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Lethal Words

02/27/2020 10:09:44 AM


During a legal dispute between two Talmudic giants, things got personal. The objects of their dispute, appropriately, were knives and swords.

These two luminaries, whose words are found on nearly every page of the Babylonian Talmud, were not adversaries outside the study hall. There is no indication that one was irritated with the other. But Rabbi Yohanan, in agreeing with Reish Lakish, mentioned the latter's unsavory past. Mortified, Reish Lakish responded with his own verbal dagger straight to Rabbi Yohanan's heart. In fewer words on the page than years of their friendship, both were dead (b. Baba Metzia 84a).

A slip of the tongue in the throes of a legal dispute. Sticks and stones can only hurt, but words can kill. Earlier in the same Talmudic tractate, there is a mishnah that prohibits reminding someone of their past misdeeds once they have turned themselves around (b. Baba Metzia 58b).

We have entered a dangerous season. "Death and life are in the power of the tongue" which is why "he who guards his tongue preserves his life" (Proverbs 18:21 and 13:3). The Talmud lists the personal, concluding prayers of eleven sages. Only one was elevated to the liturgy. Mar, son of Ravina, began with this line from Psalms: "God, guard my tongue from evil and my lips from speaking guile" (Psalm 34:14).  

In biblical poetry, the second half of the verse intensifies the meaning of the first half. Mar and the psalmist are asking for divine assistance to not speak evil when true, and all the more so not to even mumble untruths, or irrelevancies, to ourselves. Rabbi Yohanan and Reish Lakish, brothers-in-law and brothers in the law, let down their guard and loosened their tongues. May we be blessed with the strength to guard our tongues, redeem their deaths, and preserve our lives and those of our brothers and sisters.

Sun, June 16 2024 10 Sivan 5784