What Is a “Moment of Silence?”

A "Moment of Silence" is a brief period of reflection or meditation at the beginning of each school day. Since the mid-1980s, the movement has gained adherents in the U.S. and beyond as many schools, public and private, have begun to start their days with a moment of silence and reflection.

"Moment of Silence" is currently mandated for public schools in 12 states and encouraged (but not required) in another 25. It is legal everywhere in the United States. The children who participate in this program reap the benefit of an injection of meaning at the start of the school day.

In the words of one rabbi advocating for the concept in a meeting with Gov. Rick Scott of Florida after the Parkland high school shootings, “A voluntary ‘Moment of Silence’ means taking 60 seconds, and saying ‘today, think about what you can do to be a better student. Today, think about what you can do to be a better human being."

The Rebbe and a "Moment of Silence"

Having championed the need for moral education in all schools, both public and private, the Lubavitcher Rebbe—Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory—began discussing the “Moment of Silence” by name in 1983.

"[A] person has the ability to influence his surroundings, extending eventually to the country and to the whole world, making the world a stable, productive place," he explained in a 1984 talk given for his 82nd birthday. " ... This begins with the proper education of the youth, as written: 'Educate a youth according to his way so that when he grows older he will not depart from it.' The only way to educate the youth in the ideals of justice and righteousness is not through instilling fear of the police (for then one can think he will outwit the police), but by instilling faith in the Creator and Ruler of the world—that there is ‘an Eye that sees and Ear that hears.’ ”

While the Rebbe saw a “Moment of Silence” as a way to accomplish this, at the same time he highlighted the necessarily nonsectarian nature of the moment, explaining that “if the law were to establish a spoken acknowledgement of G‑d, then, even with full provisions for neutrality concerning any particular religion, nothing can assure that the teacher or principal will not exert some pressure on the students concerning a particular religious belief”; hence, a “Moment of Silence” was in fact preferable to any spoken prayers in a public-school setting.

The Rebbe also added that this simple, daily act would hand responsibility for a child’s emotional and spiritual well-being back where it belonged, with his or her parents. "Another advantage to a ‘Moment of Silence’ specifically is that it will force parents to take part: They will have to tell their child what to think about during the ‘Moment of Silence’—about the Creator and Ruler of the world. Parents will therefore send their child to school equipped not only with physical food but also with spiritual food.”

Is It Legal?

Because of its inherently non-sectarian and secular nature, a "Moment of Silence" has confidently weathered litigation and is currently permitted or mandated in 34 states. One judicial setback was Wallace v. Jaffree (1985), when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Alabama’s state law overstepped the boundaries of the permissible in the wording and intent of their statute. (The Rebbe referred to the Alabama ruling in a 1986 talk on the subject, stating that it was good that this particular law was overturned for it “might create a scenario where a teacher or supervisor could impose his particular form of prayer, or his religion’s version of prayer on the students—something which would be wholly unacceptable.”)

According to the Pew Research Center, it was Justice Sandra Day O’Connor’s “concurring opinion that has influenced subsequent lower court decisions,” since O’Connor wrote that “she would have upheld the Alabama law if the legislature had shown a genuine secular purpose in passing it. Indeed, she explained, school-led moments of silence, unlike school-led prayers, are often permissible because they are not inherently religious and do not coerce participation in a religious act.”

In fact, the State of Florida already has a “Moment of Silence” law on the books, statute 1003.45 stating, “The district school board may provide that a brief period, not to exceed 2 minutes, for the purpose of silent prayer or meditation be set aside at the start of each school day or each school week in the public schools in the district.”

A Proven, Positive Impact on Students

While "Moment of Silence" is legal, it is not always instituted, even in states where it is mandatory by law. A growing body of evidence from scholars attests to the concept’s positive impact on the student body, although none of it more powerful than testimony from principals of those schools where it has had a tangible impact. In the words of the administration of P.S. 191-The Paul Robeson Elementary School in Brooklyn, N.Y.

“When we introduced it several years ago overall student attendance was down, parent participation was low, and student achievement was climbing but not at the rate that everyone was hoping for,” read a 2013 report. “Our students required, and still require, a greater need to be listened to. Our students required new ways of dealing with emotions and crisis. Our students needed the time and an outlet that would provide an opportunity to understand the ‘whys’ and ‘hows’ of their experiences. They needed to become more contemplative . . .

“Since then it has become an ongoing, transformative experience. The Moment of Silence provided the students an opportunity to become more mindful and reflective of their experiences inside and outside the classroom. The students have become more introspective in their writing and have a greater appreciation, empathy, and understanding of their peers . . . Students have also gained a greater understanding of educational objectives.”

"The impact on the kids has been to the extent that some have been doing it on weekends," explained Rabbi Shuey Biston, director of outreach at Chabad of Parkland, who was counseling, praying and attending to the needs of grieving families almost without break after the shooting in the high school there that left 17 dead. "It sets the tone for the rest of the day."