The Silence is Deafening

I think we have a silence problem. People seem to be afraid of total quiet.

You notice it everywhere. You can’t sit in a doctor’s office without seeing and hearing the TV set mounted in the corner, tuned to some random daytime talk show. Of course no one is actually watching the TV; everyone is staring down at their phones or even reading. One time I actually went to the front desk and asked if we could just turn the TV off, and they sympathetically and reluctantly responded that they weren’t allowed to. It seems they would have also loved the quiet while they were working, but the office policy was that the TV had to always be on in the waiting room.

Another time the TV was showing a talk show dealing with some typical daytime adult topic–something along the lines of “My daughter is out of control with drugs and promiscuous sex”–with lots of the usual juicy details sure to please the intended audience. That probably didn’t include the 5 year old girl sitting in the chair next to her mother. This time when I went up to the office window, I at least got them to change the channel.

You can’t shop in a store, eat out, or go for a cup of coffee without hearing music playing (or blaring) through the overhead speakers. I remember learning once that fast food restaurants purposely played music because it subconsciously makes you move faster and increases customer turnover. At least that I can understand from a business standpoint. But why can’t we sit in a waiting room and read out-of-date magazines in total quiet?

In fact, one might say that we have a silence problem in Jewish life as well. Some people would joke that Jews don’t know how to be quiet–and they’d be partially right.

Anyone familiar with a traditional service knows that Jewish worshippers eschew real silence. The term “silent reading” is one of the biggest oxymorons in Jewish life. In a traditional service, you hear murmurs, humming, buzzing, and other audible syllables. One of the most common questions I get when I teach b’nei mitzvah students to lead the service is “How will I know when the silent reading is over and it’s time to come in?” Oh, you’ll know. Trust me.

I remember my years in public high school. Each morning in our homeroom, we heard the announcement over the loud speaker, “Please rise for the Pledge of Allegiance and a moment of silence.” That apparently was the legally-approved, try-to-please-everyone way of including a short prayer in the public school, but we (few) Jews knew what “moment of silence” was actually code for. And that’s because Jews don’t really pray with silence–we often lift our voices in song, chant loudly, or even recite texts in subdued tones. It’s that variety of sounds and occasional cacophony which define and enhance a traditional service. But we never experience the total absence of sound within the context of public prayer.

On Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, we read the text which tells us:

The great shofar is sounded! But a still, small voice is heard.

It’s that kol d’ma-mah daka–the still, small but never silent voice–which we live and channel each time we enter into public prayer. But as for waiting rooms and restaurants–let’s bring back the moment of silence.

Cantor Matt Axelrod has served Congregation Beth Israel of Scotch Plains, NJ since 1990. He is a graduate of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America and a national officer of the Cantors Assembly. Cantor Axelrod is the author of Surviving Your Bar/Bat Mitzvah: The Ultimate Insider's Guide, and Your Guide to the Jewish Holidays: From Shofar to Seder.

2 comments on “The Silence is Deafening

  1. Ira Bruce Levine

    Many years ago I volunteered at a small college in Sitka, AK. Sitka is a small Alaskan town situated on Baranof Island in the southeastern panhandle of the state. The panhandle is filled with islands, many of which are mountainous. The pattern they form, which one can easily see on a map, is often referred to as “The thumbprint of God.” There are many hiking trails that surround Sitka, and one day I went on a hike on one such trail called the Gavan Mountain Trail. The trail starts out by snaking through open meadow, but then gradually gets steeper as it winds its way into the deep forest at the base of Gavan Mountain. Though it was a sunny winter day, the forested trail became dark as I made my way up the mountain, so that I could barely see in front of me. I traveled several miles into the woodland, but because my physical condition was not at its best, I needed to stop and rest. I sat down on an ancient fallen tree trunk and slipped my pack off my back and got from it the water and snack I had brought along with me. Sitting still I could hear the pounding of my heart in my ears. As I relaxed, the pounding gradually subsided until I could hear it no longer. It was then that I realized, to my amazement, there were no sounds at all. A blanket of absolute silence enveloped me. I had never before heard no sounds. My tiredness quickly turned to exhilaration and happiness, as I felt incredibly fortunate to have had this experience. My body told me it was time to leave when I began to shiver as the cold penetrated my sweat-soaked clothing. I slipped on my pack and began hiking back toward civilization, whistling all the way.


  2. Cantor Matt Axelrod

    I had a similar experience as a college student hiking through the Sinai at night. There was a complete absense of sound–something that we simply never experience in the modern world. There’s quiet, there’s silence, and then there’s just the total absense of anything.


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