The fourth and fifth mishnayot of Pirkei Avot Chapter 1 begin a series of teachings about ethical socializing — and it’s not all pretty.
1:4 – Yosi ben Yoezer of Tzeredah and Yosi ben Yochanan of Jerusalem received [the Torah] from them. Yosi ben Yoezer of Tzeredah said: Let your house be a meetinghouse for the sages and sit amid the dust of their feet and drink in their words with thirst.
1:5 – Yosi ben Yochanan of Jerusalem said: Let your house be wide open and let the poor be members of thy household; and do not talk much with women. This was said about one’s own wife; how much more so about the wife of one’s neighbor. Therefore the sages have said: He who talks too much with women brings evil upon himself and neglects the study of the Torah and will in the end inherit Gehenna.
I’ve already written about the political nature of Chapter 1 — the Rabbis trying to assert their legitimacy. Mishnah 4 is perhaps the crudest articulation of this: a sage suggesting that you open your house up to the sages, sit at their feet, and ingest their teachings.
Less cynically, however, this mishnah, as well as Mishnah 5, is not only asserting the authority of the Rabbis, but also the importance of Torah and Torah study, which the Rabbis moved to the center of Judaism. And not just Torah study, but Torah study as a communal activity.
And at the same time that we are being told to open our house to the sages, we are being told to open our house to the poor, thus bringing together two pillars of the world mentioned in Pirkei Avot 1:2, Torah and gemilut hasadim (acts of kindness).
Of course, the real action here is in Mishnah 5, which advises us not to speak with women too much.
Before we deal with this seemingly misogynistic suggestion, we should note one important thing that’s implicit in the mishnah: the imagined reader is male.
And this should not only affect our reading of this particular mishnah. It’s a good reminder about the rest of Pirkei Avot and all of rabbinic literature, really.
As for the offending line itself, it’s not only liberal Jews who find it difficult.
In an article on Aish HaTorah’s website, Howard Witkin actually translates the mishnah in gender neutral terms: “don’t overemphasize light conversation with your spouse…They said this about one’s own spouse, how much more so about the spouse of your friend.”
Note, Witkin also translates siha, which literally means conversation, as “light conversation,” thus allowing him to interpret the mishnah in the best possible light.
According to Witkin (and I’ve seen a similar interpretation attributed to Samson Raphael Hirsch), the mishnah is actually advising people to not have light conversations with one’s wife — and instead speak about weighty matters. In this reading, this is not a misogynistic mishnah, but just the opposite, one that advises men to take their wives’ intellectual capacities seriously.
Obviously, this is a more palatable reading, but it hardly accords with the end of the mishnah, which also mentions speaking to other people’s wives and the threat of damnation in Gehenom (the Jewish version of hell). Could the mishnah really be saying that one should make sure to have serious conversations with his neighbor’s wife? And that if one doesn’t, he’ll be pulled away from Torah and toward Gehenom?
More likely, the mishnah means what it says, and we should be uncomfortable with it. But we should also remember that it represents the view of one specific sage — Yosi ben Yochanan — and one who lived at a very different time, at that.