Ethics – Now & Then 4 – Avot 1:5

Avot 1:5 Yossei ben Yochanan of Jerusalem says: Let your house be open wide; treat the poor as members of your household; and do not converse excessively with women. They said this even about one’s own wife; surely it applies to another’s wife. Consequently the Sages said: Anyone who converses excessively with a woman causes evil to himself, neglects Torah study, and eventually will inherit Gehinnom.

Let your house be open wide…

The impetus of this portion of the verse is hospitality. The key biblical symbol of hospitality is Abraham’s tent – ohel Avraham, which was open on all four sides in order to welcome passersby from all directions. Yossei ben Yo’ezer emphasized the value of opening one’s home to sages and students of the Word, and Yossei ben Yochanan stresses that, in addition, it should be open to all. This generous trait would have been particularly pertinent to him as he lived in Jerusalem. Jews from the ‘four corners of the earth’ as well as from all parts of the Land, including Yeshua and his family, would go up to Jerusalem for the three major annual Festivals of Pesach, Shavuot and Sukkot. Although thousands of visitors would arrive in the city, it is recorded in Chapter 5 that no one ever lacked accommodation at these times; which indicates that the Jerusalemites must have had their homes open wide!

The Hebrew word translated ‘wide’, lar’vacha, also connotes ‘relief’.[1] In a wider sense then, offering hospitality, which includes the word ‘hospital’, means rendering help and relief to those in need; something that can be accomplished in many different ways.

…treat the poor as members of your household

Based on God’s command in Deuteronomy 15:11, “You shall open wide your hand to your brother, to the needy and to the poor in the land,” the practice of tzedakah – giving to those in need, usually in the form of financial or material aid to the poor – is considered one of the central mitzvot (good deeds commended in the Bible). A glowing example of generous giving is found in Proverbs: “She opens her hand to the poor and reaches out her hands to the needy” (31:20). The character trait of giving is first exhibited by God Himself. He is the Giver and the constant sustainer of life. Ultimately, in His great love for the world, He gave His uniquely begotten Son that all may inherit eternal life (Jn. 3:16).

The importance and centrality of the ethic of generous giving is continued in the 1st Century Church, as we see in the apostle Paul’s letter to the Galatians where he comments on the exhortation he received from Peter, James and John at his meeting with them in Jerusalem. “They asked us to remember the poor; the very thing I was eager to do,” (2:10). These friends and disciples of Yeshua, now the leaders of the early believers, clearly recalled his teaching that when you share your earthly possessions and give to the poor you are storing up “treasures in heaven” (Lk. 18:22).

Yossei of Jerusalem stresses here that what one gives is important and how one gives is of equal importance. We, usually, would offer aid to a family member with kindness and empathy, taking care to not embarrass them but to encourage them and to lift their spirits. In the same way, we should give happily and graciously to others in need as we are able. This motivation and sensitivity should apply whether giving to a beggar in the street, to a friend, or to a trustworthy charitable organization.

Rabbi Abraham Twerski, from another perspective, offers the good advice that one should not be over-generous when giving charity, or extending hospitality.[2] If a family member dropped by for a meal, for example, one would not feel pressurized to prepare a lavish dinner but would simply share what was at hand. This understanding removes much unnecessary stress in opening one’s home in hospitality as well as in giving to the needy. We can happily give from the means we have available, whether they be abundant or meager, luxurious or simple.

…and do not converse excessively with women. They said this even about one’s own wife; surely it applies to another’s wife.

This verse can be misread to discourage conversation and verbal communication between men and women, even between husband and wife. Communication is good, and vital to relationship, as we see so beautifully illustrated from the very beginning. God spoke all of Creation into existence and was in communion with the angels when He created the first human beings. A glorious picture of God’s intention in relationship is seen in the Garden of Eden with the Creator’s first conversation with mankind. He walked and talked with Adam, sharing His will and purposes with him and teaching him His ways. As glorious as this must have been, when God instructs him to name the animals Adam realizes he is lonely for someone equal to him to share in the goodness of God and to converse with. Only then God creates and presents him with “bone from his bone and flesh from his flesh” – his female counterpart, Eve.

Genesis 2:25 tells us that this first husband and wife were “naked and not ashamed.” Our first understanding is that they were physically naked – clothed only in the light of the glory of God. An added understanding is that they were transparent and open in their communication with one another. They shared their whole being and therefore were one. They were truly echad in the sight of God and in relationship with one another. They were two-being-one in fellowship in the glory and beauty of the Presence of God – and there we see His goal for all His children, His family, His people; at all times and through all eternity.

Here, considering the world’s fallen condition and the brokenness of man, Yossei from Jerusalem offers the practical advice that one should strive to curtail excessive or meaningless conversation. While this is obvious in the case of indulging in unnecessary and maybe frivolous chatter with other women, which, as the Sages warn, could lead to sin and dire consequences, a man should avoid this excess even with his wife. Rabbi S.R. Hirsch provides an edifying insight: “A man who truly respects his wife will have more to offer her than just trivial talk and idle chatter for her amusement. He will want to discuss with her the serious concerns of life and will derive enjoyment from the resulting exchange of views and counsel.”[3]

A serious form of “excessive talk” is gossip or lashon ha’ra (lit. bad talk or an evil tongue). We might feel that it is fine to tell our spouse, or anyone else, something negative about someone else. If, however, it is information that he/she does not need to know, such as a warning in order to avoid damage of some kind, then it is lashon ha’ra. And if this applies to one’s spouse, how much more is it applicable in communication with others. We should always weigh our words carefully and avoid sharing things that serve no constructive purpose and might cause added distress to another.

Consequently the Sages said: Anyone who converses excessively with a woman causes evil to himself, neglects Torah study, and eventually will inherit Gehinnom.

The Hebrew word sicha, translated as converse here, means idle talk.
General chit-chat about the events of the day, for example, is pleasant and advisable up to a point. However, if we are aiming to elevate and sanctify our days and time in avodah, service of God, as the Sages exhort in Avot 1:1, then sicha is best kept to a minimum and true communion of thought should be our goal. This particularly applies to one’s spouse, one’s closest confidante and partner in life.

Any excessive form of ‘idle talk’ should be avoided with others. With the distraction this causes, valuable time is lost and wasted that could rather be applied to the study of the Word of God and related teachings. Indulgence in this frivolous form of distraction is viewed as a slippery slope that leads to a growing separation from God Himself and which could end in Gehinnom – a lost eternity apart from His Presence.

Let us rather, then, remember the couple who walked and talked with Yeshua on the road to Emmaus and whose hearts burned within them as “…beginning from Moses and from all the prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself” (Lk.24:27). In fellowship with Him, and as the eyes of our understanding are opened to see Him more and more clearly, let us joyfully go forth to share His resurrected life.

1. Pirkei Avot, Artscroll Mesorah Series; 10

2. Rabbi A. Twerski, Visions of the Fathers; 28

3. S.R. Hirsch, Saying of the Fathers, The Hirsch Siddur,442

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