The Evil Tongue

by Lois Tverberg

“Whoever of you loves life and desires to see many good days, guard your tongue from evil and your lips from speaking deceitfully.” Psalm 34:12-13, quoted in 1 Peter 3:10

The writer of Psalm 34 reminds us that the key to a long life of good days is to “guard your tongue from evil.” There has been much thought on the question of what is an “evil tongue” by Jews since the time of Jesus.

In Hebrew, words “the evil tongue” are translated as Lashon Hara (La-SHON Hah-RAH). This term is used for gossip – in particular, defaming someone to others by revealing negative details about them. Lashon Hara is different from slander, which is telling lies about others.

Lashon Hara is telling co-workers about how the boss bungled his presentation, or telling your husband how poorly the worship leader sings. This habit tears down friendships, demeans others, and undermines trust. There are, of course, a few times damaging information needs to be relayed, but otherwise, this speech is usually very destructive.

The rabbis point out that other actions close to Lashon Hara should be avoided as well. For instance, to read a newspaper editorial that you don’t like and then show it to someone just so they will scoff is called the “Dust of Lashon Hara.” It also includes sarcastic comments about another person, like, “She is such a genius, isn’t she?” Even to sneer when someone else gossips qualifies, because it communicates your negative feelings. It truly is a difficult task to avoid damaging others through subtle comments and even body language.

How do we heal our speech so that our relationships can be more fulfilling? Jesus says, “Out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks.” (Matthew 12:34) He diagnoses the problem as one of the heart. One major culprit behind gossip is our desire to see others’ actions in the worst light possible. If a friend doesn’t invite you to a party, was it an oversight, or was there malicious intent? A person who assumes the worst will want to report the slight to everyone, but a person who assumes the best will not be bothered. Our whole attitude toward others changes when we try always to give others the benefit of the doubt.

Another major reason for unkind speech is our desire to elevate ourselves by tearing others down. It may work temporarily, but over time demeans us in the eyes of others. Paul has a solution: “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves. Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others.” (Philippians 2:3-4) If we genuinely care as much about others as ourselves, we will try to protect their reputation as much as we do our own.

The Dust of Gossip

by Lois Tverberg

“No man can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison.” James 3:8

The Hebrew term that is used for gossip is Lashon Hara (La-SHON Hah-RAH). It means literally, “the evil tongue.” Jews define it as defaming a person in the eyes of others by revealing details about them that put them in a negative light. Lashon Hara is different from slander, which is telling lies about others. While everyone recognizes that slander is wrong, fewer will say that it is also wrong to speak negative truth about others. Lashon Hara is telling your co-workers all about how the boss messed up his presentation, or pointing out to your husband how poorly the worship leader sings. This habit is what tears down friendships, demeans others, and undermines trust. There are, of course, a few times when a person needs to relay damaging information, but outside of that, this kind of negativity is frowned upon in the Jewish community.

dust storm

Many rabbinic stories focus on the damage done through Lashon Hara. One is told about a man who gossiped about a rabbi, causing much damage to his reputation. The man repented and came to the rabbi to ask for forgiveness. The rabbi told him to take a pillow and open it and cast it to the wind. When he had done this, he asked him to now go gather all the feathers back into the pillow again. The man said, “But that is impossible!” and the rabbi replied that, in the same way, it was impossible to repair all the damage that his words had done.

The rabbis point out that other actions close to Lashon Hara should be avoided as well. For instance, to read a newspaper editorial article that you don’t like and then show it to someone just so they will scoff at it is called the “Dust of Lashon Hara” (Avak Lashon Hara). It also includes sarcastic comments about another person, like, “She is such a genius, isn’t she?”, or innuendos like, “Don’t mention so-and-so — I wouldn’t want to say what I know about her.” Even to laugh or sneer when someone else gossips is considered avak lashon hara, because it communicates your negative feelings. It is difficult to change lifelong patterns, but we must learn to avoid damaging others through our subtle comments and even body language. As James says,

“We all stumble in many ways. If anyone is never at fault in what he says, he is a perfect man, able to keep his whole body in check.” James 3:2

(1) This is an excerpt from the longer En-Gedi Director’s Article, Taming the Tongue. Articles about Jewish ethics of speech are available at this link .

Photo: Saperaud

Motivation Not to Sin

by Lois Tverberg

You have heard that it was said, “Do not commit adultery.” But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart. Matthew 5:27-28

The rabbis of Jesus’ day sought to motivate 7 deadly sins in a heartpeople to obey God’s word and stay far from sin. One technique they employed was to point out how seemingly small sins can evolve into much greater sins. (1) This was called kalah ka-hamurah (“light as heavy”), an abbreviation of mitsvah kalah ka-mitsvah hamurah (“a light commandment is like a heavy commandment”). In other words, kalah ka-hamurah relays the sense that breaking a less significant law is linked to breaking a greater law. The same style of logic appears in Jesus’ teaching when he compares anger to murder and lust to adultery (Mt 5:22-23, 27-28).

Other rabbis applied this same technique to make listeners aware of the potential damage that their words can do. The question was asked, to which sin is lashon hara  (the “evil tongue,” gossip) more closely related—theft or murder? The answer is murder, because a robber can always give back what he has stolen, but a murderer, as well as a gossip, can never repair all the damage that he or she has done. (2)

Not to be outdone, another source compares gossip to the murder of three persons! (3) It observes that not only do you “murder” the reputation of the object of your gossip, but you “murder” yourself, showing you are a person who savors ugly ideas about others and can’t be trusted not to betray those around you. By bringing someone else down, you bring yourself down too. And finally, you “murder” the person who listens to you. You load them down with information that will create disgust for the gossip’s subject, and tempt them to spread the word to yet more hearers.

Yet another rabbinic source asserts that gossip is like committing the three worst possible sins in Jewish thinking: idolatry, adultery, and murder! (4) Murder, of course, for what you are doing to another’s reputation. Adultery, because you are betraying a person’s trust; and idolatry, because you are acting as if you don’t believe God is listening to your words.

The rabbis’ purpose in conflating small sins with greater ones was not so much theological, but motivational. They were reminding their audiences of an important truth—that if we want to avoid sin, the time to scrutinize our conduct is when the choice is easy and the temptation is small. We do that when we consider the consequences of even our most minor actions.

(1) Joseph Telushkin, Words that Hurt, Words that Heal (Quill, 1996) p. xx

(2) David Bivin, New Light on the Difficult Words of Jesus, (En-Gedi, 2005) p. 97.

(3) Babylonian Talmud, Arachin 15b.

(4) Ibid.

Photo:  Moreau.henri

The Weightiest Law

by Lois Tverberg

One of the teachers of the law came and heard them debating. Noticing that Jesus had given them a good answer, he asked him, “Of all the commandments, which is the most important?” “The most important one,” answered Jesus, “is this: `Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: `Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.” Mark 12:28-31


Christians have traditionally understood all of the commandments to be of equal importance, but in the time of Jesus, the rabbis “weighed” the laws so that in a situation where two laws potentially conflict with each other, a person knew which one to follow. For instance, the command to circumcise on the eighth day took precedence over the Sabbath (Jn 7:22). This came out of an effort to live by God’s laws in all situations, rather than arbitrarily ignoring some and observing others. They would describe the laws in terms of being “light” (kal) and “heavy” (hamur) in relationship to each other. 1

Jesus was likely using this terminology when he spoke about the “least of the commandments” in Matthew 5:19, referencing the laws that had lower precedence compared to others. Also, in Matthew 23:23, Jesus chides the religious leaders for neglecting the “weightier” matters of the law—justice, mercy and faithfulness, while being careful to tithe each spice, a less important law.

The idea of “weighing” the laws of the Torah was likely the rationale for the question, “Of all the commands, which is most important?” (Mark 12:28-30) The lawyer was asking, “What is our ultimate priority as we try to obey God?” Jesus’ answer was to quote two laws found in the Torah, from Deuteronomy 6:14 (love God) and Leviticus 19:18 (love your neighbor). About 100 years later, Rabbi Akiva said essentially the same thing a different way: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself —this is the great principle (*clal gadol*) of the Torah.” 2

This is a very wise word as we discern what to do when two commands conflict with each other. If you must choose one over the other, choose the one that shows the most love. If you have a worship meeting one evening, but a sick friend needs you to visit during the same time, the friend should take priority. If you don’t do yard work on Sunday (or Saturday) but your elderly neighbor really needs her lawn mowed, and its the only day you can help, you should do it then. Jesus himself would probably do the same thing in your situation, and indeed, he is using you to do it.

The entire law is summed up in a single command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Gal 5:14

SittingTo explore this topic more, see chapter 12, “Jesus and the Torah” in Sitting at the Feet of Rabbi Jesus, Zondervan, 2009, p. 163-179.

1 For more on “light and heavy” in regards to the law, see New Light on the Difficult Words of Jesus, by David Bivin, pp. 96-98.

2 Sifra 89b; a comment on Lev. 19:18. Sifra is a very early rabbinic commentary on Leviticus.

(Photo: Dey)

A Strong House

by Lois Tverberg

Why do you call Me, `Lord, Lord,’ and do not do what I say? Everyone who comes to Me and hears My words and acts on them, I will show you whom he is like: he is like a man building a house, who dug deep and laid a foundation on the rock; and when a flood occurred, the torrent burst against that house and could not shake it, because it had been well built. But the one who has heard and has not acted accordingly, is like a man who built a house on the ground without any foundation; and the torrent burst against it and immediately it collapsed, and the ruin of that house was great. – Luke 6:46-49

In this parable Jesus stresses the importance of obeying his words. A similar rabbinic parable from around 70 AD sheds light on Jesus’ lesson in Luke:

Said Elisha ben Abuyah: “A virtuous man who has studied the Law diligently is similar to one who builds a foundation of stones and a superstructure of bricks; though they be inundated, yet they cannot be moved. One who is not virtuous, in spite of having studied the Law, is similar to one who lays stones on a brick foundation: the smallest freshet will overturn the building.” (1)

A Strong House

It is interesting that these parables are so similar. Both address building a house that will endure a flood and the need for a strong, well-laid foundation. And the message of both is identical – that listening must be paired with obedience. The only difference is that the rabbi stresses obedience to the laws of the Torah, and Jesus stresses obedience to his own words.

Much of rabbinic literature emphasizes the importance of pairing study of the Scriptures, especially the Torah, with obedience to God’s word. A distinct feature of Jesus’ teaching in Luke 6 is that he points people to himself and his own words, not just to the Torah. This is initially surprising because Jesus always lived and taught about humility. Yet he readily accepted the title “Lord” which was reserved for royalty, and he expected obedience from those who recognized who he was! It was as if his torah (“teaching,” as the word in Hebrew means), was the natural culmination of all that God taught his people through their Scriptures.

(1) Avot de Rabbi Natan, in Pirke Avot, Babylonian Talmud. An interesting fact about Rabbi Elisha ben Abuyah is that although he was a very highly respected thinker that others widely quoted, rabbinic literature says that later in life he became a “heretic.” Some have postulated that he became a Christian and was rejected because of his new beliefs.

Photo: Daniel Case