We are taught by Rabbi Yehuda in today’s daf (Pesachim 42a) that ‘a woman should only knead [the dough for matzah] with מים שלנו (literally ‘water that had slept’, meaning water that had been collected the previous day)”’.
As Rashi explains, given the fact that the water drawn from wells and springs in the month of Nissan is already warm, and since the use of warm water for the preparation of matzot speeds up the possibility of the matzah becoming chametz, the water that has been drawn for this purpose should, ideally, be left overnight to cool before being used to knead the matzot.
However, we are then told that Rav Matnah taught this ruling in a lecture that he delivered in Papunya. The following day, ‘everyone brought their pitchers and asked him to give them water’. As Rashi explains, this is because Rav Matnah had used the term מים שלנו, and since those who lectured in Papunya delivered their lectures in Biblical Hebrew, they had mistakenly understood him to be saying מים שלו (i.e. ‘his water’), whereas what he meant was ‘water that had slept’ (i.e. that had been drawn from the well or spring the previous day).
Reflecting on this, the Sfat Emet (commentary on Pesachim 42) explains the importance of Sages being precise in their language to avoid confusing their audience, and the Ben Ish Chai (Birkat Avot commentary on Avot 1:11) cites this story as part of his explanation of the exhortation of Avtalyon who states: חכמים הזהירו בדבריכם – “Sages – be careful with your words” (Avot 1:11).
Over the centuries, and in recent years, there have been many cases where Torah scholars have said things that have been understood very differently by others. In some instances, what they said was originally off-base or incorrect. But at other times, like the story found in our daf, it is possible that what they intended to say is entirely appropriate. However, unfortunately, the speaker or writer of the words did not think sufficiently about how their message could be heard by an audience, and here lay their mistake.
For a fascinating example of one of those two categories, and in response to lengthy and controversial article published by Rabbi Dr. Irving (Yitz) Greenberg in ‘The Commentator’ in 1966, Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein responded to him by noting:
“We must, collectively, develop a much keener sense of responsibility as regards the discussion of Halachic and theological problems. The mishna advises ‘chachomim hizaharu b’divreichem’ (‘Sages – be careful with your words’) and anyone who has even had occasion to observe gedolei yisroel first-hand – to have ‘shimush’ in the genuine sense – knows the caution with which they approach basic issues. He knows, moreover, that the reticence… is frequently due to a superior sense of responsibility, to z’hiruth, in the best sense of the word, as a positive moral and intellectual quality. If, as the pasuk tells us, movet v’chayim b’yad lashon (‘death and life is in the hand of the tongue’), then the proper exercise of language – and I do not say this only as a professor of English – is indeed a matter of supreme importance. It entails both bein adam lemokom and a bein adam lechavero, an obligation to a reader, or listener, as well as to truth. By “the proper exercise of language” I do not mean simply the use of clear and logical statements a la symbolic logic, but the evocation of the whole range of effects implicit as well as explicit, connotative as well as denotative, emotive as well as intellectual, through which language exerts its powerful influence over us.”
Today, with the speed and reach with which information can be spread over the internet, these wise words are even more applicable than ever before. And so, it is essential that all those who share their ideas publicly are careful with their words – because “the proper exercise of language…is indeed a matter of supreme importance”.