Recently in Japan I had lunch at a Zen temple (the all-vegetarian cuisine was outstanding). My friends and I were seated next to one another. One of the adepts explained that we were not across from each other to discourage conversation. People were supposed to concentrate wordlessly on their food.
I thought of my family’s Shabbos table, or indeed any table, weekday or Shabbat, breakfast, lunch or dinner. The only silence was due to my mother’s unaccountably insisting that we not talk when our mouths were full of food. Otherwise it was a circus of volubility: jokes, questions, emphatic answers, smug corrections, resigned admissions, stories, stories and stories. The idea that we should be quiet during the meal would have been met with raucous laughter. It would have been as incomprehensible as not whispering to one another in shul.
Judaism has a place for silence, of course, an honored one. But far more of the tradition seeks to capture the world in a web of words. The Rabbis tell us that a table should always be adorned with words of Torah. In the spirit of my tradition I leaned over to the Japanese woman sitting next to me and said, “In that case, I’d make a lousy monk.”