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N2. Wronging One Another through Our Speech.    [Make a Comment]

We are not to wrong one another through our speech.

This precept is derived from His Word (blessed be He):

Key Scriptures

Exodus 20:13(16) (Maimonides RN285; Meir MN39; Chinuch C37)
Do not murder. Do not commit adultery. Do not steal. Do not give false evidence against your neighbor.

Exodus 21:17 (Maimonides RN318; Meir MN46; HaChinuch C260)
Whoever curses his father or mother must be put to death.

Exodus 22:20(21) (Maimonides RN252, RN253; Meir MN49, MN50; Chinuch C63, C64)
You must neither wrong nor oppress a foreigner living among you, for you yourselves were foreigners in the land of Egypt.

Exodus 22:27(28) (Maimonides RN315-RN318; Meir MN63; Chinuch C69, C71, C231, C260)
You are not to curse God, and you are not to curse a leader of your people.

Exodus 23:1
You are not to repeat false rumors; do not join hands with the wicked by offering perjured testimony.

Leviticus 5:21-23(6:2-4) (Maimonides RN249; Chinuch C226)
If someone sins and acts perversely against ADONAI by dealing falsely with his neighbor in regard to a deposit or security entrusted to him, by stealing from him, by extorting him, or by dealing falsely in regard to a lost object he has found, or by swearing to a lie - if a person commits any of these sins, then, if he sinned and is guilty, he is to restore whatever it was he stole or obtained by extortion, or whatever was deposited with him, or the lost object which he found,

Leviticus 19:11-12 (Maimonides RN249; Meir MN30; Chinuch C226)
Do not steal from, defraud or lie to each other. Do not swear by my name falsely, which would be profaning the name of your God; I am ADONAI.

Leviticus 19:14 (Maimonides RN299, RN317, RN318; Meir MN45, MN76; Chinuch C231, C232, C260)
Do not speak a curse against a deaf person or place an obstacle in the way of a blind person; rather, fear your God; I am ADONAI.

Leviticus 19:16 (Maimonides RN301; Meir MN77; Chinuch C236)
Do not go around spreading slander among your people, but also don't stand idly by when your neighbor's life is at stake; I am ADONAI.

Leviticus 19:17 (Maimonides RN303; Meir MN79; Chinuch C240)
Do not hate your brother in your heart, but rebuke your neighbor frankly, so that you won't carry sin because of him.

Leviticus 19:33 (Maimonides RN252; Chinuch C63)
If a foreigner stays with you in your land, do not do him wrong.

Leviticus 20:9 (Maimonides RN318; Chinuch C260)
A person who curses his father or mother must be put to death; having cursed his father or his mother, his blood is on him.

Leviticus 25:17 (Maimonides RN251; Meir MN48; Chinuch C338)
Thus you are not to take advantage of each other, but you are to fear your God; for I am ADONAI your God.

Deuteronomy 5:17 (Maimonides RN285; Chinuch C37)
Do not murder. Do not commit adultery. Do not steal. Do not give false evidence against your neighbor.

Deuteronomy 19:19 (Maimonides RN285; Chinuch C37)
The judges are to investigate carefully. If they find that the witness is lying and has given false testimony against his brother, you are to do to him what he intended to do to his brother. In this way, you will put an end to such wickedness among you.

Deuteronomy 22:13-19 (Maimonides RP219, RN359; Chinuch C553, C554)
If a man marries a woman, has sexual relations with her and then, having come to dislike her, brings false charges against her and defames her character by saying, 'I married this woman, but when I had intercourse with her I did not find evidence that she was a virgin'; then the girl's father and mother are to take the evidence of the girl's virginity to the leaders of the town at the gate. The girl's father will say to the leaders, 'I let my daughter marry this man, but he hates her, so he has brought false charges that he didn't find evidence of her virginity; yet here is the evidence of my daughter's virginity' - and they will lay the cloth before the town leaders. The leaders of that town are to take the man, punish him, and fine him two-and-a-half pounds of silver shekels, which they will give to the girl's father, because he has publicly defamed a virgin of Isra'el. She will remain his wife, and he is forbidden from divorcing her as long as he lives.

Ephesians 4:29
Let no harmful language come from your mouth, only good words that are helpful in meeting the need, words that will benefit those who hear them.

James 4:11
Brothers, stop speaking against each other! Whoever speaks against a brother or judges a brother is speaking against Torah and judging Torah. And if you judge Torah, you are not a doer of what Torah says, but a judge.

Supportive Scriptures

Psalm 15:1-3
ADONAI, who can rest in your tent? Who can live on your holy mountain? Those who live a blameless life, who behave uprightly, who speak truth from their hearts and keep their tongues from slander; who never do harm to others or seek to discredit neighbors

Psalm 34:14(13)
[If you do,] keep your tongue from evil and your lips from deceiving talk

Psalm 64:3(2)-5(4)
Hide me from the secret intrigues of the wicked and the open insurrection of evildoers. They sharpen their tongues like a sword; they aim their arrows, poisoned words, in order to shoot from cover at the innocent, shooting suddenly and fearing nothing.

Proverbs 6:16-19
There are six things ADONAI hates, seven which he detests: a haughty look, a lying tongue, hands that shed innocent blood, a heart that plots wicked schemes, feet swift in running to do evil, a false witness who lies with every breath, and him who sows strife among brothers.

Proverbs 10:18
He who covers up hate has lips that lie, and anyone who slanders is a fool.

Proverbs 11:9
With his mouth the hypocrite can ruin his neighbor, but by knowledge the righteous are delivered.

Proverbs 11:13
A gossip goes around revealing secrets, but a trustworthy person keeps a confidence.

Proverbs 12:17-19
He who tells the truth furthers justice, but a false witness furthers deceit. Idle talk can pierce like a sword, but the tongue of the wise can heal. Truthful words will stand forever, lying speech but a moment.

Proverbs 15:1
A gentle response deflects fury, but a harsh word makes tempers rise.

Proverbs 16:27-28
A worthless person digs up evil [gossip] - it is like scorching fire on his lips. A deceitful person stirs up strife, and a slanderer can separate even close friends.

Proverbs 17:9
He who conceals an offense promotes love, but he who harps on it can separate even close friends.

Proverbs 18:7-8
A fool's mouth is his ruin; his words are a trap for him. A slanderer's words are tasty morsels; they slide right down into the belly.

Proverbs 19:9
A false witness will not go unpunished; whoever breathes out lies will perish.

Proverbs 20:19
A gossip goes around revealing secrets, so dont get involved with a talkative person.'

Proverbs 25:18
Like a club, a sword or a sharp arrow is a person who gives false testimony against a neighbor.

Proverbs 26:20-22
If there's no wood, the fire goes out; if nobody gossips, contention stops. As coals are to embers and wood to fire is a quarrelsome person to kindling strife. A slanderer's words are tasty morsels; they slide right down into the belly.

Proverbs 26:28
A lying tongue hates its victims, and a flattering mouth causes ruin.

Ecclesiastes 7:21-22
Also, don't take seriously every word spoken, such as when you hear your servant speaking badly of you; because often, as you yourself know, you have spoken badly of others.

Matthew 5:22-24
But I tell you that anyone who nurses anger against his brother will be subject to judgment; that whoever calls his brother, 'You good-for-nothing!' will be brought before the Sanhedrin; that whoever says, 'Fool!' incurs the penalty of burning in the fire of Gei-Hinnom! So if you are offering your gift at the Temple altar and you remember there that your brother has something against you, leave your gift where it is by the altar, and go, make peace with your brother. Then come back and offer your gift.

Matthew 18:15-19
Moreover, if your brother commits a sin against you, go and show him his fault- but privately, just between the two of you. If he listens to you, you have won back your brother. If he doesn't listen, take one or two others with you so that every accusation can be supported by the testimony of two or three witnesses. If he refuses to hear them, tell the congregation; and if he refuses to listen even to the congregation, treat him as you would a pagan or a tax-collector. Yes! I tell you people that whatever you prohibit on earth will be prohibited in heaven, and whatever you permit on earth will be permitted in heaven. To repeat, I tell you that if two of you here on earth agree about anything people ask, it will be for them from my Father in heaven. For wherever two or three are assembled in my name, I am there with them.

Ephesians 4:25
Therefore, stripping off falsehood, let everyone speak truth with his neighbor, because we are intimately related to each other as parts of a body.

Ephesians 4:31
Get rid of all bitterness, rage, anger, violent assertiveness and slander, along with all spitefulness.

Ephesians 5:4
Also out of place are obscenity and stupid talk or coarse language; instead, you should be giving thanks.

Colossians 3:5-10
Therefore, put to death the earthly parts of your nature - sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed (which is a form of idolatry); for it is because of these things that God's anger is coming on those who disobey him. True enough, you used to practice these things in the life you once lived; but now, put them all away - anger, exasperation, meanness, slander and obscene talk. Never lie to one another; because you have stripped away the old self, with its ways, and have put on the new self, which is continually being renewed in fuller and fuller knowledge, closer and closer to the image of its Creator.

1 Timothy 5:19
... ever listen to any accusation against a leader unless it is supported by two or three witnesses.

2 Timothy 2:16
But keep away from godless babbling, for those who engage in it will only become more ungodly

Titus 3:1-2
Remind people to submit to the government and its officials, to obey them, to be ready to do any honorable kind of work, to slander no one, to avoid quarrelling, to be friendly, and to behave gently towards everyone.

James 3:5-10
So too the tongue is a tiny part of the body, yet it boasts great things. See how a little fire sets a whole forest ablaze! Yes, the tongue is a fire, a world of wickedness. The tongue is so placed in our body that it defiles every part of it, setting ablaze the whole of our life; and it is set on fire by Gei-Hinnom itself. For people have tamed and continue to tame all kinds of animals, birds, reptiles and sea creatures; but the tongue no one can tame - it is an unstable and evil thing, full of death-dealing poison! With it we bless ADONAI, the Father; and with it we curse people, who were made in the image of God. Out of the same mouth come blessing and cursing! Brothers, it isn't right for things to be this way.

James 5:9
Don't grumble against one another, brothers, so that you won't come under condemnation - look! the Judge is standing at the door!


There is a children's rhyme: "Sticks and stones may break my bones but words can never harm me." It is taught to children as a lesson that they should not retaliate against name-calling, but the weight of Scripture teaches that the rhyme is not true. Indeed, without interfering with its intended lesson, the rhyme should rather state: "Sticks and stones may break my bones but words can hurt me deeply." The greater lesson of the substitute rhyme and of Scripture is that we must guard our tongue to ensure its use for good and holiness, and not for harm.

There is a rabbinical halachah against lashon hara, (negative speech) - literally "evil or bad tongue" - that is inspired by Leviticus 19:16 (see also, Ephesians 4:29 and James 4:11). The halachah prohibits speaking negatively about a person, regardless of the truth of what is said, and it also prohibits listening to or believing such negative statements. It is regrettable that a number of English translations of Leviticus 19:16 render the Hebrew noun "rachiyl" as "slander" because the English word "slander" connotes both negativity and untruthfulness. "Rachiyl", on the other hand, connotes negativity, but not necessarily untruthfulness, so a better translation of "rachiyl" is "negative report".

Speaking negatively about a person invariably harms him in some way, and bringing harm to a person (except when sanctioned legally) is always wrong. It is egregious to God, and especially so if the lashon hara is against a leader that God Himself has set in office. That which happened to Miryam when she murmured against Moses is the quintessential example of how serious a sin it is; we read about it in Numbers 12:1-2 and 6-10:

Miryam and Aharon began criticizing Moshe on account of the Ethiopian woman he had married, for he had in fact married an Ethiopian woman. They said, "Is it true that ADONAI has spoken only with Moshe? Hasn't he spoken with us too?" ADONAI heard them.

He said, "Listen to what I say: when there is a prophet among you, I, ADONAI, make myself known to him in a vision, I speak with him in a dream. But it isn't that way with my servant Moshe. He is the only one who is faithful in my entire household. With him I speak face to face and clearly, not in riddles; he sees the image of ADONAI. So why weren't you afraid to criticize my servant Moshe?" The anger of ADONAI flared up against them, and he left. But when the cloud was removed from above the tent, Miryam had tzara'at, [leprosy] as white as snow. Aharon looked at Miryam, and she was as white as snow.

Miryam and Aaron speaking against Moses and the grumbling referred to in James 5:9 are similar.

Matthew 5 and Matthew 18 are relevant to the subject of wrongful speech because speech so often causes (or is the result of) human conflicts. Matthew 5 speaks to the offender, and Matthew 18 to the offended and, in both cases, the required initial action is to hold our tongue, not speak negatively about our brother to others, and go to the person with whom we have the conflict. It is only after there has been no success at reconciliation that others may become involved, and then, only in a controlled manner. The second and final attempts at reconciliation Matthew 18:16 & 17 are parts of an authorized judicial process that begins with mediation, and culminates in adjudication. Whatever is spoken before witnesses at these two "judicial" sessions is considered testimony, and is therefore exempt from the restrictions of lashon hara.

Uttering a curse against a person or against God is speech that intends harm, is wrongful, and is prohibited.

Classical Commentators

A number of the classical mitzvot aspire to control how we speak so as not to harm others, but the one closest to this Mitzvah is Maimonides' negative mitzvah RN301 (corresponding to MN77 and C236), that is based on Leviticus 19:16, and which forbids us from bearing tales among our people. Maimonides' mitzvah RN301 also prohibits "defaming", which some rabbis and commentators believe means defaming the reputation of a bride (see RP219).

Meir and HaChinuch have much more than Maimonides to say about Leviticus 19:16 and its relationship to lashon hara. First of all, they interpret the Scripture narrowly as meaning that a person must not tell another person that a third person has spoken negatively about him. Meir adds that gossiping with evil intent is criminally worse than merely tale-bearing, and that it has the effect of killing three people - the gossiper, the person who receives the gossip, and the person who is gossiped about. Neither Meir nor HaChinuch make mention of defaming a bride.

Meir speaks of punishment for violating Leviticus 19:16 that will come from HaShem, but HaChinuch is more temporally severe, and speaks of it being our religious duty to end the life of person who threatens to inform on another, and under certain other circumstances as well. If such executions were ever authorized under the Mosaic Law, they were most certainly part of the Sinai Covenant's judicial processes. Under no circumstances are they authorized in the New Covenant under which we live today.

One may wonder why this Mitzvah lists Leviticus 19:17, a Scripture that speaks of rebuking our neighbor, but that does mention anyone being wronged or harmed. It is because Maimonides, Meir, and HaChinuch interpret and quote that Scripture as the basis for their respective mitzvot RN303, MN77 and C240, which admonish us to not shame our neighbor by rebuking him in public.

Another wrongful use of speech, recognized by the commentators, is cursing. Maimonides, Meir, and HaChinuch constructed mitzvot that prohibit the cursing of parents, judges, and Israelites, and Maimonides and HaChinuch each wrote a mitzvah that prohibits the cursing of a ruler. Strangely, none of them mention cursing God, that is specifically prohibited by Exodus 22:27(28), which all three quote to support their mitzvot.

Leviticus 19:33 is listed because it is referenced by Maimonides and HaChinuch in their RN252 and C63 (respectively), both of which assume that the wrong alluded to in the Scripture is wrongful speech.


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