Monday, February 13, 2017

The Sound Of Silence


Rabbi Hillel Goldberg 


“A time to be silent and a time to speak.”

— Ecclesiastes 3:7 

HAGADDAH, the Passover ritual text, means "telling" and Passover, of course, is the holiday of retelling the exodus from Egypt — the holiday of conversation, of questions and answers, of debates and inquiry. However, in one small corner of the Haggadah silence reigns.

The fourth son in the Haggadah does not know how to ask a question. "You open up for him," says the Haggadah. You start the conversation, since the fourth son is silent.

Sometimes, however, silence is the conversation.

The Torah says, "After the death of the two sons of Aaron . . . " (Lev. 16:1). Earlier, the Torah records that these two sons, "Nadav and Avihu, each took his fire pan . . . and brought before the Lord an an alien fire . . . A fire came forth from before the Lord and consumed them, and they died . . . And Moses said to Aaron: Of this did the Lord speak, saying, I will be sanctified through those who are nearest Me . . . and Aaron was silent" (Lev. 10:1-3).

Aaron loses two sons, and he's silent?

Rashi, the foremost commentator, says: Aaron was rewarded for his silence in that G-d delivered to him alone [not also to Moses] the law of intoxicants (Lev. 8-11).

Nachmanides (d. 1270): Aaron stopped weeping after he heard Moses' words of comfort.

Seforno (d. 1550): Aaron was comforted in that his sons sanctified G-d's name.

Other possibilities: Aaron was too angry, or too crushed, or too surprised, or too baffled to utter a word.

Or, we might translate Aaron's silence as "And Aaron held his peace."

Which is exactly what the Jewish mourner sitting shiva — the person one of whose seven closest relatives dies — has the right to do. A visitor to a "shiva house" must remain perfectly silent until the mourner initiates a conversation, which he is not required to do; and, indeed, some never do. Silence is the conversation.

"Dedication of the book to my wife, Atarah, is a pale indication of my profound, all-consuming indebtedness to her. Any attempt to articulate it . . . would inevitably ring hollow, but inasmuch as she is attuned to my silences she will understand every nuance and hear every resonance. . . . " — Isadore Twersky, preface to Introduction to the Code of Maimonides

"Only to G-d is my soul silent." — Psalms 62:2


SILENCE can be pragmatic: "I have found nothing better for the body than silence." — Ethics of the Fathers (Pirkei Avos) 1:17

Some take this to mean that one should not speak about "bodily" matters — the material, the mundane, the physical, the great steak one had last night, the beautiful dress one saw. Rather, let the mouth be silent about the body and instead soar with talk about prayer and purity and ethics.

I believe that Pirkei Avos can be taken literally. In a moment of great stress, anger or argument, it is the body itself that is preserved by cooling down or by not taking the bait — by being silent, tempting as it might be to answer, or to lash out.

"Rabbi Akiva said . . . A protective fence for wisdom is silence." — Pirkei Avos 3:17

"A word is worth a sela, but silence is worth two." — Talmud, Megillah 18a

The medieval sage, Rabbi Yehuda the Pious, said:

"When I speak, I have reason to regret. But when I am silent, I have nothing to regret. Before I speak, I am master over my words; once the words leave my mouth, they rule over me."

You don't have to defend what you didn't say.


TWO ironies of silence: In Speech v. Silence, Mr. Speech and Mr. Silence appear before the court. First, Mr. Speech defends speech as essential to human community, commerce and friendship. Then Mr. Silence begins to defend silence. Mr. Speech gets up and slaps Mr. Silence across the face. The judge asks, what was that for? Mr. Speech replies: He is going to defend his with mine? — The Ways of the Righteous (The Gate of Silence)

The quintessential Jewish prayer is the "Silent Prayer," the Shemoneh Esrei or Amidah. Walk into a synagogue when it is being recited and you can hear pin drop or, at most, the turning of pages. Silence is the apex of prayer. However, one does not discharge one's obligation in reciting the Shemoneh Esrei unless one articulates the words loud enough for oneself to hear them — but not so loud that anyone else can hear them.

The Silent Prayer is silent, and not silent.




The Hebrew language has many words for silence. One we have not yet referenced is used in the book of Esther.

Mordechai addresses Esther after Haman has convinced King Ahasuerus to sanction genocide against the Jewish people. "Because if you will be silent at this time," Mordechai warns Esther, "then relief and deliverance will come from somewhere else, and you and your father's house will perish . . . " (4:14).

As Rabbi David Fohrman points out, the Hebrew word for silence used by Mordechai denotes deafness. Mordechai is saying to Esther, "If you make yourself deaf, as if you do not know what is going on . . . "

Silence, in other words, is not just passive. It can be active, making oneself deaf to what one prefers to avoid.

Silence can be active in another way. People fast on Yom Kippur. "Fast" means not to eat food. Judaism has a related, if rarer, practice: a speech fast. Not to speak for a designated time. A ta'anis dibbur, a speech fast, is not only a protective fence for wisdom, but a spur to repentance.