We each have our own memory highlights of the recently concluded Days of Awe: the Shofar of Rosh Hashana; the magnificent symphony of that day’s Musaf Amida; penetrating prayers like “Who shall live and who shall die, and “Cast us not off at old age”; the emotional Neila service that climaxes Yom Kippur. One does not have to be particularly religious to be moved by one or another aspect of these truly holy days.
In the Shul I attend here in Jerusalem, something occurred at the end of Yom Kippur day that was memorable. Paradoxically, this was not because of the words we uttered, but the words we did not utter.
Somehow, the Neila service had ended a bit earlier than scheduled. We recited the climactic Confession of Faith that marks the end of the day: the Shema Yisrael, followed by “Baruch shem kevod/May His glorious Name be blessed for eternity,” followed by the seven-fold affirmation that “God, He is the Lord.”
Normally, the Shofar is sounded at this point, which, according to tradition, marks the return of the Divine Presence to its celestial abode. But it was too early. It was only 5:38, and the Shofar could not be sounded until it was fully dark at 5:48. Ten minutes to go.
What to do? Would there be a brief sermon from the rabbi? Some announcement by the gabbai? A communal recitation of Psalms to fill the void? There was none of the above. Everyone – a congregation of 500 people – simply remained in their seats and waited. Some looked into their prayer books and reviewed the prayers of the day. Others studied various classic texts: Bible, Mishna, Talmud. Others read some Psalms. Still others simply closed their eyes, meditated, and savored the closing moments of Yom Kippur.
Whatever it was that they did, one fact stood out: no one talked. No one engaged in the most popular activity known to man: conversation, chit-chat, banter. A congregation of 500 people, sitting close to one another, and no one talked. For 10 whole minutes, an unworldly stillness pervaded the air.
UNWORLDLY IT truly was, as befits Yom Kippur day. There are not many places outside of Jerusalem where such a phenomenon could take place. In many synagogues around the world, where rabbis regularly exhort their congregants not to talk during Shabbat Torah reading, one can only imagine the kind of babel that might be engendered by the prospect of 10 whole minutes with nothing to do.
In some ways this silence equaled in its power and inspiration the entire day of prayer. This congregation was not going to destroy the holiness of the moment by empty prattle and ordinary chatter.
And then the anticipated moment arrived. The chazan raised the Shofar to his lips, the awesome blast enveloped the synagogue, and everyone exclaimed Leshana habaa biYeruyshalyim habenuya. But what remains in memory is not only the sound of the Shofar, but the sound of the great silence that preceded it.
It made one think about human speech and human silence. When, at the beginning of creation, God breathes into Adam the breath of life, the classic Jewish tradition, by way of Targum Onkelos at Gen. 2:7, translates it as “God breathed into man the power of speech” – the divine gift that distinguishes us from the animals.
But like anything of value, this is a gift that can be abused. This is why the Torah devotes so much space to the use and misuse of human speech: laws about making vows (which are expressed in Kol Nidre itself); warnings against lying, gossip and slander; exhortations not to use this divine gift for un-divine purposes: a person “shall not desecrate his word” (Num. 30:3). After all, as Proverbs 18:21 puts it: “Death and life are in the power of the tongue.” So easy is it to misuse this gift that no less than 25% of the numerous al het transgressions that we confess on Yom Kippur involve human speech.
Sometimes even sacred speech is inadequate to express the deepest human feelings. When Aaron’s two sons die suddenly in the Sanctuary, Aaron’s reaction is Vayidom Aharon, “and Aaron was silent.” (Lev. 9:3). When King David wishes to express his utter closeness to God, he writes, in Psalm 65:2, “to Thee, silence is praise,” while his son Solomon tells us in Ecclesiastes 5:1, “…let thy words be few.”
And within Jewish tradition there is the concept of taanit hadibbur, in which an individual may choose to abstain for a full day – not from food – but from speech. Instead of feasting on talk, he fasts from talk.
These are powerful lessons for our cacophonous times that are so inundated by cascading speech. We yak endlessly: we OD on talk-radio, television talking heads, the ubiquitous use of cell phones.
Silence makes us uneasy, but we have forgotten that silence can be therapeutic for the body and the spirit. To sit in silence and watch the sun set or rise; to gaze silently into the distance; to watch without words the ocean waves lapping against the shore; to look silently at the clouds: what can be more uplifting? R. Shimon in Ethics of Our Fathers 1:17 remarks that he was raised among the wisest of men, and that he “found nothing better for a person than silence.”
Although the gift of speech differentiates humans from the animals, occasional silence makes us even more human. Those good worshipers abstained from food and drink for over 24 hours, but their 10 minute abstinence from talk was the exclamation point that gave spiritual emphasis to that holy day.
A little silence goes a long way.
Originally published in the Jerusalem Post.