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Word Power

“A covenant exists for the lips.” (The spoken word has great power.)

The Torah Sage Shmuel paid a shiva call to his brother Pinchas, whose child had departed this world. Shmuel asked his brother why he had not trimmed his fingernails despite being allowed to cut them during the mourning period. Pinchas replied, “ If a tragedy like mine had happened to you, would you also show such disregard for mourning?” Pinchas’ reply was not only harsh, but, as we learn on our daf, was dangerous as well. Afterwards, Shmuel’s close relative passed, and when Pinchas visited him, Shmuel took his cut nails and threw them towards Pinchas, saying, “You do not know that brit kruta l’sfatayim?” (“There is a covenant of the speech,” meaning that one’s words have the power to effect fulfillment of what is spoken.) A word is not just a word, as the saying goes. The gemara describes Pinchas’ unfortunate statement as an example of “an error that goes forth from the ruler.” (Kohelet 10:5) It is irreversible and inevitable. To be fair, we should favorably judge this “error” to be a slip of the tongue, stemming from the unsettled state of mind of the mourning speaker.

Shmuel cites a teaching from Rabbi Yochanan as the source for our knowledge of this “speech covenant.” It is based on what Avraham Avinu said to the accompanying lads, prior to ascending with his son Yitzchak for the akeidah. Avraham told them, “Stay here, and I and the young man will return to you.” (Ber. 22:5) And, so it was, that both Avraham and his son Yitzchak returned alive and unscathed, and a ram was offered on the mountain per Hashem’s command. Avraham Avinu’s words were more than prophetic. They were an effective means for invoking Divine Mercy to spare his son in accordance with brit krutah l’sfatayim.

The concept of brit krutah l’sfatayim appears to be identical, or at least quite similar, to another teaching: “A tzaddik decrees something, and Hashem fulfills it.” (This is the way many paraphrase a teaching by Rabbi Abahu that is found above in Mo’ed Katan16b). Hashem willingly grants a tzaddik an awesome power, measure for measure. Since a tzaddik controls his desires and humbly nullifies himself to Hashem, Hashem in turn “nullifies” Himself to the tzaddik, as it were.

Tosefot raises a strong question. In our gemara, Shmuel cites Rabbi Yochanan’s teaching regarding the positive outcome in the case of Avraham and Yitzchak as proof for brit krutah l’sfatayim. “This is a wonder,” asserts Tosefot. Since that case was one with a positive outcome, how can it be a proof for “a covenant of speech” in Shmuel’s case, where there was a negative and tragic outcome? We know the established Torah concept that the Divine trait of Mercy is much greater than the Divine trait of Punishment. Therefore, perhaps brit kruta l’sfatayim is true for Divine Mercy but not for Divine Punishment? Tosefot concludes this question by suggestion should Shmuel should instead cite a teaching of Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish in Masechet Berachot (19a), “A person should never open his mouth to the Satan.” One should not say something of a harmful nature — whether it be regarding himself or others — because invoking the Divine trait of Punishment may lead to a negative outcome. Tosefot leaves this entire question unanswered. (See the Maharsha for a discussion of the differences in the various teachings, and a suggested answer to Tosefot’s question.)

When I was a youngish student in our local cheder, a few of us boys, “being boys,” were joking around, saying this and that about each other and others. Stu* said, “If only David would break an ankle while skating, I am sure that coach would let me play third base this year.” Lewis* replied, “Even if he dies, you would not even make the team!” I do not recall what “witty” remark I made, if any. Our teacher, a rabbi whose Torah greatness would be appreciated by us only later in life, walked into the classroom at that very moment. “I was not eavesdropping, but I heard your words about your baseball team and they sadden me.” “But we did not mean to talk behind David’s back,” we explained. “Even if he were here, we would say it about him or even about each other!” “It is just talk and the way we speak all the time. Doesn’t everyone speak like that?” we said with righteous confidence. “Not everyone,” our rabbi said. “Words are not just sounds that we make to communicate with each other. Words are extremely powerful, and can actually serve as a type of ‘ammunition” to cause a bad outcome. Just as Hashem created the world with Divine words, we, who are created in His image with the ‘power’ of speech, can also create with our words, so to speak. So, let us be careful when saying something injurious about another person or to another person, even if we are ‘just talking’.”

The words of the great rabbi made a positive impact in my soul, baruch Hashem, and I have shared my rabbi’s teaching with my students over the years. As needed, I even stop the speaker midsentence: “Please do not say ‘If I accidentally kill B*… (using an actual student’s name), but rather say, If one person accidentally kills another person, in the abstract, without a name or specifying a particular person.’” My experience has been that the students “get it,” internalize it, and are very careful in their choice of words from then on.

  • Mo'ed Katan 18a

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