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Science in the Torah

The Impact of Silence on the Human Body

Our Sages tell us that silence protects human wisdom, and is the healthiest pill to swallow

The Impact of Silence on the Human Body
“I have grown up amongst the sages and have found nothing better for the body than silence.” Pirkei Avos

One can easily observe a palpable, painful sorrow in the hospital around those patients who lack proper speech, often more so than around those struck by a pneumonia, heart attack or serious intestinal malady. When speech is hindered or gone, it seems as if life itself is gone. Speech defines a person.

Silence appears, in fact, almost antithetical to Torah. Let’s face it, Jews talk. Speech is surely a gift from the Infinite, and makes humans unique from the other animals of the world, as we have earned the distinction m’daber. Hashem used His words to build a universe, where davar means both “physical object” as well as “word.” Milah, too, is “word,” signifying a cutting of streams of thought into communicable pieces; milah obviously also has physical implications.

Words are real. Kabbalah teaches that the essence of physical matter in the universe is composed of the Hebrew letters themselves. Humans, in turn, created in the image of the Infinite, are brimming with speech. Saturated with letters, the human mouth pours out the building blocks of creation daily in the form of virtual boundaries, doors and windows into our daily lives, which have real and lasting effects.

In America, particularly, the idea of words as reality could not be more poignant. Standing in an elevator with familiar people, or even strangers, and not saying anything at all is notably uncomfortable and nearly impossible. Humans are programmed to speak. America, the land of the sound bite, amplifies 1,000-fold that pressure to speak, and eloquently, at that. After all, there is what to be sold and the show must go on.

We notice, as Jews, that the entreaty to silence between washing one’s hands and eating bread nearly leads to an explosion of speech after those few moments of palpable pressure. And where the Shulchan Aruch entreats us to eat silently, modern culture might consider such silence impolite. Silence during the Torah reading, too, can also often pose the steepest of challenges.

Yet, underused, and undervalued, silence is one of the buried tools in the treasure trove of Torah, as signified by the Avot. Indeed, just as treasured as the letters and words are to our virtual reality, the suppression of such letters is even more cherished in Torah. One doesn’t need to look far to see this. On Shabbat, the holiest day, what did Hashem say? Nothing. There was no speech, and thus, no creative act.

Additionally, our greatest prophet, Moshe Rabeinu, had one major physical flaw: speech. His tongue was heavy, thick and blocked, which made him, naturally, want to avoid speech. Additionally, he hit the rock, when told to simply speak to the rock, leaving him, by many accounts, outside of his goal of reaching Eretz Yisroel. Our greatest leader, redeemer and human conduit of the holy Torah, had a serious battle with speech. Yet, the Aramaic describing Moshe Rabenu’s speech, or paucity thereof, was “yakir,” implying not only heaviness, but value. Not only did severely challenged speech not disqualify Moshe Rabeinu from being the greatest of all Jewish teachers, but shaped his message.

Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzatto quotes the Talmud (Chulin) in Mesilat Yesharim, stating that, indeed, the world is sustained on the merits of those people, who put the brakes on their mouth at the time of an argument. His work reminds the Jew to emulate how Hashem maintains the world daily by “toleh eretz al blimah” (“hanging the earth on the brakes [of silence]”).

Lack of speech, however, should not prompt a referral, nor cause uneasiness, despite the pressure to sell and perform for the world. Thankfully, the Torah treasures word suppression, and provides an abundance of opportunities for rich, punctuated silence. Our sages, indeed, tell us that silence protects human wisdom, and truly is the healthiest pill to swallow.