The Silent Soul: The Spiritual Meaning of Speech

Spiritual meaning of speech

Rabbon Gamliel’s 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…

Ethics of the Fathers, 1:17

The Talmud goes even further, with the amazing statement: “What is man’s task in the world? To make himself as silent as the dumb.”[1]Obviously, one can think of many cases in which silence is advisable. But is there no greater virtue? And is this indeed the purpose of life?

Essentially, the world is words—divine words. “G-d said: ‘Let there be light!’ and there was light.” G-d said: “May there be a firmament…” “May the waters gather…” “May the earth sprout forth…,”[2]and our world, in all its infinite variety and complexity, came into being. As chassidic teaching explains, these divine utterances not only caused these creations to materialize; they were, and continue to be, the very stuff of their existence. What we experience as physical light is, in truth, G-d’s articulation of His desire that there be light. Grass is our physical perception of the divine words “May the earth sprout forth greenery.” And so on.

Obviously, what emanated from G-d’s “mouth” was not a “voice” in any human or physical sense. The Torah uses terms from our experience so that by delving into their significance we can learn something of how G-d relates to our existence. In our case, the Torah wishes to describe an existence which, on the one hand, is distinct from its source, yet on the other, is utterly dependent upon it and possesses no reality other than that dependence. This is the significance of the metaphor “speech” in regard to creation.

When a person speaks, he creates something that extends beyond his own being. The thought that he had conceived, and which, up until now, has existed only within his mind, is now translated into words that depart his person to attain an existence distinct from his. Nevertheless, they are utterly dependent upon him for existence: the moment he ceases to speak, the entity we refer to as his “speech” no longer exists. In other words, their existence can only be defined in terms of his ongoing involvement to create them.

So it is with the world. On the one hand, G-d desired that a world exist, that it constitute a reality that (at least in its own perception) is distinct from His. On the other hand, the world has no independent existence, possessing no reality other than G-d’s constant involvement to create and sustain it. What model have we, in the human experience of reality, for such an entity? Speech. So what is the world? The closest we can come to answering this question in humanly comprehendible terms is to say: The world is G-d speaking.

There is, however, a single exception to this model for the essential nature of all created things: the soul of man. Every single creation is described by the Torah as having come into being by a divine utterance, except for the soul. The Zohar explains that the soul is not a divine word but a G-dly thought.

Referring to the above interpretation of the metaphor of speech, this means that the soul is a creation which does not “depart” from the all-pervading reality of G-d. A creation that not only senses its total dependence upon its source (as, deep down, every creation does), but one that does not even see itself as an “entity” distinct from its Creator.

Alone in a verbose world, the soul of man is a thing of silence. And its mission in life is to impart this silence to the world about it.[4]

This is an excerpt from “Beyond the Letter of the Law” by Yanki Tauber published by The Meaningful Life Center.


[1] Talmud, Chulin 89a.

[2] Genesis 1.

[3] Zohar, part II, 119a; Ohr Torah (by Rabbi DovBer of Mezeritch, 2c; Tanya Chapter 2.

[4]  Based on an address by the Rebbe, Nissan 24, 5719 (May 2, 1959)


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15 years ago

if silence is a lack of quarrel.

The Meaningful Life Center