never condone acts of hate, brutality, cruelty, denigration of others, and must work always for tikkun. That's a given and the gift. Because meaning, true meaning, resides in this deep truth, for us all. Reply

Jaclyn Barnes April 18, 2013

Wonderful article sometimes I know it's hard,to control your tongue! But when you realize that G-d is listening to what comes out of your mouth, that puts a different outlook on things. What if you're not using the improper words but other people in the family are and there are young children who pick this language up? If you could please respond I would appreciate it. Reply

Shlolmo Florida April 17, 2013

Come on...sometimes a swear word is so definitive that one can't help but go for it!
I've met so many very intelligent people who are successful in their endeavors but will use salty language on numerous occasions, so what? That in no way takes away from their character or intelligence! Reply

ruth housman marshfield hills, ma April 6, 2011

I know, as a former speech pathologist, that people retain swear words, even after severe strokes, so often, these are the words that do come back. There are deep and ongoing reasons for this and I say, even to swear, even this, can be viewed as holy. Why? Because it's part of our lexicon, and becomes I know, I do profoundly understand, that life is bipolar and so are words, and that we do this. I know that the sacred and the profane do fold together, in astounding but true ways.

Maybe it is shocking to call a scroll of paper, any scroll, any at all, Torah, but I do see this. Maybe it is shocking to see that there are aspects of life, too dark to penetrate that do contain even within them, the light, but I do see this.

When the beauty, the true beauty of the apperception hits that it is all one, that opposites fold together, a world totally dominated by G_d, there is beauty, even in those places, as all things arise from this same deep SOURCE.

JACOB and the Angel
blesser: to wound Reply

moshe bar noach london , canada April 6, 2011

If anyone is looking for an example of the types of words HaShem thinks are unexceptable, read the Torah , it has all the answers! Reply

Jacob c Waltham, Ma via shaloh.org April 5, 2011

The way I see it, the problem I'd not at all in words. Yes, words are imparted with meaning due to their use, and worth impact due to their cultural perception. The whole point is exactly NOT that certain words are objectively "dirty": that is indeed arbitrary. Rather, a person knows the emotional state his words emanate from, and the ways in which they will be heard by his audience. The whole point is that the Torah does not proscribe an exhaustive set of particular words to remain eternally "wrong", but that each person must develop the consciousness of how he will sound in his context, and which emotional states deserve public expression in such a way. In this way, it is somewhat similar to bodily modesty: perhaps it can be said that certain parts of the body should eternally remain private, but an exhaustive list would defeat the purpose: a person ought develop a consciousness of context- of what exactly he is expressing, and what impression will be recieved by those around him. Reply

Nozomu suzuki Willowdale, oN April 3, 2011

There is something wrong about North American culture that allows swearing like this. Honestly, it is not even question about religous matter. IIt is a common sense... Reply

Anonymous Raleigh, NC April 3, 2011

What about cursing in your sleep? That is a serious question. What should one do about it? Reply

Michael Fenton Morris Plains, NJ, USA April 3, 2011

When one has to resort to profanity to communicate, it is a sign of poor or weak character and an even weaker command of the language. Cursing is offensive to some portion of your audience...always. It is often the lazy person's discourse. Saying vulgar things in a profane way is never as much fun as saying the same thing using creative and unprofane language. Reply

Kenneth Cartwright September 12, 2010

My Dad taught me it is what you are saying more than the particular word being used, though we were not to use "those words" either. In other words one could cuss and swear, being just as guilty using "clean" words.. Reminds me of more things to repent of. Shalom and may you be written in the book of life. Reply

Eli LA, CA September 8, 2010

"Thus, it is possible for a person to actually be--in the classic words of Nachmanides--“disgusting with the permission of Torah.”

Although I agree restraint from cursing is generally a good idea, nowhere is it prohibited or mentioned as ‘unholy’ in the Torah. Regarding the example of Nachmanides, ‘disgusting’ is left to the imagination with no concrete parameters. Certainly ‘disgusting’ in itself evokes different meanings to us all.

I bring this up because without clear definitions or a concurrent lack of prohibition, it would be easy to get carried away in defining a whole range of words as 'unholy' or 'disgusting' without concrete reasons for selecting certain words.

What differentiates one curse word from another? Are there words of lesser or greater intensity? Could language beyond curse words be construed as 'unholy', and if so, by whose interpretation of 'unholy' shall we go by as we create distinctions?

An arbitrary system of defining words would ensue. Reply

Stephen Dallas, TX August 24, 2010

To Anonymous. I am not a rabbi, but I don't believe you should refrain from prayer because you have spoken unclean words or even loshon hora. I believe that G-d wants us to identify our weaknesses and correct them, and in so doing become more refined. So, even if you feel bad about communicating with The Almighty with a "dirty utensil" don't become discouraged. Work on cleaning up the utensil, and accept that you may not be perfect at it. Reply

Anonymous Abilene August 23, 2010

@ Stephen- Wonderfully put. I have the tendency to "lose it" and spout off- not because of anything other than a frustrating life. I have no excuse. But when I do it affects my prayer life- how can I pray when I have spoken "unclean wprds"? Good point, Sir! Reply