YomTov, vol. IV # 6
Topic: The Sound of Silence
by Rabbi Yehudah Prero
There is a widespread custom to study Pirkei Avos during the weeks between
Pesach and Shavuos. The lessons in Pirkei Avos, known also as the Ethics of
the Fathers, are contained for the most part in the tractate Avos, one of the
books of the Mishna. What distinguishes Avos from other tractates is the topic
and focus of the book. Instead of dealing with legal precepts, it deals with
how one should lead his or her life. These lessons from our Sages, the ethics
of our Fathers, are lessons for all time.
In the first chapter (Mishna 17) we find that Shimon, the son of Rabban
Gamliel used to say:
All my days I grew up among the sages, and I have found
nothing better for a person than silence.
The virtues of silence are mentioned in other places as well. The Talmud
(Megillah 18a) states that
A word (is valuated) for a sela (a monetary unit),
but silence (is valuated) for two sela's.
Why is silence worth more than
speech? Why is there nothing better for a person than silence?
The Shelah explains that we find that the above lesson from the tractate of
Megillah is applied even to the words of Torah. Why is this the case?
person is engaged in the study of Torah or prayer, the person is in essence
standing before G-d. When standing before G-d, we have to be composed. We have
to carefully contemplate what we are about to say. Our expressions should be
clear and focused. Silence allows us the time to pause and reflect on what we
are about to do. It provides us with an opportunity to prepare ourselves so
that our words are the most effective they can be. Rather than speaking off
the cuff and engaging in discourse that may be less than substantial, we need
to be silent for a bit. After we have engaged in some contemplative silence,
we are ready to speak effectually.
It is customary, throughout the world and in many cultures, to remember those
who are no longer with us with a moment of silence. Silence, in Jewish law, is
associated with mourning as well. The Aruch HaShulchan (Yoreh De'ah 376:1)
writes that those who come to comfort a mourner should not speak to the
mourner until the mourner first speaks to him. The reason for the silence, the
Aruch HaShulchan writes, is that our comfort of the mourner is to aid him in
understanding the passing of his loved was was an act of G-d, and a just
action. We must comfort him in his moments of depression. Before we can
comfort, the mourner must indicate that he recognizes what happened was G-d's
will. In days of old, a mourner used to begin his conversation with the words
"Dayan HaEmes," "G-d is the true judge." He indicated that he accpted the
judgement of G-d, and then he allowed others to comfort and strengthen him.
The silence that comes before any conversation with a mourner gives both the
mourner and the comforter time to reflect on the situation. The mourner has
suffered a loss, and perhaps his faith has been shaken. The comforter is
visiting a mourner to provide him with support and strength in a moment of
weakness. By not immediately engaging in pointless chatter, both mourner and
comforter have an opportunity to prepare themselves for the dialogue. The
mourner does not have to stifle emotions. The mourner does not have to be
social. The mourner need not even talk if he does not feel like it. The
comforter has to be prepared for his visit with the mourner. He is there not
to distract the mourner from what happened. He is not there to provide
entertainment. He is there to help the mourner deal with the issues that the
mourner wants to discuss. Silence allows both mourner and comforter to collect
their thoughts, and then have meaningful, purposeful conversation.
We are now in the midst of the Sefira period. Traditionally, this time period
is one in which we observe customs associated with mourning. Tragedies befell
the Jewish people at this time of the year, and we commemorate the losses
appropriately. Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day, was April 23. Yom
HaZikaron, the Memorial Day for those that gave their lives in the defense of
the State of Israel, was on April 29. While memorial services and speeches
help us focus on the losses we have suffered, we can use another tool the
Sages have indicated is useful: silence. We can take time out to remember what
happened to us, whether we understand it or not. We can take the time to focus
our thoughts on how we can strengthen our faith in G-d in the wake of tragedy.
We can take the time to contemplate what needs to be said about the tragedies,
and how to say it. Silence affords us these opportunites. Silence is truly
good for the person. And to rephrase the words of the Talmud quoted above,
silence is golden.
Mazel Tov to Yaakov Yisroel and Goldie Zwick upon the birth of their son Yosef
For questions, comments, and topic requests, please write to Rabbi Yehudah Prero.