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The World of Silence

Silence in the world of verbal communication can be as complicated to interpret and as deliberate as any word choice. We are often as careful (or should be) about when we choose to remain silent as we are about the words we use to convey a message. In the world of printed words silence is every bit as powerful as in the audio world. However, it is much more difficult to indicate.

In our Torah, silence is crucial. First and foremost, silence is represented by the "empty" or more precisely unfilled spaces that surround the letters on the parchment. Think of this as negative space. In other words, the unfilled space of the parchment is comparable to what a sculptor takes away from a stone to reveal what is hidden within. Indeed, our sages prescribe in detail the dimensions of this space. (For a fascinating study of this I suggest The Burnt Book by Mark Alain Qualinkin). For those familiar with Torah reading, you will readily understand when I say that one must know the value or meaning of empty space, i.e., which dots (vowels) must be used, in order to correctly read Torah.

In this week's Torah portion there are two orthographical indications of silence. To understand their significance it is vital to reread the beginning of chapter 25. The Israelites have become very intimate with the Moabites. This looseness of the boundaries has greatly saddened Moshe and angered God who in turns brings down a plague of great destructive force. Despite the plague and the obviously lack of approval of Moshe and God, an Israelite leader, Zimri flaunts his affair with a Moabite princess named Cozbi. Pinchas, in turn, responds by brutally murdering both Zimri and Cozbi and in response God ends the plague.

In reward, and here is where the orthographical marks show up (chapter 25, v.12), God grants Pinchas "My pact of peace". However difficult it is for us to understand why he should thus be rewarded, it is evident from the text, albeit by interpreting the silence, that it was also very difficult for the author or redactor of the Torah. (It doesn't matter whether you believe that the author was a person or God). In Hebrew the phrase "My pact of peace" is 'et-beriti shalom'. What is wrong here is that this is a broken construct, an unusual form. The phrase is most likely elliptical for something like "My pact with/of peace" or 'My pact, a pact of peace'. (JPS, Numbers, Milgrom, p. 216). Admittedly the missing or "silent" part of the reward is subtle here. Nevertheless, the "silence" can and should be interpreted as kind of protest against God or at least against this kind of rewarding violence. Understandably, however, the voice of protest is further muted by the ostensible approval of such violence.

The second orthographical mark of "silence" is both less subtle and louder, so to speak. The chapter 25:19, last verse in this bloody, violent chapter is interrupted with a musical note called a piska be-emtza. It is an unusual break in a sentence. In this case, it marks the end of the recounting of the violence which precedes and the start of yet another census taking. Traditionally this has been interpreted in two ways: the census is in preparation for a war with the Midianites which we encounter in a few chapters or that the previous plague wiped out the remainders of the generation destined to die in the desert. I would like to suggest that the pause is there as a gasp of silence. "What a minute", I hear the Masorites (they are the ones who put in the vowels and musical notes), "you can't just change the subject after dumping all of that violence on us". Yet, tradition won't allow us to literally change the text. We can't add or fill in more space to the Torah but we can add silence. And so, the Masorites used silence to register a very loud complaint.
Topics: Divrei Torah
Type: Dvar Torah

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