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Is Cursing Kosher?

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu this week has failed to create a new government after his success in the elections in April forcing new elections September 17th. He was only able to muster 60 of the 61 votes need to form a majority in the 120-seat Knesset. Israeli politics has become so divided.

It was the same this month in the EU elections and in England with the resignation of Prime Minister Theresa May over the Brexit negotiations. Even in American politics, the level of anger and vitriol today is unprecedented in my lifetime—including the use of obscenities in social media. Yes, people are so divided today. Why can’t they just agree to disagree?  

It’s not just in politics. According to Newsday (5/27/19), “High school sports umpires, referees and officials in Long Island NY have been quitting because of they are being targeted for verbal abuse as never before by parents, spectators and coaches.” And how about the ruling last year that Police officers in NYC may now curse in their normal police activities?

Today’s Torah portion contains the Tochecha—the long list of blessings and curses Gd showers upon us as a consequence of our actions. A basic Torah teaching is: Ma hu af ata (as Gd does so should we), or as the philosophers put it Imitatio Dei, (Imitating Gd). So, if Gd blesses and curses people, shouldn’t it be ok for us to do the same? We know that it’s an acceptable Jewish practice to bless others, but what is the Jewish stance on cursing and speaking curse words to others?

Researchers have found that about 0.7 percent of a typical American’s speech is made up of curse words. That might not sound like a lot. But given that an average person utters about 15,000 to 16,000 words each day, that adds up to a whopping 80 to 90 curses a day out of the average person’s mouth!

The Torah warns us (Deut. 23:15): Lo yireh v’cha ervat davar (There shall not be seen within you an unseemly thing). The Midrash (Lev. 24:7) reads the letters of the Torah’s words ervat davar (unseemly thing) to say ervat dibur (unseemly statement), leaving the Torah’s injunction to then be: “There shall not be seen within you an unseemly statement,” namely “cursing.”

A few weeks ago we read in the Torah: Kedoshim t’hiyu (Be holy). The sages explain that the Hebrew word kadosh, which is normally translated as “holy,” actually means to be “distinct” or “separate.” Separate from what? From vulgar language, for one.

And so it seems that cursing is not just an innocuous, harmless behavior.  The Talmud (Shabbat 33a) tells us: It is due to the sin of cursing that great problems come to Israel; harsh decrees are promulgated; the youth die young; orphans and widows cry out and are not answered. In other words, the repercussions of cursing are rather serious.

You see, your neshama—your holy soul—reflects the spark of Gd within you. And we should always try to remain on that level. When you use obscene language, it brings you down to your nefesh—the animal level of your soul. You become like an animal. Interestingly enough, scientists believe that animals also curse. Frans de Waal, a professor of primate behavior at Emory University explains that when chimpanzees are angry, “they will grunt or spit or make an abrupt, upsweeping gesture that, if a human were to do it, you’d recognize as aggressive. Such behaviors are threat gestures and can be interpreted as a form of cursing.” Bottom line: cursing emanates from and reflects the lowest aspects of human behavior.

Cursing can also shorten your life. The Talmud (Niddah 16b) teaches that even if Gd originally granted one a life span of 70 years—or let’s say in our world where people live longer, 90-100 years—nivul peh (a foul mouth) can turn it around in the wink of an eye and nullify Gd’s decree. We are all created in Gd’s Image. Cursing and vulgar speech darkens and sullies that Image within us. It demeans Gd!

The truth is that using bad language does more than keep you from being one step above. It actually brings you down. Although we generally think of speech as a superficial act, in truth it has a strong impact on your inner self. The words that leave your mouth make an imprint on your mind and heart. Obscenities are called dirty words for a reason—they soil the soul. No matter how high up you are the rope of fine noble character…a few rotten words can throw you back down to the ground.

Cursing creates a negative energy that brings everyone down. There’s the story of a man leaving a neighborhood store. He was only in there for 5 minutes, but when he came out there he was a cop writing a parking ticket. He said to him, “Come on Buddy, how about giving a guy a break?”

          The cop ignored him and continued writing the ticket, so he called him a “pencil necked Nazi.”

The cop glared at him and started writing another ticket for having bald tires!

So, he called him “a sorry excuse for a human being.”

He then finished the 2nd ticket and put it on the car windshield with the 1st. Then he started to write a 3rd ticket!

This went on for about 20 minutes...the more he abused and hurled insults at him, the more tickets he wrote. But hey, the man didn’t really care. You see, his car was parked around the corner!

But he should have cared. We should do what we can to encourage civil and kindly speech and not encourage others to use obscenities.

So, is a choice curse word after stubbing your toe a horrible sin? Perhaps not. But being careful that all words that leave your mouth are pure is an important part of a living a Gdly life. We intuitively realize when we want to seem intelligent and successful, using curse words is out of the question. Few people would swear during a job interview or a 1st date. The Torah encourages us to take ourselves seriously and try to grow to reach our potential. Part of that is refining our speech. The way we interact with people shape us. If we speak and act kindly, we become kind. When we talk gently, we become gentle.

3,000 years ago, King Solomon wrote (Proverbs 18:21): “Death and life are in the power of the tongue.” The words we say shape us in both clear and subtle ways; engaging in crude and vulgar speech drags down both the speaker and the listener. With obscenities becoming such a huge part of everyday speech, maybe it’s time to experiment with going obscenity-free.

And so I ask you now: Consider giving up swearing for a week—even in your texts, emails and social media. And if you’re able to do it for a week, keep it going. It might not be easy, but the rewards in becoming more refined are certainly well worth it. Amen!

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