Speak of the Devil


Sitting in my car listening to Alanis Morissette sing a catalog of unfortunate coincidences that are in no way ironic, the expression, “Speak of the Devil” popped into my head.  After all, when someone we have just been talking about shows up (unironically), we often greet them with, “Well, speak the devil.”

The phrase, which may have originated in England, implies that you can conjure the Devil just by talking about him.  You don’t even have to say his name three times.  The phrase appears in English as early as the 17th century in Hazlitt’s Proverbs, warning, “Talk of the Devil, and see his horns.”

When two Jews are talking about someone, and that person then arrives, they say, “We should have been talking about Mashiach!” The implication of this expression is that if we are going to make someone appear by talking about them, we should be talking about the herald of the End-of-Days and the ushering in of The World to Come.

While these to expressions seem to be expressions of the same superstition (i.e. you can make someone appear simply by talking about them), they are very different philosophically.  “Speak of the Devil” is an injunction against doing evil.  “We should have been talking about Mashiach,” on the other hand, is a directive to do good. One is passive (avoid doing something); the other is active (do something).

Big deal!  They are just expressions, turns of phrase, idioms.  They have no real power.  You cannot make a person, the Devil, or even Mashiach materialize just by talking about them!

True.  But, the power in these expressions is not in the words: it is in the attitude of the speaker, and this power can, indeed, change the world.  If we truly desire a better world, it is not enough to just avoid doing evil.  We must do good.  We must finish the work of creation through gemilut hasadim (acts of loving kindness), Tikun Olam (repairing the world), and living b’tzelem Elohimin (in the image of G-d), with mercy and justice.

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