Shammai says… say little and do a lot (Avot 1:15)
Shimon (ben Gammliel) his son says, all my days I grew up amongst the sages and I have found nothing better for a person than silence. Study is not the most important thing, but actions; whoever indulges in too many words brings about sin (Avot 1:17).
Toward the end of Avot’s first perek, the Mishna quotes a four-word statement of Shammai: “Emor me’at va’aseh harbeh – speak little and do a lot.” Though only four words, the statement includes two important ideas.
The first idea was elaborated upon two generations later by Rashbag (Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel). Rashbag shares that his years of growing up among the wise taught him that being quiet is the best thing for a person.
Rashbag’s conclusion reminds us of the ancient saying quoted by the Gemara: “If one word is worth a selah coin, (then) being quiet is worth two” (Megillah 18a). Our words are often inaccurate, extreme, hurtful, unnecessarily revealing or a commitment to fulfill what we are not actually able to or interested in fulfilling.The Midrash Shmuel suggests that we should consider this even when making a neder or when speaking about doing a good deed. We should not commit ourselves beyond what we are sure we can accomplish. Similarly, the Sefer Chassidim (86) adds that: “We often regret what we say, but rarely regret having been quiet. Before we speak, we control our words. Afterwards, our words control us.” How many times do we look back and wish we had not spoken so quickly and irresponsibly?
Rashbag adds that “all those who speak a lot, facilitate sin.” The Rambam (Moreh Nevuchim 3:52) explains that our words invariably include sinful components. For example, we know how prevalent verbal abuse and lashon hara are. The more we speak, the more we end up sinning. (Social media amplifies our words and, thus, makes this point even more significant in contemporary times.)
The Rambam also connects Rashbag’s assertion to a broader idea found in Sefer Kohelet. Shlomo HaMelech encourages man to limit his words because “we are down here and G-d is above” (Kohelet 5:1-6). We should realize that our view of reality is limited and, thus, think carefully before we speak. Our yirat Shamayim – recognition that we live in Hashem’s world – should impact not only how we conduct ourselves, but also how we speak. Our realization that Hashem sees and knows much more than us should inspire us to speak cautiously and humbly.
Shammai’s point is not just about needing caution with speech, but also the contrast between “emor me’at,” and “asei harbei – doing a lot.” Many people spend their lives talking, without acting much upon their words. Shammai encourages us to invest in action. Our words should be few because we should focus on deeds instead.
Action is of supreme importance. It shows that our feelings and beliefs are truly important to us (Sefer Kuzari 2:56) and transforms them into a sustainable reality. (Emunah U’Bitachon L’Ramban 19. See also the Ramban’s letter to his son and Kedushat Levi Derasha to Shavuot.) It is also how we internalize (Sefer HaChinuch 16) and remind ourselves of the feelings we hope to ingrain. In the words of the Rambam: “Beliefs that lack accompanying deeds which give them real expression and help educate and create consistent consciousness (of the beliefs) among the masses will eventually be forgotten” (Moreh Nevuchim 2:31).
This is why Judaism is a religion that focuses on action and why action is a condition for entry into the next world. We learn this from the words of Rebbi Yossi ben Kisma to Rebbi Chanina ben Tradyon. Before his death, Rebbi Chanina ben Tradyon asked Rebbi Yosi ben Kisma if he would merit a portion in the next world. The latter replied, “Klum ma’aseh ba l’yadecha? – Have you had a chance to take action?” (Avodah Zarah 18a). Rebbi Chanina was known for his absolute commitment to Jewish principles. He would eventually be one of the ten martyrs murdered by the Romans. This commitment and sacrifice were not enough to gain him entry to the next world. It was his actions, his deeds.
Tzaddikim and Reshaim
Avot D’Rebbi Natan (13:3) and the Gemara (Bava Metzia 87a) see the balance between word and deed as the difference between reshaim and tzaddikim: Reshaim speak a lot and act a little, while tzaddikim do the opposite.
Ephron and Avraham Avinu are presented as the paradigms of each approach, respectively. Ephron initially offered Avraham Avinu Ma’arat HaMachpelah for free (Bereishit 23:11), but later on said, “What is land worth four hundred shekel between friends?” implying that he expected (that amount as) payment (Ibid. 15-16). The Torah tells us that Avraham even had to pay Ephron in cash up front, as he would accept no less (Ibid. 17). (See also Rambam and Meiri to Avot 1:15 who discuss Ephron in this context.)
Avraham Avinu, on the other hand, promised his guests a mere “pat lechem,” (Bereishit 18:5) a small amount of bread, but actually gave them nine sea’in of bread (see Avot D’Rabbi Natan: Avraham asked Sarah to make three types of bread for three people) and choice cuts of meat. Avraham and the tzaddikim who follow his lead do not “talk a big game.” They commit to very little, but then, in practice, offer much more.
Rav Chaim Volozhin (Ruach Chaim to Avot 1:15) applied Shammai’s words to our personal goals and growth. We should always see our present state of spiritual growth as “very little” and constantly aim to accomplish much more. “Say little” about what you have done and seek further development.
Rav Chaim’s application reminds us of Rabbeinu Yonah’s (commentary to Avot 2:8) explanation of Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai directive that one who has learned a lot of Torah “should not claim credit for himself.” Rabbeinu Yonah explains that irrespective of how much we have learned, we should always see ourselves as less than halfway to where we need to be. Though Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai had learned all of the Torah and many areas of secular knowledge, he saw himself as not even halfway there (Sukkah 28a).
We live in a world where people like to speak highly about themselves and what they have (already) accomplished. Instead, we should focus on reaching higher levels and accomplishing additional goals.
May Shammai’s words remind us to be cautious about what we say and focus on deeds instead of words.
Summarized by Rafi Davis