Persistent Prattle

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04 Oct 2019
Yom Kippur

Naaleh_logo Shiur provided courtesy of

Adapted by Channie Koplowitz Stein

One of the sins we ask atonement for during the Viduy/Confession prayer of Yom Kippur is the sin of siach sifsoteinu/idle chatter of our lips. ArtScroll explains that our lips sin not only when we pray or study Torah without concentration, but very often when we are uncomfortable with silence and fill the void with aimless chatter.

Before exploring this sin in greater depth and resolving to improve, it may be worthwhile to understand the two different kinds of kabbalot/resolutions one may accept upon himself. Rav Salanter explains that often one resolves to act in a new way following a tragedy, perhaps to memorialize a death so one can remain inspired by the awareness of the tragedy. Or, one can be moved to accept a stringency as an act of teshuvah, to help with the resolution not to sin this way in the future. In this scenario, Rav Salanter explains, there are multiple layers and components to every sin. In this context, he suggests we pick one aspect of the sin to concentrate on rather than the whole sin. With small steps we are more likely to succeed in eventually eradicating our propensity for this sin.

Rav Meislish explains the sin of siach sifsoteinu in terms related to prayer. During tefillah, our hearts and minds should be focused on our connecting with Hakodosh Boruch Hu through the words our lips are pronouncing. If our minds and hearts are elsewhere while our lips are mouthing the words, we have transgressed and degraded the holy words of the prayer. This is equally true when we are making a brachah or answering Amen to someone else’s blessing.

In Heorat Derech, Rabbi Weissblum observes that there are different words for speech in the Hebrew language, each with a different connotation. Thoughtful, articulated speech is called dibur. [Think of the Ten Devarim/Commandments. CKS] Thoughtless speech, prattle, on the other hand, is referred to as siach, analogous to siach hasadeh, the wild, untended shrubbery, like tumbleweed in the desert. This can refer to both thoughtless conversation or thoughtless prayer.

Certainly we are meant to speak for all practical purposes, for business or food preparation or childcare, for example, but our words in most other circumstances should be measured. After all, the medrash claims that we each are given an allotted number of words to speak in our lifetime. But beyond this, from the Steipler Rebbe to the Vilna Gaon we are told of the great reward for reining in one’s speech. By refraining from speaking or even for pausing momentarily to reconsider before speaking, one merits the primal, hidden light of creation. Is it not advantageous to work on at least one aspect of our speech as part of our teshuvah process?

One of the best known verses in Ashrei is, “Poteach et yadcha umasbia lechol chai ratzon/You open Your hand and satisfy the desire of every living thing.” In Tiv Hatorah, Rabbi Gamliel Rabinowitz gives an alternate interpretation of this verse. Hashem opens His hand and instills in each person the ability to desire. Will we use that desire to seek a closer relationship with Hakodosh Boruch Hu? The choice is ours, especially now during aseret yemai teshuvah.

In its simple meaning, however, the verse refers to Hashem’s providing sustenance for every living thing, an interpretation echoed in Birkat Hamazon. Nevertheless, the terminology begs further explanation. Rabbi Schwab on Prayer explains that indeed the verse refers to Hashem’s providing the livelihood of each individual. But whether or not one is successful in what one does is determined by how others view him. Hashem provides each individual with the ability to be desired or not desired by others, to be liked or not liked. An applicant may ace any job interview, whether as a plumber or as a professor, and not get the job if the interviewer doesn’t like him. A merchant or salesman will be unsuccessful unless his customers view him favorably. This ability to find favor with others, this ratzon, is what Hashem Himself provides or withholds from each individual. In this way, a person’s livelihood comes directly from Hashem whereas redemption and salvation can come through an angel.

 It is for this reason that our rabbis have decreed that if you did not have the proper intention when mouthing these words, you must repeat the verse. If you finished the passage, since the entire chapter is written in the order of the aleph bet, you must repeat everything that follows that verse as well. Why is this so? Rabbi Schwab notes that the orderly progression of the verses in aleph bet represents the human input, logic, honesty and integrity, while the verse itself proclaims full faith that Hashem is the sole Provider of one’s livelihood.

In a similar vein, responding Amen to a blessing carries the same weight and must be said with full kavanah/intention. Rabbi Wolbe explains that Amen incorporates within it the three basic tenets of Judaism. The three Hebrew letters of the AMeN are an acronym for (A/E)Kel Melech Ne’eman. Kel signifies that Hashem created the world; Melech proclaims our coronating Him as our King when we accepted the Torah; Ne’eman validates our belief that He is faithful to redeem us in the future. Therefore, continues Rabbi Wolbe citing Reish Lakish, he who answers Amen with all his strength is assured that the gates of Gan Eden will be opened for him.

Every word of our prayers has unimaginable depths of meaning. If we take the first brachah of Shemoneh Esreai, as does Rabbi Jaeger, we would find that each phrase and each word brings us closer to a love of Hakodosh Boruch Hu, both through our ancestry and through a personal relationship. Rabbi Kaplan explains this beautifully in his interpretation of the last four words before the conclusion of the brachah that describe this relationship. First, Hashem is our Melech/King, One distant and almost unapproachable. Then He is our Ozer/Helper, a Friend we can call on in difficult circumstances. Then He is our Moshia/Savior, One Who sees our plight and jumps in to save us even when there is no time to call directly to Him. Finally, He is our Shield, surrounding us and protecting us even when the danger is so sudden it may not even be discernible. He is always in front and around us. Relating to these four words will transform the quality of our prayers.

It is with the understanding that we are standing before the King of kings that we must enter into payer, writes Rabbi Frand. Before we begin, we need to focus our thoughts on this awareness or, as the Ramban rules, we have not fulfilled the obligation of prayer. The introductory phrase to the Shemoneh Esrai is meant to bring us to that awareness as we open our lips to say words of praise to Hakodosh Boruch Hu.

The gravity of remaining focused during tefillah can perhaps best be exemplified by the Shulchan Aruch’s warning that one who talks during Chazorat HaShatz/Chazan’s Repetition has committed a sin too great to bear, writes Rabbi Frand. Talking in God’s presence is totally disrespectful. Talking makes a mockery of the ongoing prayer.

This idea dates back to the horrendous era of the pogroms of Tach and Tat, 1648-1649 when the Cossacks rampaged and murdered perhaps hundreds of thousands of Jews, writes Rabbi Solomon in With Hearts Full of Faith. The Gadol Hador of that time, Rav Lippman Heller, known as the Tosefos Yom Tov, had a dream that Hashem told him that these tragedies were allowed to go forth because the people talked during Chazorat Hashatz. If the people made a mockery of prayer in My house during good times, explained Hashem, why should I listen to them when they call out to Me in distress? Talking in shul neutralizes the most powerful tool we have in asking Hashem for mercy, kindness and blessings.

Our thoughts during our prayers, especially when we are in shul, should be focused on Hashem. After all, we are in His house and have an appointment with Him, writes Rabbi Frand. It is a struggle, especially for women, not to talk in shul, acknowledges Rebbetzin Smiles. Women are often so busy with taking care of family, often in addition to holding down jobs, that there is little time for socializing during the week. However, one can create time after shul, perhaps with a kiddush, to socialize. In shul, we must set an example of proper decorum for our children.

Actually, children often recite brachot with great sensitivity that adults often lose, writes Rabbi Bodner. Do we remember to focus on the words, to understand that Hashem continues to create the fruit or the bread that we are currently enjoying? If Hashem would stop for an instant, all would cease to exist.

It is undoubtedly too difficult to focus on the entire brachah. Choose one word, perhaps atah/You. When we address Hashem, when we say “You,” we are bringing His presence down, and we are standing before Him, writes the Aish Kodesh. There are so many words in so many places of our tefillah that can bring us closer to an awareness of Hakodosh Boruch Hu. Choose one, and make your speech meaningful.

Shabbat presents an additional challenge to being careful with our speech. When we are not occupied with the mundane activities of the weekdays, it is easy to fall into patterns of idle prattle. But Rabbi Gamliel Rabinowitz warns us that we are not permitted to speak about or plan activities that are prohibited on Shabbat.

In Shabbos of Eternity, Rabbi Sutton cites our Rabbis who tell us that although Man was created with the power of speech on Friday, and indeed spoke, his power of holy, sanctified speech was created on Shabbat. On Shabbat, Hashem had stopped His speech with which He had created the world as He endowed Man with the power of speech to be in His image. Shabbat should be a day of introspection when we limit our speech to lofty ideas. Therefore, of the seven Ushpizin who “visit” our sukkah, the seventh, associated with the seventh day, Shabbat, is David. It was David who elevated speech and wrote the Songs of Praise to Hashem.

Shabbat is time for family. Therefore, suggests Rabbi Mintzberg in Ben Melech, we should plan on involving the family in elevated speech. Telling stories of our great Rabbis or recounting medrashim on the parsha can bring joy to the Shabbos table. Perhaps a more personal approach can be to go around the table and ask each family member to recount a moment during the week when he sensed hashgacha pratis, Hashem’s personal involvement in his life. These are more often than not simple moments, but nevertheless one can find God if one looks for Him. An adult can find a parking spot in front of the store. A child can be grateful that an adult threw him the ball that rolled into the gutter before the oncoming car would smash it. A student might be grateful that the teacher called on him for the one answer he remembered. So many little things to acknowledge Hashem’s presence in our daily lives.

Rebbetzin Smiles offered an additional suggestion, one that may shed light on the inner life of our family members. Perhaps ask each person whom they would like to meet from among the biblical figures. One child in this scenario answered that she would like to meet Aharon, older brother of Moshe, and ask him how he coped with his younger brother getting all the attention.

God gifted us with this most powerful tool, speech. Of all God’s creatures, only Man has the ability to speak logically and use speak in a creative process to communicate with others. Let us train ourselves in small incremental steps to use this power wisely in our prayers and in our social interactions.