Portrait of shocked handsome long haired blonde young man in blue casual shirt standing, covering his mouth and looking at camera with big eyes

The Torah places an enormous emphasis on the ethics of proper speech, with many detailed laws and categories.

Words create people, and words create societies. Delving into the latest science around speech and neuroscience, communication professor Mark Waldman, one of the world’s leading experts on communication, and Dr Andrew Newberg, a research director at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital, explore the idea of “compassionate communication” in their book Words Can Change Your Brain. They describe how, from childhood, humans’ brains are molded by the words they hear, and that teaching children to use positive words helps them with emotional control and can even increase their attention spans.

The Torah places an enormous emphasis on the ethics of proper speech, with many detailed laws and categories. Speech, unique to humans, forms the bridge between two otherwise separate, independent people. It binds us together. Because speech is the bridge between people, the values and ethics that surround it are influential as they touch on the essence of how we treat the people around us.

This week’s parshah, Behar, states: “One person shall not hurt his fellow.” (Vayikra 25:17) The Talmud (Bava Metzia 58b) explains that the verse is referring to causing emotional hurt through speech. The Talmud goes on to provide many examples, all relating to hurting people where they are most vulnerable, such as reminding a person who has done repentance of their previous wrongdoings, or a convert of their background, or to say judgmental things to a person who is suffering.

The Talmud even extends the category of hurtful speech to causing any emotional hurt or disappointment, such as asking a shopkeeper how much a particular item costs if you have no intention of buying it. Clearly, we need to be supremely sensitive to how our words will be received by another person, even if no harm is intended.

This mitzvah of proper speech goes right to the heart of the kind of society we wish to create. Using the power of speech for good is an expression of our partnership with God in creating the world. 

The Sefer HaChinuch says positive speech sows peace among people and within society at large. In other words, a peaceful, harmonious society is created through speech that is ethical, sensitive, kind and compassionate, while a divisive, hostile society is characterized by aggressive, harsh, hurtful speech.

But, there is a deeper dimension to the power of speech. The Maharal (a 16th-century Prague scholar) says harmful speech constitutes a direct assault on the Tzelem Elokim — the Divine image, the Godly soul — within a person. He explains that wronging another person can affect different aspects of the human being. The wrongdoing can strike at another person’s possessions or money, or it can strike at their body, their physical being. He says verbal abuse is uniquely pernicious because it strikes at the neshamah — at the soul, which is the very essence of the human being.

Public Shaming As ‘Murder’

It is in this context that we can understand the dramatic statement of the Talmud (Bava Metzia 58b) that shaming another person in public is considered a form of murder.

The Maharal explains, based on the Gemara, that when a person is shamed in public, their face becomes ashen. He says the Tzelem Elokim is physically manifest through the glow on a person’s face. This becomes obvious when, at the point of death, the soul leaves the body and the face (and the body) of the corpse turn ashen. The glow emanates from the spiritual energy of the soul. So, if a person is shamed to such an extent that the glow leaves his face, it indicates that the Tzelem Elokim has, so to speak, been knocked out of such a person.

Of course, it works the other way as well. Words of praise and acknowledgement make a person’s face glow. Kind, gentle words, words of warmth and encouragement, nurture the souls of those around us.

The Maharal quotes a midrash (Vayikra Rabba 4), which states that the soul of every human being is in God’s hands, and that God therefore defends it. This is how the Maharal explains the Gemara, which says God considers it a direct affront when someone uses the power of words to harm another human being. The Talmud goes so far as to say (Bava Metzia 59a) that even in a time when it is difficult to access Hashem, nevertheless the “Gates of Heaven” are always open to a person who calls out in pain from the hurtful words of another person.

Rabbi Warren Goldstein is the chief rabbi of South Africa.