The term “Act of Speech” is, from the point of view of Halachah, an oxymoron. Speech is neither fully an act nor merely a thought, but something in between, something which, in many ways, mediates between the two. So how to do we parcel out words and sentences, utterances and soliloquies? When is a break in the continuum of speech merely a pause and when does it indicated that an utterance is complete?
The halachic notion of “Toch K’dei Dibbur” – within enough time to say something – is used in many contexts to determine whether a pause separates two utterances or should be ignored. To illustrate: If I say “This animal is a burnt-offering…a peace-offering”. If the ellipsis is a pause less than the time it takes to say, “How are you doing?” (there are fine points we’ll ignore for now), then it may well be that my utterance is meaningful and I’ve made my animal a mixture of the two kinds of offerings (with all the problematics that causes). But if the ellipsis is longer than that, we ignore the latter utterance, the first one is complete, it takes effect and the animal is a burnt offering.
This tool of parsing utterances is used in all areas of halacha, for all purposes – to obligate or exempt, to render pure or impure, to forbid or permit – except in four situations. Here’s what the Gemara says in Nedarim 87a:
What do all four of these cases have in common? I suggest the following:
Speaking, in these cases, does not merely communicate information. Speaking here is language fully realized, it is creative (or destructive) in a manner similar to how language original functioned, in the creation of the world (and destruction of worlds – Midrash Bereshit Rabba 3:9). Speaking binds one to one’s other half (Berachot 61a and various places in midrash), or severs that unity with all sorts of cosmic implications (see the end of Gemara Gittin). On a spiritual level, the blasphemer “divorces” him/herself from Hashem (and even implies such a division within Hashem – see Mishnah Sanhedrin 7:5) and the idol-worshipper attempts to bond to the object of his/her devotional utterance (one violates the prohibition of idolatry merely through speech – Mishnah Sanhedrin 7:6).
In all four cases where speech reassumes its original power as creative or destructive act, pauses have no impact. One cannot condition, modify, or retract a statement which is not suspended in that “void” where most speech hovers, between thought and action – these are not mere words, they are Acts of Speech.
Would that we treated the constant patter that issues forth from our mouths as though every utterance had the power bind us to the divine spark in our interlocutor or sever the connection between us forever. We would invest much more attention to our speech, and, of necessity, our thoughts and actions – and we would bind ourselves to the Divine Presence everywhere waiting to be revealed.