Texts and beliefs By Rabbi Zahavit Shalev 22nd Feb 2018

Toleh aretz al-bli-mah – “He suspends the world over nothingness”

I have always loved this verse from the Book of Job (26: 7). I find the image of the world being suspended over nothingness very powerful and humbling. And the word bli-mah, which only appears in the Torah once, really pleases me too. Not only is it a satisfying word to say, it is also an elegant composite made up of bli (without) and mah (matter).

The Chafetz Chaim, Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagan (1938-1933), connects that verse from Job with a verse in this week’s portion which describes the robe worn by the High Priest. It’s an odd association to make. The specification for the High Priest’s robe includes the instruction that the collar be hemmed over, not leaving a raw edge. Actually a more literal translation of the verse would read something like, “And the mouth of its head shall be inside it. Its lip shall be bordered with woven work around it – like the mouth of a suit of armour – it may not be torn” (Exodus 28:32).

The Chafetz Chaim is best known for his writings about lashon harah (evil speech). The verse about the High Priest’s robe piques his interest because it contains the word “mouth” three times, and also the word “lips”. He makes the association between the Priestly robe and the world suspended over the abyss in his philosophical self-help book about speech, Shemirat Halashon. He starts with an existing teaching from the Talmud.

He suspends the Earth on nothingness” [blimah] (Job 26:7), of this verse the Sages say “On whom does the Earth depend? On he who clamps his mouth shut [bolem piv] in a time of argument. That is, he suppresses all his speech, so that it cannot get out.” (Babylonian Talmud Chullin 89a)

Apparently the Earth only continues to endure because some people know when to shut up! It turns out that the nothingness/silence of bli-mah is not a precarious state for the world to exist in, but a good and stable environment, one that in fact supports life. The Chafetz Chaim is further intrigued by the mention of “armour” in the verse, and its association with mouth and lips. He explains:

that just as one dons armour for protection, that he not be harmed by the arrows shot at him, so, if one clamps shut his mouth, it affords him protection against his antagonist, and, in the end, it serves to silence him [the antagonist] by giving him no answer. If he answered him [the antagonist], however, the quarrel would widen and he would come to blows. 

Far from being simply the absence of speech, says the Chafetz Chaim, silence can be an active choice and a powerful form of defence. Silence is a way to avoid the escalation from words to blows. In fact, the world endures because some people are careful about what they say.

Zahavit Shalev is studying for the rabbinate at Leo Baeck College and is Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg’s assistant at New North London Synagogue

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