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Wednesday, 5 February 2014

Take your tongue out of the gutter

Sukkah 2

What’s my level of language?

The Mishnah states that a sukkah taller than twenty amos (approx. 30’) is “invalid”.  The Gemara compares this to another mishnah that talks about a ‘mavoi.’  A mavoi is like a condo complex or cul-de-sac with a number of houses that open to a common street.  While strictly speaking one could carry on Shabbat in this semi-private area, the rabbis decreed that the residents should place a beam at the front opening in order to remind them that this is not a public thoroughfare.  This beam, says the mishnah, may not be placed higher than twenty amos, because it would be less noticeable.  Therefore, if it was higher, it “should be lowered”.

The Talmud asks: Why in the case of the sukkah does it say “invalid”, but in the case of mavoi, does it say “should be lowered”?  And the Talmud answers:  The mitzvah of sukkah is biblical, whereas the mitzvah of mavoi is rabbinic.

Tosfos explains: If the mishnah had written that the sukkah ‘should be lowered’, I might have thought that it ‘should’ be fixed, but if I didn’t fix it, it would still be okay.  Therefore, since we’re dealing with a biblical commandment, the mishnah needed to make sure that it was unambiguously clear, employing the strident term “invalid”.  Whereas in the case of the mavoi, due to the lesser infraction, the mishnah was not as concerned, and employed a gentler term.

This choice of language is discussed in Tractate Pesachim where we are taught that one should always endeavour to use the nicest language possible.  For example, the Torah does not even refer to tamey (non-kosher) animals as such.  Rather, the Torah calls them “animals that not pure”.

Today I shall stop and think about every word that comes out of my mouth.  If the Torah is worried about using the word ‘non-kosher’ and the Mishnah is concerned about employing a term like ‘invalid’, then how careful must I be about the language that I use? 

We are children of G-d, the King of Kings.  Does the way that we talk reflect our royal, godly status?  Are we true ambassadors of the Almighty?