Pirke Avot, verse five: household

      No Comments on Pirke Avot, verse five: household

We are on the fifth verse of Pirke Avot:

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.

Literally, the Hebrew says that the poor should be b’nai baytecha, sons of your house. This is more than charity.

I don’t actually know that much about this period in terms of the household life, but I understand that in medieval times, Jews largely followed the rule that one should never accept payment for being a rabbi (that is, for teaching Torah, for judging in cases of the Law, or for representing your town in the councils of the region). This is tricky, of course, since everybody wants there to be learned men in your town to teach, adjudicate and if necessary take your concerns to greater councils, but most people have to spend their time and energy just making a living. And you don’t want all your rabbis to come from the wealthy families. OK, some people think that it’s a good idea for all the rabbis to come from the wealthy families, but on the whole, it’s considered a good idea to spread the wisdom around.

One way to get around the restriction was for people to send their sons to be apprenticed to the rabbi at his trade, whatever it was, with the understanding that alongside viniculture or carpentry or whatnot, the boy would learn Talmud. And of course there is no restriction against paying a fellow to take your son as an apprentice to a trade. Again, here, there’s the problem that where the community can support the local rabbi, the sons who get the training are the sons of the wealthy. The boy gets sent off with a nice present for the teacher, he lives with the rabbi’s family and is treated as a son of the house, and learns both the trade and the Law, keeping in mind that he may not have to practice the trade, so that part of the requirement risks dwindling into a formality. The conflicts of interest are bad enough (when there are property disputes involving the wealthy family, or disputes over whether a particular business practice violates the rule against charging interest), but again, you risk having the next generations of rabbis be taken from wealthy families.

If, however, the rabbi heeds the advice to let the poor be sons of the house, he will spread the wisdom to the poor. And that was the practice, at least somewhat—the support from the rich kids allowed the rabbi to take in the poor ones as scholarship cases, essentially.

Does that mean that we should read this advice, in our own lives, as primarily being about need-blind aid, or donating to scholarship funds at our finer institutions of learning? Honestly, I think there’s a case to be made that to fulfill the words of Jose, let the poor be sons of your house, you could do worse than allow a poor kid to go to your alma mater, if you identify yourself and your success with that institution.

On the other hand, I don’t think that it has to be taken as an obligation to shelter homeless people in your own house. Or to hire them as servants. Perhaps that’s just me avoiding what would certainly be an unpleasant and possibly dangerous task. Do I think it’s sufficient to vote to have public money (my house, in an extended sense) go to sheltering those who need it? And if my candidates fail, or my budget does, to shrug and wait for the next election?

If I am not going to read this as a direction for my own household, my actual house, it is going to fit in rather poorly with the rest of the triad. But if I do, it’s going to fit in very poorly with my life and my means. Hmph.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.