Kosher Words

Yael Eckstein  |  April 16, 2024

Elderly woman in green jacket holding the hand of IFCJ female staff in white.

When anyone has a defiling skin disease [tzaraat], they must be brought to the priest. — Leviticus 13:9

Each week in synagogue, Jews read through the Torah from Genesis to Deuteronomy. The Torah portion for this week is Tazria, which means “conceived” from Leviticus 12:1-13:59.

Most of us grew up hearing the phrase, “Sticks and stones may break my bones but words can never hurt me.” But, if we’re honest with ourselves, that just isn’t true. We have all been the victims of hurtful words, and I’m sure that, like me, you have learned that words can be extremely painful. And they can have some very real consequences.

Another thing to consider is that once harmful words are released into the world, they are impossible to retrieve. The damage is irreversible.

I love this story that illustrates that very point. The story goes that a man went around slandering the rabbi of his town. After some time, he regretted his actions and turned to the rabbi for forgiveness saying that he would do anything to make amends. The rabbi told him to take a pillow, open it, and let the feathers scatter in the wind. The man did as he was told and then returned to the rabbi.

The rabbi said, “Now go and collect all of the feathers.” The man replied, “But that’s not possible!”  Then the rabbi made his point, “And so it is with words. Once they leave your mouth, it is impossible to retract them and who knows how far they will reach.”

Kosher Words

This week’s Torah portion introduces the biblical skin disease, tzaraat or “leprosy.” From the description of the disease and the method of healing and purification, it’s clear that the Bible is talking about a disease with a spiritual cause. When someone was afflicted with tzaraat, they were sent to the priest, not a healer.

According to Jewish tradition, tzaraat is brought on by lashon hara, literally “evil talk,” another term for slander, gossip, and speaking ill of other people. In the original Hebrew, a person who contracts tzaraat is called a metzorah. The Jewish sages explained that this term is a contraction of three Hebrew words—motzi shem ra—that hint at the cause of tzaraat. Together, Motzi shem ra means “speaking badly about other people.”

After the previous Torah portion spoke about what food is kosher to put into our mouths, this Torah portion warns us that we need to be mindful about what comes out of our mouths—our words must be kosher, too.

Your Turn:

Think of a time when you were hurt by someone’s words. How did you react? How can you be careful about what you say about others?