Pure speech? That depends

The Torah, which uses the most condensed wording possible, sometimes uses extra words to teaches us to use clean language. In this week’s Parsha we see the word “impure' repeated so as to teach us a lesson about speech.

Rabbi Shlomo Sobol ,

Rabbi Shlomo Sobol
Rabbi Shlomo Sobol
INN: Daniel Malichi

We learn the importance of speaking in clean language from the Torah. The first time we see this, is in the Parsha of Noach, where the Torah distinguishes between pure and impure beasts. G-d commands Noah, "Of every pure beast you shall take seven males and females, and of the beasts that are not pure (אשר איננה טהורה) you shall take two, a male and a female."

When one looks at the verse they can see something unusual. The norm in the Torah is to be concise and use as few words as possible. In fact, many laws are learned out by the fact that the Torah any even an extra letter in certain words. Yet, this verse is wordy and says “ומן הבהמה אשר איננה טהורה - from the beasts that are not pure” when it could have just said “ומן הבהמה הטמאה” - from the impure. Why?

Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi says about this: "Never should a man utter an unclean word from his mouth, just as the Torah has written eight letters in order to not utter anything indecent as it says “ ומן הבהמה אשר איננה טהורה” and not “ומן הבהמה הטמאה” . Rashi explains: "The word הטמאה consists of 5 letters and the words אשר איננה טהורה consist of 13 letters. Here the norm is differing by eight letters.” Meaning that the Torah used an extra eight letters in order to speak in clean language.

And yet, to our surprise, in this week’s parsha when the Torah discusses forbidden foods, it uses the word טמא- impure- many times! When reading the Parsha one sees the words טמא הוא לכם and then טמאים הם לכם and further on וזה לכם הטמא. In light of what we said at the beginning, the question arises “Why here does the Torah does not take care to speak in clean language?

Rabbi Zvi Yehuda HaCohen Kook explains: There is a difference between telling a story and teaching Halakhah. In Parshat Noach the Torah tells the story of the flood, and since there is no halakhic implication to the story, the Torah is careful to speak in pure language, even if it requires it to add letters and write אשר איננה טהורה instead of טמאה. Whereas in our parsha, the Torah teaches us the laws of forbidden foods, and it is important for the Torah to write the halakhot in a clear and sharp manner so that will not be misunderstood, and therefore the Torah used the word טמא. Had the Torah written about the animals which are forbidden to eat that they are “ אשר איננה טהורה” “ it would not be far off to say that some "liberal Torah commentators" would say that although these animals are not actually טהור, they are also not exactly טמא.”

There seems that there is a deep educational idea here that the Torah comes to teach us. Clean and pure language is a very important thing, because G-d created us with the power of speech so that we can sanctify it and use it correctly. Therefore we need to educate our children not to use vulgar or insulting language, G-d forbid, even against sinners. However, when we teach the divine truth, we must express it pleasantly and gently, but clearly and unambiguously. This is true both in halakhah and when speaking about אמונה and בטחון. . The truth must be said as is and it must be identical to the word of G-d.

Rabbi Shlomo Sobol is the head of the Barkai Rabbinical Organization and the rabbi of the Shaarei Yonah Menachem community in Modi'in