SALT - Sunday, 21 Shevat 5780 - February 16, 2020

  • Rav David Silverberg
            The Gemara in Masekhet Pesachim (118a) notes the juxtaposition between two prohibitions in Parashat Mishpatim: the prohibition against eating a tereifa (the meat of a fatally wounded animal), which should instead be “thrown to the dogs” (22:30), and the prohibition of “lo tisa sheima shav” (23:1), which has been understood as prohibiting speaking or accepting lashon ha-ra (negative speech about another person).  To explain the juxtaposition, the Gemara comments that “anyone who speaks lashon ha-ra, and anyone who accepts lashon ha-ra…is worthy of being thrown to the dogs.”  The Torah introduces the prohibition against lashon ha-ra immediately after the requirement to cast tereifa meat to the dogs, implying an equation between this meat and a person guilty of lashon ha-ra.  (The second verse also includes the prohibition of giving false testimony, and thus the Gemara mentions also those who testify falsely as being worthy of this punishment.) 
What might be the connection between the sin of lashon ha-ra and dogs?
            Keli Yakar (Bereishit 37:2) explains, very simply, that dogs frequently bark noisily, and so those who fail to restrain their faculty of speech are likened to barking dogs.  If so, then the Gemara’s comment resembles the Gemara’s explanation elsewhere (Arakhin 16b) for why birds are involved in the purification process of a metzora (Vayikra 14:2), who must atone for the sin of lashon ha-ra.  The Gemara explains that as bids chirp frequently and loudly, they are brought as part of the process of atoning for the sin of unrestrained gossip and talebearing.
            Rav Moshe Alshikh explains that the Gemara refers here to the Midrash’s comment (cited by Rashi to 22:30) associating the tereifa prohibition with the night of the Exodus.  The Torah earlier in Sefer Shemot (11:7) tells that while the Egyptians were crying in anguish that night over the sudden death of the firstborn, all was quiet and calm among Benei Yisrael, to the point where even the dogs did not bark, to underscore the contrast between the Egyptians’ suffering and Benei Yisrael’s serenity.  The Midrash teaches that the dogs were “rewarded” for restraining their instincts to bark, and forever more are fed tereifa meat which God declared forbidden for human consumption.  Rav Moshe Alshikh thus suggests that when the Gemara associates the sin of lashon ha-ra with the casting of tereifa meat to dogs, it seeks to contrast the restraint shown by the dogs on the night of the Exodus with gossips.  The dogs’ miraculous behavior in Egypt symbolizes restrained speech, the ability to exercise control and discretion in the way we talk.  The Gemara therefore links the prohibition of lashon ha-ra with the reward for the dogs to underscore the importance of keeping silent when necessary and restraining ourselves from speaking all that we feel like saying.
            Additionally, perhaps, we might note that the Torah introduces the prohibition of tereifa by emphasizing Benei Yisrael’s unique stature: “You shall be for Me sacred people; and you shall not eat meat of a torn animal in the field…”  This introduction likely indicates that tereifa meat is forbidden because it is considered unbecoming for a sacred people to eat such food.  Meat of a wounded or diseased animal found strewn in the woods is considered beneath the dignity of “anshei kodesh” – “sacred people.”  By comparing gossips to tereifa meat, the Gemara perhaps teaches that indulging in speaking or hearing gossip is, very simply, beneath us.  In other contexts, the Gemara emphasizes the grave harm inflicted by spreading negative information about people, which can destroy reputations, friendships, families and careers.  In this passage, however, it seems that the Gemara points to not the practical damage of lashon ha-ra, but its inherently ugly nature.  The Gemara compares the gossip to a diseased carcass which must be discarded, emphasizing that such behavior is undignified and foul, and thus unbefitting the “anshei kodesh” that we must aspire to be.  As the nation chosen by God to be His servants, we are to see ourselves as above the vain preoccupation with other people’s personal affairs and their flaws.  We are expected to reach higher, to focus our attention on our lofty mission of serving God and representing Him to the world, and not to defile our sacred essence by indulging in unseemly chatter about other people.