Pirke Avot, verse five: big picture

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We’ll work from the Herford translation this time, because that one’s closer to my hand.

Jose ben Johanan of Jerusalem said:—Let thy house be opened wide, and let the poor be thy household, and talk not overmuch with a woman.

He said it: in the case of his own wife, much more in the case of his companion’s wife.

Hence the Wise have said:—Everyone that talketh much with a woman causes evil to himself, and desists from words of Torah, and his end is he inherits Gehinnom.


This may take a while.

First, I think, let’s start with our usual three notes on Jose ben Johanan of Jerusalem triple, and then we’ll add on a note on the triple said by the Wise in response to his comment on the third of the triples. I’m hoping we can get through this in five posts.

Before we get into the meat of Jose ben Johanan of Jerusalem’s saying, though, I do want to spend a moment talking about the formal artistry of the redactor/writer of this thing. YHB likes to look closely at the text, spending time looking at the individual verses, the phrases, even the words, but that sometimes makes it difficult to look at the sections or chapters. For instance, I think we’re all hip to the notion of triples in these statements, and that there is a deliberate attempt to make the verses be triples, to make that resonance or rhythm. But did you notice that the first three verses form a triple of their own? Similarly, Yose and Jose are the first of three pairs (well, five pairs, but there is a reason to consider the first three as a set). The pairs are chronological, of course, but they aren’t simply sayings that happen to be at that time. These two, for example, are triples about the home: who comes in it, how do you treat them, and what conversation should take place in it. The next pair of triples is about neighbors and friends outside the home, the next is about the workplace, specifically the courts. It’s a widening of focus that continues with the following pair and culminates in Hillel and Shammai; each saying needs to stand on its own, but also hold up the arc of this portion of the chapter.

Furthermore, there is, I think, some meaning to the contrast set up between Jose ben Johanan of Jerusalem in this verse and Yose ben Yoezer of Zeredah in the previous one. In the previous verse, we make our house a meeting-place for the wise, which requires activity, deliberate planning, specific invitation. In this, we open our doors, allowing guests to come in or not, accepting but not necessarily working toward hospitality. Where in the last verse we sit at the feet of our honored guests, in this we treat our poor guests as members of the household, neither reserving the best seats for them nor the worst. And of course in the last verse, we thirstily drink in knowledge from the wise, but in this, we refrain from conversation with women (who are, presumably, the opposite of wise in his estimation). The two men have a very different focus on the household and its guests and residents; they are not just flip sides of coins, but they do speak to tensions that pull in one direction or another. Study or practice? Pay attention to the learned or to the needy? Does hospitality consist of catering to the guest or making him at home? Do we focus on what we ought to do or on the distractions?

Both of these texts concern, as I said, the running of a household, and they follow Antigonus, who talked about the service of the Divine. Have we widened out a step from the individual service of the Divine to the running of the house? Or is the service to the Divine present in these verses too?

This is part of that existential Jenga game we’ve been on about. There is an instinctive reaction—at least I hope there is—to read the text up there and go crazy misogynist shit! ERRRRRNNNNNGH, rejected. And whaddyaknow, there’s a spare sage in this generation, so maybe the tower won’t fall down. But in fact, rejecting the verse outright doesn’t work, any more than rejecting the ones that have outright misogyny would leave the rest of the work egalitarian.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

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