Ta'anit Dibbur

["Be-Ahavah U-Be-Emunah" Mishpatim 5770 – translated by R. Blumberg]

Question: What are the laws of a Ta’anit Dibbur? [literally, “a fast from speech” – undertaking not to speak words unrelated to Torah, for a particular amount of time] Answer: This is a new practice not mentioned in the Torah, the Mishnah, the Talmud or the Rishonim [medieval Sages], but only amongst several of the Acharonim [more recent Sages]. It is therefore impossible to determine halachot about it, and everyone can do whatever he wishes. This custom was spread by Rabbi Yitzchak Alfia, author of the “Kuntres HaYechieli,” and there several practices are elaborated upon, as they are at the end of the “Ish Matzliach” edition of Tehillim, for example, completing the Book of Tehillim three times.
Yet the main thing is to be careful with one’s speech and to avoid Lashon Hara, gossip and other forbidden speech. One can talk, but one shouldn’t say forbidden things. The Vilna Gaon wrote: “Until the day of one’s death, one must chastise oneself, not by fasting and self-torture, but by restricting his mouth and his cravings. That is repentance, and that is all the fruits of the World to Come, as it says, 'For mitzvot are a candle and the Torah is light' (Mishlei 6:23), but 'reproofs of instruction are the way of life' (ibid.). This is greater than all the fasts and self-torture in the world… Scripture states (Tehillim 34:13), 'Who is the man who desires life and who loves days… It is one who guards his tongue from evil.' By such means one can atone for any sin and be saved from hell. As it says (Mishlei 21:23), 'Whoever guards his mouth and his tongue, keeps his soul from troubles,' and, 'Life and death are in the hands of the tongue' (18:21). Woe to him who kills himself for the sake of one comment. What advantage is there to the gossip?' (Alim Li-Terufah) There is therefore room for holding a Ta’anit Dibbur as an interim means of learning to distance oneself from gossip, backbiting, and insult. As in the well-known words of Rambam, in order to be cured of an evil trait, one must temporarily move to the opposite extreme (Hilchot De’ot 2:1-3).
We find the following in the Mishnah Berurah: “I saw written in one sefer that when a person wishes to conduct a voluntary fast day, better that he should undertake a fast from speech than from food, for avoiding speech will do one no harm, either to his body or to his soul, nor will it weaken him” (Orach Chaim 571, M.B. 2; and the same idea may be found in Shemirat Ha-Lashon, Sha’ar Ha-Tevunah, chapter 2).
Obviously, however, all this refers to where one thereby does no harm to his wife or his children who wish to speak with him, or to anyone else who needs him. It is more important to speak kind words than to remain silent. There’s a story of a bus driver who engaged in a verbal fast and did not want to help his passengers who were asking him where to get off.
Surely our Sages said, regarding Tehillim 58:2, “Is it true [he’omnam] that you were silent [elem] about the righteousness that you should have spoken [tzedek tedaberun], the fairness with which you should have judged the children of men?”: “What should man’s trade [omanut] be in this world? He should make himself mute [ilem]. I might think this applies even to Torah learning? It therefore says, Tzedek tedaberun”, ‘Speak righteousness’ (Chulin 89a). Thus, silence is not appropriate across the board. Rather, it is an “omanut,” an “art” or a “trade”. It involves much wisdom, skill and sensitivity to know when to be silent and when to talk. When it comes to Torah and charity, you should talk. Here is our great master Rambam: “One should remain silent often and not speak except to utter Torah wisdom or to say something that he needs to sustain his physical self. It was said of Rav, a disciple of Rabbi Yehuda the Prince, that he never throughout his life engaged in vain chatter, which is the talk of most people. Even for one’s physical needs one should not speak much. In this regard our sages commanded, ‘Whoever talks much invites sin.’ They said further, ‘I have found nothing better for the body than silence’ (Hilchot De’ot 2:4). Sometimes there is also a need to engage in kind words to one’s fellow man, to encourage him, strengthen him or gladden him. And sometimes, obviously, we do him a kindness by listening to him. The rule is this: Sefer HaKuzari calls man “the Speaker”. That is his virtue, that he can think and talk (Rashi on Bereshit 2:7). He must therefore use this supreme virtue for good, and be very responsible for every word he says.