The Sound of Sheer Silence: Silent Meditation in Judaism
Elie Wiesel once alluded to the discipline of silence in Jewish tradition during an interview. The interviewer was surprised, noting that Jews love words so much, and asking why so few people have ever heard of Jewish silent practices. Wiesel simply replied, "Well, we don't like to talk about it."
Since words are God’s first creation ("Let there be light" even precedes light itself) and it is from words that diversity (known as the Olam ha-Dibur, literally "the universe of speech") unfolds (Sh'nei Luachot ha-Brit), it follows that silence, which preceded the divine speech, is more primal, more akin in nature to the higher reality of divine oneness.
Given that we know that sacrifices performed by the pagan peoples that surrounded Israel were accompanied with incantations and prayers, the absence of any verbal formulae for the sacrifices (Psalms were sung in the outer precincts) of the Beit ha-Mikdash (the Temple in Jerusalem) suggests that the priests made their offerings to God in silence .
The Psalms teach "Silence is praise to You" (62:2). Talmud repeatedly elevates the spiritual discipline of maintaining quiet: "Words are worth a perutah, silence is worth two" (Tractate Megillah) and "What should a man's pursuit be in this world? He should be silent" (Chullin 89a). So too the mystical tradition: "Silence is the means of building the sanctuary above [the godhead] and the sanctuary below [the soul]" (Zohar 2a). "It is often more effective to fast with words than with food. As fast of words, a struggle with silence, can teach us how often we misuse words" (Vilna Gaon). The great Maggid, the disciple of the Baal Shem Tov, even declared “It is best to serve God by silence.” All praise silence as an appropriate way to worship God. Thus, silence as a Jewish spiritual practice appears both as a distinctive meditation technique and as a daily discipline of reticence.
I explored the Jewish meaning of silence in detail in an article, "Building the Sanctuary of the Heart," that now appears in the book The Inner Journey: A Jewish View, published in 2007 by the Parabola Anthology Series and edited by Jack Bemporad.
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1. Tishby, the Wisdom of the Zohar, vol. 2, pp. 271-272.
2. Letter of Aristeas, 95.