Ta’anit dibur, abstinence from speech, is a spiritual practice that has been favored by many. It is not a practice that is central to the spiritual enterprise of Hassidism, though there are examples within the hassidic milieu where it has been lauded as a worthy pursuit.
For instance, Seret-Vizhnitz Hassidim – men, women, and children – observe an annual ta’anit dibur on the Shabbat that we read the Torah portion Bo.
More commonly, however, Hassidism emphasized the value of a ta’anit dibur relative to other ascetic practices, in particular fasting. Thus Rabbi Moshe of Kobrin (1783-1858) once told someone who would fast every Monday and Thursday: “It would be better if you spent the entire week, from one Shabbat to the next, and not emit any untruth from your mouth. That would ascend before God more than fasting!” In the Ruzhin Hassidic tradition, the practice of checking speech was grouped under the rubric of ta’anit eivarim, denying a particular limb such as the eyes, ears or mouth. This was preferred over denying the entire body by fasting. As the holy Rabbi Yisrael of Ruzhin (1796-1850) said: “It is better for a person to subjugate the evil inclination by ‘fasting’ with one limb – namely, that he should ‘fast’ with his eyes not to look at things he desires, except looking that can be considered a mitzva.
So too with the ears – he should only listen to matters that can be considered a mitzva. And he should not speak, except for the purposes of a mitzva. Thus he should conduct himself with regard to each limb.”
Rabbi Yisrael of Ruzhin was not suggesting a moratorium on speech; rather, he called for focus and direction, such that the faculty of speech (as well as sight and hearing) would be used for lofty purposes. The mystical efficacy of controlling speech is highlighted by an aphorism of the rabbi: “I know that when a person wants to make a joke and stops himself from saying it – it is as if he fasted 48 fasts.” According to Jewish mystical tradition, 48 fasts are prescribed as a penance for certain sins. According to Rabbi Yisrael of Ruzhin, that daunting task could be achieved by simply controlling speech.
But perhaps religiously avoiding speech is not enough, as indicated by the following story: According to Jewish mystical tradition, someone who spends 40 days in a ta’anit dibur will merit ruah hakodesh, the holy spirit of divine communication. Once there was a person who desired to merit ruah hakodesh, so he was careful for 40 consecutive days not to say any idle words. Alas, at the end of 40 days of silence, there was no divine communication to be heard. Silence reigned. The man decided to travel to the great Rabbi Yisrael of Ruzhin, so that the holy leader would explain to him why his earnest efforts did not bear fruit.
When he arrived in Ruzhin and saw the famous lavish lifestyle that Rabbi Yisrael led, he wondered to himself: “Is this really the way of the righteous? Is this the path of Torah?” The longer he stayed in Ruzhin, the more bewildered and perplexed he became. Finally he decided that Rabbi Yisrael was no righteous person at all, and that there was no point in approaching him to inquire about lofty matters such as ruah hakodesh.
As the man set out to leave, he saw Rabbi Yisrael’s horse-drawn carriage preparing for a journey. Four powerful horses were harnessed and Rabbi Yisrael was making his way to the carriage. Before he sat down, the rabbi went over to the horses and patted them on the back. The man was totally confounded and could not hold himself back any longer. He strode over to Rabbi Yisrael, and said: “Teach us, our master, what type of divine service is this for a righteous person to pat a horse?” Rabbi Yisrael responded: “You should know that this horse has not spoken idle words for 40 days!” A ta’anit dibur can be a cleansing practice that reminds us to weigh our words with care. But on its own, refraining from speech may be the beginning of a journey that never actually gets underway. The potency of ta’anit dibur is realized when the practice is accompanied by attendant spiritual soul searching, and when the exercise leads us to the judicious use of the faculty of speech.