Are Words Causative?

Moshe Ben-Chaim

Reader: Here's a topic, whether words/speech have "powers", other than the obvious psychological and emotional hurt is causes. I came across a Rabbi's blog where he says that words are causative, that is, we can actually "create negative events" by mere speech. I know this is not so.  I would love for you to tackle this with the real sources. Here are the Rabbi's words:

“The Rama (Yoreh De’a 376) mentions that one should not “open his mouth to the Satan.” 

This means [according to this Rabbi] that one should not speak about events that he does not wish to transpire, such as disasters and catastrophes, as words have the power to cause these misfortunes to happen. The Sages teach, “Berit Keruta La’sfatayim” – “a covenant is made with the lips” whereby they have power to cause that which they speak about. The word “Dibbur” (speech) is derived from word “Dabar” (thing), which generally refers to tangible objects. Speech has substance and force, and therefore it must be used with great caution.

Thus, a person should not say, “I haven’t heard from him; he must have died.” The mere utterance of these words could cause death. A person should not curse himself, or curse somebody else, as the curse could come back to hurt him. Masechet Shabbat (62b) lists several things that could potentially cause poverty, one of which is a woman’s cursing her husband because he does not buy her jewelry. This demonstrates that even if a person has a legitimate grievance against somebody he must not express his wish that he should suffer misfortune. One should not speak about misfortunes that he does not wish to experience, or utter a curse, as the mere utterance of the words could cause those unfortunate events to transpire.”

Rabbi: Are we to suggest God is evil, that regardless of your merit, I can curse you and you will suffer? This is of course a violation of God's Reward and Punishment system, where each person determines his and her own success or punishment. If we use intelligence, and remove our ignorance of Torah's fundamentals, we will not make errors like these when reading cryptic Talmudic statements. Instead, we will seek the underlying truths that the Rabbis intended.  

The quote from the Rama must be clarified. He states, one should not say, "I was not punished in accurate measure to my sins". This is taken from Talmud Brachos 19a where the Rabbis say one watching the dead (until burial) should say:

 "I have not been punished 1/1000th of what is due me. Creator of the world, guard our breaches (sins) and the breaches of all Israel. Abbaye disagreed, saying one is not obligated to make this confession, like R. Shimon ben Levi said, "Do  not open the mouth of Satan"."  

Evidently, watching the dead awakens one to his own repentance. As he reviews his sins, he realizes he has not suffered much at all considering the abundant sins he performed. But Abbaye says one should not say "I have not been punished 1/1000th of what is due me" as this somehow "opens Satan's mouth". The question is, who is Satan here? The Rabbis taught that Satan refers to one's instinctual drive (yetzer hara), which turns him aside (satan), and can eventually cause the death of his soul (malach hamavess). With this knowledge we can explain quite simply...

One who says he has not been punished enough, identifies with his sins. As he views himself as a "sinner," this can cause him to more easily sin. The Rabbis teach, "man is led in the path he chooses". This means that man's emotions get stronger as progresses in any trait.  This equally applies to one who views himself as a sinner; his self image is not strong in the direction of Torah, and he finds it easier to justify the next sin. One who has abstained from illicit sexual encounters for years, will not readily violate, while one who sins in this area each day, will find it easy to sin again tonight.

This is how to understand the statement, "Do not open the mouth of Satan." It means not to entice your own instincts. But this does not mean that mere words are animate or possess independent powers to cause evil in the world, as the Rabbi suggested above. That is childish, and violates Torah principles as we stated. 

This Talmudic source bases itself on Isaiah 1:9-10, where the Jews confessed they were similar to Sodom in their sins, deserving annihilation. And God then calls the Jews "Sodomites." The Jews said something, which God then endorsed when addressing them. It is derived therefrom, "Do not open the mouth of Satan." Interpreted here, it means that the Jews' confession of their sins and their identification with Sodom, in some manner rendered them "Sodomites", therefore God called them Sodomites. Had the Jews not identified with Sodomites, they might have been better able to repent. Thus, the Jews' identification, as expressed through their speech, increased their attachment to sin, and thereby they deserved God's rebuke that they were in fact "Sodomites." This is all easily explained based on psychological and philosophical principles, with no need to suggest that words alone alter reality, or "The mere utterance of these words could cause death" as the Rabbi suggested above. Such notions are dangerous and idolatrous at their root, for they personify inanimate words, giving them powers, like ancient people blindly believed.  

Sanhedrin 102a has a similar case when Jehu spoke of sin, and then committed the sin. His speech awakened his instinctual drives. To suggest, as the Rabbi did, that "Words have the power to cause these misfortunes to happen", is a literal read of our great sages deep sayings. We do much harm to the reputation of our Sages, to others, and to ourselves, when simply 'reading' a Talmudic statement, but not studying it. Talmud is not a novel. It is a great work with even greater depth. 


Talmud Sabbath 62a cites Rav Avahu saying, "Three matters cause poverty: one who urinates near his bed, one who doesn't properly wash his hands, and a wife's curse of her husband because he does not buy her jewelry." 

A simple read, again, leaves one thinking that a woman can cause poverty, with speech alone! But what about the first two cases? Speech is not the issue, yet those also cause poverty. Perhaps the Talmud cites these three cases, as they share a common theme? That would be the proper approach, so let's apply it…

What is common to all three cases? Rashi helps us. He says the first case is where one is too lazy to get dressed and go outside to the outhouse, as was the case in Talmudic times. So he would awake naked from his bed, and use the dirt floor of his home to receive his urine. This man's laziness outweighed his concern to address a personal need in proper, dignified fashion. (If he had a urinal, the Talmud says this man will not become impoverished) One who is too lazy to behave properly harbors a trait that will hurt him in other areas, and certainly at work. 

This also applies to areas of Torah law. If one doesn't concern himself to properly perform the most simple of laws, i.e., washing the hands, he too expresses a poor character trait: he is trying to get by with the least amount of exertion. He too will eventually become poor, as he won't exert himself in business like the first case. The first cases teach this lesson: laziness causes poverty. Simple. 

And if one has the means (Rashi) but doesn't purchase what his wife adores (jewelry), such a man is unwise. For his wife's happiness is his own happiness. If he fails to labor for his happiness, and then his wife withdraws her satisfaction with him, his motivation to work can be lessened, to the point of poverty. It's not that her curse has any power, but rather, that her curse removes his motivation to labor for her any more. This is why it is specifically his wife's curse, and no other. Another person's curse will not remove my motivation to labor for my household. 

Moade Kattan 18a cites Genesis 22:5 where Abraham tells his servants "Isaac and I will return". Abraham knew that in a few moments he would slaughter Isaac at God's command. So how can he tell his servants he will return "with Isaac?" The Talmud says, "Since Abraham said he and Isaac would return, they both did!" It sounds like the Talmud endorses the view that words are causative. 

Rashi says that Abraham told his servants he'd return with Isaac, as a means of not exciting them to the truth of Isaac's impending sacrifice. This might alarm the servants and they might try to stop Abraham. So he lied in order to have the ability to perform God's command uninterrupted. In truth, Abraham did not think Isaac was returning with him. 

My friend Jessie suggested that Avraham truly wanted to return with Isaac. (The Talmud says he was in conflict for the 3-day journey to Mt. Moriah.) Perhaps then, "Bris karusa l'sifosayim", ("a covenant is made with the lips") applied here, means that Avraham's perfection – in wanting Isaac's safe return with him and saying Isaac would return with him – was the reason Isaac need not be sacrificed. Abraham's words were not causative, but the reverse: they reflected his existing perfection. This perfection, i.e., his value of Isaac as a future transmitter of monotheism, was the very perfection that gave him the strength to sacrifice Isaac, an act of complete devotion to God. So when Abraham said "Isaac will return with him" — an expression of his desire to transmit monotheism — it was this love of God that ensured Isaac would return. The phrase "a covenant is made with the lips" means man's words are indicative of how he operates, and can even strengthen man in his selected path of life, for good or bad.

In summary, there is no evidence that words are causative; natural law teaches otherwise. More importantly, if words could cause harm, then God would be evil, allowing an innocent person to be harmed by others. The system of Reward and Punishment God speaks of throughout Torah, would be a lie. Based on our observation of the universe and on Torah's principle, we cannot take literally the notion “A covenant is made with the lips” , and “Don't open the mouth of Satan.”   There is no animate being called "Satan" causing evil based on our mere verbal wishes. Satan is our own instinctual nature, and when we arouse our instincts through our speech, we might more readily act on our wishes for good or bad. This is the intelligent understanding of “A covenant is made with the lips.” 

We must also investigate and thoroughly analyze Talmudic statements, and not simply quote them on face value! "Three matters cause poverty" intends to draw us towards questioning, "Why these three?" If we follow such hints of our Sages, we will uncover their intended lessons.