Elchanan Poupko

Pirkei Avot: Your Home, Your Sanctuary

Jerusalem's Yemin Moshe neighborhood, outside the walls of the Old City. (courtesy of author, copyright free)

Ralph Waldo Emerson was right when he said: “The ornament of a house is the friends who frequent it.”

The lesson of this Mishna in Pirkei Avot is about the spirit we must all breath into our own homes. It is all about not taking our home for granted, just because it is a house. A house is not always a home, and a home is not always a house. It is for us to make our houses into homes and our homes into sanctuaries.

The Mishna (Avot 1:6) states:

“Yose ben Yochanan (a man) of Jerusalem used to say: Let thy house be wide open, and let the poor be members of thy household. Engage not in too much conversation with women. They said this with regard to one’s own wife, how much more [does the rule apply] with regard to another man’s wife. From here the Sages said: as long as a man engages in too much conversation with women, he causes evil to himself, he neglects the study of the Torah, and in the end, he will inherit Gehinnom.”

Yose ben Yochanan (a man) of Jerusalem used to say– we continue now with lessons from Yose Ben Yoe’zer’s pair in the Zugot system. Yose Ben Yochanan was the Av Beit Din, while Yose Ben Yoezer was the head of the Sanhedrin. While most Torah scholars during this period resided inside and surrounding the city of Jerusalem, adding Ish Yerushalayim–man of Jerusalem–to his name was a sign of his righteousness and nobility.

Rabbi Aryeh Levin was known as the “father of prisoners” as he used to go every Shabbat to visit young Jews who were active in the resistance against the British before the establishment of the state of Israel. He was also a principal (“Mashgiach”) in Jerusalem’s old “Etz Chaim” school. When kids came into school, he would make sure no kid was missing any shoes or clothing and that every child was cared for. He attended to every school child like a precious diamond.

When asked how he has patience for attending to so many mundane issues and caring for each child like they are his own he would share the story in the Talmud that says the rabbis would kiss the rocks and ground of Israel because they cherished its holiness. Rabbi Levine went on to say that if the rabbis kissed and loved even the stones and dust of the land of Israel because of its holiness, how so much more so must one cherish the holiness of the children born and living in the land of Israel! The Mishna and Talmud affectionately mention the term “man of Jerusalem” as a term of endearment and nobility. 

“Let thy house be wide open”–this statement does not necessarily speak about hospitality towards the poor or needy. The Mishna teaches us that part of creating a home that is conducive to Judaism’s most sacred teachings, one must make sure their home is characterized by openness and hospitality. The statement of the Mishna emphasizes our obligation to be hospitable to the poor. While the role of a home is, on the one hand, to create a space that is separate, enclosed, and distanced from the outer world, making sure that the same space also has room for others will change who we are, our homes, and those who enter it.  

“let the poor be members of thy household.”- The Mishna could have easily combined this statement with the previous one and told us we should make sure we leave our homes wide open–especially to the poor. That is not what the Mishna did. The two statements are completely separate for a very good reason.

With regard to your own home and the generation population, make sure that your home is open even to those who are not from your household–and will never be considered a part of your household. You will be better off making sure your home is like the home of Abraham who was famous for his hospitality and keeping his home open to anyone who wanted. Of couse, if you know of someone who is poor, needy, and hungry, you are also Biblically obligated to make sure you nourish them and give them shelter. Yet what the Mishna is talking about here is something entirely different; it is about making the poor person a member, a ben bayit, of your household.

The American poet Robert Frost famously said: “Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.” Making sure the poor person knows he has a place that is not only where he will get his meals but also a place where he can call home is the imperative of this Mishna. Making sure the poor people know that they are members of your household is something that will transform both the poor and the host into completely different people. The poor person will know that no matter what happens, there is a place that he can call home, or as Robert Frost put it, a place that must take him. The host will be transformed by making sure that his home is a place of kindness and that he remains connected with reality.

How often have we seen people who lock themselves into large mansions, estates, villas, and properties—spending time only with those who are as rich as them—be so detached from society that we do not know how they reached that point to begin with. Making sure the poor are not just hosted and fed by you but are also members of your household will turn your home into one that is connected to the world you are in, imbue you with humility, and make sure you are connected to the needs of others. 

In his Guide for the Perplexed (I, chapter 15), Maimonides brings an entirely new light to explaining the story of Jacob’s Ladder (Breisheet, chapter 28). In his dream, Jacob sees a great ladder with angels going up to heaven and then coming down. Maimonides explains that to be a leader, one must first elevate oneself spiritually and intellectually, but that would not be enough for one to be a leader. Next, they must come back down that ladder and see how people live. They must lead about the hardships and struggles people are going through. They must make sure they see the pain and suffering of people, their joys, and their celebration. It is only when we understand how others live, that we can take roles of leadership. This also explains how this Mishna is helpful to Jewish judges. If a judge would like to properly understand the people they are judging, they must make sure they live among the people. Making sure the poor are members of our households will give us the best possible understanding of the world we live in. 

“Engage not in too much conversation with women. They said this with regard to one’s own wife, how much more [does the rule apply] with regard to another man’s wife.”–while many deliberate in explaining this statement of the Mishna, the most important—and most ignored part of this Mishna is the “how much more so—Kal Ve’Chomer.” 

Too often, when tending to communal needs, leaders and community members alike may spend lots of time with other community members while forgetting their own family. The Kal Vachomer here teaches us that if a man talks to other women more than his own wife, that is a change of the natural order and a serious problem. There is a joke said about someone from a Hasidic group that is very stringent about conversing and socializing even with their own wives in public. A member of this group approached his friend and said: “for shame! I saw you walking with your wife on a stroll in the street, talking away last night against all of our rules!” Without any hesitation, going right to his own defense, the other member said: “Oh no! It was not my wife, I was not my wife, it was another woman and therefore does not violate any of our group’s rules!”.

The underlying logic of this Mishna is that one should most definitely not engage in excessive talking with members of the opposite gender–most fundamentally, speaking to other women more than you speak to your own wife is something that crosses the red lines the rabbis have set here. 

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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