Guests can save or ruin a marriage (Shabbos 37)

You shall not engage in too much chatter with the woman. They said this regarding one’s own wife, how much more so with regard to another man’s wife. From here the Sages said: One who engages in too much chatter with the woman causes bad things for himself, neglects the study of the Torah, and in the end he will inherit gehennom.

This Shabbat, we begin Pirkei Avot.  For many, the most confusing mishnah deals with how much we should be talking to our spouses.  Here’s the famous teaching:

“Jose ben Yochanan, a citizen of Jerusalem says: Let your home be wide open, and let the poor be members of your household.  And you shall not engage in too much chatter with the woman. They said this regarding one’s own wife, how much more so with regard to another man’s wife. From here the Sages said: One who engages in too much chatter with the woman causes bad things for himself, neglects the study of the Torah, and in the end he will inherit gehennom.”

What is the meaning of this perplexing mishnah?

אָמַר רַב שְׁמוּאֵל בַּר יְהוּדָה אָמַר רַבִּי יוֹחָנָן: כִּירָה שֶׁהִסִּיקוּהָ בְּגֶפֶת וּבְעֵצִים מְשַׁהִין עָלֶיהָ תַּבְשִׁיל שֶׁבִּישֵּׁל כׇּל צוֹרְכּוֹ וְחַמִּין שֶׁהוּחַמּוּ כׇּל צוֹרְכָּן וַאֲפִילּוּ מִצְטַמֵּק וְיָפֶה לוֹ. אֲמַר לֵיהּ הָהוּא מִדְּרַבָּנַן לְרַב שְׁמוּאֵל בַּר יְהוּדָה: הָא רַב וּשְׁמוּאֵל דְּאָמְרִי תַּרְוַויְיהוּ מִצְטַמֵּק וְיָפֶה לוֹ אָסוּר! אָמַר רַב נַחְמָן: מִצְטַמֵּק וְיָפֶה לוֹ — אָסוּר, מִצְטַמֵּק וְרַע לוֹ — מוּתָּר. כְּלָלָא דְּמִלְּתָא: כׇּל דְּאִית בֵּיהּ מֵיחָא — מִצְטַמֵּק וְרַע לוֹ, לְבַר מִתַּבְשִׁיל דְּלִיפְתָּא דְּאַף עַל גַּב דְּאִית בֵּיהּ מֵיחָא — מִצְטַמֵּק וְיָפֶה לוֹ הוּא. וְהָנֵי מִילֵּי דְּאִית בֵּיהּ בִּשְׂרָא, אֲבָל לֵית בֵּיהּ בִּשְׂרָא — מִצְטַמֵּק וְרַע לוֹ הוּא. וְכִי אִית בֵּיהּ בִּשְׂרָא נָמֵי לָא אֲמַרַן אֶלָּא דְּלָא קָבָעֵי לֵהּ לְאוֹרְחִין, אֲבָל קָבָעֵי לֵהּ לְאוֹרְחִין — מִצְטַמֵּק וְרַע לוֹ

לאורחין – צריך חתיכות חשובות לשום לפניהם ואין דרך כבוד בתבשיל הצטמק שאין הבשר ניכר בו

Rav Shmuel bar Yehuda quoted Rabbi Yocḥanan: With regard to a stove that was lit with pomace or with wood, on Shabbat eve one may leave a cooked dish that was already completely cooked, as well as hot water that was already completely heated, upon it and even if it is the type of food that when left for a prolonged period of time on the fire it shrivels and improves. One of the Sages said to Rav Shmuel bar Yehuda: Isn’t it Rav and Shmuel who both say that if food shrivels and improves, it is prohibited? Rav Nacḥman said: Food that shrivels and improves is prohibited to leave on the stove; if it shrivels and deteriorates, it is permitted. The principle in this matter is: Any food that has flour in it shrivels and deteriorates, except for a cooked turnip dish, which, even though it has flour, shrivels and improves. And this applies only when there is meat in it, but when there is no meat in it, it shrivels and deteriorates. And when there is meat in it, too, we only said that it shrivels and improves when one does not need it for guests, but when one needs it for guests, it is considered to have shriveled and deteriorated.

Rashi: For guests – One must place respectable portions before them, and it is disrespectful to offer them shriveled food where the meat is not recognizable.

Some families joke that they only get served good food when they have guests.  But it’s not so farfetched.  The Gemara says that we have a different standard of what is considered an acceptable portion for guests versus what we would feed our families.  In fact, Rashi states that one is obligated to serve respectable portions to guests, and the Mishnah Berurah codifies this idea as normative halachic practice.

In light of our important tradition to host guests and treat them in the finest manner, let’s reread the earlier mishnah.  Jose teaches us that our homes should be open wide.  However, not only must we invite people into our homes, but our Shabbos table must be open to all.  Not just our friends.  Not just people we’re trying to impress.  But the poor should feel so welcome in your home that they don’t even need an invitation.  You need to make them feel like members of your household!

Now we get to the third clause of the mishnah.  How does it flow from the first two pieces of advice?  Picture a time when you and your spouse were having a moment of disagreement.  There’s not a marriage on the planet where husband and wife see eye-to-eye on everything.  Our Sages tell us, ‘Just like no two people have exactly the same face, similarly no two people have exactly the same opinions.’  And so, from time to time, you are bound to disagree with your spouse.  Most of the time, hopefully, you are able to resolve the difference of opinion with minimal friction.  However, sometimes, things can get heated.

All of a sudden, there’s a knock on the front-door.  It’s a friend who’s popped by for a cup of coffee.  The mood in the house quickly shifts.  You and your spouse are all smiles, as if nothing happened five minutes earlier.  By the time your friend leaves, you’ve long forgotten that you were in the midst of an argument when she knocked on the door.

Let’s take it a step further.  Jose’s second teaching is that poor people should feel welcome enough to pop by unannounced.  Poor doesn’t only refer to material property.  Some people may be wanting of familial love.  They may be psychologically needy.  They might just need a friend to talk to because they’re going through a challenging period in their life.  And so now, the ‘poor’ person has rung the bell, just as the tone of the conversation with your spouse was starting to rise to improper levels.  The guest enters, you boil the kettle, and they begin to pour out their soul.

You were able to be there for them.  Listen to them.  Give them emotional support.  Perhaps even some helpful advice.  And then they leave.  You and your spouse look at one another and realize that your issues are so minor compared to the major issues some people are dealing with in their lives: from problems with parnassah (livelihood) to health to difficult adolescents.  And you commit to one another that you will no longer sweat the small stuff.

What then is the meaning of the third clause?  When you open up your home and poor people become members of your household, ‘you shall not engage in too much chatter with the woman.’  All the ‘chatter’ – the futile conversations you have with your spouse that serve only to exacerbate conflict – will be drowned out by the joyous sounds of hosting guests and overpowered by the acknowledgement that many of the disputes are based on “first-world problems” relative to a lot of the big issues other people are struggling with in their lives.

Let’s continue reading the mishnah.  Jose teaches that if you should be careful about the chatter you engage in with your spouse, how much more careful must you be with someone who is not your spouse.  What’s the connection?  When you tend to the emotional needs of other people, you must be cautious not to cross any lines of over-friendliness.  If an individual is constantly in your home, you need to watch yourself to ensure that you are not showing them too much attention, at the expense of the time and attention you are giving to your spouse.

Jose teaches that there are three potential ramifications when you aren’t careful with watching your behaviour and maintaining those boundaries. First, you could cause bad things for yourself in terms of the strain you place on the spousal relationship.  Second, even though you must be there to counsel and show compassion to the needy, you must make sure that you don’t get distracted from your personal duty of Torah study and engagement.  And third, if you were to get overly emotionally involved with the individual, it could lead to sin, God forbid.

Hosting guests, our Sages tell us, has greater spiritual power than greeting the Divine presence.  We learn this from Avraham who ran to take care of the wayfarers, even when he was in the midst of a conversation with the Almighty.  May your open home bring blessing to your marriage and family, materially, emotionally, and spiritually!

About the Author
Rabbi of Hampstead Garden Suburb Synagogue, London, UK.
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