By Rabbi Joseph Telushkin

OVER THE PAST DECADE, whenever I have lectured on the powerful, and often negative, impact of words, I have asked audiences if they can go for 24 hours without saying any unkind words about or to anybody. Invariably, a minority of listeners raise their hands signifying "yes"; some laugh; and quite a large number call out, "no!"

I respond by saying, "Those who can't answer `yes' must recognize that you have a serious problem. If you can not go for 24 hours without drinking liquor, you are addicted to alcohol. If you can not go for 24 hours without smoking, you are addicted to nicotine. Similarly, if you can not go for 24 hours without saying unkind words about others, you have lost control of your tongue."

How can I compare the harm done by a bit of gossip or a few unpleasant words to the damage caused by alcohol and smoking? Think about your own life for a minute. Unless you, or someone dear to you, has been the victim of terrible physical violence, chances are the worst pains you have suffered in life have come from words used cruelly--from ego-destroying criticism, excessive anger, sarcasm, public and/or private humiliation, hurtful nicknames, betrayal of secrets, rumors, and malicious gossip.

There is no area of life in which so many people systematically violate the Golden Rule. If you were about to enter a room and heard those inside talking about you, chances are what you would least like to hear them discussing are your character flaws and the intimate details of your social life. Yet, when you are with friends and the conversation turns to people not present, what aspects of their lives are you and your companions most likely to explore? Is it not their character flaws and the intimate details of their social lives?

If you do not participate in such talk, congratulations. Before asserting this as a definite fact, though, try monitoring your conversation for two days. Note on a piece of paper every time you say something negative about someone who is not present and record when others do so, as well as your reactions when that happens. Do you try to silence the speaker, or do you ask for more details?

To ensure the test's accuracy, make no effort to change the content of your conversations throughout the two-day period and do not try to be kinder than usual in assessing another's character and actions. Most of those who take this test are unpleasantly surprised.

Negative comments we make about absent individuals is just one way we wound with words. We cruelly can hurt those to whom we are speaking as well. For instance, many of us, when enraged, grossly exaggerate the wrong done by the person who has provoked our ire. If the anger expressed is disproportionate to the provocation (as frequently occurs when parents rage at children), it is unfair, may inflict great hurt and damage, and thus is unethical.

All too often, many of us criticize with harsh, offensive words, turn disputes into quarrels, belittle or humiliate others, and inflict wounds that last a lifetime. One reason many otherwise good people use words irresponsibly and cruelly is that they regard the injuries inflicted as intangible and therefore minimize the damage they can cause. For generations, children taunted by playmates have been taught to respond, "Sticks and stones can break my bones, but words (or names) can never hurt me." Does anyone really think that a child exposed to such abuse believes that bit of doggerel?

An old Jewish teaching compares the tongue to an arrow: "Why not another weapon--a sword, for example?," one rabbi asks. "Because," he is told, "if a man unsheathes his sword to kill his friend, and his friend pleads with him and begs for mercy, the man may be mollified and return the sword to its scabbard. But an arrow, once it is shot, can not be resumed."

This comparison is more than a useful metaphor. Because words can be used to inflict devastating and irrevocable suffering, Jewish teachings go so far as to compare cruel words to murder. A penitent thief can return the money he has stolen; a murderer, no matter how sincerely he repents, can not restore his victim to life. Similarly, one who damages another's reputation through malicious gossip or who humiliates another publicly never fully can undo the damage.

Words, quite simply, are powerful. Indeed, the Bible teaches that God created the world through words. At the beginning of Genesis, we are told, "And God said, 'Let there be light,' and there was light." I would submit that human beings, like God, create with words. Consider the fact that most, if not all, of us have had the experience of reading a novel and being so moved by the fate of a character that we have cried, even though he or she doesn't exist. All that happened was that writer took a blank piece of paper, put words on it, and through them created a human being so totally real that he or she is capable of evoking our deepest emotions.

Words are powerful enough to lead to love, but can lead to hatred and terrible pain as well. We must be extremely careful how we use them.

A Jewish folktale, set in 19th-century Eastern Europe, tells of a man who went through a small community slandering the rabbi. One day, feeling suddenly remorseful, he begged the rabbi for forgiveness and offered to undergo any form of penance to make amends. The rabbi told him to take a feather pillow from his home, cut it open, and scatter the feathers to the wind. The man did as he was told and returned to the rabbi. He asked, "Am I now forgiven?"

"Almost," came the response. "You just have to perform one last task: Go and gather all the feathers."

"But that's impossible," the man protested, "for the wind has already scattered them."

"Precisely," the rabbi answered.

The rabbi in this story understands that words define our place in the world.

Once our place--in other words, our reputation--is defined, it is very difficult to change, particularly if it is negative.

Pres. Andrew Jackson, who, along with his wife, was the subject of relentless malicious gossip, once noted: "The murderer only takes the life of the parent and leaves his character as a goodly heritage to his children, while the slanderer takes away his goodly reputation and leaves him a living monument to his children's disgrace."

Considerate, fair, and civilized use of words is every bit as necessary in the larger society as in one-on-one relationships. Throughout history, words used unfairly have promoted hatred and even murder. African-Americans, for instance, long were branded with words that depicted them as subhuman. Those who first described them in such terms hoped to enable whites to view blacks as different and inferior to themselves. This was important because, if whites perceived blacks as fully human, otherwise "decent" people never could have tolerated their persecution, enslavement, or lynching.

Similarly, when the radical Black Panther Party referred to police as "pigs" during the 1960s, the intent was not to hurt policemen's feelings. Rather, it was to dehumanize them and so establish in people's minds that murdering a police officer really was only like killing a dumb animal.

Biblical ethics of speech

The biblical ethics of speech derive in large measure from a verse in Leviticus: "You shall not go about as a talebearer among your people" (19:16).

Not coincidentally, this appears just two verses before the Bible's most famous law: "Love your neighbor as yourself" (19:18).

Because the commandment is so terse, it is difficult to know exactly what the Bible means by "talebearing." Does this law mean that it is forbidden to talk about any aspect of other people's lives (e.g., telling a friend, "I was at a party at Sam and Sally's house last night. It's absolutely gorgeous what they've done with their kitchen.")? Or does the verse only outlaw damning insinuations (e.g., "When Sam went away on that business trip last month, I saw his wife Sally at a fancy restaurant with a good-looking guy. She didn't see me, because they were too busy making eyes at each other.")? Is it talebearing, for that matter, to pass on true stories (e.g., "Sally confessed to Betty she's having an affair. Sam ought to know what goes on when he's out of town.")?

The Bible never fully answers these questions. Nevertheless, Jewish teachers have elaborated upon biblical law for centuries and formulated, in ascending order of seriousness, three types of speech that we should decrease or eliminate: non-defamatory and true remarks about others; negative, though true, stories that lower the esteem in which people hold the person being discussed; and slander--that is, lies or rumors that are negative and false.

Non-defamatory and true remarks. The comment, "I was at a party at Sam and Sally's house last night. It's absolutely gorgeous what they've done with their kitchen," is non-defamatory and true. What possible reason could there be for discouraging people from exchanging such innocuous, even complimentary, information?

For one thing, the listener might not find the information so innocuous. While one person is describing how wonderful the party was, the other well might wonder, "Why wasn't I invited? I had them over to my house just a month ago."

The more important reason for discouraging "innocuous" gossip is that it rarely remains so. Suppose I suggest that you and a friend spend 20 minutes talking about a mutual acquaintance. How likely is it that you will devote the entire time to exchanging stories about his or her niceness? How soon before it takes on a negative tone?

For most of us, exchanging critical news and evaluations about others is far more interesting and enjoyable than exchanging accolades. If I were to say to you, "Janet is a wonderful person. There's just one thing I can't stand about her," on what aspects of Janet's character do you think the rest of our conversation most likely will focus? "Nobody ever gossips about other people's secret virtues," British philosopher Bertrand Russell once noted. What is most interesting about others usually are their character flaws and private scandals, people tend to think.

Even if you do not let the discussion shift in a negative direction, becoming an ethical speaker forces you to anticipate the inadvertent harm your words might cause. For instance, although praising a friend might seem like a laudable act, doing so in the presence of someone who dislikes him or her probably will do your friend's reputation more harm than good. Your words well may provoke the antagonist to voice the reasons for his or her dislike, particularly if you leave soon after making your positive remarks.

Indeed, the danger of praise leading to damage likely is at the root of the Book of Proverbs' rather enigmatic observation: "He who blesses his neighbor in a loud voice in the morning, it will later be thought a curse" (27:14). Bible commentaries understand this to mean that fame and notoriety ultimately can damage a person's good name-or worse.

Negative truths. As a rule, most people seem to think there is nothing morally wrong in spreading negative information about another as long as the statement is true. Ordinary experience proves otherwise, however. The Jewish tradition takes a very different view. Perhaps that is why the Hebrew term lashon ha-ra (literally "bad language" or "bad tongue") has no precise equivalent in English. For, unlike slander, which universally is condemned as immoral because it is false, lashon ha-ra is true. It is the dissemination of accurate information that will lower the status of the person to whom it refers; hence, I translate it as "negative truths."

Jewish law forbids spreading negative truths about others unless the person to whom you are speaking needs the information. To do so is a very serious offense, one that has been addressed by many non-Jewish ethicists as well. Two centuries ago, the Swiss theologian and poet Jonathan K. Lavater offered a good guideline concerning the spreading of such news: "Never tell evil of a man if you do not know it for a certainty, and if you know it for a certainty, then ask yourself, `Why should I tell it?'"

Intention has a great deal to do with the circumstances in which it is prohibited to speak negative truths. The same statement, depending on the context, can constitute a compliment or a mean-spirited attempt to diminish another's status. For example, if you relate that a person known to have limited funds gave $100 to a certain charity, you probably will raise the person's stature because people will be impressed at his or her generosity. If you say of an individual known to be wealthy that he or she gave $100 to the same cause, though, the effect will be to diminish respect for that person. He or she now will be thought of as "cheap."

This realization does not deter many people from speaking negative truths.

Gossip often is so interesting that it impels many of us to violate the Golden Rule to "Do unto others as you would have others do unto you." Although we are likely to acknowledge that we would want embarrassing information about ourselves kept quiet, many of us refuse to be equally discreet concerning others' sensitive secrets.

Slander. The most grievous violation of ethical speech is the spreading of malicious falsehoods, what Jewish law calls motzi shem ra, or "giving another a bad name." To destroy someone's good name is to commit a kind of murder. That is why it is called "character assassination." Indeed, it has led to literal murder. During Europe's devastating 14th-century Black Plague, anti-Semites and others seeking scapegoats spread the lie that Jews had caused the pandemic by poisoning village wells. Within a few months, enraged mobs murdered tens of thousands of Jews.

Too often, the victims of slanderous tongues suffer terribly. In Shakespeare's plays, there is no villain more vile than Othello's Iago, whose evil is perpetrated almost exclusively through words. At the outset, Iago vows to destroy the Moorish general Othello for bypassing him for promotion. Knowing Othello's jealous nature, Iago convinces him that his new wife, Desdemona, is having an affair with another man. The charge seems preposterous, but Iago repeats the accusation again and again, then arranges the circumstantial evidence necessary to destroy Desdemona's credibility. Soon, Othello comes to believe the slander and murders his beloved, only to learn almost immediately that Iago's words were false. For Othello, "Hell," as an old aphorism teaches, "is truth seen too late."

Speak No Evil Day

What if we could share our consciousness of the power of words with many others--even the entire nation? I have proposed an annual Speak No Evil Day.

Senators Connie Mack (R.-Fla.) and Joseph Lieberman (D.-Conn.) have introduced a bipartisan resolution in the U.S. Senate that requires the co-sponsorship of 50 senators. This resolution would establish such a day, requesting that the President issue a proclamation calling on the American people to eliminate all hurtful and unfair talk for 24 hours; transmit negative information only when necessary; monitor and regulate how they speak to others; strive to keep anger under control; argue fairly and not allow disputes to degenerate into name-calling or other forms of verbal abuse; and speak about others with the same kindness and fairness they wish those people to exercise when speaking about them.

A Speak No Evil Day would plant the seed of a more permanent shift in our consciousness. I hope it would touch everyone--from journalists, politicians, activists, teachers, ministers, and businessmen to mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, sons, and daughters.

A rabbi once told me that his grandmother used to say, "It is not within everyone's power to be beautiful, but all of us can make sure that the words that come out of our mouths are." A Speak No Evil Day could be a 24-hour period of verbal beauty.

It could be a day when a young child frequently teased by his classmates and called by an ugly nickname can go to school confident no one will say a cruel word to him.

It could be a day on which an employee with a sharp-tongued boss can go to work without fearing that he or she will be abused verbally.

It could be a day on which that sharp-tongued boss, the type who says, "I don't get ulcers, I give them," might come to understand how vicious such a statement is and will say nothing to cause pain to another.

It could be a day when a Congressional candidate who suffered a nervous breakdown will not have to worry that his opponent may use this painful episode to humiliate him publicly.

It could be a day when a husband who always complains tells his wife what he loves about her.

It could be a day when a person of one race will see beyond the color of another's skin.

It could be a day when people will use the words that heal others' emotional wounds, not those that inflict them.

A Jewish proverb teaches, "If you will it, it is no fantasy." If we want it enough, a Speak No Evil Day is possible. Let us try.

Rabbi Telushkin serves the Synagogue of the Performing Arts, Los Angeles, Calif., and is the author of Words That Hurt, Words That Heal: How to Choose Words Wisely and Well. This article is based on a Center for Constructive Alternatives Seminar at Hillsdale (Mich.) College.