קללות and Modern Speech

This week’s alumni dvar torah is by Uri Carl

Our world is highly sensitive to the language of negativity.  Single sentences and even single words trigger great controversy and debate.  Statements are sometimes perceived as curses, or “hate speech,”  with profound negative effects, regardless of the intent of the speaker.  The Torah has a whole literature about curses, and it is important for us as Jewish moderns to delve into this literature with the modern issues of speech in our mind, even if we don’t come to any immediate conclusions.

The Torah discusses curses in this week’s parsha, Parshat Mishpatim – “אלהים לא תקלל ונשיא בעמך לא תאר” and in Parshat Kedoshim  -“לא תקלל חרש…,” and “כי איש איש אשר יקלל את אביו ואת אמו מות יומת אביו ואמו קלל דמיו בו”.  The gemara[1] derives from these specific prohibitions against cursing G-d, judges, political leaders, ordinary people, and one’s own parents.  But what constitutes a curse?

Halakhah discusses curses being inferred from overly positive language, and also whether a curse can refer to G-d by ‘nickname’.  Because language is vague and understood differently by different people, the more a statement is recognized by people as a curse, the less halakhic dispute there is about it being a curse. The ultimate curse invokes G-d’s name not only because there is something metaphysically bad in using His name in vain, but also because everyone can point to it and agree that the curser is clearly wishing ill to another person.

When one moves away from the territory of a clear curse, one encounters the territory of a different prohibition: [אונאת דברים.[2, making statements that will pain another person. Whereas cursing is a clear act of harm, albeit a non-physical one, so much so that it is actually one of the few prohibitions for which one will receive מלקות even though it is a [3]לאו שאין בו מעשה, onaat devarim is more about the wrong of engendering a rift between two people. The Sefer HaChinnukh to Parshat Shelach explains that the rationale behind this mitzvah is to promote peace among human beings. Just as onaat mammon causes a rupture between two people in the market of goods, so too אונאת דברים causes a rupture between two people in the market of relationships. In fact, the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein amplifies this idea and posits that language does not have any meaning by itself and is only a means by which people connect; for him, language is merely a game between two people[4].

But one would be remiss in thinking that the spectrum of bad language is merely one-dimensional, for even in the realm of curses, the issue is more complex. Indeed, in the aforementioned case of curse-by-inference,[5] there is even controversy among the rishonim and acharonim regarding the situations for which inferential statements are prohibited[6].  For example, if an inferential statement does not involve the wish for loss of something of monetary value, it may not be prohibited. After all, inference requires the bias of the one who infers, opening the door for a disconnect between him or her and the statement-maker.

Language has the ability to corrupt one when using it to harm others, but it also empowers and ennobles one as a human being.  Explaining the reason for banning curses, Sefer HaChinnukh 231 invokes Onkelos’s translation of “ויפח באפיו רוח חיים” as “and the human being became a speaking spirit,” and discusses how an essential part of man is his or her ability to speak and effectuate activity with this power. The ability to articulate one’s thoughts is a power that man must master and use productively.

Rambam Sefer haMitzvot Lo Taaseh 317 emphasizes the duty to maintain one’s cool and avoid seeking vengeance via cursing.  The onus then of stopping one from cursing is on the curser because only he or she can regulate what comes out of his or her mouth.  But, if the one who is cursed automatically taints the curser as evil without understanding what the curser is trying to convey, he or she deprives the curser of a basic human ability to master one’s speech. If one detaches the speaker from the speech, one is essentially reducing a human being to mere words on a page and then falls into the same hole one tried to protect oneself from: the degradation of a human being. Each and every person wants to receive the decency and respect from others to patiently listen to what he or she is trying to express, and so, if we do not grant him or her this, the tables have turned and suddenly, in a sense, we have become the cursers.

Uri Carl (SBM 2013) currently works as an economics researcher at the Federal Reserve in Washington, D.C.

[1] See :סנהדרין סו.-סו and :שבועות לו.-לו

[2] See :ב”מ נח

[3] See ספר החינוך רלא.

[4] See Section 3.4 of Biletzki, Anat and Matar, Anat, “Ludwig Wittgenstein,” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2014 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2014/entries/wittgenstein/>.

[5] Although there is only an איסור for this case, and no מלקות, it is still grouped together with regular curses, as opposed to with אונאת דברים, and so, it is fair to assume that the rationale behind not cursing applies to this whole category.

[6] See תומים חו”מ כז:ה, for example, and the references therein.

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