*The Wicked Tongue

Two rabbis stopped at an inn for a meal. It was a windy night and the shutters rattled, but inside the inn the fire was warm, and the rabbis were tired from their travel and the rain. They didn’t speak much, eating quickly because they’d only had bread and cheese since morning. Finally they were done, and sighed with satisfaction.

The innkeeper himself came out to ask them how they’d liked the meal. He was a bit full of himself, it’s true, but he knew these weren’t just any rabbis but the Chofetz Chaim and his friend, and the innkeeper had exerted every effort to serve them as they deserved.

The Chofetz Chaim praised the meal, the inn, the fire, the service and thanked the innkeeper who beamed. His companion also praised the meal, though adding that the soup could have used a little salt. When the innkeeper went back to the kitchen, this rabbi noticed that the Chofetz Chaim had gone pale. “What?” he asked. “Tell me, what’s wrong?”

“Do you know what you’ve done?” the Chofetz Chaim asked, shaking his head. “That was lashon hara.” The wicked tongue–bad speech.

“No! I just said the soup needed a little salt, that’s all. What’s so bad about that?”

“You’re telling me you don’t know? All right. Listen to me. Right now, the innkeeper is in the kitchen berating his cook. And who is she? Probably a poor widow. He is threatening to fire her and she is out of her wits with fear. What will she do for money? How will she feed her children? So how many sins is that? First you spoke lashon hara. Second you caused another to hear it. Third you made the innkeeper repeat it. Fourth you caused the cook to lie, saying she didn’t salt the soup so as not to lose her job. Fifth the owner brought harm to a widow. Sixth you caused an argument.”

The other rabbi raised his eyebrows. “That’s a lot of supposing,” he said.

“Come and see,” the Chofetz Chaim said.

Back in the kitchen, they saw the innkeeper berating the cook, who was wailing, “No, I didn’t salt the soup. I’m telling you it wasn’t me.”

The friend of the Chofetz Chaim interrupted, begging the innkeeper to leave the cook alone, assuring him that the soup was all right, the rest of the meal wonderful, the fire had warmed him from the inside out, and he would surely stop at the inn again every time he took this road. Relieved, the innkeeper opened a bottle of schnapps and had a drink with his guests, while in the kitchen the widow sat down, wiping away her tears of fright.

This is one of the best known stories of Rabbi Israel Meir HaCohen Kagan, known as the “Chofetz Chaim,” (Desirer of Life) the name of his famous work on guarding one’s tongue. Oh–if only Orlando Figes had read this.

I love this story for its cautionary tale about the effect of what we say about others. And yet, as a feminist, I am not entirely satisfied with it because in this particular story, there is an unwritten subtext: it is the power imbalance that makes the comment about the soup so awful. Honesty isn’t allowable here, not because it would be personally hurtful to the cook, but because, as a woman and a widow, she is in a vulnerable position, in fact an untenable one. There will always be someone who’d prefer more or less salt. And if someone doesn’t like the amount of salt in her soup, she will be fired. Isn’t that an awful state of things?

A treatise on lashon hara (bad speech) ought to discuss lies that arise out of power imbalance. It ought to include bad silence: the need to speak out and redress the situation so that vulnerable people are not so vulnerable.

There is a Buddhist prayer that begins like this:

“May all beings have happiness and the causes of happiness. May all be free from sorrow and the causes of sorrow. May those who are frightened cease to be frightened, may the powerless find power and may people think of befriending one another.”

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8 thoughts on “*The Wicked Tongue

  1. Clare Kinberg May 20, 2010 — 7:52 pm

    Lilian,
    Nice blog. I’m trying to contact all past contributors to Bridges, via email, for Bridges 20th anniversary. Can you send me a current email address for you?
    Thanks,
    Clare

    1. Thanks so much, Clare. I’ll send you the address.

  2. Love this post, Lilian – the power of words and silences are something we should think about. A word or silence used in the right way and in the right place is a powerful thing, and it should not be a wounding thing.

    1. Thank you Cate, and I think that your blog is an example of words used in the right way.

  3. What a wonderful post! ‘may people think of befriending one another’ – I give a hearty bravo to that. If only it were the first thought in people’s minds.

    1. Thank you, Litlove. I think I’ll keep that prayer more in mind.

  4. I love this kind of post. This one makes me think about the (negative) power of criticism. But I also like your feminist take on it. It’s not the honesty that hurts so much as the power imbalance that makes the cook vulnerable.

    1. Thanks, Pete. It’s always bothered me that in the story, the Chofetz Chaim is advising his friend to be dishonest. But honesty requires some ground rules: mutual respect, safety and security, an intention of no harm. People who pride themselves on honesty when it’s really a free pass to make gratuitously insulting comments bug me.

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