To speak or not to speak

June 6, 2014 by Rabbi Michoel Gourarie
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The wise King Solomon taught: “There is a time to be silent and a time to speak.” The challenge in implementing this clever advice is to know when to do what. It isn’t always easy to know when to speak and when to be quiet. Is there a guiding principle that teaches us when to open our mouth and when not to?

Rabbi Michoel Gourarie

Rabbi Michoel Gourarie

Let us examine two opposite pieces of conversation advice taught in the Talmud.

 1) “Always be the first to greet every person.” – When you see someone you haven’t seen for a while it is considered praiseworthy to initiate the greeting. Elsewhere the sages teach that “he who rushes to say ‘Shalom‘ to his friend is blessed with long life.”

2) “It is forbidden to start speaking until the mourner initiates the conversation.” – This rule teaches how to fulfil the mitzvah of “Nichum Aveilim” – comforting mourners. When someone has lost a loved one it is important to offer words of comfort. But we are advised not to say anything until the bereaved has spoken.

If we examine the goal of communication we will appreciate that it is the same principle at the root of both of these instructions. Speech is not just about broadcasting what is hidden in our thoughts.  Communication is about the ability to connect to another human being. It is about bringing two worlds closer to each other, creating a stronger and deeper bond. Speech is about sharing emotions, explaining concepts and strengthening relationships.

The basis of any conversation therefore, must consider the needs of the one we are talking to. Anytime we speak we must be sensitive to the other person’s situation and feelings to ensure that the conversation will indeed bring us closer together and make the relationship stronger.

Rushing to say hello is a way of saying that I am happy to see you. In this case, rushing to speak makes the other person feel valuable. It suggests that you matter to me and your presence has made my day brighter. This idea can only bring people closer together.

When we visit someone who has lost a loved one, we want them to know that we are there for them – to comfort them and to give them strength. The best way we can express that is by being silent in order to be guided by their needs. We need the mourner to tell us what is best for them at that moment. They may not want to talk at all. They may want to talk about their loss or they might want to be distracted by discussing the weather. Waiting for them to speak first will set the tone of the conversation. In this case it is silence that will make the other person feel respected and strengthen the relationship.

With this in mind we can implement King Solomon’s advice with relative ease. Before you speak, ask yourself one question. What will bring me and the person I am talking to closer together – speech or silence? If you can answer the question you will know what to do.


2 Responses to “To speak or not to speak”
  1. Otto Waldmann says:

    I hasten to comment that, in the case of being in the presence of a mourner, I think that it shows consideration to address the bereaved with words of compassion, care. There is a vast difference between talking and listening. The mourner can listen to the expressions of emotion a considerate person must impart and a mere “thank you” as retort would not possibly upset the state of mind of a tried person. Like in ALL instances, it matters what one says.

  2. I just want to thank Rabbi Michoel Gourarie for his extreemly helpful article “To Speak or not to Speak”. I lost my wife to cancer two years ago and still feel some grief. Recently an elder of my church demanded I speak to him over an issue and I stated I did not want to talk, I was too hurt and upset. The issue has never been resolved and I have since been excommunicated from my church. I just want to thank you Rabbi for your wisdom, I also want to thank my Jewish friend of many years who passed on the article to me.

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