After a long and poetic piece on reward and punishment for keeping, or failing to keep the commandments, the Torah goes back to detailing specific commandments; seemingly, a post-script. The fourth aliyah, the beginning of chapter 27, reads:

Speak to the children of Israel and say to them that anyone who vows to the Eternal the monetary value of their person, they shall be valued according to all males from the age of twenty until the age of sixty, which is fifty shekels of silver of the holy shekel. For a female, thirty shekels….Anyone who cannot afford that price shall present themselves to the priests, who shall assess their value.

In explaining this mitzvah, Rashi (27:2) and Sefer Hachinuch (350) both focus on the power of words. Rashi says that the word yafli, the word used to mean “to make a vow,” means “to expressly state orally.” Sefer Hachinuch focuses on the unique power and holiness of language:

From the roots of the commandment: As a human being can only conjoin with forces on high by speech, and speech is the most honored part of a person, and it is called “living soul (nefesh chayah)”. Onkeolos translated this “vehavat ba’adam leruach memalela (translated from Gen. 2:7 ‘And Adam became a living soul.Onkeleos’ translation changes the words ‘living soul’ into ‘speaking spirit.’)…. Therefore, one is obligated to fulfill their words for all uses for the matters of the Heavens, such as consecrations and charity.… The Sages commanded and warned many times that one should never change their words, and to curse anyone who does change their words when an act is associated with them….

The clear meaning here is that we must see speech as holy, and to use it with respect for that sanctity.

Words, say Rashi and the Sefer Hachinuch, are deeply important. Words must have meaning. Talk must never be cheap. Words have power. The Sefer Hachinuch says that our worth as human beings, our essence as humans, depends on the integrity of our speech. If we do not stand by our words, we do not stand by our humanity.

The holiness of speech was alluded to first in Parashat Kedoshim, where we were warned against gossip and lashon hara, as well as the obligation to explicitly reprove those who have done wrong instead of to hold silent grudges. Speech, the Torah tells us, must be honest. It must be used for good. Not only must its power be respected, but we must remember that we hang the honor of our humanity on the integrity of our words.

Shabbat shalom!

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