Words can hurt; use them responsibly

Rabbi Jonah Zinn serves Congregation Shaare Emeth and is a member of the St. Louis Rabbinical Association. 

BY RABBI JONAH ZINN

As a child, I remember hearing the familiar refrain, “Sticks and stones may break my bones but names can never hurt me.” Even in my youth, I knew this was flawed. The ways we interact with one another and the words we use matter deeply, a lesson that is reinforced this week in two different yet significant ways.

The Torah reading this week deals with the biblical condition of Tzara-at. Tzara-at is often translated as “leprosy”; however, this is not the same leprosy disease we know today, which is also known as Hansen’s disease. The condition described in the Torah does not conform to the symptoms of Hansen’s disease and most likely refers to a group of various ailments. 

The conflation of Tzara-at andleprosy likely stems from an accident of history. The ancient Greek translation of the Torah rendered Tzara-at as “lepra” meaning a “a scaly condition.”This word passed into our modern language via the Latin translation of the Bible, and during the middle ages lepra then became associated with the disease we now call leprosy. It seems most likely that Tzara-at never described what we now call leprosy. 

While modern medicine can treat the condition allowing people with Hansen’s disease to lead an active life during and after treatment, until recent times the leper was doomed to a horrible end. Conversely, the biblical condition was usually temporary, and recovery was regarded as likely. 

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Given the clear difference between the biblical and modern conditions, biblical scholars have employed a range of terms to explain Tzara-at. Some choose to exclusively utilize the Hebrew name, where others use terms like “scaly.” The acclaimed biblical scholar and translator Dr. Robert Alter translates Tzara-at as “skin blanch.” While this can appear to be an issue of semantics, the discussion directs our attention to an important reality that demands our attention.

In the Bible, tzara-at was not only a skin condition; it could also manifest itself as related to clothing, belongings and event building. The rabbis understood it to be caused by sin so, in this sense, the disease is a more a spiritual affliction than a medical pathology. 

The Talmud identifies seven human transgressions that might prompt tzara-at: slander, the shedding of blood, vain oath, incest, arrogance, robbery and envy. Elsewhere the rabbis play with the linguistic similarity between the Hebrew for a person with tzara-at, “m’tzora,” and the Hebrew for one who gossips or creates a bad name by maligning someone else, “motzi shem ra.”

The rabbinic desire to link tzara-at and malicious speech may reflect the biblical reality that such speech often met this divine punishment, perhaps the most noteworthy case being Miriam who was stricken with tzara-at after speaking ill of Moses. 

I also believe the desire to make this connection demonstrated a rabbinic awareness of the harmful potential of slander. The rabbis understood that misused words hurt, perhaps even more than sticks or stones. Additionally, our struggle to appropriately translate tzara-at reinforces another important part of human speech.

Indeed, it is easy to recognize the harmful potential of gossip and slander. What is often more difficult to recognize is how our choice of words can affect another. It matters whether we call a particular condition an illness, disease, disorder, defect or something else, just as it matters how we refer to the biblical tzara-at

This need for thoughtful choice of language is particularly important when conditions are fraught with stigmas, such as in the area of mental health. Language has the potential to malign or normalize. Our challenge is to strive to ensure we make thoughtful choices in our speech that consider the potential impact of our words.

Rabbi Jonah Zinn serves Congregation Shaare Emeth and is a member of the St. Louis Rabbinical Association.