by Berel Wein
One of the hallmarks of modern life, at least for those of us who live in major urban areas, is constant noise. The large apartment building being constructed across the street from my home, the never-ending roar of traffic, the incessant jangling of the telephone, land-based and portable, the radio and its constant programming, all make for a lot of incessant noise that surrounds me. And then there is the problem of never-ending conversation, the need for others to express themselves to you in good or better times.
It seems that quiet and silence have become extinct – the dodo-bird of modern living. Yet the rabbis of Israel, the sages of the Talmud, valued silence as a vital factor in life. Raban Gamliel stated: “All of my life I was privileged to be in the company of the wise men of Torah and I learned from them that nothing is more valuable to productive living than silence.” The Talmud stated that a good word is worth one shekel but that silence itself is worth two shekel. The holy men of Israel advanced the idea that penance for sin can be achieved not only by fasting from eating food but more beneficially by fasting from speaking – by silence and its mood inducing power of self-analysis and introspection.
Speech is viewed in Judaism as being the ultimate Godly gift to humans. It is truly what separates us from other forms of life on this planet. But it was given to us to be used sparingly and purposefully. Silence was therefore the decorative box that held the gift of speech within it. Sometimes, one receives a gift in a container and the container is as valuable as the gift itself. Then the box should be treasured as much as the gift itself. Silence is such a container for speech.
Among the many great and satisfying aspects of Shabat is its silence. Especially in our world of constant noise, the silence of Shabat is refreshing and invigorating. Freedom from the noises of telephones, radios, television sets, construction and, at certain times and locations, traffic as well, is a blessing to a noise-laden weary soul. On Shabat I gain new insight into the words of the Bible that the Lord, so to speak, is found not in the noise generated by the wind or the sound of the mighty quake but rather “in a still, small, even silent voice.” Because it is then, when silence reigns about one’s self, that one is able to hear one’s own still small voice.
Whereas the workday week is all about noise and sound and fury, the holy Shabat is about silence, quietude and self. The loss of the Shabat in large sections of Jewish society lies at the root of many other maladies that afflict the Jewish world. It is difficult to make peace with adversaries if one cannot make peace with one’s self. And as long as there is an absence of an atmosphere of silence and quiet, making peace with one’s self is well nigh impossible.
The quiet of the Shabat engenders greater domestic harmony and stronger family bonds. Of course, there are no magic bullets in respect to these goals and the Shabat can only create an atmosphere of serenity in which the family can function. However a home that never has a period of silence and serenity within it on a regular basis is likely to be one of turmoil and tension. The advent of Shabat on a regular weekly basis creates such a rhythm of serenity in a household. The wise will know how to positively exploit the opportunity that Shabat presents.
The rabbis of the Talmud also recommended silence as the proper response, at least initially, to tragedy and difficulty. The natural human instinctive reaction to such sad events is to rail against them and one’s fate. The Jewish view always has been never to do so. Not only is it counterproductive, it creates deeper scars in the psyche of the bereaved.
The Torah informs us that Aharon, the High Priest of Israel, upon learning of the tragedy of the death of his two oldest sons was “silent.” Judaism saw in that silence the revelation of the true greatness of Aharon. Iyov rails against his fate, his friends, against God Himself, but at the end he is no closer to comfort or understanding and stands abashed and embarrassed before his Creator. Aharon rises to become the paradigm for the holy, peace loving, and most beloved figure in Judaism. His key to achieving this after the terrible tragedy that visited him was silence. Truly, silence is golden.
Reprinted with permission from Rabbi Wein