What is the Jewish view on 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 so seriously, why they regard it as the gravest of sins.”

An expanded curriculum is available for this topic.

  1. The Talmud (Arakhin 15b) states: “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.” Later (on the same page) it states, “Rabbi Yohanan says in the name of Rabbi Yosei ben Zimra: Anyone who speaks malicious speech is as if he had denied God.” How would you describe how the rabbis regard words and lashon hara based on these statements?
  2. Pirkei Avot (4:13) states: “Rabbi Shimon said: There are three crowns: the crown of Torah, the crown of priesthood, and the crown of kingship, but the crown of a good name (keter shem tov) exceeds them all.” How does Rabbi Shimon rank the importance of maintaining a good name and reputation? Does this surprise you? Why do you think he ranks it this way? How does Rabbi Shimon’s statement impact your understanding of lashon hara? What are examples of protecting someone else’s reputation?
  3. Pirkei Avot (1:17) states: “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.” Commenting on this, Rambam wrote, “One of the signs of the wise is minimization of words, and one of the signs of the foolish is the multitude of words.” Do you agree that there is a correlation between “using too many words” and sin? Can you think of any contemporary applications of this idea?
  4. The Talmud (Arakhin 15b) states: “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.” Of these three people, who do you think is harmed the most?
  1. Use the power of words for good with your students. Ask each student to create a Padlet with their name as the title, and the words “Thank you for… I appreciate you for… I am grateful…” in the description area. Have each student share the link to their Padlet with the class. Ask every student to write one thing they are grateful for about that student on their Padlet using the prompts as guidance. After everyone has filled out everyone’s Padlet, discuss the impact this activity had with your students.
  2. Words and language do not just impact our interpersonal relationships and immediate communities; they also influence nations and societies. Listen to our podcast episode, “Hebrew: A Dead Language Revived” with your students. After listening, discuss the following questions: How did the language of Hebrew impact Israeli culture? Why was reviving Hebrew so important to Eliezer Ben Yehuda?
  3. Create a campaign to make students and teachers aware of lashon hara and to reduce or eliminate lashon hara in your school/community. This campaign can include articles, posters, announcements, videos, websites, social media, and swag. Check out the organization, Lashon Hara, Speak No Evil (or the Hebrew website Lashon Hara Lo Medaber Elai) for swag and ideas. Students may work individually or in groups of two or three. Be creative and have fun!
  4. Challenge your students to refrain from speaking lashon hara for one day. After students have taken the challenge, discuss the following: Were you able to refrain from speaking lashon hara? If not, how long did you last? Was taking on this challenge easy or difficult? If someone tried to speak lashon hara with you, how did you redirect the conversation?
  1. What does this video about the power of words mean to you? What is a word (positive or negative) that has stuck with you?
  2. Can you think of a time when something you saw on social media hurt you? Can you think of a time when something you posted hurt someone else? Also, where have you witnessed or been a part of kindness and respect on social media?
  3. Watch this three-minute TED Talk by Laura Trice on the power of the words “thank you” to repair a bond and let someone know what they mean to you. Trice argues that these two words are so powerful that they could even bring about world peace. Do you agree with her? What do you think is the power of the words “thank you”?

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