Pirke Avot, chapter four, verse twenty-six

Having missed last week, I have broken this series of connected verses up more than they ought to be. Two weeks ago, Elisha b. Abuyeh talked about learning as a child versus learning as an adult; this week, we have a response about teaching from Jose ha-Babli, in Herbert Denby’s translation:

R. Jose b. Judah of Kefar ha-Babli said: He that learns from the young, to what is he like? To one that eats unripe grapes and drinks wine from his winepress. And he that learns from the aged, to what is he like? To one that eats ripe grapes and drinks old wine.

Here we learn a distinction: it’s better (to use the straightforward interpretation of Elisha b. Abuyeh’s verse) to learn when you are young, but better to learn from somebody who is old. That’s simple, ain’t it? And so it is.

So, here’s just a nice little thing about the verses. When Elisha ben Abuyeh is talking about learning, he says ha-lomaid yeled, the one who learns as a boy. The root is lamad, the three letters lamed, mem, daled. Clear? Similarly, when Jose ha-Babli is talking about learning from, he says ha-lomaid min ha katanim, the one who learns from the little ones.

The root word is used, however, to mean teach as often as learn, as in Deu 11:19: And ye shall teach them [v’limad’tem] your children, speaking of them when thou sittest in thine house, and when thou walkest by the way, when thou liest down, and when thou risest up. It’s as if the non-standard English use of learn to mean teach (That’ll learn him!) is the standard, although with Hebrew there are differences in the vowels and prefixes and suffixes, none of which I understand at all. The thing is that in use, it was clear which meaning was in use at any time, but it seems to me that the root word is close to the surface, that is, the words sound so similar, being so similar, that there would be an awareness that they are the same word, really.

Or not, I suppose; certainly I am skeptical in English of arguments that words really mean what they are connected to by their root words, rather than the surface meanings that people use all the time. And the rabbis tended to use words carefully, or rather, the records contain carefully constructed sentences, whether that was how they talked at the time or how they were edited later.

But I wanted to add another thing about that root word, lamad, which is that not only is the word for student, talmid, derived from it, but so too is name of the Object of Study, the Talmud.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

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