This article originally appeared in the Jewish Free Press, Calgary

Talking Clean, Talking Dirty*

News Item:

January 1992--Canadian politicians use foul language in attacking one another in Parliament.

As bland and inept as they may be in other respects, recent verbal outbursts in Ottawa have proven our Canadian politicians to be among the most foul-mouthed of their breed. The notion of "foul language" is in itself an intriguing one. I find it curious how different societies define certain words as obscene or dirty, whereas other words having the same objective connotation are nonetheless deemed respectable.

The Talmud makes a conscious effort to maintain standards of dignified and clean expression. While there are no topics that were so delicate as to prevent their being discussed, our sages avoided lewdness through the widespread use of euphemisms, which they termed lashon neqiyyah, "clean language." Thus, when we read the Torah in the synagogue it is customary to replace certain explicit expressions with more "polite" equivalents. A similar practice governs the wording of talmudic texts. Sometimes the euphemisms are so succesful that we remain unsure what they are replacing. A favourite circumlocution, "davar aher" ("something else") is used in so many different contexts that students of the Talmud may frequently experience some confusion as to whether it is being employed to mask sexual activity, pork, idolatry or...something else.

On the whole, Hebrew does not lend itself readily to obscene expressions. This is a fact that was recognized by Maimonides. The distinguished Jewish philosopher, consistent with his opinion that Hebrew is a natural language without any inherently mystical qualities, was called upon to explain why the Talmud refers to it as "the holy tongue." The reason, he argues, is that Hebrew lacks a vocabulary for describing the baser bodily functions.

An Egyptian acquaintance recently asked me about Arabic words that had entered into Hebrew. I hesitantly volunteered that Arabic constituted a rich source of obscenities and curses, in which Hebrew itself was lacking. To my relief, my acquaintance was neither offended nor surprised. Arabs recognize that this is one of the distinctive characteristics of their tongue. It is likely that Maimonides, a proficient Arabic-speaker, was conscious of this difference between holy and profane languages.

While Israel's parliamentary culture can hardly be considered more civilized than Canada's, I cannot recall anyone in the Kenesset being censured for obscene language per se. There is however an episode that springs to mind that may reflect a distinctly Jewish slant on the propriety of political discourse. It concerns an incident some years ago in which an individual was brought to trial for directing an obscene gesture against the head of Israel's Labour Party (consisting of the upward pointing of the middle finger) which is referred to in English as "giving the finger," and in Hebrew--for unexplained reasons--as the "oriental gesture." This case extends the limits of obscene language to include non-verbal forms of communication--appropriate to a people that is noted for accompanying verbal speech with impassioned gesticulations.

By the way, this venerable gesture has a long history to it. According to the Jewish mystical classic the Zohar, it expresses profound metaphysical mysteries, and was used by Moses himself in the battle against the Amalekite foes.

We should note that the same Kenesset has recently had to cope with another uniquely Jewish question of verbal propriety in politics in its recent decision to ban the use of curses and blessings in election campaigns. This phenomenon arose among religious political parties who promised their supporters the blessings of pious rabbis, and the equally efficacious maledictions of these rabbis against those who would (God forfend!) vote against them. The curses in question were of course of the "respectable" variety, and bear no resemblance to the "curse-words" being hurled across the benches of the Canadian House of Commons.


This article and many others are now included in the book

Why Didn's I Learn This in Hebrew School?Why Didn't I Learn This in Hebrew School

by Jason Aronson Publishers

Return to the main index of Eliezer Segal's articles

My email address is: eliezer.segal@ucalgary.ca

[1]

First Publication:

  • Jewish Free Press, Jan. 30 1992.

Bibliography:

  • Daniel Matt, ed., The Zohar: The Book of Enlightenment, New York 1983.
  • S. Pines, transl., The Guide of the Perplexed by Moses Maimonides, Chicago 1963.