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By Rabbi Shaya Karlinsky | Series: | Level:

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 to say.)

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 of wisdom.

(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.