"Rabban 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." (Pirkei Avot 1:17)

What is the meaning of these words? Why is there nothing better for the body than silence?

The Talmud (Chulin 89a) goes even further, stating this deeply enigmatic statement: "What is man's task in the world? To make himself as silent as the dumb."

Surely, silence is not always a bad idea, especially for certain types of people. But is this really man's task in the world? Were we created merely to be silent? It seems very strange to state that the entire purpose of our creation was to keep our mouths shut?

In a brilliant exposition, the Lubavitcher Rebbe once presented the following interpretation.

The Torah defines all of existence as G‑d's speech. As Genesis puts it: "G‑d said: &'Let there be light!' and there was light." G‑d said: "May the earth sprout forth vegetation," etc.

Why does Torah employ the metaphor of speech to define the process of creation? Because in speech – unlike thought – the words leave the domain of the speaker and travel into the outside world. When a person thinks, the ideas exist only within his or her own mind; when the thought is translated into words, it departs the person's inner world, to attain an existence distinct from his.

This is why creation is described as G‑d's speech: G‑d created a world which though completely dependent on Him (like words on the speaker), and continuously sustained by Him, nevertheless perceives itself as distinct and separate from G‑d. In our world one can remain completely oblivious to G‑d and to any higher reality pervading existence. G‑d "spoke" us into existence and thus allowed us to experience ourselves as detached from Him.

There is, however, a single exception to this model for the essential nature of all created things: the soul of man. The soul, the neshama, is described in Torah not as a Divine word but as a G‑dly thought.

Why the metaphor of thought? Just as a thought never departs from the inner domain of the thinker, the soul, too, is a creation which never "departs" from the all-pervading reality of G‑d. Unlike the rest of the world which experiences itself as an egotistical reality separate from the Divine, the soul experiences itself as submerged in the cosmic oneness of G‑d's reality, and does not see itself as an "entity" distinct from its Creator.

When G‑d speaks, a universe is created. When G‑d thinks, a soul is created.

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.

We were created to share the "silence" of the soul with the rest of the world.


Based on an address by the Lubavitcher Rebbe in 1959; published in Likkutei Sichos vol. 4.