Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Avos 1 - Silence

In the penultimate mishnah of the 1st perek of Avos, it states:

שמעון בנו אומר: כל ימי גדלתי בין החכמים, ולא מצאתי לגוף טוב אלא שתיקה
Shim'on, his (Rabban Gamliel's) son, says: All my days I have been raised amongst the sages, and I have not found anything better for a person than silence.

It is possible for a person to transgress a surprisingly large number of issurim merely by opening his mouth; a large selection of them are listed in the introduction to Sefer Chofetz Chaim. The simplicity of the muscular motion necessary to utter the words makes it very easy for a person to fall into one of these traps without realizing until it is too late. Once words leave his mouth, they cannot be withdrawn. For this reason, Rabban Shim'on ben Gamliel provides us with the wisdom of his years and experience distilled into one simple statement: Just shut up. There are some things that it is a mitzvah to say, and other things that one has to say for the purpose of maintaining one's physical existence, but with these exceptions, one is never compelled to speak. If people would merely turn their default status from talking to not talking, so that any act of speech requires a modicum of forethought, it would do more good in their avoiding issurim than 100 Tish'ot B'Av of Chofetz Chaim Heritage Foundation videos. The same applies even moreso for written statements, and certainly for electronic statements, which can be spread at a frightening speed. One need not even move one's mouth or find listeners in order to transgress the relevant prohibitions, as one can now do everything that one could previously and more with a simple click of the mouse. If it doesn't have to be said, why say it?

The Tif'eres Yisro'el has an alternative girsa of the mishnah:
ולא מצאתי לגוף טוב מהשתיקה - and I have not found any benefit to be accrued to a person from silence.

When one has the merit of being amongst wise men, or, for that matter, if one views every person as a wise man that one can learn some small amount from, it is tempting to stay silent so that one can learn as much as possible from what the others have to say. However, Rabban Shim'on expresses his skepticism at the benefit of this attitude. If one merely listens to others without responding, he may fall into error due to misunderstanding or misapplication of a statement. By his speaking out loud, others are able to correct his error. It's true that one stands to be thought a fool by opening is mouth, but often the silent one is considered to be a fool by default, so one gains nothing in the end. (A fringe benefit of my participation in the Torah blogosphere and on the AishDas discussion lists has been the opportunity for me to get fisked on a regular basis.) With all due respect to Descartes, thinking alone is not sufficient to prove one's existence.

As usual, there are no easy answers. Being a frum Jew forces us into these impossible, contradictory situations, where the only way to survive is by contemplating and analyzing every step that one takes beforehand, and praying that one's judgement is sufficient for the task.



At 6/05/2007 10:44 PM, Anonymous mm said...

very true.
boruch ata hashem choinen hado-as.

At 6/07/2007 3:24 PM, Blogger Chaim B. said...

>>>It is possible for a person to transgress a surprisingly large number of issurim merely by opening his mouth;

I once heard someone be medayeik that the good that comes from silence is not just avoidance of issur, but is a physical good to the body - lo matzasi tov *laguf*....


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