Is Profanity Prohibited in Judaism? Originally published April 5-6, 2018

With thanks to Rob Menes for posing the question and providing some of the answer, let’s look at profanity.  The English word has its roots in religion:  fanus in Latin is a temple, and profanus refers to being before or outside the temple, not yet holy, but not the opposite of holy, either – really just common (חוֹל hol, “common,” which also means “sand”).

We do have a mandate to be holier and holier, and issuing forth negative words might detract from that, influencing us and also our listeners, in a race to the bottom.  On April 28th we will read parashat Kedoshim, which begins with God telling Moses to tell the people, “You must all be holy.”  And the Torah teaches us how to be holy.

But what about non-words, what about images?  What about artwork?  Well, artwork is meant to invoke thought and discussion, which are key precepts in Judaism.  We are free to interpret the works, and each have our own opinion to discuss.

And what about swearing, cursing, and lewdness?

Swearing is something else.  When we talk about swearing an oath, it is a life and death proposition.  We must not do it unless we unequivocally mean it.  And we must never curse God (hillul HaShem), a mandate around which some folks build so many protective fences that they don’t write the English name “God” in a sentence lest it be misinterpreted.  Since “God” is not God’s name, and anyway we pronounce the “o,” some say there is no reason ever to write “G-d.”

Lewdness is covered in the Talmud, Shabbat 33a, along with defiling the land, making false promises, and the swearing outlined above.  Don’t do it, they say, making reference to the belittling, bad, and contagious effects of vulgar language as well, and detailing the punishments.

So are we permitted to exclaim sharply about the product of bodily functions when we stub our toe?  In Shakespeare we hear “a pox on’t” as a bit of commonness, and in Alfred Jarry’s Ubu Roi,Ubu blusters, “by my green candle!”  My mom would have exclaimed, “son of a seacook!”

On the sliding vertical scale from profane to holy, and with due respect to Rabbi Adelson and all our rabbis, prophets, and the various angels, and Mister Rogers, as we try to elevate ourselves we might “stop, stop, stop” (sing Mister Rogers’ song), and comport ourselves toward being a bit holier.