And that which my lips know they shall speak sincerely.”
What I have mostly gleaned from today’s Daf Yomi reading is that night is day and day is night in the Talmud. And it all hinges on the interpretation of the word “or” which represents choices in the English language. In yesterday’s reading the consensus leaned toward the word “or” meaning light and day, but today it appears that there is just as strong an argument that it represents night. And it is evident two days into the new Tractate, that this one will be as meandering as previous ones and discuss seemingly unrelated concepts that will take a quite a lot of studying in order to find the connectors. But the connectors exist.
We wander through a discussion of a woman who miscarries “on or of” the eighty first day after her previous childbirth and if she is obligated to offer a second offering. We are told that one offering suffices for both the birth and the miscarriage and she is free to recover from psychic and body pain without the obligation to return to the Temple. At least that is the opinion of Beit Shammai. Beit Hillel, who usually takes the more liberal stance, would require a second offering,
We also analyze the meaning of the word “or” through a discussion of a peace-offering, which must be eaten within two days, but may or may not be eaten on the third day. If one follows the logic, the night follows the day and as a result, one may eat the peace-offering on the night after the second day.
Shmuel comes down firmly on the side of the word “or” representing evening. He is quoted as teaching that “on the evening of the fourteenth of Nisan, one searches for leavened bread by candlelight.” This negates the previous day’s discussion of the word representing day and light, and we are told that one should replace the word “or” with “evening.” But there is a nuance that matters in the perspective of Shmuel. Are we speaking about the night before or after the day? The text says that “or” refers to “the evening before the day.”
In what is probably anathema to everyone who has learned to be authentic and speak freely and openly, we are advised to speak in euphemisms. We are told that Shmuel did not speak out directly about the meaning of “or” because he did not want to mention the word “darkness” but instead preferred the term “or” to refer to the night of the fourteenth of Nisan. By extension we are asked to conclude that the word refers to night rather than day. We are told through the words of Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi that “a person should never express a crude matter.” This extends to the use of the Hebrew word for “impure” and in the case of Shmuel, “evening.” Rav Pappa advised that instead of saying that someone or something is “impure” one should use the language “not ritually pure.”
In what as a modern-day New Yorker I would have found irritating due to the lack of plain-spoken language, Rabbi Yishmael said that “a person should always converse euphemistically.”
We are told that when referring to a woman who rides (presumably on a horse or donkey but not a camel which allows for some leniency), we should avoid the reference to riding because it suggests “immodest splaying of the legs” and instead refer to the“more modest image of sitting.” This is suggested to represent the “language of the crafty” which we are told means that one should “be clever when speaking and avoid inappropriate phrases.”
Of course, there is a difference between speaking in such euphemisms that one’s intention is unclear and speaking so bluntly that someone is damaged by our words. It is important to speak what is in one’s heart but with sensitivity as suggested by this quote from Job: “My words shall utter the uprightness of my heart; and that which my lips know they shall speak sincerely.”
We are offered a perspective that states one may speak plainly when it comes to ordinary speech outside the confines of the Torah. But we are immediately presented with another point of view that says, “one must speak euphemistically in every situation.”
We are told of an incident where three priests are presented with a small amount of bread and each one complained in his own way. One said that the portion was bean-sized, the other said it was the measure of an olive-bulk, and the third in a career-limiting move said it was the size of a lizard’s tail. His reference to an impure creeping animal was so disturbing that he was disqualified from the priesthood due to “arrogance.” We are told that through his use of language “he cast aspersions upon himself.”
We are provided with another example of euphemistic language. Rabbi Yehoshua traveled to visit Rav Kahana who was ill. By the time he arrived, Rav Kahana had passed away. Rabbi Yehoshua tore his clothes as a display of mourning but turned the garment around so that the tear was not immediately apparent. We are told that he was crying at the time. He was asked if Rav Kahana passed away and instead of answering directly he said that “he who utters slander is a fool.”The text tells us that “it is undesirable to be a bearer of bad tidings, and if one must inform others of the unfortunate news, he should do so in an indirect manner.”
Words matter. There is a time and place for gentle words. It might not be an ideal strategy to tell a good friend directly that she is getting fat from all the time spent at home and instead suggest joining her in a low-carb diet. But there is also a time to be direct and honest and speak the facts. We are living through the worst public health crisis of our generation and we need our leaders to be honest and direct and not to speak in euphemisms. The virus is not going away. The numbers are increasing. There are over 12 million confirmed cases in the United States and 256,000 deaths. The statistics bear out an increase in deaths in every state since the first case of coronavirus was diagnosed. We cannot make the virus go away just by saying so.
We need leaders who are not afraid for their personal political situation to deliver bad news. We need to be told plainly and directly the severity of the current situation and what every citizen must do as their part. Words can lead to action. In the words of the late Larry Kramer who died in May and shocked the country into accepting the severity of the AIDs crisis with his loud and aggressive approach, silence equals death.
Today, obfuscating the truth or speaking in euphemisms is resulting in unthinkable deaths because so many people just do not understand, or do not want to acknowledge, the severity of the pandemic. We need brave leaders who tell it like it is, and we need to listen to the hard, cold facts (and stay home.)