One of the hallmarks of modern life, at least for those of us who live in major urban areas, is constant noise. The large apartment building being constructed across the street from my home, the never-ending roar of traffic, the incessant jangling of the telephone (land-based and portable), the radio and its constant programming, all make for a lot of noise that surrounds me.
It seems that quiet and silence have become extinct - the dodo-bird of modern living. Yet the rabbis of Israel, the sages of the Talmud, valued silence as a vital factor in life. Raban Gamliel stated: "All of my life I was privileged to be in the company of the wise men of Torah, and I learned from them that nothing is more valuable to productive living than silence." The Talmud states that a good word is worth one shekel, but that silence itself is worth two shekels. The holy men of Israel advanced the idea that penance for sin can be achieved not only by fasting from eating food, but more beneficially, by fasting from speaking - by silence and its mood-inducing power of self-analysis and introspection.
Speech is viewed in Judaism as the ultimate Godly gift to humans. It is truly what separates us from other forms of life on this planet. But it was given to us to be used sparingly and purposefully. Silence was therefore the decorative box in which the gift of speech was given to us. Sometimes one receives a gift in a container, and the container is as valuable as the gift itself. Then the box should be treasured as much as the gift. Silence is such a container for speech.
Among the many great and satisfying aspects of Shabbat is its silence. Especially in our world of constant noise, the silence of Shabbat is refreshing and invigorating. Freedom from the noise of telephones, radios, television sets, construction and, at certain times and locations, traffic, is a blessing to a noise-laden, weary soul. On Shabbat, I gain new insight into the words of the Bible that the Lord, so to speak, is found not in the noise generated by the wind or the sound of the mighty quake, but rather "in a still, small, even silent voice." Because it is then, when silence reigns about one's self, that one is able to hear one's own still, small voice. Whereas the workday week is all about noise and sound and fury, the holy Shabbat is about silence, quietude and self.
The loss of the Shabbat in large sections of Jewish society lies at the root of many other maladies that afflict the Jewish world. It is difficult to make peace with adversaries if one cannot make peace with one's self. And without an atmosphere of silence and quiet, making peace with one's self is well-nigh impossible. The quiet of the Shabbat engenders greater domestic harmony and stronger family bonds.
Of course, there are no magic bullets in respect to these goals, and the Shabbat can only offer an atmosphere of serenity in which the family can function. However, a home that never has a regular period of silence and serenity is likely to be one of turmoil and tension.
The rabbis of the Talmud also recommended silence as the proper response, at least initially, to tragedy and difficulty. The natural human reaction to such sad events is to rail against them and one's fate. The Jewish view always has been never to do so. Not only is it counterproductive, it creates deeper scars in the psyche of the bereaved. The Torah informs us that Aharon, the High Priest of Israel, upon learning of the tragedy of the death of his two oldest sons, was "silent." Judaism saw in that silence the revelation of Aharon's true greatness. Job rails against his fate, his friends, against God Himself, but in the end he is no closer to comfort or understanding and stands abashed and embarrassed before his Creator. Aharon becomes the paradigm for the holy pursuer of peace, and the most beloved. His key to achieving this after the terrible tragedy that visited him was silence. Truly, silence is golden.
The writer is a noted scholar, historian, speaker and educator.