Elchanan Poupko

Pirkei Avot: Keeping Wise Company

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks (photo credit: United Synagogue)

There is a well-known saying: “If you are the smartest person in the room, you are in the wrong room.” The lesson of this Mishna is very much in line with that idea; the company we keep has a major impact on who we are.

The Mishna states (Avot 1:4): “Yose ben Yoezer (a man) of Zeredah and Yose ben Yohanan (a man) of Jerusalem received [the oral tradition] from them [i.e. Shimon the Righteous and Antigonus]. Yose ben Yoezer used to say: let thy house be a house of meeting for the Sages and sit in the very dust of their feet, and drink in their words with thirst.”

Looking at who stated the content of the Mishna, is almost as important as the content iteslef. “Yose ben Yoezer (a man) of Zeredah and Yose ben Yohanan (a man) of Jerusalem received [the oral tradition] from them [i.e. Shimon the Righteous and Antigonus]”

This casual introduction of the Mishna actually marks a seismic shift in the way the Torah and Judaism have been transmitted. The Mishna here introduces us to another link in the transmission of the Torah all the way down from Moses. After the period of the men of the great assembly came the time of the Zugot–the pairs. We are now introduced to the period in Jewish history when the Jewish people were led by two parallel leaders–the Nasi and the Av Beit Din. During this time, Yosei Ben Yoezer served as the Nasi–president– of the Sanhedrin, and Yosei Ben Yochanan as the Av Beit Din of the court. It is during this generation that we are first introduced to a ubiquitous aspect of Jewish life–the Machloket, disagreements. The name Yosei Ben Yoezer is mentioned in the context of the first recorded rabbinic disagreement in history: the disagreement over the Smicha–placing one’s hands over a sacrifice brought to the Temple. 

Israel’s former Chief Rabbi, Rabbi Isaac Herzog, points out that this Mishna is stated during a time when the attacks of Hellenization increased, Hellenized Jews took a great deal of control over the priesthood, and traditional Judaism was fighting for its survival. It is in this context that Rabbi Yossi Ben Yoezer emphasized these timeless lessons in order to strengthen Judaism against the threats it was facing. 

The Mishna goes on to teach: “Let thy house be a house of meeting for the Sages.” When we speak of a home, we are not speaking of one generation; we are speaking of multigenerational families. Ensuring children see Torah scholars inside their homes leaves a lasting impression on them. A great rabbi from Israel once went to raise funds for his Yeshiva in a country that did not have a large Jewish community. When he came to the home of his host and saw what a large mansion and garden it had, he was sure he would have a comfortable suit with a spacious place to stay. To his surprise, the great rabbi found himself sleeping in the same area as the rest of the family, not far from their own rooms. The next morning, his host asked him how he slept and how the accommodations felt. After the rabbi’s polite response, the host told the rabbi: “Truthfully, there are many more spacious and luxurious guest areas in our home; the reason we wanted you to stay in a room near everyone else is so that my children could see how someone who has studied Torah behaves and observes the Mitzvot.”

What is most profound about letting your home “be a house of meeting for the sages” is the idea that the Torah is not an intellectual pursuit to be restricted to the house of study; the Torah is something to bring into our homes. The message here is a message to both scholars and laymen; laymen and members of the Jewish community must know that education in the Torah begins inside the home. Laymen must know that no matter how often they go to synagogue or the house of study, no matter what kind of excellent schools they send their children to, they must ensure their home is also made into an abode of Torah scholarship. Torah and its wisdom are not something that can remain confined to books; it must become part of our day-to-day lives. Torah scholars, on the other hand, are taught here how they must remain connected to the community. A rabbi or Torah scholar must always live with the people. One of the most beautiful customs that stood out to me when giving a talk about the history and customs of Moroccan Jews was how involved rabbis were in community life. When a baby was born, it was customary that the Melamed–the school teacher–would come over to the child’s home even before the Brit Milah to recite some words of Torah to the child and welcome them to their future school. 

This also explains why this lesson is listed in Pirkei Avot, a tractate whose primary purpose is to give necessary advice to judges in the Beit Din and the leaders of the Jewish people. For leaders and judges to properly understand the community they live in. The Rabbis in the Talmud (Ketubot 16b) teaches: “A person’s disposition should always be with those they are living with–me’orevet im ha-bri-ot.” For communities to thrive, rabbis must be familiar with their communities and the people they work with. 

Rabbi Yaakov Neuburger from Teanek-Bergenfield is one of the most successful rabbis and community leaders in the United States. Going to his home for Shabbat as a young man left a great impression on me. There, I saw how every Friday night after the meal, parents and children from his community would come to his home for dessert and to study Chumash. In his home, he got to see the families, speak to the children about their interests, and see how everyone interacted. I also got to see Rabbi Benjamin Yudin in Fair Lawn, New Jersey, making his home a place where he would engage community members and be able to feel the pulse of the community properly. Only in this way would he become an effective Torah teacher. 

The Mishna goes on to teach us the imperative of keeping the company of Torah scholars and says: “sit in the very dust of their feet.

The translation of this Mishna is not a simple matter. While this translation reads: “sit in the very dusk of their feet,” the Hebrew is: “Ve’hevei Mit’abek,” almost as saying: “thou shalt get yourself dusty in the dust of their feet.” Some commentators explain this to be saying that one should not only get to hear from great Torah scholars in the halls of study, or even after inviting them to one’s own home, but rather one should go and follow in their footsteps on the paths, roads, and wherever they go. One should walk behind the Torah scholars and observe them in their ways while showing humility and absorbing their wisdom. Often in the Talmud, instead of a Halachic debate being resolved by normal means for quoting a law and a source, rabbis recall examples of what they saw when observing a great Torah scholar. In almost every field of practice–medicine, physician and occupational therapy, operating large equipment and machinery, we require those beginning to take to those fields to observe someone senior to them as they do the work. If this is true to fields like medicine and machinery, it is all the more applicable to the world of Torah, which is very much based on the traditions passed down from generation to generation, involving a very special balance between the letter of the law and the spirit of the law. 

The Talmud (Sotah 21b-22a via Sefaria) continues using this very strong language, emphasizing how necessary real-life observation is to Torah leadership and scholarship. 

“Who is considered a conniving wicked person? Ulla says: This is one who read the Written Torah and learned the Mishna but did not serve Torah scholars. It was stated: With regard to one who read the Written Torah and learned the Mishna but did not serve Torah scholars, Rabbi Elazar says: This person is an ignoramus. Rabbi Shmuel bar Naḥmani said: This person is a boor. Rabbi Yannai says: This person is comparable to a Samaritan, who follows the Written Torah but not the traditions of the Sages. Rav Aḥa bar Ya’akov says: This person is comparable to a sorcerer [magosh], who uses his knowledge to mislead people. The Sages taught: Who is an ignoramus [am ha’aretz]?…Acḥerim (others) say: Even if one reads the Written Torah and learns the Mishna but does not serve Torah scholars, he is an ignoramus.”

These powerful statements emphasize the centrality of real-life connections with Torah scholars as a basic requirement for being part of a Torah community that began in the times of Moses and continues to this day. As a young Yeshiva student, I remember having the honor of eating many Shabbat and holiday meals at the homes and speaking with great Torah scholars such as Rabbi Zalman Nechemya Goldberg, Rabbi Shlomo Feivel Schustal, Rabbi Herschel Schechter, Rabbi Menashe Klein, Rabbi Shmuel Auerbach, Rabbi David Schustal, Rabbi Michel Yehuda Lefkovitz, and other great Torah scholars. Their conduct, humility, kindness, and wisdom taught me a great deal. Often, it was not only the wisdom and piety I got to see from them that left a great impact on me, but the way their household ran–the calmness of their voice, the thoughtfulness of what they said, the cake that was given to me to take back to Yeshiva upon leaving, and the valuing of Torah study, had all left a lasting impression on me. 

My great uncle, Rabbi Yitzchock Poupko, was a student in Radin in the 1920s and 1930s, where he was a close student of the great Rabbi Yisrael Meir Hakohen, who was known to most people by the name of his famous book Chafetz Chaim. The Chafetz Chaim also became known for his famous work on Jewish law called the Mishna Brura, a book that navigates Jewish laws and traditions and the exact proper way to follow those. Often, when people heard that my great uncle had learned from the Chafetz Chaim and spent lots of time in his home, they asked him how the Chafetz Chaim would conduct himself on certain matters. Although the Chafetz Chaim spelled out in his book every aspect of Jewish life and how it should be done according to Jewish law, even to the most minuscule details, finding out how he did it in practice triumphed even that knowledge. 

There is a beautiful commentary found here in the Machzor Vitri, and ancient and extensive work put together in the 12th century by Rashi’s student Rabbi Simcha of Vitry (Vitry en Perthois in France). It states the following: “sit in the very dust of their feet. How so? When a Torah scholar–a Talmid Chacham–comes to your city, do not say: “I do not need his scholarship”. Rather, go sit before him; not on a chair, not on a bed, and not on a bench–rather on the ground so that you get dusty from the dust of their feet. Because if you do so you will merit [wisdom].”

The imperative here is twofold: one emphasizes the importance of real-life contact with Torah scholars that is not only limited to absorbing information. The other imperative is that when we take that wisdom in, it must be done with humility. Torah is often compared to water, and the rabbis teach us that just like water keeps flowing from the high places to the low places, so too does Torah wisdom flow to the humble and modest. The Talmud goes on to note that this is the reason some of the Jewish people’s greatest Torah scholars come from poor families; because the wisdom of Torah can succeed most under when those in possession of it are humble and modest.  

The next statement the Mishna makes, drink in their words with thirst–Water is what sustains life on earth. Without water to drink, we would die sooner than if we did not have food. Yet water cannot quench our thirst or hydrate our bodies if we do not drink it. There are countless bodies of water out there. Many people go and shower, swim, and bathe. Yet the water cannot fulfill its function of keeping us alive if we do not thirst for it. The Talmud (Psachim 112) says: “More than the calf wants to drink the milk, the cow wants to nurse it.” A Torah scholar can be as smart and gifted as can be, but if there is no thirst for what they are saying, it will never be taught. And so the Mishna urges us to develop the thirst needed to properly absorb the wisdom of the sages. One of the things that most astonish me when entering the homes and presence of great Torah scholars and seeing people lining up to speak to them is that when someone finally gets to speak to one of these great Torah scholars, they most often share in their excitement ideas and thoughts for the Torah scholar. Most often, the Torah scholar ends up listening to others more than they are listening to them. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks used to say that the question he gets most often is not one that relates to Jewish law, to Torah, or to his general scholarship. The question he was asked most was: “Rabbi, do you remember me?”

While the excitement and wanting to share a conversation with a well-known Torah scholar are understandable and relatable, nonetheless, what we are taught here is that when we have the opportunity to be in the company of great Torah scholars we must sharpen our ability to listen, our desire to absorb their wisdom, and to retain everything we can from what they teach.

About the Author
Rabbi Elchanan Poupko is a New England based eleventh-generation rabbi, teacher, and author. He has written Sacred Days on the Jewish Holidays, Poupko on the Parsha, and hundreds of articles published in five languages. He is the president of EITAN--The American Israeli Jewish Network.
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