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By: Rabbi Yosef P. Glassman

“I have grown up amongst the sages and
have found nothing better for the body
than silence.”

– Pirkei Avot

Visitors to a hospital can clearly sense the painful, palpable sorrow of patients who are incapable of speaking properly –
a feeling which often exceeds the sorrow felt by those suffering from pneumonia, heart attack, or an intestinal disorder. When the faculty of speech is hindered or lost, it seems as if life itself is gone. We might even say that speech defines a person.

Silence might even seem almost antithetical to Torah. After all, let’s face it – Jews talk – a lot!

The Building Blocks of Creation

Speech is surely a gift from Above, and it is what makes humans unique among the world’s creatures, such that human beings are known by the title “midaber.” Hashem used words to create a universe, and the Hebrew word “davar” means both “physical object” as well as “word.” Moreover, the word “milah,” by which we refer to circumcision, also means “word,” signifying a cutting of streams of thought into communicable pieces.

Words are real. Kabbalah teaches that the essence of physical matter in the universe is composed of the Hebrew letters themselves. Humans, in turn, who are created in the divine image, are brimming with speech. Saturated with letters, the human mouth pours out the building blocks of creation each and every day in the form of virtual boundaries, doors, and windows into our daily lives, which have real and lasting effects.

In America, particularly, the idea of words as reality could not be more poignant. Standing in an elevator with familiar people, or even strangers, and not saying anything at all is notably uncomfortable and nearly impossible. Humans are programmed to speak. America, the land of the sound bite, amplifies 1,000-fold
that pressure to speak, and to speak eloquently. After all, there is what to be sold, and the show must go on.

In our experience as observant Jews, the halachically-mandated silence between washing our hands and eating bread leads to an explosion of speech after those few moments of palpable tension. And while the Shulhan Aruchbids us to eat silently, modern culture considers such silence impolite. Silence during the Torah reading, too, can also often pose a steep challenge.

A Precious, Underused Tool

Yet, underused, and undervalued, silence is one of the buried tools in the treasure trove of Torah.

As important as letters and words are to our virtual reality, the suppression of such letters is even more cherished.

One doesn’t need to look far to see this. On Shabbat, the holiest day, what did Hashem say? Nothing. There was no speech, and thus, no creative act.

Additionally, our greatest prophet, Moshe Rabbenu, had one major physical flaw: speech. His tongue was heavy and thick, which made speaking difficult, and thus made him naturally want to avoid speaking. It was because of his mistake of strikingthe rock, instead of speaking to it, as he was instructed to do, that, according to many opinions, he was denied the privilege of entering the Land of Israel. Our greatest leader, our redeemer, the human conduit of the holy Torah, had a serious battle with speech. Yet, the Aramaic description of Moshe Rabbenu’s impediment is “yakir,” which denotes not only “heaviness,” but also value. Not only did severely challenged speech not disqualify Moshe Rabbenu from being the greatest of all Jewish teachers, but itlent far greater value to the words he spoke.

Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzatto, in Mesilat Yesharim, cites the Talmud’s remark (in Masechet Hulin) that the world is sustained in the merit of those people who put the “brakes” on their mouth during an argument. A Jew is to emulate Hashem’s maintaining the world daily by “toleh eretz al belimah” (“hanging the earth on the brakes [of silence]”).

As opposed to what contemporary society tells us, there is great value to silence. We face enormous pressure to “sell” and to “perform,” but the Torah treasures the suppression of words, and provides an abundance of opportunities for rich, punctuated silence. Our sages, indeed, tell us that silence protects human wisdom, and it truly is the healthiest pill to swallow.