By Rabbi Yair Hoffman
It is a news story that most religious Jews wish to ignore. An anonymous senior Obama administration official described the Prime Minister of Israel with a word that is called by the Talmud as “Nibul Peh” – curse words that should never be used. The Israeli government response to this outrage, however, is probably correct. The Obama administration was probably trying to pre-empt Netanyahu’s condemnation when Obama will announce a deal that will allow Iran to keep and develop nuclear weaponry.
Most parents and teachers are suppressing this story because of the element of Nibul Peh. This author would like to suggest that, instead of suppressing it, we use it as a teaching moment. Why shouldn’t we should use contemporary events to demonstrate the ideals and values of Torah-true Judaism?
The Midrash attests to this on the verse in Dvarim (23:10), “When you go out to war guard yourself from every evil matter.” How does the Midrash (VaYikra Rabbah 24:7) define evil matter? You guessed it – “cursing” referred to in Hebrew as Nivul Peh.
Indeed, the Midrash seems to indicate that it is a Biblically forbidden prohibition whether in war or not in war – it is just that it is more common in wartime or in the soldier’s barrack rather than in the typical social structure or setting to which the Torah generally speaks. In fact, the Machzor Vitri (424), one of the foremost students of Rashi, writes that the prohibition is biblical.
There may be a different source for a biblical prohibition, too. The Torah tells us (Dvarim 23:17), “Lo yireh becha ervas davar—There shall not be seen within you an unseemly thing…” Rabbi Shmuel bar Nachmani in VaYikra Rabbah (24:7) rereads the words to say “ervas dibur” instead of “ervas davar.” The verse now reads – “There shall not be seen within you an unseemly statement – namely “cursing.”
And so the anonymous Obama senior official who gave the interview to a certain Jeffrey Goldberg for the Atlantic Magazine certainly violated an “unseemly thing” and did something quite “evil” as the Midrash describes.
We can perhaps also add another Torah thought here. Ben Azzai, in Pirkei Avos (4:2) teaches us an important principle – One evil causes another evil – Aveirah goreres Aveirah. It is certainly evil to allow Iran to develop nuclear capability. That evil led to the evil of curding out the Prime Minister of Israel. And certainly, its growing toleration in society around us is not indicative of healthy growth.
And it seems that it is not just an innocuous, harmless little activity. The Gemorah in Shabbos (33a) tells us that because of the sin of cursing 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 are rather serious. The Shla (Osios Shin Shtika 24) writes that cursing is the Avi Avos HaTumah – the ultimate source of impurity.
The Neshama, or soul, reflects the divine aspects of mankind. In contrast, cursing reflects the Nefesh Habahamis—the animalistic aspect of mankind. Interestingly enough, scientists believe that there is also cursing in the animal kingdom. Frans de Waal, a professor of primate behavior at Emory University in Atlanta, 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 it as aggressive.”
Such behaviors are threat gestures, and can be interpreted as a form of cursing.
The bottom line is that cursing emanates from and reflects the lowliest aspects of human behavior.
The reason cursing is called “Avi Avos HaTumah by the Shla HaKadosh is that such activity undermines the holiness of Klal Yisroel, both of oneself and of others. In fact, the Gemorah in Kesuvos (5b) instructs the others just how they should react. The Gemorah states that fingers were created like straight tent pegs for a reason – so that someone who hears Nivul Peh can place his fingers in his ears to blot out the sound.
The Midrash tells us that the Jews in Egypt reached the 49th level of impurity, but even then, they did not succumb so low as to curse (Psikta Zuta Shmos 6:10). They did not change their language implies, according to the Midrash, that they did not change their manner of speech either. We see how serious such activity truly is.
It also reduces our pre-designated life spans. The Gemorah in Niddah (16b) states that even if one had a life span of seventy years, nivul peh can turn it around in the wink of an eye.
Surprisingly enough, however, the TaZ (YD 124:1) states that the reason the Gemorah uses the wording “one who removes curse words from his mouth” rather than “one who issues curse words from his mouth” is to show us that the prohibition is only when one does so intentionally and willfully. Otherwise, it may not be the most proper thing, but it does not violate the biblical prohibition.
Unfortunately, the anonymous Obama administration official seems to have done so purposefully. Most likely, he did not even know the TaZ.
It is interesting to note that philosophers are sometimes at a loss in defining why exactly cursing is wrong. From a Torah perspective, of course, the issue is impurity. Man was created in the Divine Image and possesses a Chailek Elokah mimaal – a Divine section from Above. Cursing and the uttering of profane words darkens and sullies that Divine section from Above that we all possess.
The Mesilas Yesharim points out that this lesson about being careful in how we communicate our thoughts and words to others is found in the very beginning of Sefer Bereishis. Hashem instructs Noach to take both pure and impure animals to be placed in the ark. Yet when Hashem gives him these instructions, careful attention is given to make sure that the word “Tameh” is not used. Instead Hashem tells Noach to take the animal that is not pure. Apparently, just reciting the word “impure” has negative effects. Certainly this must be true for real curse words themselves. Many extra words are used by the Torah to teach us this very important lesson – not to sully our Neshamos by cursing.
The take home lesson is that we, as parents, should actively resist both evils. We should each our children the Torah thinking against Nibul Peh – instead of just ignoring it. We should also vociferously denounce the impending deal that is about to be announced – wherein the lives of millions of Jews are now to be imperiled, heaven forbid.
The author can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
By Rabbi Yair Hoffman