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Pirke Avot chapter three, verse five

It’s a beautiful autumn day, thank the Divine, clear and crisp and cool. Just right for…a translatiopalooza! Let’s begin with Michael L. Rodkinson:

R. Hanina b. ’Hakhinai used to say: "He who awakens by night, and he who is walking alone on the road and turns aside his heart to idleness, it is his own fault if he incurs trouble for himself."

And there’s Judah Goldin:

Rabbi Hananiah ben Hakinai says: If one wakes in the night, or walks by himself on the highway, and turns his heart to idle matters, he is mortally guilty.

and Joseph H. Hertz:

R. Chanina, the son of Chachinai, said, He who keeps awake at night, and goes on his way alone, and turns his heart to idle thoughts, such a one sins against himself.

…and R. Travers Herford:

R. Ḥanina ben Ḥachinai said: He who wakes in the night, and he who walks alone by the way, and he who makes his heart empty for idle thoughts, lo he is guilty against himself.

And Herbert Danby:

R. Hananiah b. Hakinai said: He that wakes in the night or that walks alone by the way and turns his heart to vanity, is guilty against his own soul.

And Charles Taylor:

Chananyiah ben Chakinai said, He who awakes by night, and he who is walking alone by the way, and turns aside his heart to idleness, is “guilty of death.”

And Jacob Neusner:

R. Hananiah b. Hakninai says, “(1) He who gets up at night, and (2) he who walks around by himself, and (3) he who turns his desire to emptiness—lo, this person is liable for his life.”

From the Chabad site:

Rabbi Chanina the son of Chachina’i would say: One who stays awake at night, or travels alone on the road, and turns his heart to idleness, has forfeited his life.

And from the Sharei Shechem site:

Rabbi Chaninah ben Chachinai said: He who stays awake at night and goes on his way alone and turns his heart to idle thoughts is liable for his life.

If you can’t tell, the reason I went nuts on these is that the original Hebrew is both unclear and evidently corrupt in an important point. Essentially, there are three actions described: waking in the night, walking alone, and idleness of the heart. It isn’t clear whether Hananiah is talking about one person who does all three, or three different kinds of people, or whether the first two are occasions for the third. Most of the medieval sources seem to have been working with a text that is a OR b OR c, but some using that text still interpret it (a OR b) AND c, and some have a text that is different by one letter and is thus quite clearly (a OR b) AND c, and some seem to have a AND b AND c. Some commentary points out how particularly sinful it is to be mentally idle at night, as during the day one is presumably compelled to be industrious with the body, and the night is thus the opportunity for study. Presumably this applies as well to stretches of solitary walking. I have some of my best thinking time whilst walking alone, certainly, although most of it is devoted to matters of idleness and vanity rather than Scripture.

Mr. Herford calls it “absurd” to condemn somebody for waking at night, or for walking alone, or even for walking alone at night; he insists that there are two types of people described, not three. And yet, I can easily imagine condemnation for someone who chooses to stay up nights; early to bed and early to rise makes a man proverbial, you know. Night wakefulness can lead to all manner of bad things, even if it’s due to insomnia. The deliberate choice to stay up at night would seem, particularly at the time, to be deeply suspicious, and (depending on the sage’s attitude) might well have occasioned the warning that the night-waker is violating his soul, and takes on responsibility for any sinfulness that follows. Similarly, the choice to walk alone, rather than in company—I prefer to walk alone, myself, but then, I live in an area that is frequented by neither footpads nor harlots. This could well be a warning similar to the Catholic statement that those who allow themselves to feel lust are liable on that account for the sin of adultery, whether the added matter of the actual sin is occasioned or not.

I should probably add, since I’ve segued so nicely, that waking in the night and having sex with a spouse is not a matter of idleness or vanity, according to tradition. Which is one of the reasons why the Rabbis are (with few exceptions) so adamant about the importance of marriage, and of living with the spouse and sharing a bed. When one wakes at night, it might be too much to expect contemplation of the Scripture (although good if it happens), but a little conjugal relations is a mitzvah and with luck will get them both back to sleep afterward. I suppose the same could be said for walking in the field, although only between May and September.

I find all of this interesting in itself, without reference to my own life, but when it comes to application, I have some difficulty. I am an insomniac, myself, and have much experience of waking in the night and having idle thoughts. Or delaying bedtime (and its expected sleeplessness) by playing Civ or reading erotica or soaking in the tub. And, as I have mentioned, I do enjoy a solitary stroll, and spend much of that time, when I get it, listening to music and thinking idle thoughts. So, in that sense, I do feel properly rebuked. I could use that time for contemplation of the Divine or study of the Torah. On the other hand, it’s not really ideal time for serious thinking, as I generally am tired (at night) or distracted (on the road).

Digression: I had for some reason never applied the walking verse to driving. In Hebrew it is clearly the walker, but if it applies to him who walks alone, should it not apply to him who drives alone? Although of course if R. Hananiah wanted to apply it to someone who rides a horse or a mule, or to someone who drives a cart, he could have done so. Still, if we make it travels alone, rather than walking, it is not just the solitude but the waste of resources that places the soul in jeopardy. End Digression.

Or I could feel myself rebuked simply for being wakeful at night. And it is true that I haven’t done everything I could to fight the insomnia. Because I’m too tired to bother. No, seriously, I know that people really do have success at falling asleep, trying one thing and another, and I have tried only a few things, which have worked only moderately well. And I’m not a bad case, really—most nights I lie awake only half-an-hour or an hour, and some nights less. The real problem are the nights that I fall asleep and then am woken up by something at one o’clock, as then I am likely to be up for an hour or more. On the plus side, I can sleep in perfectly well. My Best Reader can fall asleep in the evening as easy as anything, but rises at dawn or earlier, sometime much earlier, with no possibility of renewed snoozing. I can be woken at five and be back asleep in moments.

Well. The point is that it is likely enough that Hananiah is rebuking me not just for the idle thoughts but for being too lazy to fight my insomnia, giving myself an opening for the idle thoughts in the first place. And it may be that it is easier to fight the insomnia than to fight the idle thoughts. Hm.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,