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Pirkei Avont 1:17 – Is Silence Good or Bad?


Pirkei Avot 1:17

שִׁמְעוֹן בְּנוֹ אוֹמֵר, כָּל יָמַי גָּדַלְתִּי בֵין הַחֲכָמִים, וְלֹא מָצָאתִי לַגּוּף טוֹב אֶלָּא שְׁתִיקָה. וְלֹא הַמִּדְרָשׁ הוּא הָעִקָּר, אֶלָּא הַמַּעֲשֶׂה. וְכָל הַמַּרְבֶּה דְבָרִים, מֵבִיא חֵטְא

Shimon, his son, used to say: all my days I grew up among the sages, and I have found nothing better for a person than silence. Study is not the most important thing, but actions; whoever indulges in too many words brings about sin.

All my days I grew up among the sages, and I have found nothing better for a person than silence.

Not every silence is good for the body. There are those who are angry and give the other person the “silence punishment”. This is very painful for the punished person, but it is also bad for the person not speaking. All the pent-up anger stays inside which can have many negative consequences like:

When we get angry the following happens:

Our muscles and joints tighten.

  • The blood circulation slows down the natural balance of the nervous system.
  • The heart and hormonal system are disturbed.
  • Blood pressure, heart rate and testosterone levels rise.
  • Brain activity adjusts (especially in the temporal and frontal lobes).
  • Excessive bile is produced, which ends up in parts of the body where it should not be.

All this can lead to many different ailments and diseases, from diarrhea and headaches to liver and heart damage.[1]

Shimon grew up among the Sages, so there will have been little reason to be angry. What makes silence positive in this sense, what makes it different from Avot 1 Mishnah 15, where we also talked about silence.

There, we saw the importance of acting rather than just talking. Which we see again here in the second section. [Study is not the most important thing, but actions.] If we link it to the Sages, and thus to learning, you could say that silence is the best thing for someone to learn well. Of course, questions should be asked if something needs to be clarified, but good listening is the most important thing in good learning.  You may recognize it in yourself when you are in conversation with someone, before you know it, you have taken over the conversation and are telling or explaining something yourself. In a study environment, you sometimes see this happen too. People wait for silence to be able to ask a question. But because they were so focused on a moment of silence to ask, they have meanwhile missed that the answer has long since been given. Often this waiting is also accompanied by some form of tension/stress.

Conversely, if you listen carefully to what another person wants to tell you, this reduces any tension in the other person, or irritation because he could not tell his story properly.

You can also think of silence as waiting a while before answering. Give yourself time to ponder your words and choose the right ones with care. This too is good for you as a person. After all, wrong words that do not help someone else, give wrong information or hurt not only damage the person you are saying them to, but ultimately you as well. Wrong words, especially Lashon hara, has very negative consequences. If we reflect on our words, they will also not easily be too much or unnecessary, which brings us to the third part.

Whoever indulges in too many words brings about sin

Sometimes, we exaggerate in our words to reinforce our point of view or to make the other person especially aware of the consequences of their thoughts/actions. Bartenura[2] points out that this is dangerous and can lead to sin, he writes:

“and anyone who increases words, brings sin”: As such have we found with Chava, who increased words and said, “God said, ‘Do not eat from it and do not touch it,’” and added touching, about which she was not forbidden. And the snake pushed her until she touched it and said to her, “In the same way as there is no death from touching, so [too] is there no death from eating.” And from this, she came to sin, as she ate from the fruit. This is what Shlomo said (Proverbs 30:6), “Do not add to His words, lest He reprove you and you be found a liar.”

It is not permitted to add to Torah, or to the 7 Noahide Commandments.[3] So when we talk to people about this, we should be well aware of the commandments and not accidentally add to (or subtract from) them. Good study using good active listening and asking questions in a proper manner is thus very important.

By Angelique Sijbolts


[1] De schadelijke effecten van boosheid
[2] Bartenura on Pirkei Avot 1:17:3
[3] Can we Add or Diminish to the Seven Laws?

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