The New York Times Magazine has a weekly feature called “How to…” It usually offers advice on how to perform some seemingly simple but elusive task, such as throwing your voice. To my surprise, a recent edition (February 25, 2018, page 27) presented the proper way to “take a vow of silence.” The author tells the story of a young man named John Francis who “woke up on his 27th birthday and decided not to speak for the day. He found that he liked not talking, so he extended his vow of silence for a year… In the end, he didn’t speak for 17 years.” Although John did not seem to have taken his vow of silence for any particular moral or ethical reason, he did eventually conclude that “it helped me find myself.” He also became a great listener, since “you’re going to hear more if you’re not talking.”
Not bad for someone functioning without a Torah to guide him or to put such decisions into some kind of perspective. But for us, there is an ancient tradition called taanis dibbur. Let us explore a bit of what the Torah says about this unique type of fast.
Now, of course, you might be wondering, other than the New York Times suddenly discovering the power of a taanis dibbur, why am I discussing this topic today? The answer may be found in a fascinating mussar shmuess (Leket Sichos Mussar quoted in Chochmas Hamatzpun, Moadim I, Maamar 185, page 394) for the days after Purim. He quotes the Megillah concerning the great fasts and tefillos instituted by Mordechai and Esther in the wake of Haman’s evil decree. Not only did Esther and her entourage fast for three days in a row, but, in fact, Mordechai cancelled several mitzvos, such as matzoh and oneg Yom Tov. We see that when danger looms against Klal Yisroel, we must take drastic measures. And yet, we are commanded to guard our health and we cannot fast consecutively for 72 hours, nor are we permitted to override any mitzvos without nevi’im and ruach hakodesh. Yet, when we hear that anti-Semitism is up nearly 100% in many areas, and several countries have legislated laws against basic Jewish needs such as bris milah and shechitah, we should think carefully about how to react.
The Chochmas Hamatzpun (Moadim 1:394) cites the baalei mussar, who say that such times are ripe for a taanis dibbur. The Mishnah Berurah (571:2) writes that in lieu of fasting from food, one should take a break from talking. Not 17 years, just a day or perhaps even part of a day.
The Vilna Gaon writes in his famous letter that “until the day one passes from this world, he should deprive himself, but not from food or other necessities, but by controlling his mouth and desires, which is actually teshuvah. This is more powerful than any fasting and self-imposed suffering, and every moment that a person closes his mouth, he merits the ‘hidden light’ that no angel or creature can even imagine.”
On the Chassidic side, Rav Yechiel Michel of Zlotchov (Chassidim Mesaprim 3:634) declared that “one who wishes to fast should take on a taanis dibbur, since it will not harm the body and is excellent for the soul.” Thus, we see that a taanis dibbur should not be contemplated lightly on a birthday or otherwise. It must be entered upon with gravity and with the goal of becoming elevated spiritually through the avodah of silence. It is a private, discreet and relatively innocuous method of storming the heavens when more public forms of expressing our pain could be counterproductive. The Alter of Kelm (Kesavim, page 55) referred to a taanis dibbur as “a gift for which we should be grateful.”
We should note at this point that Rav Chaim Kanievsky (Shoneh Halachos, Moadim, 572:10, page 217, note 2) is quoted as ruling that one need only refrain from “idle words.” However, if one must speak to perform a chesed or other important matters, he may speak. Furthermore, he concludes that if one’s wife requires some conversation, this, too, is not forbidden.
Rav Shimshon Pincus (Sichos Elul, page 284) offers a fascinating insight into the proper attitude toward refraining from speech when necessary. He relates the story of Rav Itzele Blazer, the rov of St. Petersberg, who conducted a taanis dibbur during all of Elul. Once, during Elul, he accompanied his wife to a doctor, who thought that her husband was a deaf mute. He kindly expressed his sympathies to the rebbetzin for having to suffer with an old, deaf and dumb burden of a husband.
Rav Pincus reveals to us that when he was younger, he imagined that the doctor’s attitude must have given the great rov and rebbetzin a good laugh. However, when he got older, he realized that we, too, make the same mistake. When we see a person “limited” by a taanis dibbur, don’t we pity him just a bit? “The poor man,” we think. “He can’t even speak for an entire month.” Rav Pincus goes on, “Perhaps we even pity Moshe Rabbeinu for not being able to eat for 40 days and nights.” Yet, we don’t realize that it is actually the most sublime pleasure to be able to live on such a lofty spiritual level.
Rav Pincus is teaching us that a taanis dibbur, far from being a sacrifice or deprivation, constitutes an opportunity to live on one of the highest spiritual planes possible in this world.
The Steipler Gaon zt”l also advocated a taanis dibbur for many sins that require a kapparah (Toldos Yaakov, page 212). The rebbe of Ozherov, too, recommended a taanis dibbur to all who, for health reasons, could not complete a regular fast (Belabas Aish, page 173).
One of the most amazing examples of someone who lived both with the power of words and with taanis dibbur was the great maggid, Rav Shalom Schwadron zt”l (see Kol Chotzev, pages 90-93). Although many people wrote down brief responses when they were forbidden to speak, Rav Schwadron also uttered words from Tanach, Mishnah or Gemara instead of everyday speech. Occasionally, Rav Schwadron’s sharp sense of humor emerged through these citations. He once noticed that a young man had neglected to put socks on his infant son on an extremely cold day. The scene begged a response, but Rav Shalom was in the midst of a taanis dibbur. He immediately pointed to the lad’s feet, quoting minaar ve’ad zokein taf venoshim, meaning literally “young and old, men and women,” but the word for “old” also means socks in Yiddish (zokken). The story repeated itself thousands of times, with Rav Schwadron demonstrating that without resorting to any modern words, one could communicate quite well in any situation just using words of Torah.
Let us imagine. Rav Sholom Schwadron, the ultimate master of words, was silent for the equivalent of 60 years, since for most of his adult life he did not speak on Monday and Thursday and often Shabbos as well. In addition, during the forty days from Rosh Chodesh Elul to Yom Kippur, he never uttered a word except for davening or learning. Thus, he spent over six thousand days of silence, and see what this man accomplished with his teachings, stories and inspiration! Even when he was fundraising for his many kollelim, when he was in the midst of a taanis dibbur, no promise of vast donations would change his silent regimen. If his host was content with words of Torah exclusively, that was fine. If he wanted to shmooze, he would have to find another visiting fundraiser. But Rav Shalom prevailed in the end, because people knew that his silence was as eloquent as his words, and his words resonate as loudly and powerfully when he traveled the world.
We applaud the New York Times for discovering a good thing. But our taanis dibbur is a much more profound tool than John Francis’ way of finding himself. It is a method of expiation, a venue for teshuvah, a listening aid to hear the song of the universe. It is a way that, with Esther, we can fast for three days and nights, without endangering our health. And perhaps, in these days between the geulah of Purim and that of Pesach, it can help bring us the ultimate redemption.