Today was the first day back at school, and I was debriefing Ayelet, our younger daughter, about the day's experience.
"Abba, the rav said that the gemara says something that, if the chachamim hadn't said it, no one else could have said it"
"What was that, Ayelet?" I wondered.
"They said that, 'because of the sin of profanity, choice young men die!'"
Ayelet was very upset because, well, she's Ayelet, a very sensitive young lady, whose brother happens to be one of those choice young serving in the IDF right now. She was shocked, she said, but now she wanted to make a sign of that teaching and hang it over her bed.
"But you don't have a problem with that, Ayelet", I reminder her.
"Sometimes, Abba, I call someone "m'fager" (= "REtard" of my youth)
"Well, I think it's a good idea to put up a blank poster on which you can hang a saying and then take it down after a while and a put a new one up". Quick thinking saves what's left of the paintjob and avoids the feeling of being peered down upon by a moralizing brow every time I'd walk into that room.
We looked up the saying together to locate its source (Shabbat 33a), and indeed, that's much of what it says there - the rest isn't any less choice. But it got me thinking about the notion of profanity itself. The English word comes from a Greek root meaning, "before [i.e., outside] the temple". In other words, beyond the sphere of religious ritual. Indeed, the word profane used to function no much differently than the word "secular" does today. Profane, then, is "that which is not relgious", not far from "vulgar", which originally meant "common".
The Hebrew term, however, used in the quote Ayelet brought home and ever since is, with slight variations, "nibul hapeh", which translates into English as the cumbersome, "making a carcass out of the mouth". Now this intrigues me for several reasons:
- When the Torah describes the making of the first human being in Bershit [Genesis] 2:7, it states, "and He blew into his nostrils the soul-breath of life, and the man became a living being. Those Hebrew words, "nefesh chayah", are rendered by Onkylos as "ruach memalela", speaking wind/spirit. Note this definitive characterization of the human enterprise: living being = speaking wind/spirit. The mouth, then, engaged in the act of communication, is the instrument of life, moderating it's flow, shaping the raw potential of sound waves into the realized life-expression of speech in an act which, at once, conveys and evokes response: life calls forth life.
- N'velah, or carcass, is a term not reserves primarily for the dead body of an animal found in the field. Rather, in its classical Halachic usage, it refers to the result of improper slaughter. A perfectly good, potentially Kosher and consumable animal can be rendered n'velah, or carcass, by the slip of a knife: its meat forbidden, it conveys impurity.
Profanity means to be shocking, to be violent, to stop the action. In the flow of life that is human interaction, it is an attempt not only to capture the moment, but to take it captive, to rule over the situation, to mount it trophylike on the wall of one's pride. Profanity kills speech.
There is something that would be amusing if it weren't so upsetting about profanity: it claims its place as the ultimately powerful expressive act of speech, when, in fact, it actually SAYS NOTHING! There is no content, no real communication, only violence, insult, dehumanization, degradation. The process of creating the human has been reversed, and the divine breath withdrawn. The mouth has rendered itself a carcass!!
Ironically, the stark, overstated violence of the warning issued by the Talmudic statement, "because of the sin of profanity, choice young men die", borders on the profane itself, and Ayelet's rav recognized this implicitly by saying, "if the chachamim had not said this themselves, no one else could have said it". Could it be that the chachamim couched the warning about the spiritually deadly consequences of engaging in profanity in a manner all too embodying of that warning, to drive the point home viscerally? Ayelet's recoiling from the teaching certainly indicates this, and I would be a "m'fager" if I didn't agree...