Pirkei Avot 1:17 - Still waters run deep

This post is dedicated in memo ry of Etya Sarah bat Yitzchak ha-Levi. May it be an aliyah for her neshama.

By Elisheva Maline

Shimon, the son of Rav Gamliel, was saying, "All my days I was raised among the sages and I have found for the body nothing better than silence; it is not learning but doing that is the main thing; whoever talks too much brings sin upon himself."  

The quiet, thoughtful aspect is usually viewed by Jewish scholars as the ideal. The passage of time as well as secular literature has also tended to back up Shimon's statement with quotes like "Still waters run deep" or, "Silence is golden."

Let's not jump the gun here, though: Shimon is not advising philosophers or Torah scholars etc. to give the silent treatment to anyone who dares challenge their premise. If one has an elucidating point to make, and the disagreement is based on uncovering a kernel of truth, then, by all means, talk away. For those whose goals are finding out who's "right," perhaps it is best to hold one's tongue.

Now that we know conversation must be about the uncovering of truth sans ulterior motives, we can decipher why Shimon considered silence the better option. We live with the idea that Torah study is meant to have relevance on our daily lives, and if we take the time to apply these cases in the gemara to today's culture, we will find that discussions in the talmud have bearing on our lives. For instance, a verse in Leviticus mentions the commandment to respect one's parents. A commentary called the Or ha'Hayyim offers an example from the gemara concerning how one is meant to make this vague term "respect" manifest. In the event that one's father passes away, and in the event that this father also happened to have sticky fingers, a son is obligated to return the stolen cow his father took since this would be a form of  bringing honor to his father's memory. In lieu of that, the Or ha'Hayyim then mentions the circumstance under which the son would have no such obligation.

Now, after understanding this, one may note that even after Shimon grew up among the cream de la cream of scholarly society and still concluded that silence is the best remedy one must ask, "Why?" We have a principle in Judaism: we focus on living according to the ideals we espouse, as in, it is not learning but doing which is the main thing. There is a time to talk and then there is a time to take action.

In the Book of Exodus, Moshe told Hashem that he was כבד פה וכבד לשון meaning that he had difficulty speaking. Many commentaries say that Moshe's speech impediment was phonetic, that his tongue was bruised from infancy. Others say that his problem was linguistic, that since he left Egypt as a youth, his grasp on the Egyptian language was somewhat loose. One of our more mystical commentaries, The Maharal's explanation, takes the matter further. The Maharal said, to quote Rabbi Akiva Tatz (Tke Thinking Teenager's Guide to Life), "Moshe was living in a world of truth and as such, he knew the essence of things as they really are." Essentially, Moshe was a prophet who spoke face to face with G-d. Experiences like that are difficult to define in the limited confines of language. Thus, the role of spokesman was handed over to Aharon, the older brother, while Moshe took the reigns of action: he brought the plagues (for the most part) and saved the Jews from the clutches of those evil Egyptian's. Some people are doers. Moshe was one such person.

Then again, perhaps Shimon was not dispensing advice; rather, he was making an observation. Taking part in the digging up of truth from the pages of talmud is a privilege, an honor. Yet when too much talk detracts from one's actual performance of the mitzvot (commandments), he needs to reflect on the art of balance. There is a time to talk and a time to listen; a time to speak and a time for action.

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