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?
A. Shtayim [the feminine conjugation, rather
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
"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
"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
"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
"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
"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
"`But I just told you,' she replied, puzzled, `like in Ramat
"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
"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'
"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