Where do these alternative words – nicknames, or slang – for korban, cheirem, and shvuah come from? It’s a machlokes between Rabi Yochanan and Reish Lakish whether they are from Gentile languages or if they are terms that Chazal enacted.
At the beginning of the perek, the Ran explained that, according to Rabi Yochanan that they are Gentile languages, the words are actually just a spin-off of the original, Hebrew words. Just that the Goyim didn’t quite catch, korban, cheirem, and shvuah; and they inadvertently transmuted it to konam, cheirek, and shvusah (amongst others). In short, it’s shibush, an inaccurate jargon and slang. Nevertheless, since these words became fully integrated into the vocabulary of those foreign languages, they are fully valid and binding forms of expressing a neder or shvuah.
Interestingly enough, the Rosh holds that even according to Reish Lakish, these kinuyim originated with those who generate inaccuracies within the vernacular. It is not that the Chachamim arbitrarily fabricated new words; rather, they took these words from the lexicon of the less-lettered folk and enacted that these words are what should be used for making nedarim.
It emerges, then, that all of these kinuyim have their roots in that segment of the population that tends to generate inaccuracies within the spoken tongue. Now, what is really interesting, at least to me, is the title that the Rosh gives to these people: laagei safah. And when the Gemara discusses secondary kinuyim, such as mekanmenah, charakim (incidentally, in Modern Hebrew this word is used to refer to insects), and mechazkenah, the Rosh says that these words come from those who are “muflagim b’ilug”. In other words, exceedingly laagei safah.
Of course, the question is, what does the Rosh mean by “laagei safah”? Safah is easy enough; it means language. So they are laagei of language. They speak in a laag type of way. So what does that mean?
There is a pasuk in Yeshayahu (28:11, kudos to the people who created the Bar Ilan CD) that is the source for this expression. There, Rashi explains that it means speech that is backwards; meaning not straight, orderly, and fully intelligible. To paraphrase: people who are not careful with the annunciation of their words and just mess things up.
But that is not the basic meaning of the word laag. In many places (for example, Yirmiyahu 20:7, Yechezkel 23:32, and Tehillim 44:14 [ibid]) we find that the word laag is employed to mean scornful mockery and making fun of something or someone, generally in a nasty way (is there a not nasty way to make fun of someone?). And it is clear that such is the fundamental meaning of the word laag.
It seems from the Radak on Yeshayahu 28:11 that the elemental association of etymology between the basic meaning of the word laag and the term laagei safah is the lip movements that are common to both. When a person laughs or sneers at someone or something in scornful mockery, he curves and twists his lips in ways that are foreign to the structured and methodical lip movements needed for intelligible word-formation and speech. Therefore, when one’s annunciation is such that it is full of errors, that is called laagei safah, becaue the cause thereof is the undisciplined movements of the lips.
I think, and this really is my own conception so take it or leave it, that it is nevertheless impossible to not recognize the implication and basic reality that the root of this style of lip movements lies not in the muscles that are the immediate force there-behind, but the brain which is sending the nerve impulses that are effecting those muscular movements. In other words, it is the basic mindset – one’s deios – that will strongly influence the manner in which one expresses the formation of words from one’s mouth.
Now, that is an awfully dangerous statement to make because it could imply that anyone whose manner of speech is unclear and full of inaccuracies must be a scornful jokester at heart. And I do not believe that such a conclusion is accurate at all. There are plenty of people who, despite unintelligibility in their manner of speech, are totally sincere and possess not one bone of leitzanus in their body. The reason that this – again, I think – does not contradict my postulation is that there are many additional factors that can affect one’s manner of speech; such as heredity, social exposure and influence, and neurological conditions of an extremely wide range.
So does that mean that the theory is just a nice idea but that’s it? I think not. I think it could have a practical ramification. And that is as a useful tool in the development of refined middos. Now, don’t get me wrong. Clear articulation is clearly an inherent value, both for practical reasons as well as moral ones. What I am trying to say, though, is that in as much as we see that one’s manner of word-formation is inextricably bound to the middos that exist within one’s mind and heart, one can employ the tool of “the external arouses the internal” to provide a relatively easy boost to character refinement. So you get a major, added benefit. Simply put: speak in a clear, refined, dignified manner, and you will come to feel and be clear, refined, and dignified. In your mind and in your heart.
We all have that scornful, little court jester inside of us to some extent or another (save for the truly great tzaddikim amongst us), and we don’t really like him all that much. Even those for whom frivolous sarcasm and mockery has unfortunately become an ingrained habit and lifestyle, almost always feel deep within their heart that they only lose out by perpetuating such a manner of communication. They also want to change, but it can be difficult.
But the chiddush that I am positing here is that this sugyah reveals to us a tool that can make it a lot easier. Not easy, but a lot easier. If you make a point to speak in clear, unambiguous words – in the manner of educated, refined individuals – it will necessarily propel you towards cultivating a clear, sincere inner attitude and outlook. Chazal refer to those who speak with lashon nekiyah – clear, refined speech – as nekiyei ha’daas (Pesachim 3a, and Rashi there); because clear speech comes from a clear mind. And, I think, clear speech can help us achieve a clear mind.
Rabbi Yehoshua Berman serves as the Rosh Kollel of Kollel Reshet HaDaf in Ramat Beit Shemesh, Israel. In addition to having authored Reflections on the Parsha, Rabbi Berman regularly delivers shiurim on Halacha and Hashkafa, writes comprehensive chazara questions (in Hebrew) for the advanced Daf Yomi learner, and weekly words of inspiration from the Parsha. Rabbi Berman can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.