Our Dangerous Tongues

Ann Spangler
Ann Spangler
2017 11 Jul

an image of graffiti on a wall of a long, blue tongue

How would you like it if someone called you a motzi shem ra? Huh? You might wonder if you had just been complimented or insulted. In fact, the phrase identifies you as the lowest of the low—someone who lies in order to give others a bad name. Jesus likely used this phrase when he said, “Blessed are you when people hate you, when they exclude you and insult you and reject your name as evil” (Luke 6:22, niv).

Over the centuries, the Jewish people learned through painful experience how dangerous the tongue can be. Think of the pogroms that have been carried out against the Jews, often fueled by outrageous lies. So dangerous is the tongue, the rabbis say, that God designed it to be kept behind two protective walls—the lips and the teeth. Here are a few commonly cited examples of speech that may seem normal to us but that are forbidden to observant Jews:

Don’t call a person by a derogatory nickname, or by any other embarrassing name, even if the person is used to it.

Don’t ask an uneducated person for an opinion on a scholarly matter (because it would draw attention to the person’s lack of knowledge or education).

Don’t refer someone to another person for assistance when you know the other person can’t help (in other words, don’t give someone the runaround).

Don’t deceive anyone, even if doing so does no harm.

Don’t compliment people if you don’t mean it.1

Clearly, the rabbis have thought a lot about this issue. One way to combat the negative power of our tongues is to cultivate the discipline of silence. Dietrich Bonhoeffer recommended silence at the beginning and end of each day. Conscious and prayerful silence can open a space into which God may speak, giving him the first and the last word. Silence can also be a powerful tool against temptation. As Bonhoeffer pointed out, “Often we combat our evil thoughts most effectively if we absolutely refuse to allow them to be expressed in words.”2


  1. Adapted from Tracey R. Rich, “Speech and Lashon Ha-Ra,” Judaism 101, accessed June 29, 2017, http://www.jewfaq.org/speech.htm.
  2. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together, trans. John W. Doberstein (New York: Harper and Row, 1954), 91.