Pirkei Avot never tells us not to talk to women

Revisiting Mishnah 1:5

There is one thing about which fevered feminists and frum fanatics have long agreed, namely their reading of the fifth Mishnah in the first chapter of Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers) which supposedly instructs the male half of the human race not to converse with women.

Feminists use this mishnah as a bottomless source of invective against men, particularly the Sages of the Talmud whom they accuse of patriarchalism, misogynism and a total disconnect from contemporary social norms.

Haredim use this same mishnah to validate their oppression of women and to drive ever-more draconian edicts designed to prevent any normal intercourse between the sexes; to keep images of women off the pages of their media, to enforce separation of the sexes on public transport (women in the rear), to disallow women from running for elected office, and even to compel women, where they can, to walk on opposite sides of the street.

The Mishnah in its entirety reads as follows:

יוסי בן יוחנן איש ירושלים אומר
יהי ביתך פתוח לרוחה ויהיו עניים בני ביתך
ואל תרבה שיחה אם האשה
באשתו אמרו קל וחומר באשת חברו
מכאן אמרו חכמים
כל המרבה שיחה אם האשה גורם רע לעצמו
ובוטל מדברי תורה וסופו יורש גיהנם

Even the enlightened former chief rabbi of the UK, Lord Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, in his very contemporary translation of the Siddur, succumbs to the conventional understanding of this mishnah by providing the following translation:

Yose ben Yohanan of Jerusalem used to say;
Let your house be open wide;
let the poor join the members of your household;
and do not gossip inordinately with women*.
This was said about one’s own wife;
all the more so does it apply to another man’s wife.
Hence the Sages say:
a man who talks too much with a woman
brings trouble on himself,
neglects the study of Torah,
and in the end will inherit Gehinnom.

*emphasis is mine

This translation reflects the universal understanding of this mishnah. Yet, while it may be the conventional interpretation, it is dead wrong as a translation. Indeed a proper reading would neutralize the vitriol of the feminists and the misogyny of the haredim, leaving both bereft of precious grist for their respective mills.

But first things first.

For openers, on this basis the entire Mishnah makes no sense as there is no discernible causal or even casual connection between its two parts. What on earth does gossiping with women have to do with opening one’s doors to the poor? Yet these two concepts are offered as part of a single thought! If there were a competition for the world’s greatest non sequitur, surely this would take first place. Yet the Sages of the Mishnah were known to chose their words carefully, editing their thoughts and redacting their teachings into the final, crisp, pithy mishnaic form. Surely Rabbi Judah the Prince (editor of the Mishnayot) was not asleep at the wheel when this particular mishnah slipped by his razor sharp eyes.

Years ago, I would ask virtually every rabbi I encountered to explain this mishnah to me. I would preface my question with a statement to the effect that, yes, I could understand the Sages telling us to be hospitable to the poor. And, yes, I could understand them instructing us to avoid engaging women in conversation. What I could not understand is the two being offered as a single thought.

I grew accustomed to hearing the most preposterous, obtuse, intellectually offensive explanations, none of which merit repetition unless one wishes to (further) diminish the rabbinic vocation.

Some 15 years ago, while I still lived and worked in New York, I had a young woman of the Bobov Hassidic sect working under me in the marketing department of a telecommunications company. Her name was Mrs. Beila Feig and she was exceptional in every respect; a consummate professional as well as consummately religious in the truest sense. Always poised. No idle chatter. Meticulous both about what what she said and about what she was willing to hear.

One day I asked her if she could make sense of this mishnah. “It’s simple, and it has nothing to do with telling men not to talk to women” she said. “The head of the household is told to welcome the poor into his home. But it is his wife who then has the responsibility for receiving these guests and feeding them. Hence the mishnah is telling the man not to interrupt his wife with idle chatter while she is busy doing her mitzvah. And certainly one should not bother someone else’s wife if she is engaged in this very important activity.”

Suddenly everything fell into place, and the entire mishnah became truly a single coherent thought.

Which brings us back to the universal misunderstanding and mistranslation. Because nowhere in the mishnah does it say“do not gossip inordinately with women”. What it does say is ואל תרבה שיחה אם האשה, do not prolong conversation with the wife. Not only is it speaking about a single woman rather than women as a category, it is speaking of a specific woman ha-isha (האשה) which in Mishnaic Hebrew means only one thing “the wife”, as for example the opening words of the first Mishnah of tractate Kiddushin; ״האשה נקנית בשלשה דרכים״; The wife (ha-isha) is acquired in (one of) three ways.

If our Mishnah here in Prikei Avot were talking about women as a category it would have used the word nashim (נשים). If it were referring to a singe woman generically it would have said simply ואל תרבה שיחה אם אשה without the prefix ה in which case isha (אשה) would have meant woman rather than wife. By using the term ha-isha (האשה) our mishnah is clearly referring only to one’s  wife. And why? Because, as Mrs. Feig explained, when a woman is engaged in a mitzvah, don’t pester her with idle chatter.

As I walk the streets of Jerusalem I cannot help noticing that haredi men are nearly always glued to their cellphones. Haredi women are not. The women strike me as being purposefully engaged and determinedly going about the business. The men appear to have little to do with their time other than indulge in idle chatter. Clearly the Sages of the Mishnah knew their customers. Yes, there are yentas in our midst. Only then, as now, it wasn’t the women.

About the Author
J.J Gross is a veteran creative director and copywriter, who made aliyah in 2007 from New York. He is a graduate of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and a lifelong student of Bible and Talmud. He is also the son of Holocaust survivors from Hungary and Slovakia.
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