Chapter 1: Mishna 17: Part 1
Shimon his (Rabban Gamliel's) son says: During my entire
life, I grew up among the scholars, and I never found
anything better for the physical body than silence. And
inquiry is not the foundation, but rather actions. And all
who engage in excess words bring sin.
After Rabban Gamliel taught a lesson on how a person's behavior
should be fitting for a human being with a spiritual/intellectual
dimension, not allowing himself to walk in the darkness of confusion,
his son came to teach a lesson on rectifying his physical dimension.
There are a number of questions in this Mishna. First, the
introduction is difficult, for why was it necessary to tell us where he
grew up. Furthermore, the relationship between the various elements of
the Mishna isn't clear. If we begin by praising silence, why does the
Mishna continue with a discussion of inquiry and action. And it would
have been more accurate for the Tanna to teach us the value of silence
for the PERSON, rather than for the physical body! Finally, the end of
the Mishna simply repeats what is already known through an explicit
verse (Mishlei 10:19): "In an excess of words, sin will not cease."
What has been added by the Tanna?
Rashi explains that the intention of the introductory sentence was
to teach that even scholars (who have wise things to say) are used to
behaving in a manner of silence, which is the most appropriate
behavior. All the more so is silence appropriate for the average
person. (See Pesachim 99a.)
(I have translated the word "shtikah" as silence, even though it
does not do justice to the full meaning of the word. We are used to
thinking of silence as being the result of having nothing to say. But
keeping silent when there is nothing to say should be obvious. We
shouldn't need a Mishna to teach us that. The true implication of
"shtikah" is to refrain from speaking even when there IS something to
say, for it is not always appropriate to say everything that there is
The power of speech is attached to man's physical dimension,
despite its source being in man's spiritual/intellectual dimension.
Therefore, the lesson of silence is taught in relation to the physical
body, as opposed to simply teaching that silence is good for man. The
force of man's physical dimension stands in opposition to the force of
his "sechel," his spiritual/intellectual dimension. Speech is the
physical activity that is the maximum utilization of man's sechel, but
is still in essence an activity built on the physical dimension of the
human being. While he is talking, his physical dimension is activated,
and this prevents the complete functioning of his "sechel." For man to
operate with the force of his sechel, he must be in a state of silence.
It is only when man is led by his sechel that he can avoid mistakes.
(We were always taught that we had to disengage the mouth before
the brain could begin working :-) .)
The language of the Mishna is quite precise. It doesn't say that
speech is bad for man. Rather it is teaching that silence is the best
thing for man, due to the limitations of his physical dimension, in
order to enable his sechel to operate to the maximum of its ability.
The physical and the spiritual begin as opposing forces within
man, and either the spiritual controls the physical or vice versa.
Silence enables the spiritual/intellectual force of the human being to
exert its control, which is actually beneficial for man's physical
dimension, since it enables his behavior to transcend its animal
nature, and to reach perfection by serving as a vehicle for the sechel.
But if man increases his talk, the physical dimension is in control,
nullifying the spiritual/intellectual dimension of the human being.
This is why "The voice of a fool is a multitude of words"
(Koheleth 5:2; also see ibid 10:14). A wise person's actions are
governed by his intellectual/spiritual dimension, and this is of
benefit even for the physical dimension. Therefore, there is nothing
better for the physical body than its own silence, allowing man's
sechel to operate unhindered.
After learning this lesson, however, one might think that the
foundation is for man to operate primarily on an intellectual plane,
which would mean that intellectual inquiry is superior to action which
is accomplished through the physical dimension. Therefore the Tanna
teaches that it is not intellectual inquiry which is the foundation
("ikar," which literally means the root), but rather it is action which
is the foundation. Only after the foundation has been established,
which is done through deeds, can one reach, step by step, for the
higher levels, which are accessed through the sechel. (This is the
principle of not allowing our knowledge to remain abstract, but
ensuring that it is always translated into action. This will be
discussed at length in Chapter 3, Mishna 17. An additional point
alluded to in this section of the Maharal is the importance of
developmental growth, slowly moving step by step.)
The final lesson of the Mishna is that excess talk brings one to
sin. While we have been taught that silence is the best thing,
allowing the sechel rather than the physical dimension to direct man's
behavior, it does not mean that speech is a sin. It is certainly
legitimate -- even if not the highest level -- to operate with the
force of speech, which mixes the physical and the sechel. However, if
man chooses speech to be the foundation of his activity, he weakens the
ability of his sechel to govern his behavior, since the sechel cannot
operate with all its intensity concurrently with a force that conflicts
with it. An inadequacy in a person breeds further inadequacies. So
excessive speech causes and inadequacy, leads to progressive
deterioration, and brings with it sin.
The word for sin is "cheit," the root of which implies
"inadequacy." (See Melachim I 1:21; Breishith 31:39.) The implication
of the language "excess speech brings cheit" is that it creates
deficiency in the person, which is the cause and result of sin, because
the person allows himself to be directed by his physical dimension.
The verse in Mishlei that teaches that in excess words resides sin
means that a person who talks a lot will certainly sin in his speech
with all the nonsense and irreverent things he speaks. Our Tanna goes
beyond that, teaching that in the wake of excess speech a person is
brought to a state of deficiency which leads to other sins.
This is the precise explanation of our Mishna to one who
understands, rather than the more general way that others (Rambam and
Rabbeinu Yonah) understand it. But our way is the logical imperative
(The final paragraph is representative of what the Maharal writes
in response to those who are satisfied with what he considers a
superficial understanding of lessons of Chazal, where they fail to make
distinctions between the ways that similar lessons are taught. See the
last paragraph of the Maharal's introduction to Derech Chaim for the
most succinct presentation of this idea, which repeats itself
frequently in the Maharal's writings.)
The class is taught by Rabbi Shaya Karlinsky,
Dean of Darche Noam Institutions, Yeshivat
Darche Noam/Shapell's and Midreshet Rachel for Women.