Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

A Window into the Chareidi World

29 Teves 5761 - January 24, 2001 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly








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Shema Yisrael Torah Network
Shema Yisrael Torah Network

Opinion & Comment
The Tongue of the Stammerer

by Yochonon Dovid

I went to the Talmud Torah in order to have a talk with my friend, the principal. The secretary explained that he was interviewing a candidate for a substitute position for a teacher who was about to undergo surgery. He led me into a small side room which opened directly to the principal's office and told me to wait until the latter was free. I couldn't help overhearing part of the interview.

Q. And where did you teach before?

A. I taught in a yeshiva ketana in my town. There were two (shtei) teachers; one who gave a shiur every day and the other, only once a week, but he also gave mussar shmuessen.

Q. How many rebbeim did you say there were? (In surprise.)

A. Shtayim [the feminine conjugation, rather than shnayim].

Q. Shtayim? (This in accentuated surprise.)

A. Yes. I just said so before. It was a small yeshiva and there were only two (shtei) teachers.

Silence reigned for some seconds, then the principal asked, "You really mean to say shnei rabbonim, don't you?"

"Yes," replied the candidate with an apologetic half-laugh. "Many people have already commented on this error of mine, but I think it's a lost case. That's what I'm used to saying and nothing will help me change."

Even though I couldn't see the principal, I imagined him taking a deep breath before continuing. "Look, here, my friend, the basic assumption upon which all educational activities are conducted in this establishment is that people can change. A person has free will; he controls his own actions, conduct, habits and words. We drill this into the students repeatedly, for without this axiom, there is no point in education, no chance of self- advancement, of acquiring a sense of responsibility.

"The teachers here establish examples and goals in Torah, and the students are required to make an effort to attain, as much as possible, the perfection which the Torah seeks of him. If a student claims that his makeup is such that he cannot conform and improve, he is lost. We must mobilize the entire educational setup to convince him that he is wrong. Man is the one and only creature in all of creation who can, if necessary, change. Only thus can he advance and strive for perfection, which is the ultimate goal of all mankind."

"Fine," I heard the interviewee apologizing, "that's true. But with regard to speech, that is, spontaneous utterances, I think that it is an automatic reflex which I cannot control."

"What, then, are we to do with the long list of commandments involving speech?" asked the principal. "It encompasses the daily commandments up to those forbidden utterances whose punishment is dire, indeed. The One Who established these commandments knows that it is within man's capability to control the issuance of his mouth. He can monitor his speech. Politicians who are unable to control their mouths are sometimes forced to eat their words. If they must, they apologize, but sometimes they completely deny having said something which dozens of people were audience to. I can't recall this ever happening to a great Jewish leader. Fortunate is the person who takes the counsel of the Ramban in his famous Letter: And consider your speech before you let it emerge from your mouth (in prayer), and so must you do with all speech so as not to sin.

"In Shemiras Haloshon, the Chofetz Chaim reveals to us that every man has implanted within him a special awareness of what he is in the process of saying. The problem is, he says, that habitual talking without thinking greatly mitigates this sensitivity. We need to reawaken the sense of importance of every utterance and to give particular attention to what we say in order to rehabilitate and revive that natural sensitivity to speech.

"The Chofetz Chaim relates primarily to caution in speech against slander and gossip, loshon hora and rechilus, but the same principle applies also to normal precise speech. Torah-Hebrew differentiates clearly between masculine and feminine in nouns, for example. Countless lessons throughout the Torah are derived from conjugation and syntax. Rashi takes pains in enumerating uncommon nouns which are found using both gender forms. In the beginning of Kiddushin, the amoroim deal at length with questions of gender usage, such as the word derech.

"A person is not permitted to decide on his own if the rules of basic grammar are superfluous insofar as he is concerned; he may not blithely disregard them. Lack of precision in the use of the masculine or feminine gender can greatly change the meaning of a verse and similarly contort meaningful conversation between people. If I were to take you on to fill the place of a teacher who is about to undergo surgery and parents were to complain that their children were beginning to interchange masculine and feminine usage, I don't know what I would be able to tell them.

"When we were children, there was a popular game where a child was supposed to tell a story and answer questions without using words beginning with `gimmel,' for example. It was an excellent exercise to develop awareness for every word that left our mouth. No bad speech habit is beyond repair. All it takes is a little extra effort and attention to overcome the fault and rid oneself of it. I can even provide a living proof of this from a recent true incident.

"A few weeks ago, my daughter brought home a friend. My wife asked her where she lived and she said in the street jargon, `Ke'ilu -- Like in Ramat Gan.'

"My wife repeated the question, `But where do you really live?'

"`But I just told you,' she replied, puzzled, `like in Ramat Gan.'

"My wife persevered and said, `Do you really live there, or `like' you live there?'

"She became completely confused from this line of questioning which seemed so strange to her and it became very apparent from her subsequent speech that she interjected that meaningless word, `like,' into every sentence.

"My wife explained to her at length that the word `like' has a specific meaning denoting that something is not really so, but only seems so. If one says, `Like I went . . . ,' it means that I didn't really go; it just seemed like I did, as if I did. In other words, that word actually negates the statement that follows, or that it is meant to modify, wherever it appears! The girl understood the message and apparently drew her own conclusions about it.

"A few days ago, she again visited our home and my wife talked to her at length. The word `like,' ke'ilu, had completely vanished from her vocabulary. Within those two weeks, the girl had succeeded in reawakening the natural awareness to her speech and to control whatever she said, a true concretization of the verse in Yeshaya, `The tongue of the stammerers shall be ready to speak clearly' (32:4).

"What a young girl was capable of doing in such a short span of time, each and every one of us is also able to accomplish. This is a necessary tool for doing many vital mitzvos dependent upon speech. One might interpret the command, `You shall heed the utterance of your lips,' to extend beyond the simple halachic meaning of keeping one's promises or obligations made through speech, but also as a directive to heed how one talks and to monitor correct speech by prior self criticism in thought. Whoever abides by the rule recommended by the Ramban will surely merit the marvelous blessings which he enumerates in this selfsame famous Letter."

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