Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi said: A person should never emit a coarse expression from his mouth, for the Torah added eight letters so as not to mention a coarse expression, as it is stated1: “… from the pure animals and from the animals that are not pure2”. (Gemara Pesachim 3a) The verse cited could have employed more concise language by simply stating: “from the pure animals and from the impure animals3”, but preferred to avoid using the word ‘impure’.
The Gemara brings proof for this statement from various verses in the Torah. However, while in a number of places the Torah goes out of its way not to use a lashon meguneh (coarse language), there are many more verses where a word such as tamei (impure) is used, such as throughout chapter 11 of VaYikra. How can we account for this difference?
The Dubno Maggid explains with a parable: In a certain town lived two people both called Yosel. One was a wise man, well versed in Torah, whilst the other was completely ignorant, and was known as Yosel the Boor, to distinguish him from the other.
One day a man came to the house of the learned Yosel and asked his servant if he knew where the other Yosel could be found. The servant replied: “You mean Yosel the Boor?” When his master heard him talking like that he reprimanded him for using unacceptable language. A while later a shadchan came to the scholarly Yosel, suggesting a shidduch between Yosel’s daughter and the son of the ignorant Yosel. Yosel was furious at him for even suggesting it: “My daughter, married to the son of Yosel the Boor? Not while I’m alive!” After the shadchan left the servant asked his master why a while earlier he had been told off, yet the master himself had used similar uncomplimentary terms.
Yosel explained the difference: “If someone asks you where someone lives, you are not required to give any information about his character; simply giving the address will do. When I receive a marriage proposal for my daughter, I have to be straight and to the point why I object. It is my duty to explain to the shadchan that my daughter will not marry the son of one who is known for being an ignoramus.” The same applies in the Torah. With Noach, the impure animals were being listed only for information purposes, to identify which should and should not go into the ark. Therefore it was sufficient to use the terms ‘pure’ and ‘not-pure’.
In VaYikra 11, however, the laws of kashrut are set out and a line is drawn between what is and what is not permissible. Israel has a special status and must retain holiness, therefore the Torah has to be blunt and call the not-pure animals what they are – tamei. In the verses used as proof for our Gemara, the Torah is not discussing the specific status of the object involved but relating different points regarding the object.
By not using the term tamei unless absolutely necessary, the Torah teaches the importance of avoiding a lashon meguneh. 1. Bereishit 7:8, in the episode with Noach’s ark. 2.
In Hebrew: Min HaBeheimah HaTehorah Umin HaBeheimah Asher Einenah Tehorah 3. In Hebrew: Min HaBeheimah HaTehorah Umin HaBeheimah HaTemeiah