Speaking kindly

“Guard my tongue from evil and my lips from speaking guile”
“If you have NOTHING good to say, SAY NOTHING”

The first is a quotation from the Book of Psalms 34: 13. The second quotation is from one of our greatest rabbinical scholars and founder of the Musar movement in Judaism, dedicated to ethics and ethical living Its author was much influenced by the above-mentioned source from the Book of Psalms.

His name was Rabbi Israel Meir Kagan, known world-wide in the Jewish world as the “Chofetz Chayim”. He who desires life.

He was born in what is now Belarus in 1839 and died there in 1933 (the year of my birth). The 95 years of his life were dedicated to teaching kindness, humaneness, respect and honor of one’s fellow-man.

I feel some kind of a personal attachment to him, not only because of his immense wisdom but because of our common landsmanschaft… our community.

He was born in the same village as my paternal grandmother (Zhetl) who married my grandfather from the nearby village of Dereczyn where my father was born, a distance comparable to my Rishon Lezion from nearby Nes Tziona.

My grandfather was an admirer of the Chofetz Chayim and lived his life by the ethical teachings of the renowned rabbi.

His familiar name originated from the popularity of his book by the title of that name, “Sefer Chofetz Chayim”, the Book for those who desire life.

Its sole subject dealt with the laws of gossip and slander… hilchot shmirat ha-lashon, the laws of clean speech, avoidance of slander, guarding one’s tongue from speaking evil. But he defined lashon hara as saying bad things about a person even if they were true or not true. He despised name-calling as a violation of love and respect for one’s fellowman.

In his 95 years of life he published 21 books, almost every one of them dealing with ethical treatises on the proper use of speech.

In 1925 he announced that it was his wish and intention to move to Palestine and to settle in Petach Tikva. But protests from hundreds of prominent rabbis throughout Poland and Lithuania, joined by deans of yeshivot, urged him to remain in what was then the Polish republic.

They implored him never to leave his community where he was heralded as the greatest rabbi of his generation. Reluctantly he agreed to remain in Poland and he died in the town of Radun in 1933.

In his life, Rabbi Israel Meir Kagan was greatly honored and regarded as .a saint by Jews and non-Jews alike.

Polish farmers would transport him into their fields, begging him to come, in the belief that his very presence would bring blessing to their crops.

At the age of 91, he was invited to Warsaw as a guest of the Polish Prime Minister.

After his death in 1933 at age 95, his burial place became a shrine for pilgrimages for those seeking blessings.

His words which especially today in our politically torn and divisive Israel have more meaning than ever before.

“If you have NOTHING good to say, say NOTHING”.

Would that all our politicians in and out of the Knesset could engrave those words on the name-plates which decorate their desks.

Lashon hara, evil speech about others, whether true or not true, is not simply slander according to the Chofetz Chayim , it is also a sin before God.

Not wishing to be a sinner, I myself must follow the guidance of Psalm 34, verse 13…

“O Lord, guard my tongue from evil and my lips from speaking guile”.

For I too wish to be a “chofetz chayim”… one who desires life. A good and an honorable life.

About the Author
Esor Ben-Sorek is a retired professor of Hebrew, Biblical literature & history of Israel. Conversant in 8 languages: Hebrew, Yiddish, English, French, German, Spanish, Polish & Dutch. Very proud of being an Israeli citizen. A follower of Trumpeldor & Jabotinsky & Begin.
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