Its time to remember the mitzvah of guarding speech

Kee Tetze

Deuteronomy 21:10-25:19

Isaiah 54:1-10

I don't know about you, but it doesn't take me long to come up with examples of when the gift of speech is used poorly. Of course, evidence in the media abounds: Sitcoms that portray ordinary nastiness as entirely normal, and even funny. Talk shows in which people are confronted with the most intimate and life-shattering revelations, before a studio and television audience. Political figures who engage in all kinds of speech that we train our school-age children to eschew.

Or, I can think of the real live people that I encounter: The enraged driver on the roadway shouting epithets, the irate passenger berating the ticket agent at the airport, the anonymous parent in the grocery store reducing his or her child to tears.

Most importantly, it doesn't take much to think of times that I have abused the gift of speech recently: In painful interactions with adolescent children. Giving in to the impulse to type off an obnoxious e-mail message — saying things in cyberspace that I would never say in person. Or just quipping in a way that could hurt another, in a moment of wanting to sound funny or clever or right.

The High Holy Days approach. In a few short weeks, we will recite list after list of sins we have committed. Notably, the confessional prayers focus disproportionately on sins of speech. It is no wonder, for these are sins we commit so frequently, with such far-reaching consequences.

This week's pariahs brings us a simple gem of a mitzvah, three short words that inspire a lifetime of spiritual practice: "Motsa sefatecha tishmor" — "Guard what comes out of your lips" (Deuteronomy 23:24). In its biblical context, these words refer to the commandment to fulfill vows, to be faithful to promises we have made. This is surely a rich teaching for our lives.

But I am intrigued by the comments of the Sefat Emet, hearing these words refer to the mitzvah practice of attending carefully to our use of speech. "'Guard what comes out of your lips.' This refers to keeping one's tongue…This mitzvah requires full-time duty — day and night — because the opening of the mouth needs to be so guarded…The rest of our deeds all depend upon guarding the mouth. Human beings are distinguished from animals by the fact of speech. That is why 'a living soul' (Genesis 2:7) is rendered by the Targum as 'a speaking spirit.' This main quality [of our humanity] is what we have to give to God. The creation of the human faculty of speech is more wondrous than anything else in Creation…All that God created was created for His glory, 'so that they tell My praise.' (Isaiah 43:21)" ("The Language of Truth," translated and interpreted by Arthur Green, p. 318-9).

It is so remarkably difficult to guard our speech. We speak so easily, so well, so cleverly, so much. We revel in our ability to communicate, to impress, to have impact. We readily acknowledge the obvious truth that words can wound, yet we resist the enormous level of commitment required to use our tongues wisely. I am moved by the Sefat Emet's suggestion that our speech is a gift, to be used to speak the praise of the Divine, to be employed in the service of life and truth, healing and justice. What awesomely hard work to guard my speech during all my waking hours!

There are many ways in which most of us abuse the gift of speech. This Elul, we might all reconsider our own guidelines for speech: Must we speak our thoughts simply because they have come to mind, regardless of how they will be received? Must we articulate all of our feelings, even at times and in ways that will hurt someone we care about? Are we really entitled to speak for the purpose of looking smart, or right, or funny, regardless of the consequences for others?

I suggest a different set of criteria for speech, guided by the mitzvah of guarding our tongues, with the goal of bringing a quality of mindfulness to our speech and its consequences. Before speaking, we might ask ourselves, "Is this a necessary thing to say?" "Might it be hurtful?" "Is it helpful to the world?" With the Sefat Emet, we might ask, "Will these words speak in praise of what is holy in the world?"

In these holy days, may we grow in our ability to use the gift of speech wisely.

Rabbi Amy Eilberg
Rabbi Amy Eilberg

Rabbi Amy Eilberg serves as a spiritual director, peace educator and justice activist, and teacher of Mussar. More information on her work can be found at