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Pirke Avot, verse fifteen: cheer

One of the things that I tend to do, in my arrogance, is divide the advice of the Sages into stuff I need and stuff I don’t. This is a mistake, but I do it anyway: there should perhaps be a verse that says don’t ignore the advice you don’t think you need. But here’s Herford’s English of this week’s verse:

Shammai said—Make thy Torah a fixed duty. Say little and do much; and receive every man with a cheerful expression of face.

Your Humble Blogger is a very cheerful guy. Seriously. I know I gripe a lot, here at this Tohu Bohu, but on the whole I meet everyone with a smile and a song and panim yaphot, a good face. There was a point in high school when I was grumpier. Well, and there was a point in high school that I was suicidal, but that’s a different matter, and has less to do with grumpiness and cheerfulness. Anyway, there was a moment—I remember I was making my bed, which I must tell you was not a regular occurrence—and I was thinking to myself that it was, well, unhealthy to be unpleasant. I think that was actually the year that a local high school produced UTBU, although my memories of any of those years are suspect, and besides if the play had any effect on the epiphany, it was only the title, and not the play itself and the teddy bear business. Anyway, I distinctly remember thinking that it would be better to be pleasant, and that if I was only faking it, it wasn’t such a big deal as all that, and better perhaps to be faking pleasantness than to display unpleasantness.

And I did.

And it became a habit. So much so that it takes some very serious crankiness and/or depression to push me out of my habitual demeanor. If I am having a mildly bad day, or have been mildly thwarted or abused, it doesn’t make a dent. Oh, I will eventually get frustrated with my children and snap at them, although even at that I tend on the whole to evince cheerfulness in the hopes of getting it back. Which works, often enough.

Even for me. I mean, I present the forms of cheerfulness to myself, and get the reality of cheerfulness back. I’m not faking it any more, certainly. I’m a happy guy. Of course, why shouldn’t I be happy? I’ve had a great deal of luck in life, and that’s just observable fact. A conspicuous absence of disability, poverty, bereavement, ill-treatment. Why should I mope?

Shammai himself, of course, is famous for not receiving everyone with a cheerful expression, for beating fools with a stick and kicking mockers down the stairs. It’s Hillel who is famous for turning assholes into tzaddiks. All the more reason to take the advice seriously, I think.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,


For all we know, Shammai had a cheerful expression as he beat fools with a stick.

I think I was in grad school when I read an article about how smiling and laughing, even if forced or faked, had a positive feedback effect. Achieve cheerfulness through modeling cheerfulness. I like the idea that Shammai was an early proponent of cognitive therapy.

When I was younger, I learned this as being just about the effect we have on other people. Be cheerful towards others so that they will be cheerful towards you (and others).

You're sure that should be interpreted as "you should have a cheerful face when you receive people" and not "you should recieve people who have a cheerful face"? :) :) Maybe Shammai was throwing people down the stairs who were grumpy. ;)

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