September 13, 2021

Judaism and the Sound of Silence

By Simon Eder

You would be forgiven for thinking that silence is a rare commodity in the Jewish tradition. The Bet Midrash in stark contrast to the university library is space for heated debate. The centrality of family and children within the tradition place the the imperative of intergenerational dialogue at its heart – ‘’you shall teach these words to your children.’’

It is through words that God created the universe. Our prayer services are only rarely punctuated by moments of silence and indeed our synagogues are hardly spaces for contemplative prayer and reflection. The very word synagogue means house of meeting. Samuel Pepys’ Diary entry from 14th October 1663 (perhaps still as apt today) in his summation of a Simhat Torah service refers to it as “disorder, laughing, sporting, and no attention, but confusion in all their service”.

The Jewish year and lifecycle are filled with times to celebrate and commemorate through ritual, words, often singing but ultimately it is the emphasis of language rather than silence at Judaism’s centre. So as we remain in lockdown, our streets still quiet what are the paradigms of silence on which we might draw and as we perhaps look to other countries to see what a gradual opening up might have in store for us here – what are the lessons of silence that we might carry forth as the noise returns?

Our prayer services are only rarely punctuated by moments of silence and indeed our synagogues are hardly spaces for contemplative prayer and reflection.

Silence and the Response to suffering                                                                                 

Silence in Tanakh is sometimes associated with suffering. “Aaron was silent”(1) for example after the mysterious  and tragic death of his two sons Nadav and Avihu. Job’s friends who come to comfort him following his various afflictions were silent ‘’for they saw that his pain was very great”.(2) It is this approach of silence in the face of tragedy which contrasts strongly with a more prevailing trend within Jewish tradition of protest and speaking out. Dylan Thomas’ line “Do not go gentle into that good night, Rage Rage against the dying of the light” is more in accord with mainstream Jewish thinking. Moses is perhaps the supreme example of refusing his summons of death. Nonetheless Aaron and Job do show that in the words of Ecclesiastes “there is a time for silence and a time to speak”(3) As we have witnessed the sea of suffering that has traversed all four corners of the planet over the last several weeks whilst there will be a time to speak out and challenge, perhaps an initial response of silence is apt.

Silence and the Cultivation of Mindfulness

Elie Wiesel, the Nobel prize winning author and Shoah survivor, once quipped that Judaism is in fact “full of silences but we don’t talk about them”. The Mishna teaches that our early sages would “wait an hour before praying, in order to direct their hearts to the Omnipresent”.(4) The Amidah, also known as the silent prayer – so central to every service is based on Hannah’s exemplar – “she spoke in her heart. Her lips moved but her voice was not heard.”(5) R. Shimon ben Gamliel said “all my days I have grown up among the wise and I have found nothing better than silence.”(6)

These examples, illustrating the importance of silence within the tradition all go to show how it can help cultivate a more mindful and conscious state. The lockdown has not of course abolished the daily bombardment that we may face through our lives online, perhaps our screentime has even gone up but external noise pollution has certainly decreased. The weekly silence felt shortly before the clap in honour of the NHS, when people have yet to emerge on their doorsteps is palpable.

The lack of the normal humdrum of traffic and planes overhead or of a hectic daily commute has perhaps yielded a deeper sense of calm and aided the emergence of a more caring, compassionate society. Imagine Thoreau or Wordsworth writing their masterpieces faced with the head wind of what modern life had become up till 7 weeks ago. As lockdown gradually lifts it is surely some of the silence we have experienced during this time that we can take into a more conscious and mindful new world.

It is not just silence as a response to suffering or for the enablement of a more listening heart that Judaism counsels, but something yet more profound still.

Silence and Revelation

It is not just silence as a response to suffering or for the enablement of a more listening heart that Judaism counsels, but something yet more profound still. In a remarkable episode, the Prophet Elijah following his contest with the prophets of Baal encounters the Divine:

“There was a great and mighty wind, splitting mountains and shattering rocks by the power of the Lord; but the Lord was not in the wind. After the wind – an earthquake; but the Lord was not in the earthquake. And after the earthquake – fire; but the Lord was not in the fire. After the fire – a still small voice” (7)

This powerful ordeal highlights that it is the Infinite who may be found in silence. Rav Dimi in the Talmud commenting on Psalm 65:2 “To you silence is praise” says ‘’They say in the West that if a word is worth one coin silence is worth two.”(8) Sometimes our obsession with words drowns out the essence of the spiritual quest. If God may indeed be found in silence, let us hope that in a world beyond the current silence of our towns and cities, when lockdown lifts and some sense of normality returns, we still find the ability to seek out the still small voice – the sound of silence!

This is certainly a time of more questions than answers – a time for silence in the face of suffering, but also a time to attune to our inner ear and cultivate compassion. As Rabbi Mark Solomon concludes his article In Praise of Silence:

“Before infinite, unfathomable greatness and the human inevitability of death we are all reduced to silence, and in silence we are all equal.”(9)

  1. Lev 10:3
  2. Job: 2:13
  3. Ecclesiastes 3:7
  4. Berachot 30b
  5. 1 Sam 1: 13
  6. Avot 1:17
  7. 1 Kings 19: 11-12
  8. BT Megillah 18a
  9. European Judaism: A Journal for the New Europe Vol. 46, No. 2 (Autumn 2013), p. 97

Simon Eder is Editorial Director of Jewish Quest. He writes regularly for the site and has written for the Judaism column of the Jewish Chronicle. He is a founder of the Jewish Community in Dubai and due to feature in a documentary later this year about its founding. He studied Theology at The University of Cambridge.