“Death and life lie in the hand of the tongue” (Proverbs 18:21), warned King Solomon.
In prayer, we elevate our power of speech to express holy thoughts and aspiration. And as we conclude the Amidah, we add a special prayer that we may be able to continue this purity of speech throughout the day. The Talmud in Berachot 17a quotes this brief prayer, composed by third-century scholar Mar the son of Rav Huna:
|“My God, guard my tongue from evil and my lips from speaking deceitfully.”|
What is the difference between speaking evil (ra) and speaking deceitfully (mirmah)?
Hebrew has two 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 — and their external ‘attire’ — how our words are interpreted by others.
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, means ‘lip.’ This is the external aspect of speech, how it is understood by others. This aspect 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 concerns the inner content of our words. Speech that is meant to be dishonest or hurtful is clearly evil. So we pray that our lashon — the intent of our speech — should be free of malicious motives. “Guard my tongue from evil.”
The other pitfall concerns the second aspect of communication: how others understand our words. 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 my lips from speaking deceitfully.”
(Adapted from Ein Eyah vol. I p. 81)