Shimon his son said: All my days have I grown up among the wise and I have not found anything better for a man than silence. Studying Torah is not the most important thing rather fulfilling it. Whoever multiplies words causes sin.” (Avot, 1:17 This is a passage from the Ethics of the Fathers, a mishnaic commentary–”Pirkei Avot (Hebrew: ???? ?????), which translates to English as Chapters of the Fathers is a compilation of the ethical teachings and maxims of the Rabbis of the Mishnaic period. Because of its contents, it is also called Ethics of the Fathers” (

Amy-Jill Levine, scripture professor at Vanderbilt, and Marc Zvi Brettler, professor of biblical studies at Brandeis, have edited The Jewish Annotated New Testament, a Jewish commentary on the New Revised Standard Version (NSRV) of the New Testament. The commentary which includes references from the Hebrew Scriptures and various commentaries on them is helpful and enlightening. Using the book for my daily meditation on the scriptures has led me to read Levine’s The Misunderstood Jew: the Church and the Scandal of the Jewish Jesus.

Jesus is not a blue-eyed pale-complected Northern European but rather a swarthy dark-complected Jew as was Paul. Christianity which began as a sect in Judaism and continued as such for much of the first century has much more in common with Judaism than we usually think. The eventual breakup of the relationship has led to anti-Jewish polemic in the New Testament which, in turn, has led to anti-Semitism throughout much of the church’s history.

The mishna on silence leads us back to the Epistle of James which convicts most of us of the sins of the tongue without any further commentary:

If anyone does not fall short in speech, he is a perfect man,
able to bridle the whole body also.
If we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us,
we also guide their whole bodies.
It is the same with ships:
even though they are so large and driven by fierce winds,
they are steered by a very small rudder
wherever the pilot’s inclination wishes.
In the same way the tongue is a small member
and yet has great pretensions.

Consider how small a fire can set a huge forest ablaze.
The tongue is also a fire.
It exists among our members as a world of malice,
defiling the whole body
and setting the entire course of our lives on fire,
itself set on fire by Gehenna.
For every kind of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature,
can be tamed and has been tamed by the human species,
but no man can tame the tongue.
It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison.
With it we bless the Lord and Father,
and with it we curse men
who are made in the likeness of God.
From the same mouth come blessing and cursing.
My brothers and sisters, this need not be so. (James 3)

The Avot recommends silence and we know that silence is the Living One’s primary language. Benedict urges us to listen to the Living One with the ears of our hearts. In the Transfiguration, the Living One urges us to listen to the Christ. Our faith is about silence and listening, not talking and babbling.

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