Pesachim 3 The trade-off between clean and clear language

On the previous daf, the Mishna told us that we need to search for chametz by the light of a candle on “אור לארבעה עשר” [ lit: “the light of the 14’th.]

One of the first פסוקים  (verses) we learnt as children tells us how Hashem created “אור”  [“light”]  on the first day, called it “יום” [day], and called the “חושך”  [darkness], “לילה” [ night.]

As such, our first assumption when reading this Mishna would be that we need to search for Chametz during the day, or perhaps at first light, of the 14’th, i.e. the day before Pesach.

Yet, far from taking it for granted, the Gemara asks what “אור” is referring to, and brings a debate between Rav Huna, who says it is referring to “נגהי”  (Aramaic for “light”] and Rav Yehuda, who says that it is referring to “לילי” (Aramaic for night.)

Seemingly unbothered by the apparent bizarreness of Rav Yehuda “translating” a word “everyone” knows means “light” as “night-time”, the Gemara initially assumes that at least  Rav Huna holds that the mishna is referring to day-time, as would be our natural assumption.

Yet after bringing an array of פסוקים  that all seem to use the word “אור”  to refer to day-time, and offering seemingly forced alternate explanations of all them in a way that the word “אור”  itself might still refer to night, it brings various examples of usage in משניות  and ברייתות where the word clearly seems to refer to night.

Clearly choosing the later over the most obvious usage in the pessukim, the Gemara concludes that even Rav Huna agrees that the Mishna refers to night-time, but explains that in his town, the word “נגהי” was also used to refer to night-time.

Seeing as we are dealing with the usage of words by Chazal, it is not surprising that the Gemara chooses examples of its usage from Chazal over the simple meaning of its usage in the scriptures, but given that Chazal do sometimes use language differently to the scriptures (see for example B.M. 2a re “ראיה”), it seems strange that the Gemara feels the need to explain the פסוקים in a way that is consistent with their usage- perhaps the Torah simply uses “אור”  in its literal usage to describe light or day, and Chazal use it as a reference to “night”, for whatever reason?

The Gemara concludes that the reason why the Mishna (and by implication other statements of Chazal) use the word “אור”  in place of “חושך”  or “לילה” is in order to make use of “לישנע מעליה”  (lit. “superior language.”)

It bases this on Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi’s ruling that a person should never let a “דבר מגונה”- “degrading word” came out of his mouth.

This ruling is in turn based on the fact that Torah added 8 extra letters, despite the golden rule that it NEVER wastes letters or words, in order to replace the phrase ” בהמה טמאה” (impure animal )  with  “בהמה אשר איננה טהורה” (“ an animal which is not pure.”

This proof is followed by others from different Amoraim.

The school of Rabbi Yishmael then brings a similar rule requiring people to always speak with “לשון נקיה” (clean language.)

This is based on the fact that whereas something that a זב  (male impure due to an unusual emission) rides on (and thus becomes impure) is referred to as מרכב הזב (lit. something the זב  rode on), the equivalent by a woman is referred to as “מושב”  (lit. something she sits on.)

Rashi explains that seeing as riding an animal involves spreading one’s legs out to a degree, something normally considered immodest for a woman, the Torah prefers to use the more modest sounding “מושב”

They then bring another two verses to substantiate their claim, which the Gemara understand come to teach us that not only does the Torah, due to its extra sanctity, go out of its way to use clean language, but Chazal were also expected to do so.

Furthermore, not only are the Rabbis due to their stature required to do so, but one is required to do so in every day talk as well!

Perhaps this could explain why the Gemara was not satisfied to simply take the verses that refer to “אור” at face value and explain the Mishna on the basis that Chazal use the word differently.

In the case in Bava Metzia, Chazal might have  used the word “ראיה”  in the every day sense as in “seeing” even though in the language of the Torah, it usually implies “דאתיא לידיה” – something that comes into one’s hand.

However,  the idea that the Torah would never be concerned about using ‘clean language” and Chazal would be was not something the Gemara could consider, as we have seen that the greater sanctity of the Torah should make it more concerned about such things, not less so!

As such, the Gemara needs to go out of its way to show that the Torah could also have used the word “אור” in place of night, and the places where it means “light” literally can be explained in other ways.

Yet in truth, it is hard to say that words like “night” and “impure” are examples of such unclean language, and as the Gemara itself points out, the Torah itself often uses such words such as “טמא”

The Gemara thus qualifies the requirement to use “clean language” to a situation where the clean language is just as short and concise as the “less clean” alternative, in keeping with the dictum of Rav that a person should always teach his students with  concise language.

The clarity of concise language usually thus takes priority over being particular over “clean language,” at least regarding talking to one’s students.

If so, how do we explain the fact that in the examples brought earlier, the Torah indeed added extra letters in order to make use of “clean language?”

Rashi explains that this was an exception the Torah made in order to teach us the importance of using clean language wherever possible, and Tosfos adds that had the Torah not done so in that case, we would not have known that we need to be particular about using clean language in cases where it does not affect the concise nature of the statement.

The incredible implication of this seems at face value to mean that if it was not for this special exception the Torah made, we would think that using “unclean language” even for no justified reason is acceptable?

Is it possible that bad language, of which it is said “כל המנבל את פיו מעמיקים לו גהינום”   (one who dirties his mouth gets a deeper spot in hell- Shabbos 33a) would be acceptable had it not been for this unusual exception made by the Torah?

It seems to be that we need to differentiate between truly dirty language and words like “night”, “impure” ,and “riding” (in the context of a woman) that can hardly be said to be objectively dirty or rude.

It might go without saying that the former has to be avoided in all but perhaps the most extreme or necessary cases, if at all (objectively “dirty” language is found even in Tanach in reference to idol-worship for example- see Sanhedrin 63b  “ליצנותא דע”ז.)

The later, however, is part of everyday language that often cannot be avoided.

So important , however, is the sanctity of one’s speech, that even remotely negative words should be avoided wherever possible, and the Torah breaks its golden rule of never using unnecessary letters that once in order to drive home this essential point (see  ר”ן ד”ה “לישנא מעליה”  who seems to take this approach.)

Negative language inevitably leads to negative thoughts and actions, and although the Torah doesn’t avoid negative statement where absolutely necessary to make a point, as the ultimate “לקח טוב”  (good gift or teaching,) positivity is at its core, and should be at ours as well!

These posts are intended to raise issues and stimulate further research and discussion on contemporary topics related to the daf. They are not intended as psak halacha.

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