The Seriousness of Gossip and Profane Speech in the Synagogue
It is written in Ezekiel, “As I live - the word of the L-rd HASHEM - [I swear] that I do not desire the death of the wicked one, but rather the wicked one’s return from his way, that he may live.” The Holy One, blessed be He, doesn’t desire our death. Rather, He looks for and calls out to us! There are two things that we need to improve upon as quickly as possible, and which, as one of the tzaddikim of the generation has said, bring conflict and death. He spoke in the following terms: “If no revolutionary change takes place, disasters will multiply. May G-d help us!”
One part consists of speaking badly of and slandering others. Our holy books speak abundantly on the subject of gossip and slander, and we know that whoever speaks badly of his fellow stirs up accusations against the Jewish People, which kindles disaster. The Chofetz Chaim says that in the future, the Heavenly Court will judge the one who has spoken ill of his fellow for all the harm that has beset Israel as a result of his words. And certain books teach that one who speaks badly is as one who spilled his seed in vain.
Constancy and Diligence
We know what the Chofetz Chaim said, namely, “Nothing can help us to escape this grave sin if we don’t diligently study, every day, the laws concerning the proper use of the tongue.” It’s thus our duty to have fixed times for studying these laws.
To our great regret, even though many things have been written on this subject, certain individuals continue to live in the shadow of sad indifference. A man should know that once he will have read these words, he should make a firm commitment to buy the book Chofetz Chaim and study its laws. And once he will have begun to put this commitment into practice, he will have saved himself - himself and the members of his family - from all sorts of harm. And he will have annulled an evil decree against orphans and widows.
Imagine that we were to tell someone the following: “Listen to me, good friend! It’s been decreed from Heaven that a certain avrech, a father of nine children, will depart this world while still relatively young, leaving behind a widow and nine orphans. But know that if your take it upon yourself to guard against speaking ill of your fellow, then by the merit of your holy resolution, that avrech will not be taken away, but instead be spared. He’ll live many years with his family in great happiness.” Without the shadow of a doubt he would accept to take upon himself anything to save the life of that avrech, for the Children of Israel are merciful children of the merciful themselves, and so they would take on this task with all their might. He would write it in black and white in large letters: “I’ve taken it upon myself blei neder to study every day the laws concerning speech, so that it be a source of merit for my friend. May G-d have pity on him because of this resolution, and may he not leave this world before his time.” He would take it upon himself to study every day with extreme diligence the laws concerning speech, and would always have with him a little notebook, a “journal of speech.” If he would have the misfortune of having let himself be dragged into saying something harmful, he would note it in the journal. In this way, he would elevate himself considerably and reinforce himself in acquiring this holy and pure trait. One must review these laws without stop, in vocalizing them with fervor, and affix in oneself the grave prohibition against gossip.
A Mortal Danger
My friends, it’s clear that gossiping represents a mortal danger! The one who speaks ill of others is the cause of another woman becoming a widow, the cause of a terrible traffic accident, the cause of another case of cancer, and the cause of prolonged droughts!
That is why, after having read this, we should take it upon ourselves to watch our tongue, and by the merit of this mitzvah we will be deserving - we and our families - of goodness, mercy, and Heavenly protection.
As for those who will turn a deaf ear to this and won’t even make an effort to join the circle of those who study and observe these laws, they should know with a certainty that the threat of death hovers over their head and over their family, and that they are provoking discord, blood, and death. It is not we who are saying this, but rather the words of the living G-d, through the intermediary of our Sages. They state, “He who speaks ill of his fellow kills three persons.” Those who don’t make the effort to study the laws of speech, by telling themselves that they won’t fall into the trap of gossiping, are lying to themselves. Who is greater than our master the Chofetz Chaim, who is considered in the Heavens as a Tanna? He wrote in his books that it’s impossible to avoid saying harmful things or to slander someone if we haven’t carefully studied all the laws pertaining to speech. As long as we haven’t studied, we know nothing.
That’s why it’s a sacred duty for all the House of Israel to add to their already-existent study schedule (whether it be in kollels, yeshivot, talmidei Torah, or institutions of learning) a study of the book Chofetz Chaim. By the merit of this study, we will not be tried by the Heavenly Court, whether it be in this world or in the world to come. Hence the truth behind this necessity is abundantly clear. If we sincerely believe in the words of the Tanna, the celestial Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, and in our teacher the Chofetz Chaim, according to whom the speaking of harmful words provokes dissension and disaster, and creates orphans and widows, why should we remain indifferent and not undertake a serious course of action capable of making us acquire - for ourselves as well as for our families, students and friends - a knowledge of the laws of speech? No reason or pretext exists that can prevent us from fulfilling our great responsibility to study and teach these laws! All the reasons and pretexts, whatever they may be, even if justified and understandable, pale in comparison to even the single tear of a widow or the lone tear of an orphan, an orphan who cries out for his father in the bitterness of his soul.
Now the connection between the widow and slander is clear. People for the most part make the error of thinking that in order to be deemed a gossiper or slanderer, one has to be wicked to the point of intentionally speaking maliciously. This is absolutely not the case. It’s improper remarks that are inadvertently said for which we will have to give an accounting! We’ll be rebuked for what we say off the cuff, without having paid attention to our words, as when the family is gathered for a Shabbat or holiday meal and we find ourselves burning up inside to find out what happened to someone, or “dying” to talk about others. It happens when we’re waiting in line to see the doctor or the Rav, or when we find ourselves in the midst of an interesting conversation on the phone (which, incidentally, represents one of the greatest obstacles to guarding one’s speech). It happens when we ask others what they think of a certain Rav or a certain individual, and it happens when we ask others what they think of a certain shidduch!
Think Before Speaking
Be very careful! We don’t have the right to ask questions about people other than in cases that Halachah allows for. Hundreds of families have seen shidduchim fail because of slander. The can be no consolation whatsoever for the tears of the oppressed, and without deep repentance on the part those who have destroyed these shidduchim, it will cost them dearly when an unmerciful judgment comes down upon them, either in this world or in the world to come. Tears have been spilled like water and thousands of families have been destroyed, and all because of gossip. The examples are endless - it is pointless to go on.
The power of applied diligence is what enables one’s holy resolution - to avoid gossip and slander - to maintain itself and win out.
In light of what we have said, there are four resolutions that we can make in order to incorporate the laws of proper speech into our lives:
1. To study every day a portion of a book by the Chofetz Chaim, revising three times the studied portion, and making a brief summary of what we’ve learned in a notebook.
2. To carry a little journal or notebook in our pockets. If it should ever happen that we let ourselves get dragged into slandering or speaking ill of others, we can mark it down and later confess and repent of it before going to sleep.
3. To never rush to speak or to ask the listener what they think of a certain individual, if there exists even a one-percent chance that we’ll hear improper words. And if that possibility exists when asking others their opinions, we should simply suppress our curiosity and not ask. Curiosity knows many victims.
4. To put a large notice near the telephone, at home and at work, with the following message: WATCH OUT FOR LOSHON HORA! The telephone wreaks havoc in this area.
We should think before we speak, not speak too quickly, and take up the habit of expressing ourselves slowly and calmly.
Don’t Struggle for Nothing
There was once a certain hidden tzaddik of the generation, z’’l, that earned a living by repairing shoes. When someone would begin speaking and telling him things about this or that person, he would immediately distance himself and say, “I don’t want to hear anything about it.” In this way he saved himself from the horrendous sin of forbidden speech. And we know that certain lofty souls, lions in the Torah and holy individuals, have consigned themselves to silence during their entire lives, since life and death are in the power of the tongue. The key to being judged innocent after 120 years - the key that allows one to be saved from the bitter punishments of Gehinnom - is uniquely in guarding one’s tongue. Neither mitzvot nor Torah will be of use to man on that terrible day if that Torah is mixed with the impurities of slander. It’s with respect to this that we ask you to neither struggle - nor to have been born - in vain.
The Sanctity of the Synagogue
It is often mentioned in the Torah how serious it is to have frivolous discussions in the synagogue, where the holy Shechinah resides. But even though in every synagogue we see clearly visible signs stating that it’s forbidden to speak in the synagogue (e.g., “It is forbidden to speak during prayer or Torah reading”), to our great regret, indifference still prevails. It’s human nature to not act unless personally affected. Dear friend, in the house of G-d - the Temple itself in miniature - before beginning to speak with your friend between two parashot, or at the moment of the Torah reading, or even during prayer itself, picture before you the six million Jews who were murdered during the Holocaust. Imagine them being driven to the ovens, beseeching others to save their lives! It is not we, but holy individuals who have stated in bitterness of heart that one of the reasons for the Holocaust was the profaning of the sanctity of the synagogue. There the Shechinah, which resides in exile, protects you in times of trouble when you are busy profaning its habitation.
There’s no reason in the world for someone to profane the sanctity of the synagogue. It’s almost as if everything becomes insignificant by comparison when your smooth-talking friend comes by, taps you on the shoulder, and begins babbling on with you in the house of G-d. Don’t let yourself get caught up. Don’t answer him!
The Honor of the Shechinah
Protect the honor of the Shechinah, and you will have saved your life. If you have read everything that’s been written here, yet nevertheless don’t find it necessary to make a firm resolution to stop speaking profane words in the house of G-d, you are part of the cause of death and conflict in the world. How can your heart bear the tears of the widow and the orphan?
We advise those who pray at the synagogue to have in their pocket (or in any other easily accessible place) a little note with the following words written thereon: “Dear friend! I’ve taken it upon myself to not speak in the synagogue, which is the Temple in miniature, and where the Shechinah resides. If you really would like to abide by my resolution, go and speak outside, or put off your conversation until later on.” Likewise, a large billboard should be posted in the synagogue with the following inscribed on it: “Dear friend! In this synagogue it is forbidden to carry on profane conversations. In case of an emergency, take a piece of paper and pencil from off the shelf and write down what you need. Please, don’t cause any pain to the holy Shechinah!”
Now for a dire story about the gravity of the injunction against speaking in the synagogue, especially when wearing tefillin.
In the town of Ostra an epidemic was raging. The Rav of the town and his court decreed a day of fasting and prayer to arouse the people to repent and accomplish the instruction of the verse, “Let us search and examine our ways and return to HASHEM.” In order to determine the source of this disaster, which swept away the lives of numerous Bnei Israel, and to find a way to repair this sin and halt the epidemic, they asked anyone who knew of anything suspicious to come forward.
Now there was in this town a Jew by the name of Yonah the fisherman. He was not in the habit of attending synagogue, and normally no one would ask his whereabouts, for they supposed, by default, that he was praying in another synagogue. But after the proclamation in question, two individuals decided to investigate and follow him during the day. Not finding anything unusual, they decided to follow him at night as well. At midnight they noticed that he arose, lit a candle, got dressed, and then left. So that he wouldn’t notice their presence, they followed very quietly behind. Across a winding road out of the town and into the nearby forest they followed him, and there in the forest he vanished. They were afraid to continue, and began to suspect that he might belong to a band of thieves. Who knew where he was going in the forest? And so they returned to town. On the next day they came to see the Rav and recounted to him in detail what they had seen, as well as the suspicions they had. The Rav responded, “It’s possible, but given that you didn’t actually see with your own eyes what he was doing in the forest, and that we can only judge by what the eyes have actually seen, I suggest and I ask you that tonight you be on the lookout in front of his house like yesterday, and that as soon as you see him light the candle and begin preparing to leave, that you come and tell me, since I also want to follow him to see with my own eyes what he’s done to the righteous.”
They completed the Tikkun Chatzot prayer in tears, and as soon as they saw the candle being lit, they went to get the Rav, who was already prepared and waiting to accompany them. They managed to arrive in time at the man’s home, getting there before he departed. When he left, all three of them followed slowly behind, just as during the night before, so that he wouldn’t guess he was being trailed. They traveled across a winding road until they saw him enter the forest, and followed behind until they saw him come to a certain spot. He then sat down on the ground, lit a candle, and took a prayer book from out of his bag. He began to recite Tikkun Chatzot with a tear-filled voice, with such sobbing as to break their hearts. Another thing moved them greatly after they listened more carefully. To their utter amazement they heard not one, but two voices reciting Tikkun Chatzot. One was the voice of the man, but the other was unknown. They listened very carefully to try and ascertain the identity of the second voice, yet it belonged to no one they knew.
The Identity of the Second Voice
“Since things turned out like this,” the Rav said, “at least we know that he’s not a thief like we thought. But despite that, let’s wait here until he’s finished reciting Tikkun Chatzot and has left the forest, to see everything that he does, and also to know the identity of the second voice that we heard.” They thus waited until the end of Tikkun Chatzot, and saw him getting up with his bag and begin to leave the forest on route back to town. At that moment they stopped him. The Rav spoke to him and said, “We followed you all night to know what you were doing. Because we don’t know the reason for the terrible epidemic that’s plagued us, we suspected that you were up to no good. But since we saw that you were worshiping G-d in the forest, we dropped our suspicions and ask for your forgiveness. Yet I would like to ask you to please explain something. We saw you enter the forest alone, but during the recital of Tikkun Chatzot we heard two voices. Tell us, therefore, to who belonged the second.” When the man heard the Rav’s question, he tried to evade it. Then the Rav said to him, “Know that I’m the Rav here, and I order you to tell me the truth about the second voice that we heard.” With that, he was forced to answer.
The Terrible Epidemic
“I will tell you the truth. For a long time I’ve had the good habit of crying in the appropriate manner over the destruction of the Temple, and this gives Heaven great satisfaction. That’s why I’ve been presented with a gift from on high: Every night the prophet Jeremiah, who saw the destruction of the Temple with his own eyes, is sent and comes into the forest to recite Tikkun Chatzot with me. This is the second voice that you heard.” When the moment seemed right, the Rav asked him, “If you have the merit of saying Tikkun Chatzot with the prophet Jeremiah, you certainly have considerable standing, and your words must carry weight in Heaven. So why didn’t you annul the decree concerning the terrible epidemic that’s been ravaging the town? At least reveal to me the source of this evil, and the hidden sin that’s caused our community such grief. And if you don’t know yourself, can you not ask the prophet Jeremiah? I also have another question: It’s always surprised me that you don’t come to pray at the synagogue. Why?” The man replied that the next day he would come to pray at the synagogue and answer all his questions. Then he took his leave and everyone went home.
A Great Fear Gripped Them
Now the two men who were there that night, and had seen and heard all that had transpired, couldn’t help but to tell everyone of the hidden tzaddik in town, and how he was going to come and pray that day in the synagogue. Naturally the news spread quickly, first to a few but then to many. When the time came, everyone in town had gathered in the large synagogue in order to get a chance to see him. Since the synagogue couldn’t contain everyone, some remained outside, and everyone awaited for a long time before prayers began. Yet the hour of prayer came, and the tzaddik had still not arrived. Therefore the Rav ordered that the service begin. The entire community began to pray, out loud and with great fervor, in anticipation of what was to happen next. Then all of a sudden, in the middle of Pesukei d'Zimrah, the tzaddik arrived and entered the synagogue enwrapped in his tallit and wearing his tefillin. When the people saw his tallit and tefillin, a great fear suddenly descended upon them. There was great a commotion in the synagogue because several people had fainted due to fear, and others were frantically trying to revive them. As for the tzaddik, he went to station himself in a corner of the hall and prayed as was his habit. After the end of prayers, the Rav approached him and told him that he was even more confused than before. Why was the public seized with fear, to the point of fainting, when he entered the synagogue? The Rav also didn’t understand why he had answered all his questions the night before, given that he had come to the synagogue today to explain things.
The tzaddik responded, “It’s very simple. It is written, ‘Then all the peoples of the earth will see that the name of HASHEM is proclaimed over you, and they will revere you’ [Deut 28:10], and Rabbi Eliezer the Great said, ‘It’s the tefillin of the head, which is to say that the tefillin have the power to bring down fear’ [Berachot 6a]. That’s why when I entered the synagogue donning my tefillin, the public was gripped with a holy fear.” The Rav interrupted him in the middle of the explanation: “Don’t we ourselves put on tefillin every day? And yet we don’t bring about such fear!”
The Injunction Against Speaking Profane Words When Wearing Tefillin
The tzaddik responded, “I’ve been careful all my life not to speak profane words when wearing tefillin, and I’ve always treated them with the sanctity due them, meaning with dignity and humility. That’s why the great sanctity of the tefillin was not revoked, and so they’ve kept the power that the Sages spoke of, meaning that the tefillin of the head generates a holy fear. All this was borne out in me, and so they were seized with fear. But if we don’t carefully watch out for the sanctity of tefillin and instead engage in profane conversations when wearing them, treating them in a casual manner, then even if we perform the mitzvah of putting them on in accordance to the dictates of the law, their holy power of fear will be lost. The reason why I don’t come to the synagogue is because we aren’t careful to not hold frivolous conversions, yet the sanctity of the synagogue is awesome. I can’t stand all this, and it’s also the cause of the terrible epidemic that’s been ravaging the town - that we don’t pay any attention to not speaking profane words in the synagogue, and especially when we’re wearing tefillin. If you fix all this, the epidemic will stop immediately.” When he had finished speaking, he departed and disappeared.
All Began to Cry
When the Rav heard all this, he ordered that it be announced in the town that he wanted to speak that day in the large synagogue, and that everyone must attend. All the community assembled at the prescribed time, and he gave an energetic sermon to have the people commit themselves to respecting the sanctity and honor of the synagogue. He also spoke of the sanctity of tefillin and told them the aforementioned story, and what the man had said concerning the cause of the epidemic. All the people began bursting out in tears, and there was a great move to repent. The community committed themselves to no longer speak any profane words in the synagogue, particularly when wearing tefillin. Then they created and mounted on the wall a large display declaring with big letters that it was forbidden to engage in profane conversations there. Everyone respected these obligations, and from that day on they observed it in the extreme. When it happened that a stranger would come to the synagogue, and, unaware of this rule, would ask someone something, he would go unanswered. Instead, he would be brought to the mounted display to see for himself what was written, to be made aware that it was forbidden to speak in the synagogue.
The epidemic stopped immediately after the Rav’s speech, and the Jews of the town rejoiced.
My dear friend! Reflect on this story, and don’t forget to take it upon yourself not to engage in profane words in the synagogue, and even more so not to get distracted when wearing your tefillin. Thus will be fulfilled the words of the verse, “Then all the peoples of the earth will see that the name of HASHEM is proclaimed over you, and they will revere you.”