Guarding One's Speech - Middah Seyag LiD'varav

Marlene Myerson

About Mussar and Middot
The Hebrew word "mussar" means moral conduct, instruction, or discipline. The Mussar Movement arose in the 1800’s in Lithuania and encompasses a range of spiritual practices, focusing on the individual’s personal characteristics, traits, or virtues, which are called middot (in Hebrew, singular: a "middahMiddahמִדָּהcharacteristics, values, or virtues of Jewish life that focus on becoming a better and more fulfilled person; plural: middot ").

Seyag LiD'varav translates as "guarding one's speech." The word d'varav comes from the Hebrew root dalet-bet-reish meaning "to speak." Seyag comes from the Hebrew root samech-yod-gimmel and means "to fence in" or "to enclose."

"If a person guards his speech, others will emulate him and he will be rewarded for that merit also." (Guard Your Tongue, Chofetz Chayim, p.189)

Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagan, generally known as the Chofetz Chayim, was a great scholar and a prolific writer. He wrote on a wide range of topics, but devoted special consideration to the laws of lashon hara (gossip/evil speech). In his numerous works concerning speech, the Chofetz Chayim emphasized the importance of guarding one's tongue. In this text he offers the opinion that a person who guards his speech will serve as a role model for others and will be rewarded for doing so.

Midrash Shmuel interprets this middah to mean "making a [protective] fence around personal matters." It suggests that one who takes precautions to avoid sin, including the sin of lashon hara, shows the esteem in which he holds the Torah. The Torah responds by sharing its wisdom with him. (Pirkei Avos Treasury, p.418)

A second interpretation from Midrash Shmuel views this as a call to guard one's tongue and keep one's words to a minimum. Although we pride ourselves on the right of freedom of speech, there are times when the middah of seyag li d'varav overrides that right. As Rabbi Yisrael Salanter said, "Not everything one thinks should be said. Not everything one writes should be printed and not everything printed should be read."

We generally think that guarding one's speech is intended to avoid lashon hara. We assume it is primarily to avoid harming others with irresponsible talk. But the rabbis point out that "there is honor and dishonor through talking! A person's tongue can be his downfall." Unless we are careful about what we say, we are likely to harm ourselves. During World War II there were posters warning soldiers not to talk about what day they would be departing for battle. This information might be overheard and passed on to enemies who might use that information against them. Soldiers were asked to remain silent to protect themselves.

To Talk About

  1. The Text states that: "if a person guards his speech…he will be rewarded .." What kind of reward do you think the Chofetz Chayim is referring to? Have you ever been rewarded for guarding your speech? Compare your experiences with the other Table Talk participants.
  2. According to HaChassid Yaavetz, the phrase "guarding or fencing in one's speech" should be rendered as "around his words". How can you put a fence around your words? What purpose would this serve?
  3. The Chofetz Chaim wrote, "The responsibility of a Torah scholar to guard his speech is greater than that of an unlearned person." Do you agree or disagree with this statement? Why?
  4.  In an international incident, China held 24 crewmembers of a U.S. surveillance plane for eleven days, refusing to release them until China received a letter of apology from the United States. The incident escalated into a "war of words" between the two countries but was eventually resolved. How do you think the concept of "guarding your tongue" may have helped to obtain the release of the airmen?
  5. Most of us are familiar with the chant, "Sticks and stones can break my bones, but names can never hurt me." Perhaps this is true for children, but as we grow older, words can cause us great harm. Discuss a personal experience in which someone's words hurt you. How might the middah (virtue) of seyag li d'varav (guarding one's speech) have guided that person to act differently?

To Do
Do you think you can go for 24 hours without saying anything unkind about or to anyone? This may be harder than you think! If you are willing to try this experiment, check your watch. Resolve that until this time tomorrow, you will not say anything negative about another person. Throughout the day, in your dealings with others, you will constantly monitor how you speak and make every effort to guard your speech. When you are ready to begin this experiment, look at your watch and mark down the time. Good luck! (Adapted from the Book of Jewish Values, Telushkin)