By Rabbi Yair Hoffman
There is chillul Hashem. And then there is something that we can call Avi avos chillul Hashem. What happened last week in the state legislature can only be described as the latter. The reaction of some unbalanced anti-vaxxers to the fact that the state legislature removed the alleged religious exemption to vaccinations has been reported throughout the online media and in New York City newspapers.
There is no need to link to it because it affects the neshamah. But some anti-vaxxers dressed in religious garb cursed, threatened and used nivul peh, Rachmana litzlan, to the heroic legislators who are protecting the public health by removing non-medical exemptions to mandatory vaccinations.
The passing of this law saves the lives of our immunosuppressed children. It further saves the lives of our mothers, wives, and grandmothers undergoing chemotherapy who cannot be exposed to measles. Our legislators should be praised — not cursed.
Gestures Are Forbidden, Too
But at least, let us take their actions as an opportunity to learn. Perhaps the Torah brought about through their actions can help mitigate the Divine Anger that their chillul Hashem may cause.
Let us be perfectly clear. A gesture of nivul peh is also considered nivul peh. This is clear from the words of Rav Shlomo Luria in his Yam Shel Shlomo (Bava Kamma 4,11) where he writes, “A person should be careful in his speech just as in his actions [regarding nivul peh].” The Hebrew term “ma’asav” thus includes gestures of nivul peh.
The Gemara in Pesachim 3a cite Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi: A person should never allow an unseemly word to come out of his mouth, for the Torah went eight letters out of its way to avoid writing something unseemly (Bereishis 7:8). The Torah states “min ha’beheima asher einena tehorah” — from the animal that is not pure” instead of just saying, “Ha’beheimah ha’temei’ah — the animal that is impure.” Many extra words are used by the Torah to teach us this important lesson — not to sully our neshamos by cursing.
The Midrash attests to this on the verse in Devarim (23:10), “When you go out to war, guard yourself from every evil matter.” How does the Midrash (Vayikra Rabbah 24:7) define evil matter? You guessed it — “unseemly words,” referred to in Hebrew as nivul peh.
Calling NYS Assemblyman Jeffrey Dinowitz arayos-violating-names, chalilah, is what the Gemara in Pesachim and the Midrash on Devarim address.
A Biblical Prohibition
The Midrash seems to indicate that it is a Biblical prohibition whether in war or not in war — it is just that it is more common in wartime or in the soldier’s barracks rather than in the typical social structure or setting to which the Torah generally speaks. The Machzor Vitri (424), one of the foremost students of Rashi, writes that the prohibition is Biblical.
There may be a different source for a Biblical prohibition, too. The Torah tells us (Devarim 23:17), “Lo yireh becha ervas davar—There shall not be seen within you an unseemly thing…” Rabbi Shmuel bar Nachmani in Vayikra Rabbah (24:7) rereads the words to say “ervas dibbur” instead of “ervas davar.” The verse now reads “There shall not be seen within you an unseemly statement — namely “improper speech.”
And it seems that it is not just an innocuous, harmless little activity. The Gemara in Shabbos (33a) tells us that because of the sin of verbal cursing, great problems come to Israel. Harsh decrees are promulgated, the youth die young, orphans and widows cry out and are not answered. In other words, the repercussions are rather serious. The Shelah (Osios Shin Shtika 24) writes that cursing is the avi avos ha’tumah — the ultimate source of impurity.
The neshamah, or soul, reflects the Divine aspects of mankind. In contrast, cursing reflects the nefesh ha’beheimis, the animalistic aspect of mankind. Interestingly, scientists believe that there is also cursing in the animal kingdom. Frans de Waal, a professor of primate behavior at Emory University in Atlanta, explains that when chimpanzees are angry “they will grunt or spit or make an abrupt, upsweeping gesture that, if a human were to do it, you’d recognize it as aggressive.”
Such behaviors are threats, and can be interpreted as a form of cursing.
The bottom line is that cursing emanates from and reflects the lowliest aspects of human behavior.
Avi Avos HaTumah
The reason cursing is called “avi avos ha’tumah by the Shelah HaKadosh is that such activity undermines the holiness of Klal Yisrael, both of oneself and of others. The Gemara in Kesuvos (5b) instructs the others just how they should react. The Gemara states that fingers were created like straight tent pegs for a reason — so that someone who hears nivul peh can place his fingers in his ears to blot out the sound.
The Midrash tells us that the Jews in Egypt reached the 49th level of impurity, but even then, they did not succumb so low as to curse (Pesikta Zuta Sh’mos 6:10). They did not change their language implies, according to the Midrash, that they did not change their manner of speech either. We see how serious such activity truly is.
It also reduces our pre-designated life spans. The Gemara in Niddah (16b) states that even if one had a lifespan of 70 years, nivul peh can turn it around in the wink of an eye.
Surprisingly enough, however, the Taz (Y.D. 124:1) states that the reason the Gemara uses the wording “one who removes curse words from his mouth,” rather than “one who issues curse words from his mouth” is to show us that the prohibition is only when one does so intentionally and willfully. Otherwise, it may not be the most proper thing, but it does not violate the Biblical prohibition.
It is interesting to note that philosophers are sometimes at a loss in defining why exactly cursing is wrong. From a Torah perspective, the issue is impurity. Man was created in the Divine Image and possesses a cheilek Elokah mi’ma’al — a Divine section from Above. Cursing and the uttering of profane words darkens and sullies that Divine section from Above that we all possess.
May Hashem Yisbarach forgive this terrible breach in the kedushah of Klal Yisrael and protect us from all illness and disease.
Rabbi Hoffman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.