The Power of Speech - A Misconception Revealed by Rabbi Raphi Mandelstam


If you were to ask any child on the street why a person gets Tzara’at there is no doubt that he would say that it is a punishment for speaking Lashon HaRa. How did he know that? Why do you think that such is the case? No doubt it’s because we were all taught this in school. However, I beseech you to review last and this week’s Parashiyot and I challenge you to find me where in the description of the laws of Tzara’at, Lashon HaRa is mentioned. I can save you the trouble if you’d like, and tell you that the Torah itself never makes any explicit mention of such a connection, at least not in these Parashiyot. However, Chazal (Arachin 16b) tell us that one of the many potential causes for Tzara’at is Lashon HaRa. But if it’s not in the Torah itself, how did they know that?

Now, there is a very simple answer to that question. All one needs to do is fast forward to Parashat BeHa’alotecha and read the story of Miriam speaking Lashon HaRa about Moshe Rabbeinu to learn that her punishment for doing so was Tzara’at. It is very reasonable to suggest that Chazal worked backwards: Once we see that the Tzara’at that inflicted Miriam was due to her speaking Lashon HaRa, then it must be that the Tzara’at in our Parashiyot is also due to Lashon HaRa. However, it is undoubtedly still very strange that the very two Parashiyot devoted to Tzara’at make no mention of its cause. Is there perhaps a hint somewhere in this week’s Parashah that alludes to Lashon HaRa? I believe there is.

One of the most unique Halachot regarding Tzara’at is the role of the Kohein in its procedures. Normally, when we have a question in Halachah, we turn to a Rabbi or Chacham. But when it comes to Tzara’at, the only way to determine its status is through the pronouncement of the Kohein. In fact, as many commentators point out, despite the physical presence of the Tzara’at, no Tum’ah status is given to the potential Metzora until he is officially declared Tamei, impure, by the Kohein. Why is Tzara’at dependent on the Kohein?

We turn our attention to an amazing insight by Rav Yaakov Kaminetzky. When discussing the prohibition of breaking a Neder, or vow, that a person has made, the Torah uses a very unique phrase. It doesn’t say that one has erred in “changing” or “retracting” his words. The Torah relates that the one who violates a vow has violated the prohibition of “Lo Yachel Devaro,” literally translated as, “Do not make your words mundane.” The Shoresh, root, of the word “Yachel” is the same as the word Chulin, which simply means mundane or lacking in Kedushah. When a person violates a Neder it is because he believes that his speech isn’t such a big deal, and going back on his word can’t have such serious ramifications. However, what he has forgotten is that speech can be a very powerful thing. In fact, as Rav Betzalel Radinsky points out, there is a context in which speech has a very powerful effect - the world of the Beit HaMikdash. Although normally when making a transaction an act of Kinyan is required, when donating something to the Beit HaMikdash, our mere declaration of an item’s sanctity makes it Hekdeish (Mishnah Kiddushin 1:6). What we learn from the concept of Hekdeish is that our words can have just as powerful of an effect as our actions. Who is the one who understands this more than anybody? Who spends his day dealing with the effects of speech? It is none other than the Kohein, who works in the Beit HaMikdash and best understands that it is speech alone that creates the Kedushah within the animals he offers as Korbanot. Therefore, perhaps the elaborate role of the Kohein in the process of diagnosing a Metzora is the Torah conveying a message to us. The lesson that the Kohein can offer us more than anyone is the power of speech. It is the Kohein who makes the Metzora Tamei; not through any action, but merely through his speech alone. He tells the Metzora that speech is not something to be treated mundanely or haphazardly, but with awe and reverence. It is something that can truly effect people and, Chas VeShalom, hurt.

As we approach the holiday of Pesach, the holiday which the Arizal pointed out means a speaking mouth (the word ‘Pesach’ can be read as ‘Peh’ ‘Sach,’ meaning ‘speaking mouth’), we should all recognize the power of our words and use them to praise one another, Daven, and learn Torah!

Unifying the People by Yitzi Rothschild

The Beauty of Tzara’at by Daniel Zolty