Ask The Rabbi

For the week ending 25 June 2011 / 22 Sivan 5771

Still Waters Run Deep

by Rabbi Yirmiyahu Ullman -
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From: Allison

Dear Rabbi,

This is kind of a personal question, but I hope you can help. I am a quiet person by nature. I would say that I’m basically friendly. That is, I like people and I think people like me, but the truth is that I don’t talk very much. So maybe it seems that I don’t have friends. I have a family member who is constantly telling me to be more talkative. I know she means well, but when she says things like, “If you don’t say anything people will think you’re stupid. If you have something to say about things people will think you’re smart” – that just doesn’t make sense to me. It doesn’t seem to me to be the approach of the Torah either. Could you please clarify this for me?

Dear Allison,

From a Torah point of view, there doesn’t seem to be anything wrong with being quiet. In fact, it would seem that the Torah would sooner suggest silence than being overly talkative.

Our Sages taught that an aide or preserver of wisdom is silence (sayag l’chochma – shtika). This is true on a most basic level in that a person who is always talking is only spewing forth what he already knows (or pretends to know). But since he’s so busy talking, he’ll never hear or understand what he’s talking about from other perspectives. A person who listens more than he speaks will always be learning something new. In this way, silence aides the acquisition of knowledge.

But silence also helps preserve wisdom as well. A person who’s constantly talking will inevitably come to speak nonsense. This is because a person simply can’t know everything about everything, so if he talks about everything, at least some of what he says must be nothing. But to sound knowledgeable, he’ll have to speak more and more nonsense to demonstrate how much he “knows”, when it would have been wiser to say less. Another manifestation of this is that not every topic can be important, so if he’s always talking, even if he is saying something, inevitably he’ll come to saying much about nothing.

We all know how odious it is to be around such people whose domineering discourse drives you crazy until you either physically or mentally head for the exit door.

Another interesting source on the topic is the teaching of one the Sages who said, “All my life I was in the presence of wise men, and I didn’t find anything better for the body than silence.” Given the above explanation, the idea that silence benefits the body is peculiar. We would expect the teaching to express that silence is good for one’s soul, or mind, or psyche, or emotional state. But that it should be good for the body needs clarification.

One explanation is that when one is constantly talking, the body is never relaxed. Running in high gear all the time is a great strain on the brain and body. Overly talkative people are never at rest. Silence, on the other hand, enables a person to maintain peace and tranquility. This has a direct effect on one’s state of health. Another explanation is that listening, particularly to positive, spiritual and Torah ideas, is in fact good for one’s soul, mind, psyche and emotional state. And since all planes of our existence are interconnected, the body actually benefits from spiritual health. A third, very interesting idea is one I heard/learned from one of my students. Since the resurrection of the body in the Word-to-Come depends on one’s spiritual perfection in this world, all the spiritual benefits of maintaining silence when appropriate will ultimately bestow upon the body everlasting good.

That being said, there are certainly times and circumstances that one should be talkative and expressive. For one, when you are certain that what you know is right, and others would benefit from this knowledge, share it. Similarly, when your speech can help uplift, encourage, or benefit others in any way, speak up. And, perhaps most importantly, regarding spiritual matters or sharing ideas of Torah, it’s a mitzvah to talk not only to others, but to yourself as well. King David thus said, “He’emanti ki adaber – I believed because I spoke.” Rabbi Nachman of Breslev noted that usually one speaks what he believes. What’s the meaning of believing what one speaks? He explained that King David was instructing us that speaking out matters of spirituality actually has the power to effect and realize belief.

So I beg to differ with your relative. Still waters run deep, and being quiet, if you’re listening in order to learn, engenders wisdom, while people who are overly talkative often reveal how little they really know.

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