Insights in Pirkei Avot: The Danger and Value in Speech

By Rabbi Yitzchak Blau, WebYeshiva

Shimon his son would say: All my days I was raised amongst the wise and I did not find anything better for a person than silence, action is more essential than exposition, and all who speaks excessively encourage sin. (Avot 1:17)

The entire thrust of Shimon’s teaching cautions against speech yet what precisely bothers him about speech? R. Ovadia Bartenura outlines three types of negative speech. Shimon’s first statement refers to the ability to remain silent in the face of insults. Few can maintain equanimity when confronted with harsh words but those who succeed avoid foolish angry retorts they would eventually regret. His second statement focuses on the problem of those whose discourse far outstrips their deeds; indeed, elaborate speech sometimes entails hypocrisy. R. Bartenura explains Shimon’s final statement by referring to a famous midrash in which Chava’s addition to the divine command brought about the primordial sin. While Hashem only prohibited eating from the Tree of Knowledge, Hava’s report to the snake added a prohibition against touching the fruit. Once the snake showed her that touching was not problematic, Chava proceeded to violate the actual word of God. In that sense, “all who speaks excessively encourage sin.”

Rabbenu Yona mentions two other benefits in minimizing speech. Too often, our verbosity relates to the ephemeral aspects of human existence. While we do need to talk about what to have for dinner, we need not make it an extensive part of our daily discourse. Better to focus our conversation on more significant questions. Rabbenu Yona also notes the need to think issues over carefully before expressing our opinion. In this last sense, we need not minimize our conversation; instead, we should find a more patient form of verbal expression.

The commentators surveyed thus far highlight various dangers inherent in verbal communication. Rambam’s discussion of speech adds slander, lying, blasphemy, and profanity to the catalogue of negative discourse. Surveying such an extensive list of damaging communication might inspire a person to never open their mouths. R. Yisarel Lipschutz’s commentary provides an important counterbalance. He says that the correct version of the mishnah reads “mi’shetika” rather than “ela shetika.” According to this reading, Shimon says that he did not find that good comes to a person from silence.

A student sitting before a teacher does not benefit from sitting like a silent statue. Others will assume that the silent student is either a fool or too arrogant to discourse with the teacher. Furthermore, those who verbalize ideas remember them more easily. Most importantly, give and take between teacher and student fuels the learning process. How can people learn in depth if they never ask questions or attempt analysis? Clearly, some contexts and certain topics call for extensive speech. Silence may often be golden but it has severe limitations. Rather than curtail speech, we need to utilize this essential and humanly defining instrument in the finest fashion.

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