Let Silence Speak

“When I speak, I have reason to regret. But when I am silent, I have nothing to regret. Before I speak, I am master over my words; once the words leave my mouth, they rule over me.
— Rabbi Judah the Pious

I don't know about you, but I am getting a little tired of all the words spilled over the war in Gaza: the talking heads, the inane Facebook posts, the political rhetoric, the empty words, the angry words, the uncharitable words. So few of these words add clarity. They don't even add confusion. They just add to the mountain of talk that dissipates quickly when you see one profound visual image of anguish on either side.

I thought of this frustration when I encountered the following passage in the daily cycle of Talmud study this week: "What is the meaning of this that is written: 'For You, silence is praise [Psalms 65:2]? The best remedy of all is silence. When Rabbi Dimi came [from Israel to Babylonia], he said: In the West [Israel], they say, 'If a word is worth one sela, silence is worth two'" [BT Megilla18a]. I know what you're thinking: how much is a sela worth? Is it worth it to be quiet? Well in the days of the Talmud we used the Roman monetary system, and a sela was called a Tyrian Tetradrachm. 1,500 selas make up one talent, and 3,000 selas make the equivalent of a Biblical shekel, according to my research. What this means is that your silence is not worth very much, but it is worth twice your words!

One later Talmud commentator interprets this to mean that coming up with an appropriate comment is worth one sela, but refraining from making an inappropriate comment is worth twice as much. Wit is always trumped by restraint. This makes sense. While we may regret not sharing a poignant observation or clever retort, that missed opportunity will always be easier to live with than the insult, hurt or backhanded compliment that we do say. Rabbi Judah the Pious [R. Yehuda Ha-Hasid], a medieval scholar, says above that you cannot regret the words you do not say and that just the act of letting words leave your mouth allows them to master you rather than the other way around. Mastering silence - or zipping the lip - requires a level of personal discipline that speaking does not.

Because we also pay a psychic price for words we regret, we can understand how silence also protects us, not only others. And the proverb from Ethics of the Fathers: "I have found nothing better for my body than silence" [1:17] confirms this. Silence is not only a wise choice in regard to others but a way that we protect, nourish and defend ourselves physically because the price of poor judgment in words can create stress: ulcers and muscle aches, headaches and heartaches.

In Ecclesiastes we read the famous line "a time to speak and a time to be silent" [3:7], but how do we know what time is the right time for speech and the right time for silence? Here are five questions that may help you decide:

  • Will this hurt someone?
  • Is it necessary?
  • Is it helpful?
  • Does it make a genuine contribution to the discussion at hand?
  • How will I feel if the person I am speaking about hears this?

We are now in the nine day period leading up to Tisha B'av. We read the book of Lamentations. It starts not with a word but with a sigh. It is a time when people are often more cautious about physical danger. It is a good time to be more cautious about spiritual and emotional danger by watching out for gossip and lies, hurtful speech and criticism. Let your silence protect you as the better part of wisdom. Silence creates the sacred space to hear better. If the world remains unlittered by our words, there is more room for the words of others. Let silence speak.

Shabbat Shalom