The power of speech is one of the most valuable gifts that G‑d has given us. It is the power of speech that sets us apart from animals.1 This gift should be utilized to study Torah and praise G‑d and pray to Him, as well as to attend to our more mundane needs.

It is best to keep to a minimum the words one speaks regarding mundane matters, and maximize speech in holy matters. This is derived from the Biblical verse: "And you shall teach it [the Torah] to your children to speak in them."2 Our sages have interpreted3 this to mean that one's speech should be mainly about Torah.

In a similar vein, the Jerusalem Talmud4 states: "All patter [unnecessary talking] is bad, with the exception of Torah patter. All silence is good besides silence in Torah matters, which is bad." Likewise, Rabbi Shimon ben Gamliel taught,5 "I grew up my entire life amongst scholars, and I did not find anything as beneficial to the body as silence; action is the main thing, not talk, and whoever speaks too much will bring sin [upon himself]." In the words of King Solomon, "Even a fool is considered a wise man if he remains silent."6

One of the punishments for misusing one's power of speech by talking slanderously about others is a skin disease called tzara'at (translated loosely as leprosy).7 This is learned from the story of Miriam8 who spoke ill of her brother Moses and was punished with tzara'at.

A person who was declared a metzora (leper) by the priest was required to leave the encampment or city. This served to remove him from the company of the people with whom he was accustomed to engage in gossip. In addition, as punishment for creating a rift between spouses and friends, he must now separate from society.9

Even the name of the leper is a testament to the gravity of his sin. The word metzora is an amalgam of the Hebrew words motzee ra—"one who brings forth evil."10

After he is healed, the leper must go through a process of ritual purification. Part of this process includes taking two birds, slaughtering one and setting the other one free. This symbolizes that he must slaughter (i.e., rid himself of) negative speech (symbolized by the bird which is constantly chirping) and accustom himself to speaking only positive speech (represented by the bird which was kept alive).11 The Talmud teaches,12 "What must the gossiper do to fix himself [in addition to stopping the gossip]? If he is a Torah scholar, he should study Torah. As the verse states: 'Healing for the tongue is a tree of life.'"13

The rest of this article will focus on how one should use one's power of speech in a positive and healing manner.

The Impact of Speech

One must recognize the immense power of speech; it can affect others in a beneficial or a harmful manner. King Solomon, the wisest of all men, emphasizes this theme many times in his writings:

  • "He who watches his mouth and his tongue guards his soul from troubles."14
  • "The lips of a fool will enter a quarrel, and his mouth calls out for blows."
  • "A fool's mouth is his ruin, and his lips are a snare for himself."
  • "The words of a grumbler are like blows, and they descend into the inmost parts."15
  • "With the fruit of one's mouth, a man will be satisfied [i.e. the speech of a person will bring him either positive or negative results]."
  • "Death and life are in the hand of the tongue, and those who love it will eat its produce."16
  • "The tongue of the wise enhances knowledge, but the mouth of the fool pours out folly."17

Tone of Voice

King Solomon said:

  • "The words of the wise are heard [when spoken] softly, more than the shout of a ruler of fools."18
  • "Do not be hasty to become angry, because anger lies in the lap of fools."19
  • "A gentle reply turns away wrath, but a distressing word stirs up anger."20
  • The Talmud21 says that when reminding other household members to prepare for Shabbat in the appropriate manner, one should speak gently, for otherwise the reminders will go unheeded.
  • Nachmanides, in his famous letter to his son, instructs him: "Speak gently at all times... When someone calls you, don't answer loudly, but gently and softly, as one who stands before his master."22

When Rebuking

  • One who needs to rebuke another should do so in a loving way. For example, he might point out to that person how wise and learned he is, and that therefore it would be proper for him to alter his behavior.23
  • If one sees that the individual who needs rebuking is very sensitive, then it is better to deliver the message indirectly. It is said that the holy brothers Rabbi Elimelech of Lizhensk and Rabbi Zushe of Anipoli would do this. When they became aware of an individual who needed to be admonished, they would have a conversation within earshot of that person. One of the brothers would "confess" to the other that he had committed the particular sin that they knew the listener had transgressed. The other brother would then direct him to do teshuvah (repent) for that sin. The person who "overheard" the conversation would then be able to apply this advice to himself, without the embarrassment and pressure of confrontation.

The Power of Vows

The making of vows can be a very powerful tool in helping a person protect himself from sin. The Mishnah states: "Vows are a fence for abstinence."24 On the other hand, if one transgresses a vow, it is considered a severe sin25 for which dire punishments are exacted.26 For this reason, it is better to abstain from making vows as much as possible. In the words of King Solomon:

  • "When you pronounce a vow to G‑d, do not delay to pay, for He has no pleasure in fools; that which you vow, pay."
  • "It is better that you vow not, than that you vow and do not pay it.27"
  • By keeping this advice, one will also fulfill the next verse: "Do not allow your mouth [that makes excessive vows] to cause sin to your flesh [to bring punishment upon yourself]."

Caution in Speech

One should be very careful in one's speech as a spoken word can never be retracted. Although the intention may be for a discussion to remain private, one never knows where it will reach. In the words of King Solomon: "Even in your thought, you should not curse a king, nor in your bedrooms should you curse a wealthy man, for the bird of the heaven shall carry the voice, and the winged creature will tell the matter."28

The Talmud29 tells a story where this lesson saved the life of a great Torah scholar. In this story, the person who was persuading the scholar to curse the king was none other than the king himself. The scholar's caution prevented his imminent execution.

Positive Mitzvot of Speech

There are many positive mitzvot that involve speech. Several of them are:

  1. Torah study
  2. Prayer
  3. To say blessings before and after eating
  4. To count the Omer
  5. The Priestly Blessing

Negative Mitzvot of Speech

Some of the negative Mitzvot involving speech are:

  1. Not to speak slander or gossip
  2. Not to blaspheme—curse the Almighty
  3. Not to curse a fellow Jew
  4. Not to bear false witness
  5. Not to utter a false oath
  6. Not to give bad advice

Hours of Torah Study

Our Sages teach that one should spend at least one sixth of the day (four hours) studying Torah, reciting Psalms, etc.30