Monthly Archives: December 2011

Pirkei Avot, Chapter 2:3

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מסכת אבות פרק ב

ב,ג  הוו זהירין ברשות–שאין מקרבין לו לאדם, אלא לצורך עצמן:  נראין כאוהבין בשעת הנאתן, ואין עומדין לו לאדם בשעת דוחקו.

Be cautious with the people who govern, for they draw a man near in friendship only for their own purposes. They show themselves as friends when it is to their benefit, but they do not stand by a man in his hour of difficulty.

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This mishna relates to Rabban Gamliel’s context. He is probably speaking from his own personal knowledge and the wide experience that his father, Rabbi Yehuda ha-Nasi, had with Rome. The Talmud and the Mishna both tell of Rabbi Yehuda ha-Nasi’s lifelong friendship with Roman emperors. In the historical context, the Romans approached Rabbi Yehuda ha-Nasi repeatedly for advice which he freely gave, but when he needed help it was not forthcoming. It is this that underlies the above mishna.

Interestingly, the Pirkei Avot Chapter 1:10, Shemaya advised to “despise rulership”. In contrast Rabban Gamliel tells us here that the people who govern can be useful and that a relationship with them is important; however, one should be cautious when dealing with the rulers.

Pirkei Avot, Chapter 2:2

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מסכת אבות פרק ב

ב,ב  רבן גמליאל בנו של רבי יהודה הנשיא אומר, יפה תלמוד תורה עם דרך ארץ, שיגיעת שניהם משכחת עוון; וכל תורה שאין עימה מלאכה, סופה בטילה וגוררת עוון.  וכל העמלים עם הציבור, יהיו עמלים עימם לשם שמיים, שזכות אבותן מסייעתן, וצדקתם עומדת לעד. ואתם, מעלה אני עליכם כאילו עשיתם

Rabban Gamliel, the son of Rabbi Yehuda ha-Nasi, said: It is good to combine the study of Torah with an occupation, for the exertion of both keeps sin forgotten. All Torah study that is not accompanied by work will come to nothing and bring sin in its wake. Everyone who works on behalf of the community should do so for the sake of Heaven; the merit of their forefathers will sustain them, and their righteousness endure forever. And as for you, I [The Almighty] will account you worthy of great reward, as if you had done [everything].

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In this mishna we learn about the connection between Torah learning and derech eretz. In the context of the mishna, the Rabbis define derech eretz as an occupation or trade (Rabbenu Yona argues that the phrase derech eretz means different things in different contexts). They also relate it to one’s behaviour: humility, decency, manners. The message here is that behaviour and one’s general conduct in the world at large should clearly reflect Torah values. What one learns through Torah should permeate every aspect of one’s life.

Rabban Gamliel does not say that to a life of work one must add Torah; a life devoid of Torah study is unthinkable to him. Rather, he is reminding us that we must live through the Torah, with the Torah always in our minds and hearts.

Where the mishna becomes unclear is in how much one should involve oneself in the world outside of Torah. It seems that Rabban Gamliel is telling us that we must have a foot in two opposite worlds – the world of Torah study and the world of work, the world of the land. The preposition ‘im’ is important – ‘with’… does the study of Torah seem more beautiful when we are exposed to some of the challenges of the outside world? (The role of this preposition is debated in Berachot 35b). The crux of the debate is over which term is primary – the one that precedes the im or the one after it, that is, is work or derech eretz more important than Torah? In many ways it seems that this debate is central to two divergent ways of Jewish living as personified by the Modern Orthodox movement in contrast to the Hareidi movement.

Regardless, it is clear that there is a connection between these two worlds that should be nurtured and that the study of Torah should influence our conduct in the wider community. It is perhaps this message which ties the two parts of this mishna together: part 1 which seems to be debating the value of Torah Study and derech eretz and part 2 which discusses those who are involved in the community.

In Pirkei Avot, the only activity which we are told to do ‘for the sake of heaven’ is work on behalf of the community. The mishna is reminding us that our motivation in this type of work must not be dictated by a desire for glory or recognition, rather it must be pure and idealistic in the way that the Torah teaches us to behave.

Interestingly, the word in hebrew for community is ציבור – ‘Tzibur’ – , the root of which is:

צ.ב.ר

As we know, the Hebrew language functions on both a literal and metaphorical level so when studying texts we should always be looking for alternate meanings hidden in words. Here there is a subtext:

צ – stands for tzaddikim (righteous people)

ב – stands for beinonim (middle of the road people)

ר – stands for rasha’im (wicked people)

The implication is that the community is made up of all these types of people and it is our duty to behave as the forefathers Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaacov. The mishna teaches us that not occupying ourself fully (both in terms of Torah learning and work) will lead us to sin, to gossip, to idleness. It is not our position in the world to judge others. We are expected to behave ‘betzelem elokim’ (in Hashem’s image) and a central part of Pirkei Avot teaches us what is involved in this pursuit.

Finally, it is interesting to note that this mishna uses two different terms to refer to work or occupation – derech eretz and melocha. The latter is a word that rings with familiarity because of its connection with the 39 prohibited activities relating to Shabbat observance. Melocha clearly refers to work which involves creation and the mishna seems to be leading us to the conclusion that we should ‘make’ something with our Torah learning, that Torah learning should be applied to life. One cannot exist without the other. Thus we are reminded na’ase ve’nishma – we will do and we will listen/heed. This is the essence of Judaism: learning and action and it is this that runs at the heart of the mishna.

 

Chapter 1:5, Rabbi Shaya Karlinsky

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Chapter 1: Mishna 5: Part 1

Yossi ben Yochanan Ish Yerushalaim says: Your home should be open with abundance; poor people should be members of your household; and don’t carry on excessive conversation with a woman. This was said in relation to his wife. All the more so is it true with the wife of his friend. This is the source for the Rabbis who taught: A person who converses excessively with women causes himself harm, distracts himself from Torah study, and in the end he acquires Gehinom.

These two Tana’im were a “pair,” joint leaders of their generation; Yossi ben Yoezer being the “nasi” (political leader) and Yossi ben Yochanan the “av beith din” (the judicial head). As such, they taught two dimensions of one principal: How man can perfect his home. There are a number of questions that arise in this Mishnah. What is the connection between ones house being open to abundance, having poor people frequent his house, and limiting excessive talk with women? Where is it implied in the words “don’t carry on excessive talk with a woman” that it refers specifically to his wife? If it is so obvious that “ha’isha” means his wife, then the Mishna should have concluded very simply with the phrase “Kol shekein (all the more so) with his friend’s wife.” (And if “ha’isha doesn’t necessarily refer to his wife, how can the Mishna say so matter of factly that it does. The phrase “This was said in relation to his wife” begs for explanation.) It teaches “A person who converses excessively with women causes himself harm, distracts himself from Torah study, and in the end he acquires Gehinom.” a) What is the nature of the harm caused by excessive conversation with a woman? b) Furthermore, ALL excessive talk distracts one from Torah study! What is unique about excessive conversation with women? c) And why should this have such an extreme result – leading to Gehinom!? (The last part of the Mishna has the potential to be quite explosive in today’s “poltically correct” environment, with the “gender wars” raging. We will approach it as we are supposed to approach every teaching of Chazal: With deep respect for the eternal truths they are teaching us, coupled with a healthy and critical questioning of every word in the Mishna, looking to uncover the REAL message that is being communicated.) Yossi ben Yochanan is teaching one how to create an elevated home. There are three groups of people associated with ones home. First there are neighbors and guests who come to ones home, whether to make use of the resources of the home, borrowing something, or to be hosted as a guest in the home. Second, a home has members of the household (“bnei bayit”), who live together and make the house their “home.” And finally, a home has the “akereth bayit,” the woman who is the foundation of the home. (See Shabbath 118b, Yoma 2a: A man’s wife is praised by being identified as his “bayit”, his home.) Yossi ben Yochanan is teaching one how to elevate and perfect ones home in relation to each of these three elements. If his home is open with abundance, his neighbors will frequent there to make use of the resources, and passersby will find a place to receive needed food and lodging. (He has thereby ensured elevation of the home in relation to neighbors and guests.) To ensure elevation of his home in relation to those who live in the home, the Tanna teaches us that we should make poor people members of our household. (This is more than simply giving charity to poor people.) If poor people constantly frequent his home, they become like members of the household, enabling them to receive their needs in a respectful way, maintaining their sense of dignity. (Contrast this with the feeling poor people have after most instances of receiving charity nowadays…) Finally, avoiding excessive talk with his wife ensures that perfection exists in relation to what is the foundation of the entire home, ones wife. Because the intention of the Tanna was to teach how to perfect and elevate ones home, the caution against excessive conversation must be referring specifically to ones wife. Because the woman is the foundation of the home, one must be admonished to avoid excessive conversation with his wife (even) in matters relating to the home. (Next time we will discuss the ambiguous phrase “excessive.”) If excessive conversation with his wife, even in matters relating to his own home, should be limited, then it follows “all the more so” that this is true with ones neighbor’s wife. For conversation with her would (usually) not relate to necessities of his own home. (The Maharal has extracted from the strange language of the Mishna “This was said in relation to his wife. All the more so is it true with the wife of his friend,” that the Tanna is focusing on conversation with ones wife specifically about matters relating to ones home. It in no way implies that speaking to ones wife is bad, or even that one should limit conversation with ones wife, EXCEPT IN MATTERS RELATING TO THE HOME. This is because the home is the domain of the woman, and — to put it as bluntly as the Maharal seems to imply — the man should not mix in excessively to things that aren’t in his domain. We will pick up this thread next time. It is deep and complex, and I am not sure to what extent we will succeed in going too far below the surface in an electronic forum. Meahwhile, I would like to suggest that you read the article “Gray Matters” that appeared in the Newsweek dated March 27, 1995 on brain differences between men and women. It will give a little “scientfic” backing to some ideas that border on the philosophical and could be considered lacking in “political correctness.”) The class is taught by Rabbi Shaya Karlinsky, Dean of Darche Noam Institutions, Yeshivat Darche Noam/Shapell’s and Midreshet Rachel for Women.