FRUIT OF THE MOUTH
Rabbi David Walk
Rabbi Bahye ben Asher ibn Halawa was one of the great Jewish scholars of
This week's Torah reading continues the discussion of the mysterious ailment called tzora'at, which began last week. Conventional wisdom translates this as leprosy, but we really don't what it was and many modern translations just transliterate the word. Rabbeinu Bahye follows the rabbinic tradition that tzora'at strikes as a result of sins of speech, most famously lashon hara or gossip. The verse he quotes is: From the fruit of a person's mouth one's stomach is satisfied, with the product of one's lips is one fully sated (Proverbs 18:20). The very next verse dramatically emphasizes the terrifying power of speech, 'Death and life are in the power of the tongue, and those who love to talk will reap the consequences.' The traditional approach to these verses is offered by the famous commentary Metzudot David (Rabbi David Altshuler, 17th century), 'If one speaks words of Torah life results, if one gossips then death follows.' But I think that a great approach is suggested by the Malbim (Rabbi Meir Leibish ben Yechiel Michel, 1809-1879), who suggests that the mouth hints at wisdom which is satisfactory for the individual, but doesn't necessarily go out to influence the world. That's why the fruit of one's mouth satisfies one's own innards (Hebrew: bitno or stomach in the translation). The produce of one's lips represents the knowledge which goes out to the world which inspires others and therefore the entire person is satisfied.
Rabbeinu Yonah of Geronah (Rabbi Yonah ben Avraham, d. 1263), whose commentary was known to Rabbeinu Bahye, takes a different approach. He explains that the term pri or fruit can refer to reward or punishment. He therefore presents the first half of the verse as punishment which fills one's innards, and it doesn't imply satisfaction as much as filled with pain or suffering. The second half of the verse describes the contentment which results from positive speech.
Finally, we're ready for the comments of Rabbeinu Bahye, who apparently is building on the comment of Rabbeinu Yonah. He begins by informing us that King Solomon is teaching us the immense power of one's speech for both good and bad. When this capacity is used for negative purpose, the repercussions are just waiting to fill our world with pain and suffering. However, when we utilize this amazing faculty for good and the benefit of others 'God comes with reward and is accompanied by recompense (Isaiah 40:10).' The punishments are administered by God's agents, but the rewards are delivered personally by God. But what are these positive applications of our power of speech?
Rabbeinu Bahye specifies two areas at the outset of his comment, and they are words of Torah and rebuke. He declares that these uses of our power of speech bring merit and reward to our world. I get what he means by Torah words, but what does he mean by 'rebuke'? My first impression is that this means telling others off and censuring them. However a few lines later he explains that these words of rebuke are words of 'life, truth and peace'. He's not talking about scolding others, emphasizing the negativity. Instead he is propounding an agenda of positive, heartening words of support and encouragement. Rabbeinu Bahye proposes a plan for utilizing our speech to egg on those around us to greater achievement, especially in the area of bringing peace and harmony between feuding friends and neighbors. Reproach when delivered with love and support can accomplish wonders.
So many times when we read about this parsha and the terrible punishments for spreading gossip, rumors and slander, we hear the authorities propose limiting the words that we utter. I understand that approach, and I know that for some that advice can be very useful, even to the extent of observing a ta'anit dibur (a hiatus of speaking). But I find the proposal of Rabbeinu Bahye more attractive. When you have people like me who love to talk, it's refreshing to hear one of our Torah giants cheering us on into positive and fruitful directions with all that talk. The greatest filter to speech, I believe, should be taking that extra instant to think about what we want to say before uttering it. That split second can be the most valuable time we ever use.
In so many Jewish sources the power of speech is praised as the greatest asset with which God has endowed us. Why should we look for ways to limit this marvelous gift? It's important to find ways to utilize this ability to bestow blessing and good fortune upon our world. As King Solomon informs us the fruit of our mouths can be sweet and productive. Let's sow that effort and then harvest it for the benefit of all mankind.