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.