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All my days I grew up among the sages,
And I have found nothing better for a person than silence;
And not the studying, but the doing is the main thing.
And all who speak too much bring on sin.
—Shimon ben Gamliel


Commentary [1:17]
All my days... Shimon, as son of the Gamliel of the previous mishnah and the great grandson of Hillel, grew up surrounded by Torah scholars. Evidently, he had contact with many people who were brilliantly debating the interpretation of Torah, but not putting it into practice. This saying is an biting criticism of such behavior.

Not the studying, but the doing... This warning note is sounded against the background of Rabbinic tradition, which is almost obsessed with the importance of study. There is a famous subsequent debate on the issue of which is greater: study or deeds. At the beginning of the debate Rabbi Tarfon held that deeds are greater and Rabbi Akiva that study is greater. In the end all concluded that “Study is greater, for it leads to deeds.” This conclusion resolves the conflict by saying the two are always in harmony. However, Shimon’s saying is contradicts this conclusion: it clearly implies that there are learned people, including in Torah, who don’t act properly. Shimon ben Gamliel’s observation is unfortunately often corroborated today.

All who speak too much... This saying raises the question of what kind of speech is ‘too much’ in that it ‘brings on sin’. The sages called this speech lashon hara, ‘the bad tongue’ or ‘the evil tongue’. The current expression to ‘bad mouth’ somebody is similar. Maimonides, commenting on this mishnah, points out that ‘lashon hara’ refers to speech that is disparaging of others, even when it is true, and so does not actually constitute slander. Interestingly, the same kind of concept is found in Buddhist ethics.

Later sages believed that lashon hara is both an extremely common and an extremely grave sin. The Talmud says that the ancient Temple was destroyed partly because of lashon hara, and tells the story of an insult which sparked a chain of events that led to the Roman attack. They indicated that the evil tongue can be more vicious than the sword because it can “speak in Rome and kill in Syria, speak in Syria and kill in Rome.” And they compared it to an arrow which, once shot, cannot be taken back. Gossip that can cause strife between people, even if not lashon hara, is also directly prohibited by the Torah, as read by the Rabbis (Lev. 19:16).


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