Rav Kook Torah

Purity of Speech

communication

Solomon, the wisest of men, cautioned: “The tongue has power over death and life” (Proverbs 18:21).

In prayer, we elevate our power of speech, as we express holy thoughts and aspirations. And when we conclude the Amidah, we add a special prayer: that we may maintain this purity of speech throughout the day. This short prayer was composed by the fourth-century scholar Mar, son of Ravina:

“אֱ-להַי, נְצור לְשׁונִי מֵרָע וּשְׂפָתַי מִדַּבֵּר מִרְמָה.”

“My God, guard my tongue from evil and my lips from speaking deceitfully.” (Berachot 17a)

What is the difference between speaking evil and speaking deceitfully?

Two Pitfalls of Communication

This prayer uses two different words for “language”: lashon and saphah. These two words, Rav Kook explained, correspond to two aspects of speech:

  • The inner meaning of our words, the message we intend to communicate;
  • Their external “attire” — how our words are interpreted by others.

  • The word lashon literally means “tongue.“ As indicated by the tongue’s location inside the mouth, lashon refers to the inner intent of our speech.

    Saphah, on the other hand, literally means “lip.“ This refes to the external aspect of speech, how our words are understood by others. It is called saphah since the lips help form the sounds of speech outside the mouth.

    There are two major pitfalls in speech, and we ask for Divine guidance in both areas. The first issue relates to the intention and content of our words. Speech that is meant to be manipulative or hurtful is clearly wrong. We pray that our lashon — the intent of our speech — should be sincere and free of malicious motives. “Guard my tongue from evil.

    The second pitfall concerns the second aspect of communication: how we are understood by others. If we do not express ourselves clearly, our words will fail to convey our true intent. Sometimes we may be tempted to prevaricate and deceive others. Therefore we pray that our saphah — the external expression of our speech — will not be misleading or duplicitous. “And guard my lips from speaking deceitfully.

    (Adapted from Ein Eyah vol. I, p. 81)

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