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Would God Use the ‘F’ Word? (1 Samuel 20:18-42)

The rabbinic sages paid very close attention to how the characters in the Tanakh (Bible) expressed themselves, looking for potential lessons to be learned. When King Saul noticed that David was absent from the special festive meal celebrating Rosh Hodesh (the new month), he justified his absence from the meal with what he thought was the likely reason: “And Saul spoke no word on that day, for he thought, ‘It is a mischance. He is not pure (bilti tahor), surely, he is not pure (lo tahor).” (20:26)

This reason would have made sense because the Rosh Hodesh celebration would have included a sacrificial feast which would have required ritual purity to be eaten. However, this is not the point which captured Rabbi Aha bar Yaakov’s attention in the following Talmudic passage. He was taken by the way Saul’s thoughts on this subject were expressed: “For Rabbi Joshua ben Levi said: ‘One should never express oneself vulgarly’… Rabbi Aha bar Jacob said: ‘[For Scripture intentionally (so he thought) went out of its way to express something negative without using negative language], for it is said: And Saul spoke no word on that day, for he thought, ‘It is a mischance. He is not ritually pure (bilti tahor), surely, he is not ritually pure (lo tahor)’.” (adapted from Pesahim 3a)

Rabbi Aha was surprised that Scripture did not use the more economical expression “tamei – impure” to express ritual impurity. Instead, it used the expressions “bilti tahor” and “lo tahor”, both meaning “not pure”. He inferred from this usage the lesson that the Divine text went out of its way not to use vulgar language. And obviously, this was meant to be a practical lesson for every day behavior.

In our day when people are testing the limits of the use of what previously might have been considered foul language in common parlance and in public expression, this should be a valuable take-away lesson. The sages presumed that if God went out of his way not to use impolite language, then people should also do the same.

The sages wisely discerned that people are judged by how they express themselves and found a cute and profound way to impress upon us this message. It is one clearly worth heeding.

About the Author
Mordechai Silverstein is a teacher of Torah who has lived in Jerusalem for over 30 years. He specializes in helping people build personalized Torah study programs.
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