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Sounds of Silence
by Dr. Arnie Gotfryd
Musicians manipulate it. Comedians play it up. Actors, politicians, kids and their parents all have some intuitive sense of how to convey deep and powerful messages using this one simple technique - Silence. Whether it's a pregnant pause, an upbeat syncopation, a raised eyebrow or a baby's silent scream, a well-placed silence speaks volumes.
But for those who aren't so good at reading between the lines, there's a new invention out of the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology that can decode a lot of that quietude for you. It's a lip-reading telephone that can pick up bioelectricity from your face muscles and send the encoded signal through a cell phone to be reassembled as a speaking voice at the other end of the call.[1] Move lips at point A, hear speech at point B. Cool.
That may or may not put a stop to those annoying people who yammer and holler into their cell phones as if they were plastic cups connected by string. But what it will do is help patients with speech problems, workers in noisy environments, friends with secrets, and astronauts with their hands-free flight controls. There's even a translation function that allows the listener to hear your mouthed words in their language.
Like so many things these days, this remote lip-reading innovation has been presaged by an ancient Jewish ritual. No, I'm not referring to the guilt trip. Nor the silent auction (right, that's Chinese). I'm actually talking about prayer. True, not all Jewish prayers are silent - just the most important one - the Amida, a.k.a. standing silent prayer.
A Jew's morning prayer cycles through stages - the Verses of Praise often said aloud or sung; the blessings of the Shema which includes a lot of vocal responsive reading; and the Declaration of Unity itself - which in some congregations, Yemenite for example, is a deafening shout that can literally shake the walls. But when we get to the holiest of all prayers, the top rung of the ladder, the Amida, what do we hear? Nothing. Just lips moving.
But why? Why, after all the hub-bub, when we get to the heart of our personal conversation with G-d, do we finally go silent? One answer is that the lead-up prayers are about us talking. The Amida is about G-d listening.
In general prayer serves two functions. The verb "to pray" - l'hitpalel - is actually reflexive, meaning to judge oneself. At this level, we are working on ourselves, our appreciation, our emotions, our consciousness. For this we need voice, we need to resonate, to feel the prayer. But the word "prayer" itself - tefillah - is beyond that, it's about selflessness.[2] In fact it is so selfless, we enter into the realm of divine where we can actually create a new will within G-d Himself, to heal the sick, feed the hungry, salvage broken relationships.
We learn about silent prayer from the Biblical Chana who invested her heart and soul in a tearful, silent prayer to be blessed with a child. The son she bore, the prophet Samuel, went on to anoint Saul and later David, the forerunner of Moshiach, may he come speedily in our days. Then we will see all our prayers answered in a world where all communication barriers will be broken, a world awash with silent waves of knowledge, a world immersed in the knowledge of G-d as waters cover the sea.
[2] HaYom Yom, p.110, 5 Kislev
Dr. Aryeh (Arnie) Gotfryd, PhD is a chassid, environmental scientist, author and educator living near Toronto, Canada. To contact, read more or to book him for a talk, visit or call 416-858-9868.


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