Pirke Avot, verse four: dust

      1 Comment on Pirke Avot, verse four: dust

This next part is a bit trickier:

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 don’t know if I agree with Mr. Neusner’s use of wallow in the dust rather than sit in the dust of their feet. The Hebrew appears to be something like be dusted in the dust of their feet. My problem is that wallowing has connotations of degredation or of animal behavior or of being left behind, none of which seem to me appropriate to what Yose ben Yoezer of Zeredah is going for here. It’s not active wallowing that is the focus, it’s the dust. I think there are two important parts to the metaphor: the feet and the dust. That is, place yourself at the feet of the sages, and allow their dust to cover you.

As for the feet, again, we have different ways to take this. Practically, we could imagine a house that has become a meeting-place for the wise, like we were just on about, and when the sages come, you give them all the chairs and sit on the ground. The problem here is not enough chairs, but heck, that’s pretty much how it is at our house, too. Fortunately, we have big pillows. Anyway, if there are enough chairs for everybody, then we can proceed to the metaphorical level, where we place ourselves at the feet of the sages to indicate that they are higher than us, more authoritative, wiser. Now, if I invite y’all over to dinner, I may well expect to sit at the head of the table. After all, it’s my table. But Yose ben Yoezer of Zeredah says that instead of sitting at the head of the table, you sit at the foot, not taking the credit for the gathering but giving the glory to the sages.

As for the dust, what comes to my mind is not the dust of travel but the dust of a long time spent without moving; allowing yourself to be dusted by the dust of the feet of the sages indicates that having set yourself at the sages’ feet, you stay there long enough for dust to cover you. OK, yes, that’s gross, but the idea is that you don’t just sit down for a minute and then get up again. You stay there for a while. Also, I think there’s an image here that teaching and learning isn’t something you do on the road, or while you are working the field, or in between pitches. It’s something you concentrate on. I don’t know that I altogether agree with that idea, but I think it’s an implication of the text.

Now, if we take the gathering-place as perhaps metaphorical, as we were talking about this morning, how can we sit at the dust of the feet of the gathered sages? How do we make sure that the sages get the best virtual seats? How do we make sure that we are staying long enough for the virtual dust from their virtual feet to virtually cover us? I don’t have any answers to these, although I would certainly like some. I can’t believe it’s just a matter of being humble, of keeping in mind that we are learning from other people (whether in writings or in person or over the internet) rather than judging them. I think that moves the saying from obligation into platitude; I’d like to have some advice on how to make it from obligation into habit.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

1 thought on “Pirke Avot, verse four: dust

  1. Matt Hulan

    I take from wallow an enthusiasm for the dust, albeit an animal and grunting enthusiasm; and furthermore, I take from dust a hoary wisdom that comes from age and spending a lot of time in libraries with book mold and the like.



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