The Key to Shemiras Halashon

Adam ki yihyeh b’or besaro se’is o sapachas o baheres v’haya b’or besaro l’nega tzaraas (Vayikra 13:2)

Parashas Tazria and Parashas Metzora primarily focus on tzaraas — the various forms in which it can appear, the laws determining which afflictions are pure and which are impure, and the purification process for a person who is stricken with it. The Gemara (Arachin 16a) teaches that one of the primary causes of tzaraas is speaking negatively about others.

The Midrash (Vayikra Rabbah 16:2) records that a peddler once travelled through the villages around the town of Tzippori and announced that he was selling an elixir that guaranteed long life. As people gathered around him to learn more about his miraculous product, the merchant pulled out a Sefer Tehillim and quoted the verses (34:13-14), “Who is the man who is chofetz chaim — desires life, who loves days of seeing good? Guard your tongue from evil, and your lips from speaking deceit.”

Harav Yisroel Meir Kagan immortalized this passage when he selected the expression “Chofetz Chaim” as the title of his legendary work on the laws of forbidden speech, which became the name by which he is universally called. Although these verses are quite well-known, Harav Yissocher Frand quotes Harav Nissan Alpert, who suggests a novel way of punctuating and interpreting them, which contains a valuable insight into how to succeed in not speaking lashon hara.

When reading these verses, where should the question mark be placed to break up the run-on sentence? In other words, where does the question end, and where does the answer begin? We are accustomed to punctuating the text as delineated above, as we understand that the question is, “Who is the man who wants life, who loves days of seeing good?” Accordingly, the answer is that the person who desires life and good days is the one who practices, “Guard your tongue from evil, and your lips from speaking deceit.”

Rav Alpert suggests an alternative reading of the passage. He posits that the question is simply, “Who is the man who desires life?” The lengthy answer to this question begins with the words “ohev yamim liros tov.” If somebody desires life, he must indeed endeavor to avoid negative and false speech. However, there is an additional requirement: The key to longevity begins with loving life and seeing good. Striving to become a more positive person by actively seeking out the good in people and events will inevitably make somebody happier, and as an outgrowth of his newfound optimism, he will naturally refrain from speaking critically about others.

Rav Frand explains that we see from here that the key to avoiding lashon hara doesn’t primarily rest in our mouths, but in our eyes. Every situation can be interpreted in multiple ways. Just as a pessimistic outlook can become a self-fulfilling prophecy, so too does a positive attitude become contagious. By choosing to view life and other people through a positive lens, we will discover goodness all around us. As a result, we will no longer be tempted to gossip about others, and we will merit Dovid’s guarantee of long, happy lives.

Q: A newborn Jewish boy is circumcised on the eighth day (12:3), traditionally in a synagogue. In what case should the bris milah be performed outside the synagogue?

A: In the times of the Maharil (1365-1427), a married woman gave birth to a mamzer. The Maharil ruled that the baby must be circumcised, but that the bris milah should be held in the courtyard of the synagogue as a means of publicizing the child’s legal status, which he also had the shammas promulgate to ensure that nobody would mistakenly allow the baby or his descendants to marry a Jewish woman of proper lineage.

He instructed that the baby be named Kidor (see Yoma 83b), based on the verse (Devarim 32:20) “ki dor tahpuchos heimah” — for they are a generation of reversals.

The Maharil instructed the mohel to recite the regular blessing ending in “kores habris” (Who establishes the covenant), but not the additional supplication “Kayem es hayeled hazeh” (preserve this child). Nor did he have the assembled extend the traditional brachah, “Just as he has entered the covenant, so may he enter into the Torah, chuppah and good deeds,” for we do not bless a mamzer with longevity. Indeed, when the Maharil heard that this child died at the age of 10, he rejoiced. These rulings are codified by the Shulchan Aruch, Rema, Shach and Taz (Yoreh De’ah 265:4).

Q: At present, when people and their possessions are no longer afflicted with tzaraas, where can one still see what it looks like?

A: The Midrash says that the spotted patterns on snakes are tzaraas, which they received as punishment for the original serpent speaking lashon hara against Hashem by claiming (Bereishis 3:5) that He forbade Adam and Chava from eating from the Tree of Knowledge because doing so would elevate them and make them His equals. The Ichud b’Chidud notes that this is surprising when considering how valuable snakeskin articles have become, when in reality the prized designs are actually a form of tzaraas.

Originally from Kansas City, Rabbi Alport graduated from Harvard, learned in Mir Yerushalayim for five years, and now lives in Brooklyn, where he learns in Yeshivas Beis Yosef, is the author of the recently published sefer Parsha Potpourri, and gives weekly shiurim. To send comments to the author or to receive his divrei Torah weekly, please email