Erchin (3:5) | Yisrael Bankier | 15 years ago

With all the learning about the legal implications of speech in the context of erech-vows, it is not surprising that the Mishnah turns its attention to the devastating power of speech in general. Despite the comments almost appearing reflective on an apparently tangential topic, its wisdom and appropriateness to this Masechet is clear.

The third perek discusses a number of laws where the Torah outlines the fixed redemptive value or components of compensation. Doing so it compares these laws to similar ones where the price is determined by its real value. Consequently the fixed values attributed to these laws, are sometimes more or less, stricter or more lenient, when compared to the real values.

Of the last two listed the first is the fine given to a person guilty of rape or seduction as part of his overall punishment and compensation. The second is the fine given (as part of the overall punishment) to the motzi shem ra, a man who falsely accuses his wife of adultery when she was engaged to him, bringing false witnesses in support. In the first case the guilty party has committed a crime by performing an action, while in the latter, the person’s crime is his spoken word. It is therefore noteworthy that the fine for the first case is fifty shekel while the second is one-hundred shekel.

Rashi explains that the above contrast led the Mishnah (3:5) to comment as follows:

We find that someone who speaks [wrongly] is [punished] more than someone who acts [wrongly].

The Mishnah then continues:

For we find that the judgement was only sealed for our fathers in the desert [forbidding them from entering Eretz Yisrael] due to lashon ha’rah, as it states, “They tested me, this (ze), ten times and did not listen to my voice.”16

There are two versions of the above Mishnah that differ in how they connect the two above quoted sections. One is the way it is written above, where the Mishnah writes “For we find…” (sh’chen). The implications being that the punishment due to the incident of the spies further illustrates the point. Another version however found in the Gemara reads, “And we find” (v’chen) which applies that a further point is being made over-and-above the already stated.

The Sfat Emet explains that indeed more is learnt from the case of the Spies. We find that one that simply listens to lashon ha’rah is also treated very harshly. By the sin of the spies, it was only the spies that actually spoke lashon ha’rah (about Eretz Yisrael). The rest only accepted what they said. Nevertheless all were punished.

But why is the spoken word treated so harshly. Perhaps we can suggest some contributing factors. In Parashat Bereishit, the Torah describes the creation of man, “And Hashem formed man from the dust of the ground, and He blew into his nostrils; and man became a living being (nefesh chaya)” (Bereishit 2:7). Onkelos translates nefesh chaya to mean a “speaking spirit”. Consequently Rashi explains that Man’s intelligence and power of speech are unique and separates him from the beast. It is not just that with this great power comes great responsibility, but also great accountability. It is far more than just a shame when these two capacities, intelligence and speech are not used in tandem. The Chafetz Chaim explains further from this pasuk that speech itself stems from a person’s nefesh chaya; it is rooted deeply within a person. Consequently we can understand how severe it is when harm is committed from such a source.

A final understanding can come from Rabbeinu Yona. R’ Yishmael teaches that one who speaks lashon ha’rah, his sins increase to be equivalent to the three major sins for which one is to give up their life rather than transgress (Erchin 15b). Rabbeinu Yona takes this quite literally explaining exactly why lashon ha’rah is so severe. Firstly one who speaks lashon ha’rah is likely offend repeatedly on a daily basis amassing large amounts of sin. This frequency also makes teshuva extremely difficult as such speech become almost innate. Teshuva is further complicated as the speaker is rarely aware of the extent of the damage done or the seriousness of his crime. Further difficulties arise as teshuva demands that one ask forgiveness from the person they hurt. One will likely lose track of those he affected. Regardless, lashon ha’rah spreads out of control very often affecting generations to come, preventing any real resolution. Finally, as Rabbeinu Yona quotes the pasuk from our Mishnah, he explains that one who speaks lashon ha’rah very often turn his attention to Hashem – the consequences of which are grave indeed.

Just Sing a Little

The Tosfot question the long-winded language of the first Mishnah in the fourth perek suggesting different ways in which it could have been condensed. They leave this question open. The Tifferet Yisrael answers (based on the Gemara Beitzah 24a) that Mishnayot should be learnt with a tune, and a unique tune given to each Mishnah.

He understands that tunes were given in order to assist in memorising the Mishnayot. So important was this tool that sometimes Mishnayot appear wordy or even lacking. The Gemara often corrects the overly brief Mishnah by bringing contradicting texts if it was misunderstood in its brief sense. Nonetheless, the Tifferet Yisrael maintains that it was done so because of the importance of committing it to memory – for fitting the tune.

(Compare to Yair Kino, Kinim 1:3)

16: While one may be tempted to reject this proof claiming that the sin of the twelve-spies might have simply been “the last straw”, the Gemara as explained by Rashi explains that the superfluous word “ze” implies that it was for this sin alone that the judgement was decreed.


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