Pirke Avot, verse four: a gathering-place

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Now, to the actual saying.

Yose ben Yoezer of Zeredah and Yose ben Yohanan of Jerusalem received [the Torah] from them. Yose ben Yoezer says:
Let your house be a gathering place for sages.
And wallow in the dust of their feet,
And drink in their words with gusto.

I’ve always liked this one. On the other hand, I’ve never actually made my house a gathering place for sages. Or anybody else, for that matter. It is one of the sad things about our society that people’s houses tend not to be gathering places. And I’m too lazy and slovenly for sages to want to gather at my place, really. Although—and let me make this clear to any sages who happen to be coming through the Hartford area—there’s usually tea in the pot, and if it’s empty, we’ll put the kettle on.

To take a little step back, one of the things about my take on Scripture is that there are infinitely many intended audiences for any given verse. Generally, I find it useful to start with at least two: the audience of the speaker’s contemporaries, and YHB and y’all and our contemporaries. Well, and usually it’s worth at least contemplating the audience of the contemporaries of the redactors, too. In this case, Yose ben Yoezer of Zeredah (and can I, to distinguish him from the other Yose in this verse without running into the limit on the name field, start calling him YYZ? No? Phooey) is advising his fellow sages and their pupils. Not only should a sage be a sage, says Yose ben Yoezer of Zeredah, but his house should be a meeting place for sages. The sage should not sage in isolation. In the redactor’s hand, the comment might be more directed at a wider populace of learned men who are not actively serving as judges or legislators (and again, although the Great Assembly and the later Bet Din were not technically legislating but interpreting the law, given the vast differences in context between Levitical law and their own periods, it was a distinction without a difference) but are nonetheless enjoined to study Torah. In our time, it could be both an obligation to lay Jews and advice for anybody, Jewish or not.

Similarly, while in his time Yose ben Yoezer of Zeredah was clearly speaking of making your actual house an actual meeting place for real, live sages, it could well be interpreted now to mean that your house should be a meeting place for those sages of Yose’s time, in the form of the writings that they have left us. Is not a library a meeting place of the wise? In which case, is Yose ben Yoezer of Zeredah metaphorically telling us to let our metaphorical house, that is, our family and our heritage, be where the wisdom of sages meets, in conversation, study and collection. Those sages now including Yose ben Yoezer of Zeredah, and the other Yose, and all the avot, or perhaps other sages of other times, or even other traditions.

And by house, doesn’t he really mean blog? No? He doesn’t? Well, fine, he doesn’t.

How does one go about making one’s house, metaphorical or otherwise, a meeting place, metaphorical or otherwise, for sages, alive or in printed form? The metaphor way involves less tidying up, I’m guessing. Not so much in the way of chopped liver and platters of cold cuts. But that doesn’t make it easy. Clearly it isn’t sufficient to simply own a lot of books and leave them on the shelves. Yose ben Yoezer of Zeredah specifies a meeting-place, not a residence; to fulfill the words of the saying, the sages must mingle, converse each to the other, make new combinations and admit new members. It might be easier to get the chopped liver.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

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