מסכת אבות פרק א
א,טז [יז] שמעון בנו אומר, כל ימיי גדלתי בין החכמים, ולא מצאתי לגוף טוב אלא שתיקה; ולא המדרש הוא העיקר, אלא המעשה; וכל המרבה דברים, מביא חטא.
17. His son, Shimon, would say: All my life I have been raised among the wise, and I have found nothing better for the body than silence. The essential thing is not study, but deed. And one who speaks excessively brings on sin.
Shimon was the son of Raban Gamliel and Hillel’s great grandson. He grew up surrounded by great Torah scholars and was privileged to learn from them. Shimon’s wisdom here is a warning to those who immersed themselves too much in Torah study to the point that they never have the time to actually perform any of the mitzvot about which they have been learning.
Mentsch.com states that “There is a famous subsequent debate on the issue of which is greater: study or deeds. At the beginning of the debate Rabbi Tarfon held that deeds are greater and Rabbi Akiva that study is greater. In the end all concluded that “Study is greater, for it leads to deeds.” This conclusion resolves the conflict by saying the two are always in harmony. However, Shimon’s saying is contradicts this conclusion: it clearly implies that there are learned people, including in Torah, who don’t act properly. Shimon ben Gamliel’s observation is unfortunately often corroborated today.”
We are always learning from speech and it is almost impossible to close one’s ears to the idle and sometimes destructive banter which surrounds us. The Western maxim – “Sticks and stones can break my bones, but words can never harm me” – is not a concept that finds its home in Judaism. On the contrary, the laws of lashon hara teach us to always be extremely careful with our speech as once the words are said they cannot be retrieved nor their impact contained.
Here we learn the value of balancing one’s speech with listening. If we are constantly talking then we will surely miss some of the wisdom which those around us can impart, furthermore, we may seen to be foolish if our speech is not properly weighed.
If we have a choice between speech and action we should choose action as often deeds speak louder than words. Clearly, having read some of the laws of lashon hara in a previous shiur, we can appreciate the way that excessive and thoughtless speech can lead to sin.
Rambam divides speech into 5 categories:
(1) Obligatory: speech which the Torah requires us to utter. The primary example of this is Torah study – although not tefillah.
(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.”