A Minimum of Small Talk - Middah Miyut Sichah

Marlene Myerson

About Mussar and Middot
The Hebrew word "mussar" means moral conduct, instruction, or discipline. The Mussar Movement arose in the 1800’s in Lithuania and encompasses a range of spiritual practices, focusing on the individual’s personal characteristics, traits, or virtues, which are called middot (in Hebrew, singular: a "middahMiddahמִדָּהcharacteristics, values, or virtues of Jewish life that focus on becoming a better and more fulfilled person; plural: middot ").

"A minimum of small talk or chatter." The word miyut comes from the Hebrew root mem-ayin-tet and means "little" or "limited" and the word sichah comes from the Hebrew root samech-yud-chet and means "conversation."

"Where there is much talking, there is no lack of transgressing, but the one who curbs the tongue shows sense." (Proverbs 10:19)

Many of the middot are concerned with striving for moderation in our lives. This middah is particularly focused on minimizing conversation. Our text suggests that too much talking can lead to transgressions while minimizing talking is considered a sign of intelligence.

The sages of the Talmud connect silence with wisdom. R. Hiyya says "It isn't necessary to tell a wise man to hold his tongue" (Derech Eretz Zuta 7.4) while R. Akiva says: "Silence is a protection for wisdom." (Pirkei Avot 3:17) According to the Biblical commentator Bartenura, R. Akiva "is not talking about silence with respect to speaking of Torah because it has been written that one should speak words of Torah. And the silence being referred to is not about gossip, lashon hara (evil speech), or slander because the Torah contains laws about those transgressions. What this line about silence must be referring to is elective, permitted conversation that takes place between two people. A person should minimize that kind of talk as much as possible." Solomon in Proverbs said about these matters: "Even fools, if they keep silent, are deemed wise." (Freeman, Teaching Jewish Virtues, p.152)

However, the sages were not urging us to take vows of total silence. They understood that "there is a time to keep silent and a time to speak" (Eccl.3:7) and that both silence and speech are important in expressing the many aspects of wisdom.

The Talmudic rabbis have provided us with very clear guidelines regarding the importance of limiting what we say:
"The wise man does not speak before him that is greater than he in wisdom;
He does not break into his fellow's speech.
He is not in a rush to reply.
He asks what is relevant and replies to the point.
He speaks of first things first and of last things last.
Of what he has not heard he says, "I have not heard,"
And he acknowledges what is true.
And the opposites apply to the clod." (Pirkei Avot 5:9)

To Talk About

  1. Reread the text quotation from Proverbs and try to explain it in your own words. Think of an experience that you have had that illustrates the truth of this quotation.
  2. The middah (virtue) of miyut sichah is associated with learning, since small talk can distract us from learning. What rules are there about talking in the classroom? Do you think these rules are necessary? Why? What happens when someone breaks these rules?
  3. During synagogue services, we are generally discouraged from engaging in small talk. There are many different ways in which this is done. How many different ways can you think of that are used to remind us to minimize our chatter during services? Do you think these restrictions are important? Why or why not?
  4. Rabbi Joshua ben Levi said: "A word is worth a sela [a small coin], but silence is worth two [sela'im]. Simeon his son used to say: 'All my life I grew up among the wise, and I found nothing better for a person than silence.'" (Leviticus Rabbah 16:5) Why did Rabbi ben Levi place a higher value on silence than on words? What did Simeon learn from the wise? Why might silence be good for a person?
  5. Have you ever heard the expression "silence is golden"? What do you think it means? How does it tie in with this week's middah, miyut sichah? Are there times when silence can be harmful instead of helpful? Talk about times when you found silence helpful or harmful.
  6. There are certain religious sects that take a vow of silence and never speak. What do you think the Talmudic rabbis would say concerning such a vow? Imagine that you are one of the Talmudic sages and have been asked to write a letter expressing your opinion on the matter.

To Do

Think about the conversations you have had recently. Were there times when you engaged in idle chatter that distracted you or others? Were there times when you could have accomplished more by talking less? Make an effort to limit your conversation to a discussion about miyut sichah. You may find this difficult at first, but practice makes perfect!