Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me’ is a well-known English idiom. But what is Judaism’s perspective on this?
I think it’s remarkable that arguably the holiest day of the Jewish calendar begins with the Kol Nidrei service – a declaration annulling any forgotten vows one may have made during the course of the year.
Granted, a broken vow is a serious and grave issue not to be sneezed at. The Torah (Bemidbar 30:3) teaches “When a person vows a vow, he shall not break his word; according to all that proceeds out of his mouth he shall do”. An entire Talmudic tractate, Masechet Nedarim, is devoted to the laws pertaining to keeping one’s promises and undertakings. But Yom Kippur is the day that will atone for all sins. The most heinous sins of man against G-d are forgiven on Yom Kippur – surely we ought to begin the day with more severe matters?
It has been argued that the reason goes back to the times of the Spanish Inquisition when Jews were confronted with the choice: convert or be expelled. There were many who chose to stay loyal and committed to their religion and faced the consequences of their decision. But there were others, abusively referred to as Marranos, who whilst outwardly behaved as devout Christians, inwardly, deep down in their hearts remained loyal to their faith. Once a year, on the eve of Yom Kippur, they would gather together in their hideout synagogues and before beginning the services would implore G-d to forgive them for any statements or declarations they had uttered over the course of the year which were contrary to Jewish doctrine. It thereby became accepted practice amongst all congregations to begin the day with Kal Nidrei.
The problem with this explanation is that Kal Nidrei predates the Spanish Inquisition by hundreds of years. Although the exact origins of this prayer are unknown, there is evidence that it was in existence during the Geonic period (circa 550-1050). There must be a deeper reason to the solemnity and gravity Jewish tradition has lent to this prayer.
In Temple times there were different degrees of ritual impurity. The more severe an impurity was, the greater the restrictions were. The most severe of ritual impurities was commonly known as the impurity of a corpse. In Rabbinic literature the impurity of a dead body is referred to as an ‘avi avot ha’tumah’ – literally a ‘grandfather of impurity’ – the source of all impurities and the most restrictive. There was only one other form of impurity that in stringency equated that of a dead body – the leper. One who slandered and spoke derogatorily of others would be inflicted with tsara’at, a whitish discoloration of the skin, and would be subjected to exactly the same laws as a dead corpse. Hence the leper would have to dwell outside the camp, because just as a dead body would make impure anyone under the same roof as it, so would a leper too.
This indicates a powerful message. Human beings are similar to animals but there is one huge difference – the ability for humans to communicate through speech. The faculty of speech is what differentiates man from the Animal Kingdom. When a person corrupts his speech and uses it for the wrong purposes he negates his essence as a human being. He may still be an animal, but as a human being he is dead. Hence the similarities in the impurity of a dead body and a leper. As humans, they are both dead. As David Hamelech (34:12-13) put it: ‘who is man who desires life? Guard your tongue from evil and your lips from speaking deceit’.
Words are powerful. Words can be used to spread hatred or foster love. As Shlomo Hamelech put it in Proverbs (18:21)‘Life and death are in the hands of the tongue’. (According to what we have explained, not just the life and death of others are in the hands of the tongue but even our own life and death are in the hands of the tongue.) With words we can build worlds. We would probably be speechless if we knew the power of speech.
Imagine taking out a cloth to polish your precious candlesticks that are slightly tarnished. After some time rubbing, you realise that they not getting any cleaner. So you rub harder and more ferociously. Mysteriously though, the harder you rub the dirtier the candlesticks become. Something is wrong.
You look at the cloth and see some splotches of black oil – someone has used your special cloth reserved for polishing your candlesticks to change the oil of his car!
However pure and wholesome our thoughts and feelings are on Yom Kippur, they have to be verbally expressed through our mouths. If the mouth is dirty and mucky and full of grime, then our deepest and heartfelt thoughts that emanate through our mouths will similarly become dirty.
So we begin the day by first making sure our speech is pure and correct. We first restore our essence as humans by making sure our faculty of speech is clean and unsullied. Then we are ready to begin praying and making the most of this precious day.
Perhaps the Jewish idiom should read: ‘sticks and stones can break my bones but words can break my soul’.