We are living in a time and culture that promote happiness, satisfaction and indulgence. Indeed, we are regularly inundated with messages and marketing such as “obey your thirst,” and “just do it.” In that context it is particularly difficult and onerous to observe a fast and to resist the temptation for food and water for a full 25 consecutive hours. And yet, the Torah associates Yom Kippur, the Holiest day of the year, a time in which we can achieve extraordinary heights in our spiritual ambitions, with self-restraint and self-control. True greatness is not the ability to obey your thirst, it is the capacity to resist your thirst and pursue a greater goal.
Judaism rejects embracing asceticism as a path to holiness. Yet, we collectively engage in abstinence from all types of physical pleasure for a full day to prove to ourselves and to God that we can. There is one temptation, one urge and desire that is not included in the abstinence of Yom Kippur, but which I would humbly submit we accept upon ourselves nevertheless. For some, this form of self-denial may be even more difficult than fasting from food and drink. I am referring to speech and the powerful and potent force it represents in this world.
There is nothing intrinsically wrong with food. Indeed, we need it to nourish ourselves and to sustain our existence. We are permitted and encouraged to indulge in tasty foods the other days of the year. However, on yom kippur, we achieve angelic status by elevating ourselves above the everyday mundane needs, wants and desires.
Similarly, not only is speech not inherently bad, it is good and serves as the bridge to allow us to communicate with others and Hashem. We should speak freely (but appropriately) throughout the year, but I would like to suggest that for Yom Kippur we accept upon ourselves to try to go a full day without speaking. In fact, some of our most pious men and women throughout Jewish history observed a ta’anis dibbur, a fast from speech, on yom kippur.
Not speaking to others for 25 hours sounds like an impossible goal and unachievable objective. Yet, doing so, I believe, would accomplish a number of goals. Firstly, we would eliminate the temptation to gossip, slander, or speak inappropriately on the holiest day of the year which most certainly would be a great merit. Secondly, by going into the day knowing that we will absolutely not talk for this period of time, we would be able to focus on our davening without feeling pressured to entertain conversation with the person sitting next to us. Lastly and most importantly, not talking to others would force us to spend time talking to ourselves, something we rarely do, but which is a necessary component of self-growth and development.
For many, accepting a ta’anis dibbur, a fast of speech for a full day is impossible. I understand that those with little children or elderly parents, etc. can’t simply check out for a full day. However, I would suggest that every single one of us is capable of observing a ta’anis dibbur while in Shul. Let’s collectively accept upon ourselves for 25 hours not to say a single word while in Shul, even during the parts of davening in which it is permitted to talk.
Throughout the year, when people approach me on the bima during davening, I struggle with my commitment not to talk on the one hand and the importance of not being rude on the other. Of course if there is an emergency or pressing issue, feel free to interrupt me or any of the Rabbis who can be of assistance. However, if you are just coming to say good Shabbos, please accept my apologies if I simply shake your hand and give you a big smile without engaging in a conversation.
Let’s all enter a social contract and commit to use the Sanctuary for davening exclusively and reserve our schmoozing for the lobby. I am confident that if we do, our personal and communal yom kippur experience will be greatly enhanced as a result.