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Rabbi Shimon the son of Rabban Gamliel said: "All my days I grew up among the Sages and did not find anything better for a person than silence" (Ethics of the Fathers 1:17).
That's a nice sentiment. We've all heard similar suggestions, right? "If you don't have anything good to say, don't say anything at all." That's a classic.
But Rabbi Shimon's aphorism goes deeper than clichés. After all, he claimed there's nothing better than silence - nothing at all. And to emphasize the value of silence, he went on to say that "explanation is not primary, but action, and all who proliferate words produce sin."
What does he mean by this? Should we never compliment a person? Never say a blessing? If Rabbi Shimon isn't referring to all types of speech, what kind does he mean? Do we need a clever maxim to tell us not to curse?
Maimonides, in his commentary on Pirkei Avot (The Ethics of the Fathers) raises these questions. He explains that there are five categories of speech:
- Speech associated with a mitzva (commandment).
- Speech we have to be careful to avoid.
- Speech that is repulsive or degrades.
- Speech that expresses love.
- Speech that is permitted.
Maimonides then explains what he means. Speech associated with a mitzva includes studying Torah out loud. This type of talk is actually required; we must say words of Torah and prayer. The first category Maimonides classifies as an obligatory positive commandment.
Speech we have to be careful to avoid includes false testimony, lying, gossip and cursing. The Torah forbids us to engage in such speech, warning us to guard against it and against other types of unseemly talk, including lashon hara. (Lashon hara, literally, evil language, is any speech that injures another person, even if the statements are true.)
Clearly, Rabbi Shimon ben Gamliel can't be referring to these two categories, since the one is a positive commandment and the other a prohibition. We don't need an aphorism to tell us what we already know is a mitzva.
Speech that is repulsive or degrades includes idle chatter, talk that has no use and doesn't benefit a person spiritually or materially. There is no outright prohibition against such speech, for it does not involve cursing or lying, etc. But, it has no value, either. Not quite gossip, since it doesn't spread rumors or destroy reputations, common idle chatter is useless and irrelevant, like much of what passes for news. Such vain, wasteful talk also includes negative praise and backhanded compliments.
Speech that expresses love or affection includes praising the positive and wisely criticizing the negative. Stories and songs that arouse the soul, inspire people to improve or inculcate good habits belong in this category, as do those which make bad habits repulsive and make people want to avoid them.
Like the first two, Rabbi Shimon ben Gamliel's comment doesn't apply to these. If we talked continuously all day long, and our speech belonged to categories one and four - words of Torah and mitzvot and conversation that inspires - that would be great. It's obvious we shouldn't speak falsely or hurt others with our words, and it's also obvious that chatter and "news" is a waste of time and breath. This brings us to the last category:
Speech that is permitted includes conversation involving one's business, family, health and necessary daily activities, such as eating and drinking. There's neither inherent positive nor inherent negative in such speech. To speak or not to speak, it's up to the person.
And about such speech, Rabbi Shimon ben Gamliel tells us, best is silence, but if you have to speak, make sure your words match your deeds - and be brief. (This last explains the end of his statement, quoted in the third paragraph.)
On the long summer Shabbat after-noons it's customary to study Pirkei Avot. These teachings elevate the soul, refining one's character and emotional attributes.
This week's Torah portion, Nasso, describes the offerings that the twelve tribal leaders of Israel brought for the altar beginning on the day the Tabernacle was consecrated. On each tribe's appointed day, its leader brought a gift.
The Torah, normally sparing in its use of words, enumerates every detail of each tribe's offering, even though all the gifts were exactly the same.
The Torah is not a history book, recording events that ocurred long ago. It's teachings are relevant to each person in every generation. What, then, can we learn from the repetition of the exact same offerings twelve times?
There are twelve different paths by which a Jew can become closer to G-d, corresponding to the twelve tribes of Israel. Each tribe followed a unique path in its service of G-d. Each leader dedicated the offerings according to his own manner of spiritual service.
Despite the uniqueness of each offering, and the spiritual path which each represented, they were considered to be communal offerings. They were brought, not on behalf of the individual, but on behalf of all the Jewish people. It is for this reason, explains the Midrash, that the Torah does not distinguish whose offering was brought on which day.
This juxtaposition of the uniqueness of the individual and the equality of the collective whole is mirrored in the fact that the tribal leaders' spiritual intentions were unique while the actual physical offerings were the same. This is also true of the Jewish people; each Jew is unique and yet all Jews are equal.
There are certain qualities which all Jews share equally. And, there are also other qualities within each Jew which are uniquely personal. However, even the uniquely personal qualities can lead to unity among the Jewish people.
How so? When Jews realize that all Jews need each other, and that only by binding ourselves with our fellow Jew can we be complete.
The dedication gifts from the tribal leaders, mentioned above, were offered in a similar manner. Each leader brought his tribe's gift in a unique way on a separate day. However, each of these offerings was imbued with, and accompanied by, the feeling that this offering was also a communal offering-united with all the other leaders and tribes.
Excerpted from "The Wellsprings of Chassidus" - adapted from the works of the Lubavitcher Rebbe.
Getting Through Prison and Beyond
by Raphael Avrohom Goldberg
Having grown up in a Jewish home with a father who is a reform cantor, I was not prepared to spend ten years of my life in a New York state prison. I don't think many of us are, regardless of our backgrounds. I committed a crime and rightfully so had to be punished. I fully understood that, but the punishment was frightening nonetheless.
From Rikers Island through my state confinement, I migrated towards other Jewish inmates and found a measure of camaraderie. More so I was reintroduced to Judaism. I had strayed after my marriage and while I always went to shul on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, that was the extent of my involvement in synagogue life. I began to go more often in prison, and began to pray regularly. The solace I found made prison bearable.
Of course there were friends and family that morally supported me but the Jewish community in general and the Lubavitch Organization in particular became a major source of amenity. I wasn't personally known to anyone in the Lubavitch community but I was accepted because I was Jewish, and even given aid and support for that reason alone. The Lubavitch philosophy seems to be that any Jew in need is worth helping.
During my time of incarceration I began to conduct Shabbat services, and of course all holiday services as I read Hebrew and had a smattering of knowledge as to the requirements. I found the time devoted to these activities to be more than stimulation; I was more than just reintroduced to Judaism. I found a spiritual awakening and rebirth that told me I could not only make it through prison, but make it through anything. And that is what happened.
I was later diagnosed with cancer and my belief in G-d, my prayer and the counseling and letters from Rabbi Shmuel Spritzer of Lubavitch as well as the support of the few other Jewish inmates got me through it. I was in effect a new person, putting the past of my transgression from Judaism behind me.
I am out now and follow the religion even more than I did while inside. I walk to shul every Shabbat, I light Shabbat candles, do the "borei pri hagafen" blessing on wine and "hamotzee" on bread each and every week at my little home and will not let non-kosher food enter my house. I happen to keep kosher outside, also, and that is new to me. I am still in contact with Rabbi Spritzer who has arranged for me to go to weekly Torah study classes given by Lubavitch.
Incarceration has created many obstacles for me. I am having a problem finding a job. I am told that my experience and knowledge is "the best I have ever seen" and as soon as my incarceration is discovered I am shown the door. I found that obtaining quality housing was very difficult as well.
I won't lie and say I don't feel the rejection. I do. It is only human and that is one fault I will always admit to. I am human. To cope I turn to my belief, I turn to G-d, and I turn to the Jewish community for support and while the skeptic will laugh, I find that I am better. I find that I can get through anything, and I do. I am not a quitter but there are times I need the impetus to continue to do things like job-hunting due to the expectation of rejection. My morning prayers give me the stimulus that I need.
Why am I writing this? I have been helped by so many people who have led me back to Judaism. My life has become calm and serene and so much more manageable. I want to give back and return the love that I have received. If I touch one person, I have succeeded. All I can say is that I am an offender, I spent ten years in prison and I was as skeptical as anybody could be. I am a new person. G-d works.
I wish anyone reading this the very best, and a speedy release. I am not unusual. G-d helps every person who turns to Him. Try it. You won't be sorry.
Reprinted with permission from Reaching Out, a Jewish educational bulletin for prisoners published by the Prison Department of the Lubavitch Youth Organization. If you know of any Jewish inmates who would like to receive this free, monthly bulletin, please write to: Reaching Out/Lubavitch Youth Organization, 770 Eastern Parkway, Brooklyn, NY, 11213.
The Third Judge
Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneersohn, known as the "Tzemach Tzedek," served as a guiding light for Russian Jewry during the year 1826 - 1866. Though renowned for his superb Torah scholarship, the Tzemach Tzedek's foremost role was that of a leader during a particularly trying time in our history. The Third Judge is a fascinating collection of stories and anecdotes masterfully translated by Rabbi Elchonon Lesches and published by Kehot Publication Society.
A Rabbi's Northern Adventure
After marrying his wife Miriam, and spending a number of years as an assistant principal of a Jewish day school in Dallas, Texas, Rabbi Yisrael Haber decided to realize a childhood dream and join the Air Force as a chaplain. His first assignment - Alaska. In A Rabbi's Northern Adventure: From the Heights of Alaska to the Golan Heights, Rabbi Haber recounts his experiences, including his increasing encounters with Lubavitchers and his subsequent move to the Golan Heights as an emissary of the Lubavitcher Rebbe.
5th of Elul, 5722 
Sholom uBrocho [Peace and Blessing]:
I am in receipt of your letter of 24th of Av, with the enclosures. I was especially pleased to note the progress of your daughter -, and may G-d grant you and your wife true Yiddish Nachas [Jewish pride and pleasure] from her and from all your children, continuously and at all times.
Needless to say, I was painfully surprised to read about the criticism leveled against you for your participation in the Lubavitch work. Surely one would have expected the opposite attitude on the part of Jewish circles who value Torah and Mitzvoth [commandments], who should help and not hinder, seeing that a group of dedicated Jews are doing such good work to spread and strengthen Yiddishkeit. What better proof is needed than that of the matter of hasogas gvul [infringing on another's livelihood], which is one of the severest injunctions, so much so that it is included among the "accursed" sins (in Parshas Ki Sovoi). Yet while any manner of encroachment in the material aspects of life is so severely condemned, it not only has no place in the area of spreading Yiddishkeit, but, on the contrary, it is encouraged. It is a well-known Psak [ruling] in the Gemoro, Rambam, and Shulchan Aruch, that the principle of hasogas gvul is of no consideration; rather the opposite for here the principle of kinas sofrim [envy amongst scholars] takes precedence and competition is encouraged. So much so, that according to our standard version in the Gemoro Bobo Basro 21b, it was none other than Ezra haSofer who ordained and practiced it.
It is indeed hard to understand how people, who should know better, can place stumbling blocks in the path of young men who had given up an easier and better life (from the point of view of material and economic security) in the USA, in order to work for the strengthening of Yiddishkeit in a community which is not their own, knowing full well the difficulties facing them. Such young men should have been received with gratitude and encouragement.
However, we are taught al todin es chavercho [do not judge your friend], and certainly the month of Elul is no time for judging others. So let bygones be bygones, and form now on may better judgment prevail, in accordance with the words of the prophet Malachi (3:16), "Then they that feared G-d spoke with one another, and G-d hearkened and heard," etc....
Rosh Chodesh Elul, 5742 
Greeting and Blesssing:
I am in receipt of your letter of the 22nd of Av, with enclosure. As requested, I will remember you in prayer for the fulfillment of your heart's desires for good with regard to yourself and all the members of your family.
There is surely no need to remind you - except in the sense of "encourage the energetic" - that there is always room for advancement in all matters of Yiddishkeit, Torah and Mitzvoth, especially as you have the great zechus [privilege] of living in the Holy Land, "The Land of which G-d's Eyes are continuously, from the beginning of the year to the end of the year."
Receipt is enclosed for your Tzedoko [charity], and may the zechus of it additionally stand you all in good stead.
It would be advisable to have the Tefillin and Mezuzoth checked to make sure they are Kosher, if this has not been done within the past twelve months....
28th of Elul, 5735 
Greeting and Blessing:
This is to acknowledge receipt of your letter and enclosures, as well as previous material.
I was gratified to read about the various activities. I am confident that the accomplishments in the past will stimulate even greater ambitions in the future. In accordance with the saying of our Sages that "He who has 100, desires 200; and having attained 200 deisres (not merely another 100) but 400." If this is human nature in material things, how much more so should it be in regard to real and eternal values fo Torah and Mitzvos....
Sunday, 15 Sivan, 5763 - June 15, 2003
Positive Mitzva 108: The Purifying Water
This mitzva is based on the verse (Num. 19:21) "And he that touches the water of sprinkling (purification water), shall be unclean." A person purifying himself after contact with a dead body must follow certain procedures. One step of his purification process involves "Nida" Water. This is a mixture of natural spring water, combined with the ashes of the the red heifer. This water possesses special qualities and when used properly, it can purify. However, it could cause the opposite effect on a person who touches the water for other purposes.
Rabbi Shmuel M. Butman
Many of us are already involved in making plans for the summer. We consider the weather, prices, accommodations, attractions.
But, there should be many other concerns on our list of considerations. If we're away over Shabbat, is there a place we can hook up with that will allow us to celebrate Shabbat in the proper spirit? Will there be kosher food for body and soul?
When we look for a day camp or overnight camp for our children, we must make sure to check into the atmosphere of the camp. A Jewish camp run on authentic Jewish ideals can not only fill our children's hours with healthy activities for their bodies and minds, but for their souls as well. At a Jewish camp, run on Torah ideals, a Jewish child can learn to be proud of, and love, his heritage in a positive, hands-on environment. Unencumbered by books and desks and black-boards, Judaism literally comes to life through stories, songs, activities and practical mitzvot.
Vacation time is the perfect time to check out the really important "attractions" in life. Experience a traditional Shabbat, bask in the sunlight of mitzvot, swim in the deep pool of Torah study.
Include Torah and mitzvot at the top of your list of considerations this summer for you and your family.
The four wagons and the eight oxen he gave to the sons of Merori (Num. 7:8).
The four wagons were needed to transport 48 fifteen foot panels, in addition to pillars, connecting rods, ropes and pegs. Why were so few wagons provided? If it was possible to carry out the job with four wagons, it was important to do so, thereby using each one to its fullest capacity. If another wagon had been provided, the others would only have completed part of their appointed task. "G-d did not create one extra thing in His world." This applies also to our abilities and strengths. We must give our all in everything we do.
(The Lubavitcher Rebbe)
And they shall confess their sin which they have committed (Num. 5:7)
Why is the commandment to confess one's sin, the first step and foundation on the path to repentance, mentioned here, where the Torah speaks about robbery? Because any sin a person may commit has an element of robbery in it. G-d gives a person life and strength, in order that he use these gifts to perform His will. If one takes these precious gifts and uses them to defy G-d's commands, he is misusing and "stealing" the property of his Creator.
And he shall atone for him, because he sinned against the soul (Num. 6:11)
The Rebbe of Sadigora used to say: Just as in the World-to-Come a Jew will have to account for how he neglected his soul and how he caused it pain, so will he have to defend himself to G-d for having brought pain and suffering to his body.
The L-rd bless you and keep you (Num. 6:24)
The Priestly blessing is said in the singular because it is mainly the blessing of unity that the Jews need.
This story took place in the time before the name of Rabbi Yisrael Baal Shem Tov had become known in the world. He was then a "hidden tzadik" (holy man) who traveled through the cities and towns spreading the basic concepts of Chasidism amongst the simple people. He strengthened their faith, inspired them to love their fellow Jews, and stressed the importance of praying with the proper devotion and of saying Psalms.
Once, in the course of his wandering, he came to the city of Brod. As was his custom, he went directly to the market place and began to talk to the simple, common Jews. Soon he was surrounded by an enthralled circle of people, listening eagerly to his tales of great Rabbis, and their ways and customs.
As he was speaking, he noticed a particular Jew, a porter by trade, passing through the marketplace with a heavy load on his shoulders. His appearance was quite miserable. His clothes were torn, he was wearing wooden shoes, his face was covered with sweat. But the Baal Shem Tov saw something that the others there could not see: above the man's head shone a pillar of pure, bright light.
"Hershel, you should carry your burden in peace," called out some of the assembled people to him. There were those who added in a mocking tone, "Go in peace, Hershel-goat." Hershel the porter answered all, with a benevolent expression on his face, "You should be blessed," and continued on his way.
From the people of the city, the Baal Shem Tov heard that this Hershel was a widower, who had lost his wife some ten years previously. He had two sons who learned in yeshiva. He made a good living, but spent most of his income on the upkeep of four goats who lived together with him. Everyone assumed that he loved goat's milk. This is how the nickname "Hershel-goat" came about.
Over the next few days the Baal Shem Tov watched Hershel but could not find anything extraordinary. Wanting very much to have revealed to him the man's secret, the Baal Shem Tov fasted for three consecutive days and nights, during which time he prayed and begged G-d to help him uncover the secret.
On the afternoon of the third day, as he was leaving the synagogue, he met Hershel. "Reb Hershel," he appealed to him, "I would very much love a glass of warm goat's milk. I have heard that one may buy some from you."
"Come with me," invited Hershel with a radiant face. "I will give you a cup of fresh milk. However, I will not accept money from you, as I too would like to fulfill the mitzva (commandment) of hospitality."
For quite some time the two of them wended their way through the narrow alleys, until they reached the outskirts of the city. When Hershel opened the door of his little hovel, he was greeted by the happy bleating of his goats, who rushed over and began to lick his hands. He took a pan and milked the goats, strained the milk, poured a cup of the warm fresh milk and handed it to his guest the Baal Shem Tov. Hershel then began to tell him his life story.
He told him about his wife, a woman of great kindness, who dedicated herself in particular to the mitzva of ministering to the sick. "There was no sick person whom she did not assist, and for whom she would get all possible help. She also attended to poor women who were giving birth.
"After she passed away, ten years ago, she appeared to me in a dream," he continued. "She told me how wonderful it was in the World of Truth, and how great is the merit of doing a kind deed for a Jew. When her soul ascended on high to the Heavenly Court, it was happy to recognize many people whom she knew. These were all the people whom she had helped and supported during their illnesses. They had all come to bear witness to her goodness.
"After she told me how much appreciated in Heaven is every favor that is done for a fellow Jew, she suggested that I concern myself with charity work.
" 'You are a simple Jew' she said. 'You don't know how to learn Torah. Busy yourself with charity and good deeds, and especially help the sick, the poor, and women giving birth. But you must do this in a way so that no one will know.'
"I obeyed my wife's words: I saved every penny and bought four goats. I feed them fine food, so that they will produce rich and nutritious milk. This milk I distribute to the sick and the poor, and the Holy One, Blessed be He, Who heals all flesh, helps and the milk makes the sick people well.
Hershel also told his guest that his wife had revealed to him that the next day he would meet a poor Jew who would request a glass of milk. "Invite this person to your home and tell him about your deeds," his wife had told him. "Through him you will receive many blessings."
Now the Baal Shem Tov realized that because of the pure, honest work of Hershel, his goodness of heart, his giving of himself and his love of fellow Jews, he merited the crown of light which accompanied him wherever he went. The Baal Shem Tov brought Hershel into the circle of "hidden tzaddikim" who taught him Torah step by step. But even when he became very learned in Torah and accomplished in his studies, he didn't stop taking care of the sick and the poor.
Eventually, Hershel passed away unrecognized, at the age of approximately one hundred. But up in Heaven, a glorious welcome was accorded the soul of the holy man who was once known in Brod as "Hershel-goat."
In the summer of 1990 through the winter of 1991 the Lubavitcher Rebbe spoke extensively and in detail about the events in the Persian Gulf. Concerning some of his statements, the Rebbe indicated that they should not yet be publicized, saying, "A time will yet come for this vision..." (Habakuk 2:3) On these words, Rashi comments, "In the future a prophet will arise to prophesize the vision of the downfall of Babylonia [modern day Iraq] and the Redemption of the Jews."