Jewish Journal

The Power of Language: Cultivating Positive Emotions

by Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz

June 19, 2013 | 8:30 am

Language affects the heart. When we’re surrounded by others who speak negatively, it can really affect our mood and disposition. Are we aware of how much negative language there is around us?

A generation ago, psychologist James R. Averill analyzed 558 emotion words with affective meaning (every one that he could find in the English language). He found that 62 percent of them had a negative connotation, versus 38 percent that positive. He concluded that "…in everyday discourse as well as in psychological disquisitions, there appears to be a relative neglect of positive emotions." If Eskimos have 100 different words for snow, then as Americans negative emotions are our snow. How does this affect us?

A story illustrates well the teaching that impressive achievements can be reached without going beyond the surface: A young scholar completed his learning of the entire Talmud for the third time. Full of pride, he ran to tell his teacher about his accomplishment. "Rabbi," he announced enthusiastically, "I've just been through the whole Talmud for the third time." "That's wonderful," replied his teacher, "but let me ask you one question. How many times has the Talmud been through you?"

We must learn to choose the input and output of our words carefully. We can rush through them but they will not penetrate us with deep intentionality. We should pause to consider the language we use to describe our world and where we learned it, and truly allow positive hearing and speaking to penetrate our hearts.

Words are powerful and offer the potential for spiritual destruction or healing. The Torah teaches that we should cultivate positive emotions and use positive speech as much as possible in a transformative and authentic manner. Just as it takes more effort to find a positive than a negative emotional word, so it takes effort to embrace the deep spiritual wisdom of theTorah and to allow the holy words to penetrate our hearts. The reward, however, is great.


Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the Founder & President of Uri L'Tzedek, the Founder and CEO of The Shamayim V'Aretz Institute and the author of "Jewish Ethics & Social Justice: A Guide for the 21st Century." Newsweek named Rav Shmuly one of the top 50 rabbis in America."

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Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the Executive Director of the Valley Beit Midrash, the Founder & President of Uri L’Tzedek, the Founder and CEO of The Shamayim V’Aretz...

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