Cursing: A Halachic Analysis

(Thursday, December 9th, 2010)

It is said that General Sherman Patton was a master at it, and reached Shakespearian levels of originality in the form.  It is highly likely that it is true because soldiers and war have always involved cursing and profanity since the dawn of warfare.  In fact, the Midrash attests to this on the verse in Dvarim (23:10), “When you go out to war guard yourself from every evil matter.”  How does the Midrash (VaYikra Rabbah 24:7) define evil matter?  You guessed it – “cursing” referred to in Hebrew as Nivul Peh.

Indeed, the Midrash seems to indicate that it is a Biblically forbidden prohibition whether in war or not in war – it is just that it is more common in wartime or in the soldier’s barrack rather than in the typical social structure or setting to which the Torah generally speaks.  In fact, the Machzor Vitri (424), one of the foremost students of Rashi, writes that the prohibition is biblical.

There may be a different source for a biblical prohibition too.  The Torah tells us (Dvarim 23:17), “Lo yireh becha ervas davar – There shall not be seen within you an unseemly thing..”  Rabbi Shmuel bar Nachmani in VaYikra Rabbah (24:7) rereads the words to say “ervas dibur” instead of “ervas davar.”  The verse now reads – “There shall not be seen within you an unseemly statement – namely “cursing.”

Unfortunately, we are hearing more and more of it.  Once, not too long ago, a beard and payos were signs of piety and holiness.  And, of late, well, let’s just say that in some places things are not quite what they once were.  And certainly, its growing toleration in society around us is not indicative of healthy growth.

Most disturbing is the ruling last year that Police officers in new York City may curse in their normal daily procedures and activities.  Its presence in the workplace is more and more prevalent.

And it seems that it is not just an innocuous, harmless little activity.  The Gemorah in Shabbos (33a) tells us that because of the sin of cursing great problems come to Israel.  Harsh decrees are promulgated, the youth die young, orphans and widows cry out and are not answered.  In other words, the repercussions are rather serious.  The Shla (Osios Shin Shtika 24) writes that cursing is the Avi Avos HaTumah – the ultimate source of impurity.

The Neshama, or soul, reflects the divine aspects of mankind.  In contrast, cursing reflects the Nefesh Habahamis – the animalistic aspect of mankind.  Interestingly enough, scientists believe that there is also cursing in the animal kingdom.   Frans de Waal, a professor of primate behavior at Emory University in Atlanta, explains that when chimpanzees are angry “they will grunt or spit or make an abrupt, upsweeping gesture that, if a human were to do it, you’d recognize it as aggressive.”

Such behaviors are threat gestures, and can be interpreted as a form of cursing.

The bottom line is that cursing emanates from and reflects the lowliest aspects of human behavior.

The reason cursing is called “Avi Avos HaTumah by the Shla HaKadosh is that such activity undermines the holiness of Klal Yisroel, both of oneself and of others.  In fact, the Gemorah in Kesuvos (5b) instructs the others just how they should react.  The Gemorah states that fingers were created like straight tent pegs for a reason – so that someone who hears Nivul Peh can place his fingers in his ears to blot out the sound.

The Midrash tells us that the Jews in Egypt reached the 49th level of impurity, but even then, they did not succumb so low as to curse (Psikta Zuta Shmos 6:10).  They did not change their language implies, according to the Midrash, that they did not change their manner of speech either.  We see how serious such activity truly is.

It also reduces our pre-designated life spans.  The Gemorah in Niddah (16b) states that even if one had a life span of seventy years, nivul peh can turn it around in the wink of an eye.

Surprisingly enough, however, the TaZ (YD 124:1) states that the reason the Gemorah uses the wording “one who removes curse words from his mouth” rather than “one who issues curse words from his mouth” is to show us that the prohibition is only when one does so intentionally and willfully.  Otherwise, it may not be the most proper thing, but it does not violate the biblical prohibition.

It is interesting to note that philosophers are sometimes at a loss in defining why exactly cursing is wrong.  From a Torah perspective, of course, the issue is impurity.  Man was created in the Divine Image and possesses a Chailek Elokah mimaal – a Divine section from Above.  Cursing and the uttering of profane words darkens and sullies that Divine section from Above that we all possess.

The Mesilas Yesharim points out that this lesson about  being careful in how we communicate our thoughts and words to others is found in the very beginning of Sefer Bereishis.  Hashem instructs Noach to take both pure and impure animals to be placed in the ark.  Yet when Hashem gives him these instructions , careful attention is given to make sure that the word “Tameh” is not used.  Instead Hashem tells Noach to take the animal that is not pure.  Apparently, just reciting the word “impure” has negative effects.  Certainly this must be true for real curse words themselves.   Many extra words are used by the Torah to teach us this very important lesson – not to sully our Neshamos by cursing.

The author can be reached at yairhoffman2@gmail.com

13 Comments

  1. mizrachistin says:

    This article is extremely misleading, bec in seforim we find that when torah refers to nivul peh it doesn’t mean cursing rather lewd remarks and discussions not the cursing that we refer to today I don’t mean at all to belittle the badness of street talk it is goyish and low

  2. Trying my best says:

    mizrachistin (#1)’s point seems correct.

    Can Rabbi Hoffman (or others) expand on and respond to mizrachistin, please?

    Yasher Koach

  3. majormasmid says:

    #1 – Your comment is very disrepectful. You publicly call a respected Rabbi’s d’var Torah “extremely misleading” and only vaguely refer to some “seforim we find”. And on top of that, according to your very own mention of those seforim, “lewd remarks” is EXACTLY what Rabbi Hoffman is talking about. He’s not talking about lo taor nasi b’amcha. Look up lewd at dictionary.com, and you’ll see the definition mention vulgar, obscene, indecent, profane, etc. Look up curse/cuss, and you’ll find also the defintion includes profanity.

  4. suburbanite says:

    I know of General George Patton and General William Tecumseh Sherman, but never heard of a General Sherman Patton??

  5. lazerc says:

    General George Patton! who was General Sherman Patton??
    see http://www.jewishmag.com/121mag/patton-harry-fisher/patton-harry-fisher.htm for a great first hand experience from a frum soldier who knew his great mouth and abilities…

  6. Halelujah says:

    TO #3,
    Your login name “majormasmid” is not only very misleading, but an egregious display of ga’avah. Second, you never show us how you are actually a masmid, if you were tr
    Imagine if I would publicly refer to myself as AmazingAnav.
    Third, if you were truly a masmid, you’d be in the beis medrash learning right now.
    Look up the definition masmid in the dictionary, and it won’t define it as a YWN commenter.

  7. chash says:

    very simply , Nivul Peh, means dirty language, that includes cursing, as well as profanity and any other similar thing, no prob,em here at all.

    To #6, you’ve obviously got some sort of problem making you very bitter about things. Instead of spreading the unease around why dont you go get some help, huh?

  8. A600KiloBear says:

    LS”D

    Rav Gechazi Menivelman, the author of sefer Shtus deKlipa, explained that yelling “Shygetz Aross” in battle (meaning battle against supporters of another candidate for the rebbeschaft in a divided community) is a segula, because “Shygetz Aross” means “Shygetz is bad” in Hungarian.

    This is a real psak. I am a real polar bear.

  9. mizrachistin says:

    When I mean lewd I mean in form of ervas davar talking about arayos stuff trying to put this as nicely as I can

  10. kosherkid says:

    To #3 – The Seforim #1 was referring to are Shas and Rishonim. (Shabbos 33a)
    The status of cursing per se depends on if it was done B’Shem.

  11. danielb43 says:

    Nivul Peh includes both having lewd discussions and using so-called “four letter words” (also known as “cursing”). This article, for the most part, addresses the latter aspect of the prohibition.

    This form of cursing is not to be confused with saying that something bad should happen to someone, which is a separate prohibition (except in the case of a true Rasha).

  12. Shintav says:

    The source in Shabbos does not outright define nivul peh, but gives us two points upon which we can. 1) A pasuk in Yeshayahu which uses the phrase. 2) A specific example of something that would be called “nivul peh’. The example in Yeshayahu does not itself define what the words mean, but Targum renders ‘v’kol pu-min m’mall-in sheker’ to translate it – hardly any of the definitions proposed in the article or comments. The example, as explained by Rash”i, is speaking of ‘why a Kallah goes to the Chuppah’ because ‘everyone already understands’ why this happens, speaking of it is purely lewd. This would imply that ‘nivul peh’ as condemned in the Aggadah in Shabbos is speaking about lewd topics ‘l’shmah’ – purely to be lewd. It would not cover speaking of such things in a constructive context – such as learning seder nashim or practicing medicine. I would like to see where R’ Hoffman derives his translation of nivul peh as what is today deemed ‘cursing’ (or as #11 suggests ‘…using so-called “four letter words”‘) as well as specific areas of speech which he would see discouraged. I can suggest that the reasons a person should not ‘curse’ are because 1) its a pure expression of anger and 2) in many situations its not derech eretz or worse – an outright chillul HaShem.

  13. YehudahTzvi says:

    Amazing how much nastiness is being thrown around here. Regardless of the exact definition, the point is clear. I for one thank the Rav for the article and will try very hard to guard my mouth from speaking lewdness and other Nivul Peh. It has always been a problem for me and I will B”N make an effort to stop.

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