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Pirke Avot chapter four, verse three: davar

Let’s see. This is one of those verses that has a swing to it in the original that it is difficult to capture in English, so why don’t I try to transliterate the verse and perhaps embed a sound file, if I can figure out a good way to do it.

Hu hayah omer: al-t’hi vaz l’chal-adam, v’al t’hi mafleeg l’chal davar; sheh’ain lo sha’ah, v’ain l’cha davar lo makom.

21 words (depending on what one considers a word) Jacob Neusner translates it with 35 words:

He would say, “Do not despise anybody and do not treat anything as unlikely. For you have no one who does not have his time, and you have nothing which does not have its place.”

As an ethical precept, it’s pretty straightforward and unarguable, and in fact the commentary tends to leave it pretty much alone, other than giving some examples of sages either giving or not giving the due respect to a person who appears to be wicked or worthless, realizing or not realizing that that person, too, will have his hour. And some disagreement about whether the injunction is against dismissing unlikely things out of hand, with an implication that it is all right to dismiss impossibilities once you have put some careful study into their likelihood, or whether one should never dismiss a thing at all even after it is shown to be nonsense.

There is also a somewhat more mystically oriented tradition that says that the purpose of the verse is to celebrate, not necessarily the person who has his time and the thing which has its place, but time and space themselves, which are the Creations of the Divine without which nothing could, you know, be. Therefore even if a person has no value in himself, showing himself by his own actions to be unworthy of respect, yet those wicked actions take place, by their nature, in time, the gift of the Divine, and are a window into it. And any thing, whether it be a thing of value or a thing of putrescence, is a thing by virtue of taking up space in the Divine Creation, and being a part of it, and is a window into it.

There’s another point I’ll bring up, for which I am indebted to Irving M. Bunim, that the word here for thing is davar, which also means word or communication. The Ten Commandments are the ten d’varim; a davar is the Word (or logos) for a thing, as opposed to the Name for a thing. There’s a fellow on the internet who claims that thing is always a mistranslation, and that there is always a connotation of communication involved with davar. See, for instance, Genesis 11:1, where before the Tower of Babel the whole world was of one language (safah) and one speech (davar), or in the RSV they had few words. As opposed to things, which presumably existed in the same profusion as afterwards.

Digression: Your Humble Blogger was going to attempt not to reference the David Ives one-act play Babel’s in Arms, which contains the immortal line Mankind is in its youth, and hath not a word for every fucker, but I am giving up and putting into a Digression. I saw a production of this brilliant little gem at the theater where we are putting on R3, and hadn’t connected the author with the reviews I have been reading of Venus in Fur. The Babel play is really tailored for me, though: bible humor, slapstick, excessive profanity. What could be better than that? End Digression.

Well, if it is not every thing that has a place but every word that has a place, and must not be rejected therefore, well, that makes things a bit different. Do not reject people, and do not reject their words; people will have their times, and words will have their—what? Their makom, which is very definitely place. But what would it mean for every word to have a place. The word makom is related to kum, to stand up (the word has liturgical significance, for when we are upstanding in the service), so every word will have a place to stand, to rise up. Or, if you will, every word has standing, in the legal sense.

But what is it we are not to do with people and words? We are not to mafleeg, to reject them or dismiss them or carp at them, depending on the translation. Mr. Bunim claims the word is connected via its root to the word for shatter or split apart. Do not split yourself apart from people and their words? For each person has an hour and each word has standing for you to judge?

The point, for me, in all of this, in expanding the possibilities of the text and its connotations, is that (a) this is yet another example of how this kind of Hebrew magnificently compacts these kinds of repetitive aphorisms in a way that English does not, and (2) while the usual translation and idea are straightforward, the application of them is not, and the expansion of connotations, I think, is productive in wondering what, exactly we should do about those people, things, texts, elements that seem to be worthless or a waste of time. It is, of course, not only easy but justifiable to avoid the avoidable and curse the unavoidable.

There’s a story about Abraham and a stranger. Y’all know that Abraham was the epitome of hospitality, that not only would he happily feed any stranger that came to his house, he would go out and seek wayfarers at the crossroads in hopes of being able to provide hospitality for them. Well, it seems that one day he brings home a rotten old man who eats all his cabbage and acts like a savage, swears and blasphemes and generally is a grade-A asshole. So when the old fart has eaten his fill and has been offered water and all, Abraham pretty brusquely gives him the old heave-ho and gets rid of him. And the Divine says to Abraham, saying nu, why in such a hurry? Not even a blessing or a go-in-peace? And Abraham says Lord, I thought I was gonna plotz. I couldn’t put up with that momser in my house for another minute. Says the Divine You couldn’t put up with him for another minute? I have put up with that bastard for seventy years, and you couldn’t put up with him for another minute?

Well, you see? Whatever else that old man was, he was in time and space—and time and space are the Divine Creation. The Divine not only puts up with us all, thank the Divine, but gives us each the gift of Time and Space, which fundamentally cannot be wasted, only misused.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,



I would argue that there are times when English can compact meaning like you describe, and it's called poetry. Shakespeare does a marvelous job at this, for example.


Yes, although of course poetry often does the other thing, expanding the language rather than compressing it. Certainly Shakespeare does the former as often as the latter, as I well know at the moment from attempting to memorize the circuitous language Buckingham uses. But your point is well-taken, and besides reminded me that I wanted to post the audio. Let's see if it works in the comments:

Er, no. No, it doesn't. I'll throw it in the body of the note.


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