"Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak out and remove all doubt." -Abraham Lincoln
Honest Abe had it right when he extolled the virtues of remaining silent and not being thought a fool. But as we learn from this week’s Torah portion Parshas Tetzaveh, there are other reasons for us to shut up as well.
One of the vestments that the High Priest wore while serving in the Tabernacle was the Me’il, a long robe made entirely of turquoise wool, with alternating golden bells and pomegranate-shaped tassels attached to its hem (see Exodus 28:31-35).
The Talmud in Zevachim 88b teaches that each of the High Priest’s vestments atoned for a different sin. The Mei’l atoned for the sin of lashon hara (slander and evil speech).
As the Talmud explains: “Let a garment that produces sound [through the golden bells that were attached to the hem of the robe] atone for the sin of the sound [of slander]”.
The Bible commentators Kil Yakar and Toras Moshe (the Alshich HaKadosh) explain just how this atonement works.
In describing how to make the Me’il, the Torah states: “Its head-opening shall be folded over within it, its opening shall have a border all around of weaver’s work … it may not be torn” (ibid. verse 32). The Kli Yakar writes that the root cause of much of the gossip and slander that we speak is simply because we talk too much in general and that gets us into trouble because it inevitably leads to engaging in forbidden speech.
It is for this reason that G-d gave us two “guards” for our tongue – the teeth (a guard made of bone) and the lips (a guard made of flesh) - to ensure that we don’t let our tongue loose and engage in gossip or other forbidden speech.
These two guards are alluded to in the verse describing the Me’il: “Its head-opening shall be folded over within it” means that the tongue is to be ‘folded over’ and ‘within’ and protected by the teeth; and “its opening shall have a border all around … it may not be torn” means that the tongue shall have a border guard, i.e. the closed lips, which are not to be ‘torn’ open unless speech is absolutely necessary.
So that if we want to atone for the sin of gossip and slander, we have only to look at the Me’il that the High Priest wore in the Tabernacle to remind ourselves how we got into trouble because we didn’t use the two guards that gave us to help keep our mouths shut.
This idea that talking too much is the cause of all our problems is further illustrated – explains the Toras Moshe – by the golden bells and pomegranate-shaped tassels hanging from the hem of the High Priest’s Me’il. Each one of the golden bells with a clapper inside, resembling an open mouth with a wagging tongue, was surrounded on both sides by pomegranate-shaped tassels, resembling a closed mouth. This is to remind us that for every one thing we say we should have two silences. In other words, we should keep our mouths shut more often than not, as this will save us from speaking what we shouldn’t be speaking and getting us into a lot of trouble.
The Toras Moshe adds that it is not for nothing that G-d created man with two eyes but with only one mouth. This is to remind him that only half of what he observes should he tell to others.
We see from here the importance of shutting up and only speaking when we need to, as it protects us from and atones for the sin of slander and evil speech.
But wait, there’s more!
The Torah ends its description of the High Priest’s Me’il with the following verse: “Its sound shall be heard when he enters the Sanctuary before G-d…” (ibid. verse 35).
The Chafetz Chaim explains this homiletically to mean that only if we learn well the lesson of the Me’il and we keep our mouths shut most of the time and only speak when appropriate, will we then merit that the sounds of our prayers will be heard and answered when they enter the Sanctuary before G-d. However, if instead of using our power of speech for good, we defile our mouths with gossip, slander and other such forbidden speech, then the prayers uttered from our mouths will not be answered, G-d forbid. Pretty scary, eh?
May G-d grant us all the wisdom and ability to use – and not abuse – our power of speech and to use the two guards He gave us so as to help us shut up most of the time, thereby avoiding lots of trouble in our lives.