Sunday, September 03, 2006

Prime Lip

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.
I've never had much of a taste for profanity. Even before embarking on a spiritual voyage that has taken me into the heart of my tradition (Baruch Hashem!), I didn't "cuss" much, and something about standing in the presence of profane expression, whether intensely expressed or casually tossed off, set me on edge in a jarring way.

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...


At 1:49 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Rav Yehoshua,

You imply, or Ayelet implied, that the "choice young men" are soldiers in the IDF. Can you ellaborate on why you (either singular or plural) suggest this direction? Couldn't a "choice young man" be someone doing shirut leumi or even be in high school?

Shlomo D.

At 2:35 PM, Blogger ravyehoshua said...

Hi, Shlomo. Thanks for your comment. In fact, the word "bachur" does not necessarily have a military connotation in the Tanach; it is often paired with "betulah". In general Israeli society, however, including the religious-zionist element, the "choicest" of young men are in the most elite military units. That's the association that my daughter was automatically making as a product of this society. But, of course, we all pray for the day when the choicest of occupations for a young man is not defending his family, his land and his people with all he has got, but pouring all of his energies into preparing the world for the manifestation of the divine. There are some who think that all young men must already eschew the former and devote themselves only to the latter. I would argue that they have the luxury to think this way ONLY because of the majority who does not.

Rav Berachot,

Yehoshua Kahan

At 1:40 PM, Blogger Jameel @ The Muqata said...

Shalom Rav Yehoshua -

We don't pasken by the gemara, and just because there's a specific saying there from the rabbanim, doesn't mean it's "lehalacha".

They could be just trying to teach us the importance of clean language...while not literally implying that our soldiers will die as a result. Ultimately, a person's own mitzvot/aveirot determine much of his own fate.

Otherwise, what would br the point?

Kol Tuv!

Jameel & The Muqata

At 2:03 PM, Blogger ravyehoshua said...

Shalom, Jameel and thanks for visiting this neophyte's blog and yishar koach on your own. The notion of "p'sak" does not exist in the realm of aggadeta, and the hortatory statement of the chachamim is precisely that, aggadeta, thus non-definitive even if there is a specific halachic prohibition on nibbul peh. (see Ramban in his account of the disputation in Barcelona, Chavel, Kitvei Haramban) The way it was presented to my daughter, however, gave her the impression that things are cut and dried, thus her horror at what could befall those she loves due to her own slip-ups.

In general, the creeping encroachment of a mindset presumed to be halachic (there's what to argue there) into the realm of aggadeta is a vestige of the galut (and a pretty powerful and pervasive vestige at that). The rediscovery and reassertion of aggadic mind, taking its rightful place beside halachic mind, in anticipation of the eventual reconnection of right and left brain-of-our-people, is one of the major tasks placed before those who cherish Torah and yearn for its fullness.

Rav Berachot,


At 12:39 AM, Blogger micha said...

Um, the word is "bechor", with a ches, not "bakhur", with a khaf. The meaning is indeed, first-born or choicest. I therefore the issue of bakhur-besulah is not necessarily on target.

But I would think that means that regardless of where are youth are, improper speech adds risk to their lives. Given who is at the most risk, I find Ayelet's suggestion quite compelling. (And, in fact, reiterated it on my blog.)

As for personal accounts vs communal account -- I think both are relevent. For G-d to ch"v allow someone to come to harm, the person must have some reason why the harm is appropriate, AND the community must have some reason why they ought experience it as well.

R' JB Soloveitchik explains the "mi shebeirakh" for the sick in these terms. When a court sends someone to jail, it's because they deserve it (hopefully). They do not take into account whether the parents deserve the shame of having a child in jail, the wife deserves being left without a husband, the employer without his employee...

Hashem, OTOH, takes into account every person impacted by His decision. So, if we make a personal tragedy a communal tragedy, the person would only be ill if the community deserves it in addition to his own account.


At 8:08 AM, Blogger ravyehoshua said...

Micha, Shalom!

I'm not understanding what your comment is referring to. "Bachur", meaning "choice (young man)", is spelled with a chet; "Bechor", meaning "first-born", but also having implications of preference (note denominative verb: "lo yuchal l'vaker et ben ha'ahuvah..." What mistake does it seem I have made?

Rav Berachot,

Yehoshua Kahan


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