Orderly Speech - Middah Arichat Sefatayim

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 ").

Arichat Sefatayim literally means "orderly speech." The word arichat comes from the Hebrew root ayin-reish-chaf meaning "put in order," "prepared," "ready," or "edited."

"There are seven characteristics that typify the clod, and seven the wise person:
Wise people do not speak in the presence of those who are wiser than they are;
They do not interrupt their friend's words;
They do not reply in haste.
They ask what is relevant, they answer to the point;
they reply to questions in orderly sequence;
of what they have not heard, they say, 'I have not heard';
They admit to the truth.
The opposite of these typify the clod." ( Pirkei Avot 5:9)

In Pirkei Avot, we learn that Torah is acquired through 48 virtues. Arichat Sefatayim (orderly speech) is one of these virtues. Our ability to speak is one of the wonders of being human. We are able to use words to communicate our feelings and thoughts and to share information. With words, we can give hope, we can heal, we can speak of love, we can console others, and with words we can cause great harm. According to Pirkei Avot, it is the wise person who organizes his thoughts, considers the consequences of his words, and thinks carefully before he speaks.

The story is told of the man who often spoke without thinking and had a reputation for being a terrible gossip. He went to see his rabbi and told him that he was sorry for the way in which his words hurt other people and wanted to change. The rabbi instructed him to get a pillowcase filled with feathers and to scatter the feathers in the wind. The man did as the rabbi told him. Then the rabbi told him to gather up all the feathers and put them back into the pillowcase. "But rabbi, how can I do that? The wind has carried the feathers far away." "That's true," said the rabbi. "And that's how it is with words. When you use words without thinking, they can fly to many corners, and how could you possibly retrieve them? Better not to speak without thinking in the first place!"

In the Talmud, the rabbis compared words to arrows. Once they are unsheathed, they are able to harm both near and far. They said that a word spoken, like an arrow shot, can never be retracted.

To Talk About

  1. Reread the selection from Pirkei Avot in the Text section. According to the text, what are the qualities of a wise person? How many of these qualities do you think you exhibit on a regular basis? Sometimes? Never? If you made a concerted effort, do you think you could acquire more of these qualities?
  2. Among the sages and the scholars, wisdom traditionally meant using common sense and good judgment - knowing when to speak and when not to, choosing one's words wisely and organizing one's thoughts before speaking. Because we are human, we sometimes use speech to hurt other people. Think about a time when you did not take the time to choose your words wisely and used words that hurt someone else. Now think about a time when your words helped to make someone feel better. What things might you do to remind yourself to use speech wisely?
  3. The rabbis used the verse from Proverbs 18:21, "Death and life are in the power of the tongue," to stress that speech is potentially both a lethal weapon and an instrument of salvation. How can speech be used as a lethal weapon? How can it be used as an instrument of salvation? Talk about the events that are taking place in Israel at the present time. In what ways are words being used as "lethal weapons"? How might they be used as "instruments of salvation"?
  4. We all want to be accepted by others. Sometimes we entertain our friends with funny stories whose humor may depend on embarrassing or making fun of a third person (who is generally not present). The Talmud teaches that words that are used thoughtlessly can harm three people: the one who relates the hurtful words, the one who listens to them, and the one about whom the words are told". What might you do to avoid causing harm with your words?
  5. "God said, "Let there be light"; and there was light." (Genesis 1:3) In Bereshit, the first book of the Torah, we read that God created the world with words. God had a master plan for creation that was accomplished through God's words. Imagine the power of words! You too have the power to use your words to create worlds. Think about how you might do that. How could your words change the world of an elderly person? How could your words make the world of a new neighbor or classmate who seems lonely a happier place?

To Do
Can you imagine how much better the world would be if everyone chose their words wisely, organizing their thoughts and considering the implications of their words before they spoke? Before we recite the Amidah, we say or sing a meditation (Adonai sefatay tiftach ufi yagid tehillah-techah) that asks God to open our mouths for us so that we can praise God. What would things be like if God were always in charge of this, if every word we spoke, not only our prayers of praise and petition, were dependent upon God opening our mouths?

Try reciting this meditation every morning before you have your first conversation. As you say these words, think about the gift of speech that God has given you. Use God's gift of speech to make the world a better place and be a Jewish role model for your family, your friends and the people you come into contact with on a daily basis.