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Silence—Good or Bad?

Silence—Good or Bad?

Ethics 1:17

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"All my days I grew up among the sages and did not find anything better for the body than silence"—Ethics 1:17.

Jewish sources define the human being as "the speaker." The ability to communicate is central to human function. Speech allows us to express our feelings, develop our emotions, explain concepts, influence other people and strengthen relationships.

Why then would the sages suggest that silence is a value worth pursuing? Isn't silence the absence of speech?

The answer lies in the definition. There are two forms of silence. One is just absence of words and the other is a prerequisite and foundation of effective speech.

Silence, when timed correctly, is the language of connectionThe first silence is a negative trait that stems from an inability or unwillingness to communicate effectively. This silence (unlike speech) causes division and separation, creating dysfunction in human relationships.

Some examples:

  • Getting upset and giving someone silent treatment. When we are offended or hurt, respectful conversation is the only tool to resolve issues and repair relationships. Remaining silent and refusing to talk is a form of aggression and totally ineffective.
  • A parent who is afraid of his/her children and cannot be assertive with appropriate guidance and direction. This is a silence that comes from weakness and leads to dysfunctional behavior.

The second is a good silence that creates the platform for effective and positive speech. It allows the goals of communication to be achieved. True communication can only occur when there is mutual understanding and deep respect for each other's position. For this to take place, our words must be preceded and guided by appropriate silence. This means:

  • Waiting to respond so that we can think before we talk, rather than speak impulsively.
  • To actively listen to someone else without interrupting them so that we can really understand their perspective and that they can feel heard.
  • Creating boundaries around our words so that we carefully choose words that will bring us closer together, and remaining silent when they create more distance.

It is this form of silence that the sage is referring too. Before we can be true to our identity as "speakers and communicators," we must learn the art of good silence.

Being quiet when we should talk creates dysfunction and disunity among us. But silence, when timed correctly, is the language of connection.

Rabbi Michoel Gourarie lectures on a wide range of topics with a special emphasis on Personal Growth and Self Development, including self esteem, communication and relationship building. He is the director of "Bina" in Sydney, Australia.
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Anonymous Uganda November 14, 2016

Silence explained conceptually and thank you Reply

Heart February 15, 2014

Truth is simple, not shallow. Profound but simple. What is good silence? Modesty is the best silence. True simple calmness. :) The best virtue is true humbleness. What is bad silence? A selfish secret. It's "meant" to conceal important information and esp pure scripture/pure monotheism. It's over our five senses. It's depth based; not surface based.

What is good talk? Good talk is truly humble and clean talk. It's only "meant" for G-d's Approval; no one else. What is bad talk? Bad talk is vain, egoistic, or only self pleasing talk. Good is simply obedience to G-d's Commands. Only G-d is only G-d and only G-d alone must we worship. Only One G-d is Absolute and Eternal. No one else. Prophet is only a Prophet or mere holy/noble man. The root of all good and evil was proven by G-d's angels and a jinn before earthlings. Humility vs. arrogance. Reply

Silence Michigan January 17, 2014

Yes it is easier to get away or be ignored Reply

steve los angeles June 27, 2011

clarity this is an excellent and clear distinction! Very helpful!
Thank you! Reply

Anonymous montreal, quebec May 2, 2011

such a nice and clear differentiation - it's a help! thank you! Reply

Anonymous New York, NY January 16, 2011

Silence and the adavantages that go with it. Silence can be a healing power when faced with confusion.
Sometimes too much noise or talking can throw
a person off track.
When there is silence among us, we can hear G-d speaking. Reply

rg Israel September 5, 2010

important distinction yes, silence can be very hurtful and wrong at times. Reply

Ethics of the Fathers is a tractate of the Mishna that details the Torah's views on ethics and interpersonal relationships. Enjoy insights, audio classes and stories on these fascinating topics.