Monday, November 12, 2007

Pirkei Avot, Chapter 1, Mishna 17

by Rabbi Dovid Rosenfeld
"Shimon his son [the son of Rabban Gamliel of the previous mishna] said: All my life I have been raised among the Sages, and I have not found anything better for oneself than silence. Study is not the primary thing but action. Whoever talks excessively brings about sin."
Maimonides, in his commentary to this mishna, has a lengthy but very worthwhile discussion about speech which we will summarize below. He divides speech into five categories.

(1) Obligatory: speech which the Torah requires us to utter. The primary example of this is Torah study. (Maimonides does not mention prayer. I assume this is because prayer is not considered "speech" per se, but is more of an internal, meditative activity.)

(2) Praiseworthy: speech which is not commanded by the Torah, but which fulfills a positive purpose. This would include complimenting others, praising good people and qualities, and denigrating bad qualities. Also words -- as well as song -- which inspire, which touch the soul of the listeners and goad them to become greater people would fall under this category.

(3) Permissible: speech which relates to our businesses and our basic needs -- food, clothing etc. One is considered praiseworthy if he minimizes his speech in this category.

(4) Undesirable: empty talk, that which the listener gains little from. This would include much of what we hear in the news (if it's not the juicy stuff which probably belongs in an even lower category). The commentators give such examples as discussing how a person became rich or died (or both), or how a wall was constructed. (It's almost amusing that scholars such as Maimonides had difficulty even coming up with examples of such talk. One imagines that they could not easily conceive of wasteful talk that would hold anyone's interest in the first place. Guess they lived in the days before pro ball... :-)

(5) Forbidden: that which the Torah explicitly forbids -- cursing, false testimony, gossip (whether true or false), vulgar language, etc.

Maimonides writes that needless to say, the first two categories should form the bulk of our speech. Even regarding this, however, he adds two qualifying conditions:

(1) We practice what we preach. Learning but not doing, or praising good deeds which we ourselves do not fulfill may very well be worse than not speaking or learning in the first place. In this vein, our mishna stated: "Study is not the primary thing but action."

(2) Our speech should be concise and to the point. We should always be wary that our words are proper and carefully chosen. Too much speech is counterproductive in almost every area. Even regarding Torah study the Talmud writes that one should teach his students in as concise a manner as possible (Pesachim 3b). And likewise, our mishna concludes: "Whoever talks excessively brings about sin."
In truth, however, there is a much deeper idea here as well. Speech does not have to be about G-d and religion to be valuable. Even light speech may be worthy if it is an expression of caring and concern for others. Kibitzing with another in order to befriend him or her, to show an interest in the other and to become a part of his life: all such speech is a form of using our Divine gift properly.


Anonymous said...

Speech, like anything else, needs practise, and play. Just as many bad paintings precede one good one, many poorly used words precede a few really good ones. Lincoln was an example, I think. He wrote a LOT of words and I'm pretty sure there were a lot of stinkers amongst his writings. But eventually he wrote some of the most memorable words ever written in English. I was at a campaign announcement the other day and the candidate (a progressive challenger to a Blue Dog, thank God, Gretchen Clearwater) started off quoting Lincoln. I sat there thinking "Jeez-o-Pete, have we progressed so little as a civilization in 150 years that we continue to drag out the Grand Old Man's words and call that eloquence?!"

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Anonymous said...

Fascinating article .

However, the proviso that advises speech even about Torah matters be brief , short speech is a rather odd and murky one . A 'proper use of words' about a topic certainly should NOT necessarily be equated with short brief speech .

An obvious truth that is worth repeating nonetheless is that often doing a topic full justice requires long-winded elaborate speech and/or writing !

Much of the granduer of the Jewish writings of the contemplative Kabbalah is it's elaborate dissertations on a number of cosmological and otherwise Torah related topics . One certainly can present long-winded elaborate speech and writing and yet still avoid a superfluous use of words . One can be long-winded and still be quite cogent .

Furthermore, the commentators are right to denounce wasting speech on venal topics like how someone became rich . It is indeed disgusting that people would want to fritter away a second of time on discussing who in their town won the lottery and similar mundane , banal topics of a venal sort .

But the part about discouraging people from discussing how a wall was built (unless there are certain qualifications of such an anathema) makes little sense .

Learning how a wall is constructed might offer insights into architecture and/or physics that would be edifying to chat about .

Jason at