Over the not yet too distant Yamim Noraim, I was taken by something I hadn't noticed previously. I don't quite know why not, it's pretty obvious when you start looking forit: Everywhere you look in the readings for not just Yom Kippur, but over the yamim noraim, the silence is palpable.
God is silent, prophets are silent, we are silent. What kindof silence is this, and why? Why is everyone so quiet?
The first two lines of the Yom Kippur reading come from Leviticus 16:1-2;
1 The Lord spoke to Moses after the death of the two sons of Aaron who died when they drew too close to the presence of the Lord. 2 The Lord said to Moses:
Tell your brother Aaron that he is not to come at will into the Shrine behind the curtain, in front of the cover that is upon the ark, lest he die; for I appear in the cloud over the cover
פרשת אחרי מות[ א וַיְדַבֵּר יְהוָֹה אֶל־מֹשֶׁה אַֽחֲרֵי מוֹת שְׁנֵי בְּנֵי אַֽהֲרֹן בְּקָרְבָתָם לִפְנֵֽי־יְהוָֹה וַיָּמֻֽתוּ: ב וַיֹּאמֶר יְהֹוָה אֶל־מֹשֶׁה דַּבֵּר אֶל־אַֽהֲרֹן אָחִיךָ וְאַל־יָבֹא בְכָל־עֵת אֶל־הַקֹּדֶשׁ מִבֵּית לַפָּרֹכֶת אֶל־פְּנֵי הַכַּפֹּרֶת אֲשֶׁר עַל־הָֽאָרֹן וְלֹא יָמוּת כִּי בֶּֽעָנָן אֵֽרָאֶה עַל־הַכַּפֹּֽרֶת:
These lines refer to a story that actually occurred three parshiot earlier (in the regular yearly cycle) the story of the death of Aaron’s sons in parshat shemini, which appers here:
Leviticus Chapter 10
1. And Nadav and Abihu, the sons of Aaron, took each of them his censer, and put fire in it, and put incense on it, and offered strange fire before the Lord, which he commanded them not. 2. And there went out fire from the Lord, and devoured them, and they died before the Lord. 3. Then Moses said to Aaron, This is what the Lord spoke, saying, I will be sanctified in them that come near to me, and before all the people I will be glorified. And Aaron held his peace.
וַיִּקְחוּ בְנֵֽי־אַֽהֲרֹן נָדָב וַֽאֲבִיהוּא אִישׁ מַחְתָּתוֹ וַיִּתְּנוּ בָהֵן אֵשׁ וַיָּשִֹימוּ עָלֶיהָ קְטֹרֶת וַיַּקְרִיבוּ לִפְנֵי יְהוָֹה אֵשׁ זָרָה אֲשֶׁר לֹא צִוָּה אֹתָֽם: ב וַתֵּצֵא אֵשׁ מִלִּפְנֵי יְהוָֹה וַתֹּאכַל אוֹתָם וַיָּמֻתוּ לִפְנֵי יְהוָֹֽה: ג וַיֹּאמֶר מֹשֶׁה אֶֽל־אַֽהֲרֹן הוּא אֲשֶׁר־דִּבֶּר יְהוָֹה | לֵאמֹר בִּקְרֹבַי אֶקָּדֵשׁ וְעַל־פְּנֵי כָל־הָעָם אֶכָּבֵד וַיִּדֹּם אַֽהֲרֹֽן:
What is the relationship between these two parts of the same story? And what have they to do with Yom Kippur?
Aaron held his peace. Really what is says is "vayidom Aharon."
The first part of the story of Aaron’s sons ends with Aaron’s silence. וַיִּדֹּם אַֽהֲרֹֽן
The word "yidom" is from duma, or dumiya, both words referring to silence, or stillness.There are many words for silence in the Torah and Talmud. The Talmud for example offers the famous axiom in Baba metzia 37b
Sometimes rendered Shtika k’hodaya damya – silence is like consent. Shtika – meaning quiet.
The medieval commentator Sforno teaches “When a person has the ability to protest and remains silent, his silence is similar to verbal consent. When you do not say something to disagree, it is as if you agree with what was said or done.”
And in fact some commentators accept this as Aaron’s response – his silence is assent to God’s awesomeness and power – he is accepting the fate of his sons as an act of submission.
We find an equivalence between this word shtika and that verb we find in Aaron’s response. In the Talmud Megilah 18a, we find the following:
דרש רבי יהודה איש כפר גבוריא, ואמרי לה איש כפר גבור חיל: מאי דכתיב )תהלים ס"ה( לך דמיה תהלה ־ סמא דכולה משתוקא. כי אתא רב דימי אמר: אמרי במערבא: מלה ־ בסלע, משתוקא ־ בתרין.
R. Judah a man of Kefar Gibboraya, or, as some say, of Kefar Gibbor Hayil, gave the following homily: What is meant by the verse, For you silence is praise?
The best medicine of all is silence.
When R. Dimi came, he said: In the West they say: A word is worth a sela', silence two sela's.
But how could this be applied to our situation? The verse quotes above from psalms is usually translated in context something like “Praise awaits You (O Lord, In Zion)” but here the word dumiya is translated as silence, rendering our verse: "To You, silence is praise" (Psalms 65:2)
לְךָ דֻמִיָּה תְהִלָּה
Onkelus renders the term Vayidom in our story as "silence:" Aharon was silent. However there is another tradition as referenced in the Torah shlemah with an alternative reading of the Targum; instead of ushatik - silence, "Ushavach Aharon" - Aharon praised God.
The Rambam (commentary to the Mishna, Avot 3:3, Kapach Edition) cites this reading of the Targum.
The Rambam compares this verse to Melachim I, 19:12 "And after the earthquake a fire; but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a still (D'mamah) small voice" - clearly not silence, but perhaps implying stillness or a sense of serenity and a revelation. Rambam understands the term as denoting a quiet or secretive communication; if this is silence then it is a silence with sound. Likewise the Rambam teaches that this is the understanding of the use of the word "vayidom" in connection with Aharon: "Ushavach Aharon" - Aharon softly praised God.
This approach is supported by a passage in the Sifri (Piska 58) that compares the verse in Melachim ("...and after the fire a still (D'mamah) small voice") and the phrase "Vayidom Aharon": According to the Sifri, both indicate a type of revelation. To paraphrase the Sifri, "when God speaks, man is silent". Aharon's silence seems to be a response to some Divine statement; what emerged was an inaudible word of praise.
But I find this at best far fetched. To me, Aaron's silence is the silence of the cowed. We love to sy, "Speak truth to power" but what about whenthe power is God - or at least, inthis case, Moses representing what he thiks God's opinion is.
I remember as a child, occasionally I would do something that my father did not like, and his response to was to yell questions like "What do you think you were doing?!" at me. Of course, there is no possible rational answer to such a question, but that's in part because the asker isn't really seeking information, but simply trying to impress upon you what they think you ought to have done.
Rashi links the silence of Aharon with a revelation, explaining that Aharon remained silent - something which was extremely difficult to do - and was consequently rewarded for his silence:
"And Aharon was silent" - He received a reward for his silence; and what was the reward he received? That the subsequent Divine address was made to him alone and not to Moshe also for to him alone was spoken the section (10:8-11) dealing with those who are intoxicated by wine.(4) (See Zevachim: 115b) [Rashi 10:3]
IN my opinion, this at least recognizes that Aaron was not silencing himself internally, not open to some great revelation, achieving great heights, but instead was permorming a kind of submission to God's will, understood or not.
The Ba'al haTurim points out that the only other time in Tanach that the word "Vayidom" is used with the same spelling is to be found in the book of Yehoshua:
"And the sun stood still, and the moon stayed" (Yehoshua 10:13)
The Talmud teaches that Moshe is compared to the sun:
"The countenance of Moshe was like that of the sun; the countenance of Yehoshua was like that of the moon." (Bava Batra 75a)
It's an interesting image, the two men unnaturally still, as if the sun and moon had ceased to move. Some have interpreted this connection as offering the idea that onthis one occasino Aaron rose to the heights of Moses, similar to Rambam's idea, but I think that this is unlikely. Rather, let's say the sun and moon actually stood still - what would that mean - that the earth had stopped rotating, and the moon's orbit becme fixed; this is not a scenario in which life on earth can remain very long. A stopped earth woudl quickly become uninhabitable, and it is this image that I take away: Aaron stunned into immobility, and Moses staring at him, also struck - until he stammers out some sort of foolishnes about God's will, and everyone is freed to go on, however damaged, the earth again begins to turn, the moon, to orbit.
I think that in fact, the dumiya of Aaron is more related to two other Biblical silences. The first is from the first Book of Kings.
19:11. And he said, Go out, and stand upon the mount before the Lord. And, behold, the Lord passed by, and a great and strong wind tore the mountains, and broke in pieces the rocks before the Lord; but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake; but the Lord was not in the earthquake; 12. And after the earthquake a fire; but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a still small voice.
יא וַיֹּאמֶר צֵא וְעָֽמַדְתָּ בָהָר לִפְנֵי יְהֹוָה וְהִנֵּה יְהֹוָה עֹבֵר וְרוּחַ גְּדוֹלָה וְחָזָק מְפָרֵק הָרִים וּמְשַׁבֵּר סְלָעִים לִפְנֵי יְהֹוָה לֹא בָרוּחַ יְהֹוָה וְאַחַר הָרוּחַ רַעַשׁ לֹא בָרַעַשׁ יְהֹוָֽה: יב וְאַחַר הָרַעַשׁ אֵשׁ לֹא בָאֵשׁ יְהֹוָה וְאַחַר הָאֵשׁ קוֹל דְּמָמָה דַקָּֽה:
The second is from the close of the book of Jonah, the haftarah for mincha on Yom Kippur.
Here are the last two chapters of Jonah – the whole book is only four, and there are only 21 lines, so although I won't include the whole story, thisis short enough to keep, so you don't have to go running off to look it up.:
Yona Chapter 3
1. And the word of the Lord came to Jonah the second time, saying: Arise!
2. Go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I bid you.
3. And Jonah arose, and went to Nineveh, according to the word of the Lord. And Nineveh was an exceedingly great city, three days’ journey in extent.
4. And Jonah began to go into the city, going a day’s journey, and he cried, and said, Another forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown.
5. And the people of Nineveh believed God, and proclaimed a fast, and put on sackcloth, from the greatest of them to the least of them.
6. And word came to the king of Nineveh, and he arose from his throne, and he took off his robe, and covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in ashes.
7. And he caused it to be proclaimed and published through Nineveh by the decree of the king and his nobles, saying: Neither man, beast, herd or flock should taste anything! They should not feed nor drink water!
8. And let man and beast be covered with sackcloth, and cry mightily to God; let them turn everyone from his evil way, and from the violence that is in their hands.
9. Who can tell if God may yet turn and repent, and turn away from his fierce anger, so that we perish not?
10. And God saw their doings, that they turned from their evil way; and God repented of the evil, which he had said that he would do to them; and he did not do it.
Yona Chapter 4
1. And this displeased Jonah exceedingly, and he was very angry.
2. And he prayed to the Lord, and said, I pray you, O Lord, is this not what I said when I was still in my country? Therefore I hastened to flee to Tarshish; for I knew that you are a gracious God, and merciful, slow to anger, and of great kindness, and that you repent of the evil.
3. Therefore now, O Lord, take, I pray you, my life from me; for it is better for me to die than to live.
4. Then says the Lord, Do you do well to be so angry?
5. And Jonah went out of the city, and sat on the east side of the city, and there he made himself a booth, and sat under it in the shadow, till he should see what would become of the city.
6. And the Lord God appointed a castor oil plant, and made it grow over Jonah, that it might be a shadow over his head, to save him from his distress. And Jonah was exceedingly glad of the plant.
7. And, when dawn came up the next day, God appointed a worm, and it attacked the plant so that it withered.
8. And it came to pass, when the sun rose, that God appointed a hot east wind; and the sun beat down upon the head of Jonah, so that he fainted, and wished to die, and said, It is better for me to die than to live.
9. And God said to Jonah: Do you do well to be so angry for the plant? And he said: I do well to be so angry, even to death.
10. Then the Lord said, You had concern for the plant, for which you did not labor, nor did you make it grow; which came up in a night, and perished in a night;
11. And should I not spare Nineveh, that great city, where there are more than one hundred and twenty thousand persons who cannot discern between their right hand and their left hand; and also much cattle?
In the JPS Bible Commentary on the book of Jonah, Uriel Simon writes: "The designation of Jonah as the haftarah for the Afternoon Service of the Day of Atonement (B. Megillah 31a) reflects the view that this book depicts the concept of repentance so starkly and completely that it can stir hearers to repent their ways and even modify their conduct."1Uriel Simon, The JPS Bible Commentary: Jonah (Phila-delphia: The Jewish Publication Society of America, 1999), vii.
The book of Jonah in Nevi'im (Prophets) is shorter than most other books in the Hebrew Scriptures. A mere four chapters in length, the book ends with Jonah's silence -- and the reader is waiting for him to respond.
And the story ends. Jonah is silent. What does his silence mean? Is שתיקה כהודאה ?
It is possible to interpret Jonah's silence as repentance?
On Yom Kippur, we read the entire book including Jonah's silence. Even though the rabbis include Jonah's silence as part of the Yom Kippur reading, the rabbis appended Micah 7:18-20 to the end of Jonah: "Who is like you, forgiving iniquity and pardoning the transgression of the remnant of Your people? You do not maintain anger forever, but You delight in lovingkind-ness. You will again have compassion upon us, subduing our sins, casting all of our sins into the depths of the sea. You will show faithfulness to Jacob and enduring love to Abraham as You promised our fathers from days of old." By appending this Micah text, the rabbis made it appear as if Jonah is no longer silent.
But our original text doesn't tell us what Jonah thinks. Although God isn't silent, Jonah certainly is. And unlike the silence of Aaron we don't have the silence spelt out - it is simply an absence. Itis curioustht these two passages are linked by the Tanchuma to the Akedah directly. It essentially says thatJonah is a sulky little brat, expecting happiness - whyy shold he behappy, when even God's great friend, Abraham, was not?
Let’s go back to that section from the book of Kings for a minute.
This time, I want to bring a little more of the passage:
ט וַיָּֽבֹא־שָׁם אֶל־הַמְּעָרָה וַיָּלֶן שָׁם וְהִנֵּה דְבַר־יְהֹוָה אֵלָיו וַיֹּאמֶר לוֹ מַה־לְּךָ פֹה אֵֽלִיָּֽהוּ: י וַיֹּאמֶר קַנֹּא קִנֵּאתִי לַֽיהֹוָה | אֱלֹהֵי צְבָאוֹת כִּֽי־עָֽזְבוּ בְרִֽיתְךָ בְּנֵי יִשְֹרָאֵל אֶת־מִזְבְּחֹתֶיךָ הָרָסוּ וְאֶת־נְבִיאֶיךָ הָֽרְגוּ בֶחָרֶב וָֽאִוָּתֵר אֲנִי לְבַדִּי וַיְבַקְשׁוּ אֶת־נַפְשִׁי לְקַחְתָּֽהּ: יא וַיֹּאמֶר צֵא וְעָֽמַדְתָּ בָהָר לִפְנֵי יְהֹוָה וְהִנֵּה יְהֹוָה עֹבֵר וְרוּחַ גְּדוֹלָה וְחָזָק מְפָרֵק הָרִים וּמְשַׁבֵּר סְלָעִים לִפְנֵי יְהֹוָה לֹא בָרוּחַ יְהֹוָה וְאַחַר הָרוּחַ רַעַשׁ לֹא בָרַעַשׁ יְהֹוָֽה: יב וְאַחַר הָרַעַשׁ אֵשׁ לֹא בָאֵשׁ יְהֹוָה וְאַחַר הָאֵשׁ קוֹל דְּמָמָה דַקָּֽה: יג וַיְהִי | כִּשְׁמֹעַ אֵֽלִיָּהוּ וַיָּלֶט פָּנָיו בְּאַדַּרְתּוֹ וַיֵּצֵא וַֽיַּֽעֲמֹד פֶּתַח הַמְּעָרָה וְהִנֵּה אֵלָיו קוֹל וַיֹּאמֶר מַה־לְּךָ פֹה אֵֽלִיָּֽהוּ: יד וַיֹּאמֶר קַנֹּא קִנֵּאתִי לַֽיהֹוָה | אֱלֹהֵי צְבָאוֹת כִּֽי־עָֽזְבוּ בְרִֽיתְךָ בְּנֵי יִשְֹרָאֵל אֶת־מִזְבְּחֹתֶיךָ הָרָסוּ וְאֶת־נְבִיאֶיךָ הָֽרְגוּ בֶחָרֶב וָֽאִוָּתֵר אֲנִי לְבַדִּי וַיְבַקְשׁוּ אֶת־נַפְשִׁי לְקַחְתָּֽהּ: טו וַיֹּאמֶר יְהֹוָה אֵלָיו לֵךְ שׁוּב לְדַרְכְּךָ מִדְבַּרָה דַמָּשֶֹק וּבָאתָ וּמָֽשַׁחְתָּ אֶת־חֲזָאֵל לְמֶלֶךְ עַל־אֲרָֽם
9. And he came there to a cave, and lodged there; and, behold, the word of the Lord came to him, and he said to him, What are you doing here, Elijah? 10. And he said, I have been very zealous for the Lord God of hosts; for the people of Israel have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword; and I am the only one left; and they seek my life, to take it away. 11. And he said, Go out, and stand upon the mount before the Lord. And, behold, the Lord passed by, and a great and strong wind tore the mountains, and broke in pieces the rocks before the Lord; but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake; but the Lord was not in the earthquake; 12. And after the earthquake a fire; but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a still small voice. 13. And it was so, when Elijah heard it that he wrapped his face in his mantle, and went out, and stood in the entrance of the cave. And, behold, there came a voice to him, and said, What are you doing here, Elijah? 14. And he said, I have been very zealous for the Lord God of hosts; because the people of Israel have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword; and I am the only one left; and they seek my life, to take it away. 15. And the Lord said to him, Go, return on your way to the wilderness of Damascus; and when you come, anoint Hazael to be king over Aram; 16. And Jehu the son of Nimshi shall you anoint to be king over Israel; and Elisha the son of Shaphat of Abelmeholah shall you anoint to be prophet in your place.
What do you notice that’s odd about the passage?
The curious thing is that God doesn’t really respond, quite, to Elijah’s complaint. He wants God to make it better and stop people from persecuting him, but does God promise this? Later in the verse, God promises Elijah the idolators will be killed but he doesn’t really offer any safety to Elijah, at least not obviously
Rabbi Noton Sternhartz talks a bit about silence in his
Likutei Halachos, Hilchos Shabbos, Halachos 6 and 7
This is good advice for all the difficulties we may encounter: we should simply nullify ourselves for a time, and remind ourselves of the Ultimate Reality. Anyone in the world, without exception, can accomplish this, and thus merge into the Infinite Divine Light. It is impossible to explain this further; for "everyone must understand according to what remains in his heart" (Zohar I, 103b). Nevertheless, all Israel believes that this is the ultimate spiritual goal, and our hope for all eternity. Every person, whatever he may be, whatever may happen to him, can nullify himself to God, even in the midst of his confusions and problems. This is the paradigm of Shabbos, the paradigm of rest (sh'visah) and cessation. Through this, we can destroy all disturbing thoughts, all intellectual entanglements and false wisdoms, and direct all of our doings toward the Ultimate Reality that is beyond time and change. This is the aspect of Shabbos and the principle that "the mind is nourished first." That is, our eating and mundane activities, even the necessity of attending to our physical needs, should be directed to the Shabbos alone: to true wisdom and the Essence of the mind.
For the Shabbos transcends speech yet all speech comes forth from the Shabbos. It is the supernal silence above speech, the paradigm of "the fence for wisdom (chochmah) is silence" (Avos 3:13). Kabbalistically, this corresponds to the Sefirah of Kesser ("Divine Crown"). In terms of our Divine service, it corresponds to the quality of waiting. For speech is bound up with the Sefirah of Chochmah (wisdom), as the verse states, "God will give wisdom, from His mouth..." (Proverbs 2:6). However, [wisdom and speech] spring forth from the Sefirah of Kesser, the transcendent silence, the "fence for wisdom." This is why we must be silent before we speak, when we need to collect our thoughts. Similarly, we must pause between words, however slightly. As our sages state, "If a word is worth one coin, silence is worth two" (Megilla 18a); for silence is both the source of speech and its tikkun (spiritual rectification). This concept also is suggested by the verse that refers to "a wise man (chacham) among the silent, understanding whispered mysteries" (Isaiah 3:3). Thus, speech is elicited from the paradigm of the Shabbos that corresponds to the Sefirah of Kesser, the aspect of the "covering of coverings," which is the mystery of silence.
I don't really know how to finish here. We have recently become interested as Jews inmeditatin and eastern -especially Buddhist- spirituality. IN these religions, silence, quiet mind, meditation, are positive goods, the eradication of the self and the conquering of desire. But I'm not sure that -despite Rabbi Noton's words- thatsilence is much more complex than we wantto credit. Silence is not always quiet mind, and even if one might find it good, in my opinion, byu labelling silence as an unmitigated positive, we lose track of theother kinds of silence that we encounter in our lives: the silence of oppression, the silence of fear, thesilence of shock - and all of these are silences that we live with in this imperfect world.
On the other hand, we often talk about God’s silence when we have to struggle with difficult things, but I think it’s worth also thinking about our own. We are silent all the time, to God, and though we often try to cast it as neutral, or even positive, I think more often, when we say silence is worth two selas, we are covering up shtika k’hodaya- we are covering up our acquiescence in the way things are. I wonder what Aaron might have said to God, what protest he might have made in his heart?
I also wonder, if that lack of protest is in fact, why in our reading on Yom Kippur morning, the memoy of Aaron’s silence is revisited, if not mentioned. And how does God respond to Aaron’s silence on Yom Kippur morning?
The Lord said to Moses:
Tell your brother Aaron that he is not to come at will into the Shrine behind the curtain, in front of the cover that is upon the ark, lest he die; for I appear in the cloud over the cover
Then he gives him explicit directions as to how he can come into the holy of holies…with the sacrifices not only for the people, but first for himself. SO perhaps our last question should be, what is God’s response to Aaron’s silence?
It’s worth noting that the connection between Yom Kippur and silence falls in another way as well.
VII. Psalm 115 (17) (is one place among others) which we read daily, makes explicit the connection between silence and death
. יז לֹֽא־הַמֵּתִים יְהַֽלְלוּ־יָהּ וְלֹא כָּל־יֹרְדֵי דוּמָֽה
17. The dead cannot praise the Lord, nor can any who go down into silence.
Yom Kippur makes that tension evident
But perhaps the most profound connection between death and Yom Kippur is the mysterious claim The Talmud makes for both of them. Yom Hakippurim atzmo m'caper, u'mitah mcaperet. Both Yom Kippur and death themselves, atone. We say the vidui, the final confession, on two occasions in our lives -- on Yom Kippur and on the day of our death. The word for atonement -- caparah -- means a covering over. Death is a covering over. And Jonah, Abraham and Aaron, all in their silence are covered over, in their pain, in their protest, and maybe we in ours, on Yom Kippur, when we are shocked into silence, are also staring death in the face, struck mute, our hearts struck mute, made silent so that we can face death, and in silence and pain, find forgiveness.