Rabbi Eliyahu Hoffmann
Guard Your Tongue - It's Healthy
It happened in those days that Moshe grew up and went
out to his brethren and observed their burdens. And he
saw an Egyptian man striking a Hebrew man, of his
brethren... So he killed the Egyptian man and hid him in
the sand. He went out the next day, and behold, two
Hebrew men were fighting. He said to the wicked one,
"Why do you strike your fellow?" He answered, "Who
appointed you as a dignitary, a ruler, and a judge over
us? Do you propose to kill me, as you murdered the
Egyptian?" Moshe was frightened, and he thought: Indeed
the matter is known! (2:11-14)
Simply, Moshe's thoughts: Achein noda ha-davar/Indeed the matter
is known, refer to the matter of his killing of the Mitzri/Egyptian. He
now had reason to fear for his life, as the matter of the murder had
become public knowledge.
Rashi, however, quotes a Midrash: Indeed the matter is known -
Moshe had been questioning the matter of the exile: Why must the
Hebrew nation suffer beneath the oppressive hands of the
Egyptians? Now, however, that he heard that Jews would, at the
slightest provocation, speak Lashon Hara (derogatory gossip) about
one another [the two quarrellers threatened to report his killing of the
Mitzri], the matter became known to him - This is why the Jews
had to suffer!
How powerful, comments the Sefas Emes, is the lesson to us about
the destructive power of lashon hara. After witnessing two Jews
speaking lashon hara, there remained no question in Moshe
Rabbeinu's mind as to the root cause of the Jewish suffering. Indeed,
the matter was known!
The Ropshitzer Rav, in his sefer Zera Kodesh (parshas Bo) finds a
remez (hint) to the concept of shemiras ha-lashon (guarding one's
tongue) in the word Mitzrayim (Egypt) itself. The Torah She-ba'al
Peh (the Oral Torah, or "Torah of the Mouth") begins with the letter
Mem (the first word of the Shishah Sidrei Mishnah/Six Orders of the
Mishnah is "Mei-eimasai"). The letter Mem, when placed at the
beginning (or middle) of a word is called a "Mem pesuchah", an
"open" Mem, because, when written, there is a space at the bottom
of the letter. Likewise, Torah She-ba'al Peh ends with the letter Mem
(the last word of maseches Uktzin, the last tractate of the Mishnah,
is "Shalom"). The letter Mem, when placed at the end of a word, is
called a "Mem sesumah", a "closed" Mem, because when written, the
letter has no space whatsoever - it is entirely closed.
This is no coincidence. Chazal, our Sages, say (Chullin 89a), "What
should be a person's craft in this world? To make himself as the mute
[in order refrain from speaking lashon hara]. One might think [that
this pertains] even to speaking divrei Torah! No! Righteous words (i.e.
words of Torah) you shall speak!" The gift of speech was given to us
not so that we should while away our time with idle chatter, and even
worse, with gossip, but in order that we should be able to converse
and interact with others in Torah study and character improvement.
That's why the Oral Torah (the "Torah of the Mouth") begins with an
"open Mem" - When you open your mouth it should be in order to
speak words of Torah. And it concludes with a "closed Mem", as if to
say, when you have finished learning, close your mouth, and go back
to your "craft" of being as the mute.
But what happens, continued the Ropshitzer, if one opens his mouth
to speak divrei Torah, and then the Yetzer Hara (the "evil inclination")
mixes in and convinces him to speak unholy words - words of gossip
and slander? Well, what happens when you put the letters Yetzer (Yud
- Tzaddik - Reish) between the "open" and the "closed" Mem? It
spells "Mitzrayim" - the Egyptian Exile!
The Vilna Gaon, the "Gra", writes that if a person finds himself in a
situation where he has great desire to speak lashon hara and to
gossip about someone, and he restrains and, so to speak, muzzles
himself, this is much greater even than fasting and other types of
physical suffering, which are known to effect forgiveness.
The previous Bobover Rebbe zt"l once noticed a student of his
causing himself physical pain. When questioned, the student
reluctantly admitted that he regularly did so, in order to repent for his
sins. The Rebbe zt"l told him: "Do as I tell you, and you can stop
hurting yourself, yet still achieve repentance from your sins: Hashem
will test you, as he tests all of us, and put you into situations where
it would be so easy, and satisfying, to gossip and speak negatively
about your friends. When this happens, clamp down on your lips and
say nothing. This is even greater than great amounts of physical
The Bobover Rebbe, Shlita, explained with this the Mishnah in Pirkei
Avos (1:17), "Rabbi Shimon, the son of Rabban Gamliel, said: All my
days I have grown up among the Sages, yet I have never found
anything good for the body except silence." Mefarshim
(commentators) question this. Certainly silence is good for the
neshamah, for the soul. But why did Rabbi Shimon remark that he
had not found good "for the body" except silence?
As we have seen, however, the silence which comes as a result of
refraining from gossiping, even when it's really tempting to do so,
replaces even the most severe forms of punishment that one may
need to suffer in order to effect forgiveness for his sins. Thus,
"silence" is indeed healthy not only for the neshamah, but even for
the body! Indeed, perhaps we should begin promoting shemiras ha-
lashon instead of all the other nutritional fads!
Text Copyright © 1999 Rabbi Eliyahu Hoffmann and Project Genesis, Inc.