Proverbs chapter 6 opens with a strong rebuke. A father is giving his son counsel for getting tangled up in his words:
My son, if you have become surety for your neighbor, have given a pledge for a stranger, if you have been snared with the words of your mouth, have been caught with the words of your mouth, do this then, my son, and deliver yourself; since you have come into the hand of your neighbor, go, humble yourself, and importune your neighbor. (Proverbs 6:1-3)
Perhaps the son had made a promise he cannot keep. Maybe, in the heat of the moment, he promised to do something that he later realized was impossible. His only solace was to seek out the forgiveness of the one he has offended.
The Wicked Tongue
Words are tricky because they can’t be taken back; sometimes even a sincere apology is not enough. I remember a time in fourth grade when my teacher gave our class a lesson on words. She took a tube of toothpaste and squeezed it all out onto a plate. She then offered ten dollars to anyone who could put all the toothpaste back into the tube. Although we all scrambled upfront, eager to win the money, none of us could do it. She then told us that it is the same with our words. Once they are out, we can’t put them back.
The proverb goes on to describe characteristics of someone who has let his tongue lead him into more and more wickedness.
A worthless person, a wicked man, is the one who walks with a perverse mouth… Who with perversity in his heart continually devises evil, who spreads strife. (Proverbs 6:12, 14)
Our words give insight into what a person is made of because they reveal the secrets of the heart. The Master tells us, “the mouth speaks out of that which fills the heart” (Matthew 12:34). We can’t hide when our mouth spews out ungodliness and evil. It’s not just a slip of the tongue, but it’s the essence of our being.
We learn in verse 16 that there are things that the Father hates and are an abomination to him. One of them is the lying tongue. The sin of wicked speech is one of the most grievous sins a person can commit; in fact, the rabbis say it is the worst. We must learn to control our tongues.
The Abundance of Words
Controlling the tongue is one of the 613 traditional commandments of the Torah. It is derived from a verse in Leviticus:
You shall not go about as a slanderer among your people, and you are not to act against the life of your neighbor; I am the LORD. (Leviticus 19:16)
This commandment tells us not to tell tales about people. In Hebrew “gossip” is called lashon hara (literally “tongue of the evil”). Combining the first half of the verse with the second, when we gossip about people, we are essentially acting against their life. By spreading evil about someone, we are destroying their character.
Gossip includes not only false statements but also things that are true; to spread negative information about someone—even if it is true—harms their character and degrades the image in which they were created.
Later in Proverbs, we hear a caution about being involved in too much idle conversation:
When there are many words, transgression is unavoidable. (Proverbs 10:19)
The more conversation, the greater the chance that we will slip into gossip. Last month we discussed the sages’ advice, “a fence to wisdom is silence.”  We can protect our wisdom, the Torah, when we remain silent. Sometimes it is better to be quiet than to get involved in potentially dangerous conversations.
In a midrash by Rabbi Yose ben Zimra, we find a lament by God as he tries to help us gain control of our tongue:
The Holy One, blessed be He, said to the tongue: “All members of the human body are standing, you are lying; all members of the human body are outside, you are guarded inside; not only that, but I surrounded you with two walls, one of bone and one of flesh; What shall be given unto thee, what shall be done more unto thee, thou deceitful tongue!” (b.Arachin 15b).
It seems we could learn a lot from this midrash, starting with closing our mouths and thinking twice before we say something we might later regret. As the old saying goes, “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.”
- m.Avot 4:13.