They make their tongues as sharp as a serpent’s;
the poison of vipers is on their lips. — Psalm 140:3
Winston Churchill’s composure, especially in the face of opposition, was legendary. A story is told about him that occurred during his last year in office. Churchill took his seat at an official government ceremony when he overheard two men sitting several rows behind him whispering: “That’s Winston Churchill.” “They say he is getting senile.” “They say he should step aside and leave the running of the nation to more dynamic and capable men.” When the ceremony ended, Churchill turned around to the men and said, “Gentleman, they also say he is deaf!”
In his witty way, Churchill was teaching the men that not everything they hear is true. However, this story also demonstrates that most people do believe everything they hear, whether it is true or not.
Speaking slander, lashon hara in Hebrew, is taken very seriously in the Bible. The Jewish sages teach that when people gossip, they violate no less than 31 biblical commandments. The most classic commandment against slandering can be found in Leviticus 19:16: “Do not go about spreading slander among your people.” In biblical times the offense of slander was considered so great it was met with the harsh punishment typically meted out for leprosy, and included a week of isolation.
Why is slander dealt with so harshly?
The answer can be found in Psalm 140, which is entirely about being a victim of slander. In it, the psalmist prays for divine protection from evildoers who “make their tongues as sharp as a serpent’s; the poison of vipers is on their lips” (v. 3). The psalmist calls slanderers “violent” and “wicked.” He describes their evil words as a trap set to ensnare him.
Unlike the childhood rhyme, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me,” the psalmist does not consider hurtful words as harmless. As any victim of slander or bullying can attest, words can be as harmful as a trap and as deadly as venom. This is why we are to avoid them at all cost. Just as we must be vigilant with a loaded gun, we must guard our lips which are just as powerful.
The good news is that the sages also teach that one who holds back from speaking words of gossip or slander earns a spiritual reward beyond comprehension. God gave us two gates – our teeth and our lips – to help us guard our tongues and use them properly. Recently I came across this helpful tip: THINK before you speak: Ask, is it True? Is it Helpful? Is it Inspiring? Is it Necessary? Is it Kind? If the answer is no to any of the above, close the gates and lock them.
With prayers for shalom, peace,
Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein
Founder and President