Sometimes Silence Is Lashon Hara

I don’t speak because I have the power to speak; I speak because I don’t have the power to remain silent. - Rav Kook

“You shall make the robe of the Ephod…a gold bell and a pomegranate…on the hem of the robe, all around. It must be on Aaron in order to minister. Its sound shall be– “heard when he enters the Sanctuary…and when he leaves, so that he does not die…” (Shemot 28: 31-35)

Rashi emphasizes that the Kohen must be garbed in the proper priestly begadim in order to attend to the avodah else he die by the hand of Heaven. The Talmud (Zevachim 17b) teaches that when their holy vestments are upon them, their kehuna is upon them. If they are not wearing their vestments, they are considered non-Kohanim and their avodah is rendered meaningless. 

This seems straightforward enough. However, Ramban was puzzled. He wondered, why did Torah interrupt the listing of the bigdei Kehuna in order to teach this? Even more, why associate this law with a teaching about the me’il (robe) rather than wait until all the garments are described? After all, the me’il is not even among the garments worn by a kohen hedyot. It is worn only by the Kohen Gadol, making the placement of the law even more puzzling.

To reconcile his puzzlement, Ramban interprets v’lo yamut – and he shall not die – not that he would die if he failed to wear the garments but rather as informing the Kohen that he would not die if he does as Torah teaches. Further, Ramban focused his attention on the bells, noting that they have no association with the garb of nobility. Yet, Torah is clear in instructing the Kohen to wear bells upon the hem of his me’il in order to announce his coming and going from the sacred space. This reflects basic courtesy. It is impolite to enter another’s private quarters unannounced. The Kohen, when entering the Holy of Holies, is entering God’s private domain. To do so unannounced is not only impolite, but it would also put the Kohen in danger. Hence, the bells.

It is true, Ramban acknowledges, that on Yom Kippur, when the Kohen Gadol entered the Holy of Holies, he wore the special, white garments. Still, the bells announced his arrival into the Ohel Moed when the golden vestments were indeed worn.

Just as the Kohen Gadol would never enter any part of God’s home unannounced, so too are we reminded never to barge into anyone’s home or office without knocking on the door or ringing the bell. We too must wear “bells on our hem.” Safeguarding someone else’s privacy is sacred.

Such a powerful lesson! But why is it the Kohen Gadol who is teaching it? Why not someone of boorish manners? Why not a loud teenager with little regard for rules or boundaries? My friend Rabbi Ari Enkin answers, “There is no better role model in the world to teach us the relatively ‘minor’ lesson of ‘knock before entering’ than the Kohen Gadol! Why? Because sometimes when people are focused on getting closer to God, they forget ‘the small stuff”.” The Kohen Gadol’s bells remind us that basic human decency – good midot, menschlichkeit – is hardly “small potatoes”. Being a mensch is always a big deal.

The Talmud (Arachin16a) teaches that the me’il is worn to atone for the sin of lashon hara, saying, Let an item like a bell, that gives off sound, come and atone for a sin done with sound. But wait, if we seek atonement for lashon hara, a sin done by the use of sound (speech), shouldn’t atonement be sought from something not producing sound, so we can learn from it and imitate it? 

The Chofetz Chaim, our greatest teacher of Shemirat HaLashon, often said that Torah does not seek to make a Jew mute, to always refrain from speech. The power of speech defines us as humans. When Torah states that, “man became a living soul” – nefesh chaya – Targum translates the phrase, ruach memalela ­– a creature able to speak.

Speech is our crown, our glory. God does not seek our silence, not in our lives and not in our atonement. The Chofetz Chaim teaches the real lesson of our speech comes not only from the bells of the me’il but from the woolen pomegranates that hung from the hem of the me’il alongside those bells.

The bells teach us to use our sound, our speech, constructively – to daven, learn, encourage, soothe, to express what is best in our humanity. The pomegranates remind us that when we have nothing good to say, it is best to be silent. R’ Shimon taught (Avos 1:17), “I was brought up my entire life in the company of the Sages, and I found no better trait than shetika – silence.”

The me’il teaches speech and silence, two sides of the same lesson. A meaningful life is defined by knowing how to control one’s speech, when to “sound off” like a pa’amon – bell, and when to “close up” like a pomegranate. 

We know that each of the twelve tribes was represented by a unique, precious stone on the Kohen Gadol’s breastplate. Binyamin’s stone was called yoshfei. Commentators suggest that stone should be read as two words, yeish peh – there is a mouth – a reference to Binyamin not revealing to Yaakov that Yosef was alive even though he knew and was not forbidden to say.

Yes, he knew. But it was for God to reveal, not him.

For his restraint, his stone was the yoshfei. The irony! For remaining silent he was rewarded with a stone that means, “there is a mouth,” suggesting that the true power of speech is knowing when to use it and when to withhold it. The judgement of when to speak up and when to remain silent is our constant challenge.

Just as with our great gifts of memory and forgetfulness, we confuse the time to speak with the time to remain silent at our peril. Remembering what should be forgotten and forgetting what needs to be remembered turns our world upside down. Speaking when silence is called for and remaining silent when our voices are needed upends the world God has called us to protect.

Does a day go by when we are not reminded of the damage done by lashon hara? Warnings to avoid lashon hara do well to keep us from speaking. However, if we remain silent in the face of evil because we fear lashon hara we err terribly. When lashon hara is not the instrument safeguarding human decency but is twisted into a vehicle that destroys lives, then the bells and pomegranates are mixed up! When people know of abuse; when people know that evil is being committed around them, then it is their silence itself that shouts out lashon hara!

Every Jew needs to feel deep love for one another. When one indeed loves so deeply, one cannot help but speak. When we know of another Jew’s pain, silence is never an option.

Rabbi Daniel Z. Feldman, rosh yeshiva at YU/RIETS, speaks to the need ( 1/5/22) to speak out when necessary. “While malicious gossip, even when true, is prohibited, information that is purposeful—known as l’toelet—is not included in that category, and often is required to be shared. Although the Chofetz Chaim is perceived as one who pushed the message of ‘what not to say,’ he is actually much clearer on this mandate of spreading purposeful, necessary information…

“First and foremost is the pressing need to protect possible current or future victims. This consideration is explicitly prescribed by the Talmud (Niddah 61a), specifically in the context of the recipient of the information. There, the Talmud admonishes that even when there is insufficient basis to fully accept a report as definitely true, one still must acknowledge the possibility that it is, and take protective measures.” 

To speak up or stay silent.

Keli Yakar teaches that there is more to learn from the me’il and when to speak up. The Talmud (Arachin 15b) tells us that Hashem gave our mouth two gates – the lips and the teeth – to remind us to think twice before we speak. These are a double lock on the door to our thoughts! A single lock is insufficient for a mouth that can speak when it should not! Like our mouths, the opening at the neck of the me’il also had such a “gate.” Torah tells us that the neckline of the me’il was woven in double thickness to create a border around the opening. This border is a safa yihei l’fiv – a lip to its mouth – which Torah commands, lo yikareah (it shall not be torn)!

The lesson is clear. We must always be vigilant of our speech. We must never allow ourselves to lose control and use our gift of speech in inappropriate ways – we must respect the double lock! By the same token, we must never allow our determination to avoid lashon hara to keep us from speaking out when our voices are desperately needed.

“I can’t speak up and report an abuser because that would be lashon hara” turns our obligation on its head! The same law that forbids lashon hara obligates us to speak the truth! Pomegranates are not bells and bells are not pomegranates!