Feathers is a beautiful story illuminating wisdom from the Talmud. It is a Hasidic Judaism folktale from Eastern Europe, first attributed to Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev, which has been told over the centuries by both teachers and modern storytellers to celebrate the power of the spoken word. It is a cautionary tale that, through simple yet graphic imagery, points out how careful we must be with our words. Once freed from the lips, words cannot be swallowed up again.
Once freed from the lips, words cannot be swallowed up again.
I first read the story a few years ago on the blog of Rev. Wendy Craig-Purcell, Spiritual Leader of The Unity Center in San Diego, CA and for some reason it has really stuck with me and I’ve remembered it often since. Ha, maybe I still have a lot to learn from the story!
Feathers – Wisdom from the Talmud
The narrative tells about a man (although could also be a woman) who just loved to tell stories and had a bad habit of spreading gossip and lies about the other townsfolk. One day, the man who loved to tell stories told some mean, untrue stories about a businessman in town. The stories circulated all throughout the town until the businessman who was the main character of the story heard it himself.
The businessman ran to the rabbi of the town, and wailed and complained he was ruined! Nobody will want to do business with him now. His good name and reputation were gone with the wind.
The rabbi decided to summon the man who loved to tell stories, to enquire if he told the stories or knew who did. When the man who told the story heard how devastated the businessman was, he felt truly sorry. He honestly did not consider it such a big deal to tell the stories, because some of the stories he had heard himself from other people and may have actually been true.
The rabbi responded, “True, not true, that really makes no difference! You just cannot tell stories about people. This is all slander, lashon hara, and it’s like murder – you kill a person’s reputation.” The rabbi went on and the man who told the story started to feel really sorry for what he had done.
True, not true, that really makes no difference! You just cannot tell stories about people. This is all slander, lashon hara, and it’s like murder – you kill a person’s reputation.
The man asks what he can do to make it undone, and tells the rabbi he will do anything to make amends.
The rabbi instructs the man to go home and get a feather pillow, then return with it to his study. Although the man thought it an odd request, he returned shortly with a feather pillow under his arm.
The rabbi stood by an open window with the man, and instructed him to cut the pillow open. A cloud of feathers flew everywhere. Some feathers blew into the rabbi’s house, over the table, into his teacup, on the floor, the bookshelf, the clock, even on the cat who playfully jumped after them. Most of the feathers flew out the window in a big swirling, whirling trail.
The rabbi told the man, “Now go and gather all of the feathers, stuff them back in the pillow and bring them all back to me.”
The man stared at the rabbi in disbelief. “That is impossible rabbi! I maybe able to collect most of the feathers scattered in your room, but the ones that flew out the window are gone. You know I can’t do that!”
“Yes,” said the rabbi, “that is also how it is once a rumor, a gossip story, or ‘a secret’, leaves your mouth, you don’t know where it will end up. It flies on the wings of the wind, and you can never get it back! You can no more take back the damage that your words have done, than you can collect the feathers. Do you understand now?”
You can no more take back the damage that your words have done, than you can collect the feathers.
The man understood. Not only did he consciously no longer speak disparagingly of others anymore, he talked about the importance of guarding your tongue to his nieces and nephews, friends and colleagues. In the end, he became a nice man who overcame a nasty problem.
What a valuable lesson, huh?
For discussion: I borrowed and elaborated on a few ideas from Rev. Wendy’s blog post about this folktale, and added a few more of my own.
It’s pretty clear why the things we say about others have been likened to an arrow. Once the words are spoken, like an arrow, they cannot be retrieved. The damage they do cannot be stopped. The harm they cause can seldom be predicted because words, like arrows, often go astray. Like arrows, words are dangerous, unpredictable of the harm they may cause, and often go astray is pretty powerful vivid imagery, huh?
There is this similar Buddhist saying too, “The tongue like a sharp knife, kills without drawing a drop of blood.” Think about that one.
Judaism, similar to Buddhism, is also deeply aware of the power of speech. Accordingly, Jewish teachings include some very strict rules about speech because of the harm that can be done through the things we say. Jewish teachings on this principle even suggest that the harm done by speech is worse than the harm done by stealing, because money loss can be repaid, but the damage done by speech can never be repaired. This view calls the one who speaks disparagingly or who distorts the truth, the lowest of the low; and considers the one who listens to it even worse than one who tells it because no harm could be done by a gossip if no one listened. Those are some pretty strong words about the equal responsibility shared by both parties who engage in gossip, huh?
Disparaging speech kills three people: “the person who speaks it, the person who hears it, and the person about whom it is told.” (Talmud Arachnid 15b)
I guess this is why the Talmud describes the tongue is an instrument so dangerous it must be kept hidden behind two protective walls, the mouth and teeth, to prevent its misuse.
It’s no wonder why a Buddhist teaching recommends for us to ask ourselves these three questions before we speak, and to only speak, if and when the answer to all three questions are yesses.
- Is it kind?
- Is it true?
- Is it necessary?
- And Rev. Wendy Craig-Purcell adds a fourth question in her blog: Is the information I have accurate and complete?
Think about it, how rarely do we actually have complete information? Some psychologists even state the initial story we often tell ourselves is usually the complete opposite of the actual truth. In reality, we are often the blind men and an elephant, knowing only a small part of the whole story.
The Toltec Shaman of ancient Mexico also teach this lesson. The first agreement in Don Miguel Ruiz’s popular book, The Four Agreements, is ‘be impeccable with your word.’ Impeccable is a really strong word, also translated as faultless, flawless, perfect, unimpeachable, immaculate and spotless. Be really sure of what you say, or don’t say it, also asking yourself, is it kind, is it true, is it necessary, is the information I have accurate or complete. I bet we would perhaps have considerably less to say at times if so. Do you agree?
One last perspective on the power of words and sound is an elaboration on a Mahatma Ghandi quote, “Speak only if it improves upon the silence.” Rev David Hulse, Minister of Education at Unity of Charlotte and Energetic Sound Healer with Solfeggio Tuning Forks at SomaEnergetics teaches, “Sound is disrupted silence; Silence is perfect sound. There are more results in sound closer to silence, the source of sound.” Silence is perfect sound, we should only disrupt it by talking if it is really necessary, kind, true, and we’re absolutely sure we have accurate and complete information.
The power of speech and watching our tongue seems to be a spiritual thread running through many teachings, and must be a pretty important lesson. I’ve wanted to share this story for years. Hopefully you enjoyed exploring this folktale and similar teachings too. Thank you for reading!
What do you think? Have you heard this lesson taught another way? Please share. Let’s hear it!
The Hebrew term lashon hara (or loshon hora) (Hebrew לשון הרע; “evil tongue”) is the halakhic term for derogatory speech about another person. Lashon hara differs from defamation in that its focus is on the use of true speech for a wrongful purpose, rather than falsehood and harm arising. – Wikipedia