The Power Of Speech

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Resource Type: Peula in: English
Age: 9-15
Group Size: 5-30
Estimated Time: 90 minutes

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Resource Goal

Aleph:1. To learn about Lashon Hara

2. To understand that speech is precious
Bet: 1. To understand the power that speech holds

2. To learn about the dangers of Lashon Hara

Resource Contents

The Power of Speech


Judaism is intensely aware of the power of speech and of the harm that can be done through speech. The rabbis note that the universe itself was created through speech. Of the 43 sins enumerated in the Al Chet confession recited on Yom Kippur, 11 are sins committed through speech. The Talmud tells that the tongue is an instrument so dangerous that it must be kept hidden from view, behind two protective walls (the mouth and teeth) to prevent its misuse.

The harm done by speech is even worse than the harm done by stealing or by cheating someone financially, because amends can be made for monetary harms, but the harm done by speech can never be repaired.

Speech has been compared to an arrow: once the words are released, like an arrow, they cannot be recalled, the harm they do cannot be stopped, and the harm they do cannot always be predicted, for words like arrows often go astray.

The Parsha Link

In Bereishit 11:1 we are told that "the whole earth was of one language, and of one speech." This is the description of the community that built the Tower of Bavel, a community that was destroyed when their language was changed and their effective means of communication were left useless.

What is the power of speech?

What is it as it relates to man's being?

Both Onkeles (an early commentator) (Ber. 2:7) and Rav Yehuda HaLevi define man as being the sole creature that possesses the power of speech. Studies performed over the past half-century have borne out this idea. They have demonstrated that the power of speech is merely an expression of a complex mental process, and no animal has been able to imitate such processes. Even monkeys that were trained to "speak" in sign language were only taught a few signs, but had no deeper grasp of basic grammatical structures that a two-year old human figures out on his or her own.

The average person will use 6,876,456,432 words while in this world!

How great is speech? Chazal teach us that we are given a certain amount of words we will say while in our bodies. It is our task to think first before we speak so that each word is not wasted.
We find the following phrase in Mishlei (Proverbs):

Life and death are in the hands of speech

Just as a hand can kill, so speech can kill. Although a hand is physical, and speech is not, its power can be greater. It can reach more people near and far-> Physical hurt can be repaired, hurt by talk cannot!

The Power of Speech - Story

One man spread a rumor about another. He later felt regret, and went to the rabbi to ask how to make amends. "Go to the store and buy a bag of seeds," said the rabbi, "then go to a big open field and scatter the seeds into the wind. Do so and report back to me in a week."

The man did as he was told, and came back the next week to find out what to do next. "Now," said the rabbi, "go back to the field and pick up all the seeds."

"But," protested the man, "those seeds have scattered far and wide! I'll never find them all. Many have even already taken root!"

"Exactly," explained the rabbi. "Now you understand. When we speak badly about another person, the effect is far and wide. And it is damage that can never be fully undone."

Discussion: The Torah states, "If a man takes a vow to Hashem or swears an oath to establish a prohibition upon himself, he shall not desecrate (chillul) his word; according to whatever comes from his mouth shall he do." The Torah teaches us that one's word is sacred and that if one makes a vow or an oath the ramifications of breaking it are severe.

If one violates his oath, he is subject to the court-imposed penalty of lashes. We see from this that our speech is powerful and binding. There are many mitzvot, which require verbalization. For example the mitzvot of the recitation of the Shema, daily Tefillah, (prayer -Amidah), Birchat HaMazon (Grace after meals), etc. all require one to verbalize them in order to fulfill one's obligation.

If one only meditated the Shema or did not verbalize the Amidah one does not fulfill his obligation. If one wants to make a vow or an oath one also needs to articulate it in order for it to take affect. Thinking a vow or an oath without verbalization has no value whatsoever and therefore is not binding.

Regarding Lashon Hara (Evil Speech) and Rechilut (Tale Bearing) one usually violates it when he verbalizes his criticisms of others when they have no constructive value. The Gemara in Tractate Arachin states, "The magnitude of the sin of one who speaks lashon hara is more serious than one who violates three cardinal sins." Meaning that there is a certain aspect of evil, which lies within Lashan Hara, which is more serious. The Gemara in Tractate Shevuot tells that if one violates his vows, one of the possible ramifications of this transgression is that his wife and children could pass away. We see from this passage of the Gemara that if one violates his speech in these contexts the consequences could be tragic (G-d forbid).

What lies in the power of speech that makes it so potent?

A Story About the Tongue

Once a chief told one of his servants to bring him the best meat from the market. The servant brought him a tongue. The next day the chief told the servant to bring him the worst piece of meat from the market. The servant brought a tongue again. 

"What?" the chief said. "When I ask for the best piece of meat, you bring a tongue and then you bring the same thing for the worst piece of meat." The servant said, "Sometimes a man is very unhappy because of his tongue; and sometimes his tongue makes him very happy."

"You are right," the chief said. "Let us be masters of our tongue!"

What is Lashon Hara?

LASHON HARA is the relating of TRUE stories, which will damage the character of the person or people spoken about. (Any story containing untruths is obviously even worse and is called MOTZI SHEM RA literally bringing out a bad name). LASHON HARA contravenes the commandment YOU SHALL NOT BE A TALEBEARER AMONG YOUR PEOPLE. This is also known as RECHILUT.

Aleph Games

TYPE: Active
Divide the players into two teams, and each team into two parts. Each part of a team stands in opposite corners (see diagram). Each 1/2 team is given two messages to shout to its other half. At the signal both teams begin to shout their messages. The first team to relay all of its messages to the other half of its team wins.
Hint: Try to make up messages that have repetitive sounds (i.e. Mickey Mouse is a louse).
TYPE: Moderate- Play in a circle
One player is chosen to leave the room. The leader then chooses a multi-syllable word (or words) to use in the game. The remaining players are divided into groups corresponding to the number of syllables in the chosen word, and one syllable is assigned to each group. The player returns and all the groups say their syllables simultaneously, three times. After each time the player has a chance to guess the word. If the player guesses correctly, he/she wins.
Example #1: Word: Jerusalem
Group #1 says JE
Group #2 says RU
Group #3 says SA
Group #4 says LEM
CHINESE WHISPERS (broken telephone).

Bet Games

TYPE: Moderate
A list of words is needed
The players are divided into groups. Each group is given a list of words that they must incorporate into an original skit. The best skit wins.
Hint: Have the lists on separate sheets of paper so that each group can have their own list.
Variation: For more fun, insert some nonsensical words into each of the lists (i.e. Raputchnik, left handed, smoke shifter, etc.).
Variation: Instead of making a skit, the players may compose a song or tell a story using the words.

Discussion Points:

-Why do people speak?
-Why do you think G-d gave mankind the gift of speech?
-To what extent are the tabloids guilty of Lashon Hara?
-How can one use speech positively? etc

Related Resources can be found under:

» All > Judaism > Keeping Mitzvot

» All > Judaism > General

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