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Pirke Avot chapter three, verse 14: children's talk

R. Dosa b. Harkinas said: Morning sleep and midday wine and children’s talk and sitting in the meeting houses of the ignorant people put a man out of the world.

OK, here’s where the whole thing comes to the ground. How does children’s talk put a man out of the world? I should point out (probably should have pointed out before) that it is conspicuously this world out of which a man is put out of, not the world-to-come. Which is to say, these are not sins as such, not that there are sins as such in the modern sense within the tannaic conception, but that they reduce the connections between a man and his surroundings, his neighbors and family, the physical world, his work and his food and his life. And that is a Bad Thing. The Rambam’s comment is that these things prevent a man from developing a good character, and that in the end, he perishes from the earth; the threat of early demise is not, I think, meant literally, but metaphorically.

At any rate, however you take it, what’s the matter with children’s talk? And it is children, yeladim, and conversation, sychat; there’s no funkiness in the Hebrew to play around with. Are the children, like the wine and the sleep, Good Things but at the wrong time? In the Avot of Rabbi Nathan, this is explicated as an injuction to go and study in the library/shul, and not expect to get any work done at home when the kids are around. As advice, that’s good. As Scripture, not so much. And if it’s an injunction that children should be Seen and not Heard, then I can just reject it altogether, right?

Only, I hate doing that. So I search for something useful to take away. And what comes to mind, after a bit of searching, is to look for ways in which children’s talk could be a symptom of a deeper problem, all the same sleep and wine. And I suppose there’s this: if you, as a grown-up, prefer to spend your time with children, rather than with adults, perhaps you are doing it as a withdrawal. It could be symptomatic of either alienation from the grupp society, or of a dysfunctional desire to be in a position of unquestionable authority in your interactions. Or, possibly, pederasty, but I don’t go along with the mindset that anybody who likes spending time with kids should be viewed as a potential molester. I don’t think the verse has to be about that to be a warning, anyway.

Or am I stretching too far, here, to make useful sense of a verse? I am willing in theory to discard the views of the sages, who had views of childhood (and women, and (some of ’em) sex) that I do discard. But in practice, when it comes to typing a note about a verse, I’m looking for ways to keep it, not ways to kick it.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,


Might children's talk be "the kind of talk children have" -- you know, "you're a poopoo head! no, you're a bigger poopoo head!" or "I heard Nick likes Elizabeth, can you believe it?" Because heaven knows adults do engage in this kind of talk.

Or more specifically--because Hebrew is That Kind of Language, yeladim means children but also means boys (that is, the masc. pl. is used for a mixed group or an all-male group). So the sage could be warning against boy talk, while allowing girl talk.

OK, no, not really, but entertaining advice, anyway.


Honestly, I suspect this is a "children should be seen and not heard thing" and expressive of the chauvinism of the time. Being involved in children's talk is the work of women, so it would take a man out of the world.

I still think it's an addiction thing, though. It doesn't remove you from the world to talk to kids a little bit. It removes you from the world to do nothing else.


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