by R. Gil Student
I. Close Your Ears
The Gemara in Kesubos (5a-b) says, “What does it mean: ‘And you shall have a shovel among your weapons (azenekha)’ (Deut. 23:14)? Do not read it as: ’your weapons’ but as ‘your ear’ (oznekha). If a person hears something improper (davar she-eino hagun), he should put his finger into his ears.” The Gemara addresses not speaking improperly but hearing improper speech. We are required to avoid hearing profanity and other inappropriate language by closing our ears or otherwise avoiding it.
When someone uses profanity, he abuses the divine gift of speech, demonstrating a lack of refinement and self-control. Speaking profanity violates a biblical prohibition. As we see from this Gemara, there is reason to forbid not only saying profane words but even hearing them. The exact nature of this prohibition leads to practical implications.
Similarly, the Gemara (Shabbos 33a) says, “Due to the sin of vulgar speech, troubles abound, and harsh decrees are renewed, and the youth among the ‘enemies of Israel’ die, and orphans and widows cry out for help and are not answered…” That is about speaking profanity, using curse words in your speech. The Gemara continues to say that anyone who speaks profanity (nibul peh), has Gehenom deepened for him. Not just someone who speaks, but “even one who hears and is silent.” The Gemara assigns a serious punishment to someone who hears profanity and remains silent.
It would seem from these two texts that we are forbidden to hear profanity. Even if we do not say the profanity, we cannot be around people when they are speaking it. This can significantly impact with whom you spend your time. If your friends or colleagues speak profanity, it seems like you may not be around them when they speak like that.
The question is why we are not allowed to hear profanity if we are not actually doing anything. We are passive recipients, not active doers. One possible reason is that someone who hears is as if he speaks (shomei’a ke-oneh). Another possibility is that we are not allowed to be around someone while he sins. Our lack of protest implies approval. Or maybe the reason is more psychological — even just hearing profanity desensitizes us to the importance of proper speech. Therefore, we are obligated to avoid even hearing profanity.
There are practical implications to the reason for this apparent prohibition. If either of the first two reasons is correct, the issue only arises when hearing someone live speak profanity. It would not apply to recorded or artificial voices, nor (possibly) remote voices (e.g. via Zoom). If the third reason is correct, then any time we hear any kind of profanity, we must protest or leave.
The only halakhic text I can find that quotes these passages is Rav Yitzchak Alfasi’s (Rif, 11th cen., Spain) rendition of the Talmud (Shabbos 13b). From the context, Rif seems to rule that you may not listen to profanity. Other than that, I see the issue raised only in ethical contexts. Neither Rambam nor Rosh, Semag nor Semak, Tur nor Shulchan Arukh mention any problem with hearing profanity. Rav Avraham Gombiner (17th cen., Poland) lists a number of ethical laws in his Magen Avraham commentary (156). However, while he includes a prohibition of speaking profanity, he does not say anything about hearing it.
III. Lack of Refinement
Sefer Ha-Chinukh (13th cen., Spain; no. 567) counts as a mitzvah the plain meaning of the verse (Deut. 23:14), that a soldier must have a shovel to dig a latrine hole. He adds that the Sages include a midrash on this verse that we must close our ears rather than hear improper language. From his wording, this sounds like an ethical exhortation and not a legal obligation.
In his Sha’arei Teshuvah, Rabbenu Yonah (13th cen., Spain) mentions the prohibition against hearing profanity twice explicitly. First, implicitly, Rabbenu Yonah (ibid., 2:12) says that hearing was given to us so we can obtain guidance and rebuke. When we use it for other purposes, when we listen to improper talk, we taint this precious gift. Later in the same work (3:66), in the third section that details a long list of religious laws, Rabbenu Yonah includes hearing profanity among the sins dependent on the sense of hearing. And finally (3:229), he includes hearing profanity (as well as speaking it) within the fifth of six categories of lashon ha-ra, broadly defined.
In his Sefer Ha-Yirah (s.v. al tazkir, Rabbenu Yonah paraphrases the Gemara (Shabbos, ibid.) regarding speaking profanity. He adds, per the Gemara, that the punishment also applies to those who hear profanity, remain silent and enjoy it, but do not walk away. Note that adds that you not only remain silent but enjoy it. That implies a prohibition unconnected to an equivalent of saying or to presumed approval. Neither of those require benefitting from the vulgar language. Rather, Rabbenu Yonah’s condition of enjoying the profanity you hear implies that the problem is the desensitization. Instead of being disturbed by the profanity you accept it as proper behavior, even enjoyable, which reflects a lack of moral refinement similar to someone who speaks profanity.
Rav Yehudah Loewe (Maharal, 16th cen., Czech; Nesivos Olam, Nesiv Ha-Tzeni’us, ch. 3) explains that humans are created as utensils, keilim, and every utensil needs a receptacle (beis kibul). Ears serve as a human receptacle; everything we hear enters our bodies. Unlike eyes which have lids, ears have no covers. Therefore we must be extra careful about what we hear and, when necessary, plug our ears or leave the area where inappropriate things are being said (see also Be’er Ha-Golah 3:1). Maharal states that when you hear profanity, you damage your soul.
Rav Moshe Chaim Luzzatto (Ramchal, 18th cen., Italy; Mesillas Yesharim, ch. 11 s.v. be-inyan ha-dibur) likewise quotes the Gemara (Shabbos, ibid.)’s admonition against hearing profanity. Ramchal discusses this in the context of using all the senses to remain pure of anything related to promiscuity. Ramchal similarly sees hearing profanity as a descent into the world of sin and debasement
The consensus seems to consider intentionally hearing profanity a moral stain. Willingly listening to it reflects a lack of refinement that damages the soul. We should be offended by improper speech and avoid hearing it, even protest it. However, the exclusion of this idea from normative halakhic sources tells us that despite the severity of the matter, this is not an absolute prohibition. There is room to balance this issue with other pressing needs, such as family peace and earning a living. And yet, we cannot ignore ethical literature because if we do, we risk turning Judaism into a list of laws rather than a constant encounter with divinity.
(adapted from a Sep ’21 essay)