16 Oct Speaking to Satan
God is just, merciful and fair. Why, then, are we told that saying something bad–opening our mouths to Satan–can cause bad things to happen? Why should a just God punish us for discussing a negative possibility?
The Talmud raises this issue in three places but does not explain the theological mechanisms by which it operates. I’d like to explore approaches from mystical, rationalist and moralistic perspectives.
I. Don’t Say This
A mourner is required to justify God’s judgment, to say “tziduk ha-din.” The Talmud (Berachos 19a) offers a formula for tziduk ha-din that begins: “Master of the worlds: I have sinned much before You but You have only punished me one thousandth [of what I deserve].” Abaye objects that this formula violates Resh Lakish’s saying (and it is also taught in the name of R. Yossi) that a person should not open his mouth to Satan. By saying that one deserves more punishment from God, one is asking for bad things to happen.
In ancient times, the bathhouse was apparently a dangerous place, perhaps due to the combination of germs and perverts. However, in the days before indoor plumbing, it was the only option for basic cleanliness where running water was unavailable or dangerous. The Talmud (Berachos 60a) discusses prayers one should say on entering and exiting a bathhouse. The prayer recited on entering the bathhouse included asking God to prevent bad things from happening and also a request that if something bad should happen, it should serve to atone for past sins. Again, Abaye objects based on Resh Lakish’s saying that one should not open one’s mouth to Satan. This prayer should not even mention the possibility that something bad may happen.
When did Resh Lakish say this? The Gemara (Kesubos 8b) tells us the circumstance. The tutor for Resh Lakish’s sons lost his own children. On paying a shivah call, Resh Lakish asked his translator to offer words of comfort. The translator said that death has been around since the six days of Creation; many have drunk of it and many will drink of it. He then asked that God comfort these mourners. Resh Lakish objected that the translator should not have said that many will drink of it because this constitutes opening one’s mouth to Satan, which one should not do.
What are we to make of this? On the face of it, this seems capricious. Why should speech move the scales of divine justice?
II. Mystical Approaches
One possible approach is suggested by a literal view of the heavenly retinue. Ramchal explains (Derech Hashem 2:6):
“God arranged matters so that His direction of the world should resemble that of an earthly government… The spiritual realm therefore contains courts of justice and deliberating bodies, with appropriate rules and procedures.”
While Ramchal does not explicitly state it, I take this to mean that he believes there is a heavenly accuser, a prosecuting attorney, called Satan. This prosecutor looks for opportunities to press charges. If we antagonize him, we risk catching his attention and facing his wrath.
The Rashba (Responsa 1:408) takes a different approach. He sees this as a matter of the power of human speech. People have the ability to use their godly power of speech to curse and bless in supernatural ways. Similarly, they can cause bad things to happen by opening their mouth to Satan. How this works is beyond our understanding, even a refutation of philosophy which cannot explain it. However, the lesson it teaches about the importance of controlling our words is certainly comprehensible.
III. Moralistic Approaches
Rav Avraham Kook (Ein Ayah, Berachos 19a) offers an intriguing explanation. Opening one’s mouth to Satan, suggesting that something bad might occur to oneself, is a lack of proper faith. Self-awareness is a necessity for religious growth. But recognition of one’s behavioral flaws should not morph into a misunderstanding of God’s ways. One must believe that God rewards and punishes people justly.
Someone who secretly believes that he deserves worse but that God is mercifully saving him from his true recompense is suffering from a dangerous misunderstanding. This reliance on divine mercy can easily deteriorate into further religious misbehavior. After all, if God doesn’t truly punish for sins, why be careful to behave properly? In the end, this statement about what one “truly” deserves becomes true. Opening one’s mouth to Satan is a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Rav Eliyah Dessler (Michtav Me-Eliyahu, vol. 4 pp. 219-223) proposes a different moralistic explanation. Speech reflects our inner refinement. If we are truly horrified by profanity and violence then we will be unable to verbalize it. The fact that we can say something bad shows an inner lacking.
Judaism is an optimistic religion, which we must fully internalize. Judaism also values life, a concept with which R. Dessler takes specific aim at violent sports. People who are willing to endanger their lives for entertainment, and even call it bravery, suffer from a sad and empty life. We are not cowards for refusing to engage in violent sports. We love life for the religious opportunities it offers, refusing to endanger it without reason.
A refined person with proper priorities will be unable to say anything that implies he does not fully value life. Saying so, opening one’s mouth to Satan, displays a lack of sensitivity to Torah values. This, in turn, opens the possibility for negative repercussions. The mechanism by which these repercussions occur remains a mystical phenomenon. However, the underlying cause is moralistic.