> Ask The Rabbi > Interpersonal & Issues > Speech

Foul Language

June 20, 2014 | by Rabbi Dovid Rosenfeld

I am always bothered when I hear Jews using foul speech, or when they use such pejoratives as “nigger.” It led me to wonder: Does the Torah actually forbid such behavior? I can’t really think of what verse or heading such behavior would go under – other than “es past nisht!”

The Aish Rabbi Replies

Thank you for your interesting question. The most explicit verse which comes to my mind is Leviticus 19:2: “You shall be holy unto the Lord your God.” It sounds very lofty and noble, but what does it actually mean to be “holy”?

Nachmanides, in his commentary to that verse, explains as follows. It’s quite possible for a person to meticulously observe every law of the Torah but to basically be a lowlife. A person can spend his life running after only kosher indulgences. He can likewise speak as coarsely as crudely as he pleases – provided he does not transgress any laws. Kosher gourmet food, fine wine and marital relations are all permitted – and even appropriate in the right degree. Yet clearly, if a person’s raison d'être is satisfying his passions, something fundamental is missing.

For this reason, explains Nachmanides, the Torah included the general injunction of being holy. It means as it sounds. Don’t just be prim. Don’t just be particular about the letter of the law, utterly ignoring its spirit and missing its point. To truly be a servant of God we must simply go beyond.

The purpose of the Torah is not that we fulfill a bunch of commandments. It is that we become greater, more ethical and more spiritual human beings. Overindulging in pleasures, using foul language, dressing provocatively may not transgress any specific law of the Torah (although they certainly might). But they are not what it’s all about. The Torah does not attempt to micromanage our every deed and waking moment. It gives us the basic laws. But the laws are not what Judaism is about. It’s about being a better person, about being “holy.” “Es past nisht” (Yiddish for “it is inappropriate”) goes a long way toward teaching us what God really wants of us.

A few technical points I should add. If you address a fellow Jew with a pejorative, it would transgress Leviticus 25:17: “You shall not aggrieve your fellow,” which although seemingly refers to monetary issues, is understood by the Sages to refer to verbal abuse (Talmud Baba Metziah 58b; see also Exodus 22:20). And lastly, if you refer to a class of Jews disparagingly, it is considered a form of gossip (lashon hara), as well as a denial of the fact that all human beings are created in the image of God (Pirkei Avot 3:18).

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