W hy do we learn the value of silence “from the Sages,” from whom we want to hear words of wisdom, instead of from the senseless chattering of fools or the smooth double-talk of politicians, whom we’d really prefer be quiet?

As we begin another cycle of our Shabbos afternoon reading of Maseches Avos, our thoughts return once again to a mishnah in the first chapter. In a world whose leaders have nuclear weapons under their command and are threatening each other with attack, we might well wish they would heed the wisdom of our Sages and learn the art of silence.

“Shimon [the son of Rabban Gamliel] says, ‘All my life I was raised among the Sages, and I have found nothing better for the body than silence.’ ”

Rabban Shimon’s dictum is surprising. He does not speak of a duty to cultivate silence, or in praise of silence. Nor does he suffice with pointing out the fact that he believes it is worthwhile to learn to keep silent.

Rather, Rabban Shimon feels it is important to share with us the backstory behind his decision to embrace silence. Instead of teaching us to keep silent by explaining the value of abstention from speech, the Tanna draws our attention to the Sages and their silences.

It seems odd to be learning silence from the Sages, of all people. One would think that we might get a better lesson in the value of silence from the chattering of fools, the double-talk of politicians, or the senseless commentary heard on radio call-in shows and the like. That ought to show us that silence is golden and offset the damage of excessive, foolish, and malicious speech; of superficial interpretations that distort both concepts and realities; of shallow words that make no point. But how did growing up among Sages and hearing their words of Torah lead to Rabban Shimon’s conclusion?

Speech is the means of communication that differentiates man from other living creatures. According to the Zohar, when the Torah tells us that G-d “blew into [Adam’s] nostrils the soul of life, and he became a living soul,” it means, “a speaking soul.” Through this faculty, man is able to give verbal expression to pure and lofty thoughts; how would Rabban Shimon himself have gained all his wisdom and greatness had he not heard the words of the Sages among whom he was raised? Obviously, this very teaching about the preeminent value of silence had to be expressed by means of speech.

Some might say that Rabban Shimon’s intent is to caution us against forbidden speech in its various forms — lashon hara, rechilus, falsehood, flattery, mockery, etc. — and to tell us that he learned how to avoid forbidden speech by attending to the conversation of his role models, the Sages. But the classic commentators explain that it is not in the spirit of Pirkei Avos to caution against transgressions that are already written in the Torah — and neither do the Torah’s mitzvos need ratification from the Sages.

So what, in fact, does Rabban Shimon mean by pointing to his upbringing among the Sages as his source for extolling the virtue of silence?

If we examine the words more clearly, we discover that Rabban Shimon’s desideratum is not abstention from speech, but silence in the service of speech, a secret that he learned from growing up among the Sages.

If we can comprehend the following passage from the Maharal’s commentary on our mishnah, we will be well on our way to understanding what Rabban Shimon seeks to teach us:

“The ‘speaking soul’ is a power of the body. Speech is not entirely an intellectual function — it’s essentially a physical capability. Silence, therefore, is proper for the body, so that one should not come to error, for while one is using one’s ability to express an idea verbally, his intellect is inactivated — for these two alternative modes, the physical body and the intellect, cannot take the active role simultaneously. Thus, if the physical faculty of verbalizing an idea is active, the contemplative intellect is inactive, and one is liable to err.” (Derech Chaim)

Speech, the ability to join syllables together into words and words into meaningful sentences, is part of the human condition. In a marvelous way that is still not completely understood, man is able to translate symbols that arise in his thoughts into intelligible concepts that others can take in. Speech, therefore, is the outward demonstration of intellect and thought, facilitated through the brain.

But this only describes speech in a superficial manner. According to what meets the eye, the spoken word stems from a person’s power of thought, for good or bad. But a deeper look reveals an essential difference between different types of speech, a difference that the Maharal’s words suggest.

In Alei Shur, Rav Shlomo Wolbe explains what the Maharal is getting at: “What we learn from this is that there are two levels of intellect, the verbal intellect and the contemplative intellect. The verbal intellect is a faculty of the body, and is in opposition to the contemplative intellect. This is a very surprising idea, but if we pay attention, we too can discern the difference: Words that obviously don’t stem from serious thought, that are tossed from the mouth, superficial expressions of joy or flowery phrases — these are the hallmarks of the verbal intellect.”

Shouts of encouragement from fans at a basketball game, clever jokes cracked at a party, conversation between friends over coffee, and in fact, practically all of the talking we do, stem from a faculty of the body involving the lips, palate, and throat, controlled by the brain, which processes thoughts that arise from the stimulus of the moment. This speech undoubtedly reflects a basic intellectual capacity, as well as knowledge and understanding gained from living. Yet it is still on the level of “verbal intellect.” It is not infused with the spiritual; it does not stem from the “contemplative intellect” that brings a higher quality to speech, and which we hear only in rare encounters with elevated people.

Rabban Shimon spent years seeking out the secret of how to form a connection with this deeper level of language. What must a person do to open up that inner wellspring, so that the words that flow from his lips should be more than just a product of the “verbal intellect,” more than just a response to a momentary stimulus? The answer he found was silence — the link between the contemplative intellect and the power of speech.

Rav Wolbe continues: “Keeping still is a great avodah. Silence is not merely the absence of speech. Sometimes it says much more than words have the power to express…Someone who does not know the art of silence lacks the ability of true experience. He sees and hears things so beautiful and deep they should send tremors through him, but he feels no tremors, because he always has to be talking, passing judgment, giving an evaluation…”

The silence of Sages is dynamic and creative, bubbling up like a wellspring from the depths of the soul. Chazal referred to silence of this quality as an art, for it forms a person, raises him above the earthly realms where his feet tread most of his day, and enables him to see who he really is:

“Silence and solitude are closely linked. One who knows how to be silent enjoys solitude. One who does not know the art of silence flees from solitude. This is not to say that a person should never speak or that he should spend all his time alone. This sort of excessiveness is not the Torah’s way. We are speaking of someone who is involved with people, a cheerful and vibrant participant in life. Davka a person like this must enjoy an hour of solitude and seek it out.

“Many people run from solitude as they would run from fire. At such times, they suddenly find themselves standing face-to-face with a stranger they have no interest in meeting, and they hurry to get away from his company… for at that quiet moment, they stand facing themselves, and to themselves they are very strange and distant….

“Yet out of solitude and silence springs the power of thought, and the contemplative intellect grows stronger as the verbal intellect grows weaker” (Alei Shur, pp. 177–179).

Isn’t it obvious that this art of silence can only be learned by being “raised among the Sages,” like Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel? (Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 673)