Expressions of the Soul
Chapter 1, Mishna 17
By Rabbi Dovid Rosenfeld
"Shimon his son [the son of Rabban Gamliel of the previous mishna] said: All my life I have been raised among the Sages, and I have not found anything better for oneself than silence. Study is not the primary thing but action. Whoever talks excessively brings about sin."
The theme of this mishna is the danger of excessive speech. Excessive speech is detrimental in practically every area -- and R. Shimon touches upon a few in our mishna. Speech about mundane or inconsequential matters is often a waste of our time and energy, and carries with it the dangers of sinful speech such as gossip and slander.
Even regarding Torah study, talking is hardly the goal. The Talmud writes: "Great is study for it leads to action" (Kiddushin 40b). The goal of our study should not be to develop our intellects or to let everyone else know what great scholars we are. It should be to apply our new-found knowledge to ourselves and make a difference in our lives.
Lastly, the Sages consider silence to be a sign of greatness. King Solomon wrote, "The voice of a fool is in many words" (Koheles 5:2). (Some of us know the Mark Twain version: "Better to remain silent and appear dumb than to open your mouth and remove all doubt.") :-) The more someone says and the louder he says it, the less likely his words are worth listening to (which is of course why he has to say them so loud). Speech is a gift -- not to be wasted or overused. We learned recently: "say little and do much" (1:15). We are ultimately judged, both by G-d and man, not by our big talk and brash promises but by our deeds and accomplishments.
Speech, according to Jewish tradition, is a uniquely human trait, a Divine gift specially entrusted to mankind. Genesis 2:7 states: "And the L-rd G-d formed man, dirt from the earth; He blew into his nostrils a living soul, and the man became a living being." Onkelos, a sage of the period of the Mishna, in his Aramaic translation of the Scripture, translates "a living being" as "a speaking being." Clearly, our ability to speak is one of the most basic aspects of our humanity, distinguishing us from the rest of the animal kingdom. As R. Abraham Twerski has observed, in the eyes of the Torah, man is hardly the "homo sapien" or intelligent baboon science has classified him. He is a living, thinking, feeling, and communicating being -- and the crown of G-d's creation.
My teacher R. Yochanan Zweig (www.talmudicu.edu & www.torah.org/learning/rabbizweig) posed a very simple question on this. In what way is speech truly unique to man? As we know, many animals communicate with each other, often in rather complex ways. Further, there is a well-known Midrash (Targum Sheni to Esther 1:3) which states that King Solomon, wisest of all men, understood the languages of the birds and animals (based on I Kings 5:13).
He answered that there are two types of speech. The first level is speech which communicates our physical needs. Animals "talk" but their topics of conversation are entirely bodily -- staking out territory, attracting a mate, telling their fellow bees or ants where you just started your picnic. Human speech, though often at least as crude, contains an entirely different dimension: we express our souls. We express our emotions; we give reality to our thoughts, feelings and yearnings by putting them into words. And this is the type of speech which truly makes us human. Our souls, not nurtured and developed through language (whether spoken or written), possess only the vaguest and most incoherent yearnings for spirituality and human emotion. When, however, we tap into those yearnings and give them expression, we both discover and develop our souls, and we mature into beings formed in the image of G-d.
Further, as with all of our Divine gifts, once we are entrusted with the gift of speech we become obligated to use it properly. When we do, we give expression and vitality to our souls. If we do not, however, we sink lower than the animals. We take a distinctly human trait and pervert it. And we sink to the level of the homo sapien -- and below. We use our superior IQ's to slander, insult and put others down -- harming them in ways animals could never imagine. A vicious and unbridled tongue, rather than serving as a vehicle for the development of the soul, can be used to destroy both the soul of its bearer and the souls of others.
Maimonides, in his commentary to this mishna, has a lengthy but very worthwhile discussion about speech which we will summarize below. He divides speech into five categories.
(1) Obligatory: speech which the Torah requires us to utter. The primary example of this is Torah study. (Maimonides does not mention prayer. I assume this is because prayer is not considered "speech" per se, but is more of an internal, meditative activity.)
(2) Praiseworthy: speech which is not commanded by the Torah, but which fulfills a positive purpose. This would include complimenting others, praising good people and qualities, and denigrating bad qualities. Also words -- as well as song -- which inspire, which touch the soul of the listeners and goad them to become greater people would fall under this category.
(3) Permissible: speech which relates to our businesses and our basic needs -- food, clothing etc. One is considered praiseworthy if he minimizes his speech in this category.
(4) Undesirable: empty talk, that which the listener gains little from. This would include much of what we hear in the news (if it's not the juicy stuff which probably belongs to an even lower category). The commentators give such examples as discussing how a person became rich or died (or both), or how a wall was constructed. (It's almost amusing that scholars such as Maimonides had difficulty even conjuring up examples of such talk. One imagines that they could not easily conceive of wasteful talk that would hold anyone's interest in the first place. Guess they lived in the days before pro sports...) :-)
(5) Forbidden: that which the Torah explicitly forbids -- cursing, false testimony, gossip (whether true or false), vulgar language, etc.
Maimonides writes that needless to say, the first two categories should form the bulk of our speech. Even regarding this, however, he adds two qualifying conditions:
(1) We practice what we preach. Learning but not doing, or praising good deeds which we ourselves do not fulfill may very well be worse than not speaking or learning in the first place. In this vein, our mishna stated: "Study is not the primary thing but action."
(2) Our speech should be concise and to the point. We should always be wary that our words are proper and carefully chosen. Too much speech is counterproductive in almost every area. Even regarding Torah study the Talmud writes that one should teach his students in as concise a manner as possible (Pesachim 3b). And likewise, our mishna concludes: "Whoever talks excessively brings about sin."
There is an important point to add here. It was actually made to me by my wife when I was preparing the original version of this class. (You'll just keep this between ourselves, but she actually usually *is* right.) ;-) We wrote above that light and trivial conversation serves little purpose and should be minimized. But then again, how do we make friends? Through schmuessing ("shmoozing" in Americanese) -- through small talk and enjoyable conversation. Is that really a waste of time? True, eventually the true friend is the one with whom you will share much deeper and more intense conversation. But how do we get there? Through a lot of light and "wasteful" speech that both R. Shimon and Maimonides would seem to frown upon. If so, how does one go about making friends? Is the only way jumping in and studying Torah together?
The simplest answer is that perhaps such speech is useless on its own, but is what we'd call a "hechsher mitzvah" (a preparatory good deed). I.e., its value is in that it will (or might) lead to greater things. And this is sufficient to justify the many steps along the way till one arrives at true friendship.
In truth, however, there is a much deeper idea here as well. Speech does not have to be about G-d and religion to be valuable. Even light speech may be worthy if it is an expression of caring and concern for others. Kibbitzing with another in order to befriend him or her, to show an interest in the other and to become a part of his life: all such speech is a form of using our Divine gift properly.
The Talmud (Ta'anis 22a) records that Elijah the Prophet told a scholar that a certain two individuals, who were then passing by, were destined for a special portion in the World to Come. When the scholar inquired from the two what they did, they explained that (in addition to another merit) they were comedians, and if they would come across an unhappy person, they would humor him till he cheered up.
In addition, communicating and relating to others on almost any level can be a sharing and growing experience. Our speech can always be a learning experience -- for through it we learn to understand other human beings. The Talmud states (paraphrased) that even the light speech of great scholars should be considered words of Torah (Eiruvin 54b). R. Zweig likewise once told me that it often occurs to him that he is having a "casual" conversation with another person, and all of a sudden it hits him: "Now I know what the Sages meant when they said X..." We can only truly study Torah when we have grown to be broad enough to understand many perspectives on life. Whenever we open up and are receptive to another human being, we understand life and the world around us just a little bit better. And this is true between nations as much as between individuals. Thus, our speech must not be wasted or overused. But it is a gift, which through proper use will become the jewel which distinguishes us -- and crowns us -- as human beings.
Text Copyright © 2007 by Rabbi Dovid Rosenfeld and Torah.org.