Shiur #23: Perek 3, Mishnayot 4-5

  • Rav Gidon Rothstein

 

Mishna 4

The mishna reads:

 

R. Chanina b. Chakhinai says: One who is awake at night, one who walks on the road alone, and one who clears his heart [his mind and thoughts] for idleness, such a person is liable for his life.

 

THREE SEPARATE CLAUSES - OR ARE THEY?

 

When you read this mishna simply, it seems to mention three different activities for which the person who does them can be considered mitchayeiv be-nafsho (causing himself liability for his life).  Those three are: one who is awake at night, one who walks on the road alone, and one who frees himself for battala (idleness).

 

To read the clauses as independent, though, makes us wonder why there is any problem with staying awake at night - particularly since night, as far as the mishna is concerned, starts when the stars come out, which for much of the year is before 9 PM.  Further, there are plenty of sources that suggest that nighttime is a particularly good time for studying Torah.  A commentator on this mishna therefore must explain why it viewed being awake at night as a problem.

 

Another issue, for those commentators who care to involve themselves in the question, is the connection (if any) among these three causes of being liable for one's life.  Even if we do not generally assume that the parts of a mishna are connected to each other, here it seems necessary that we view them as connected, since we cannot otherwise explain why these three are singled out.  Since there are two other examples of being mitchayev be-nafsho (liable for one's life) in the mishna, there is no reason to assume that the three we have here were the only ones that occurred to R. Chanina.

 

THE WAY OF THE WORLD

 

Maharal will offer two ways of reading the problem of ha-ne'or balaila (staying up at night).  The first assumes that life should proceed largely as it ordinarily does, with this mishna castigating those who operate outside of the bounds of that ordinary life.  In the first clause, therefore, the mishna means that people should sleep at night.  One who stays up instead (so that ha-ne'or ba-layla refers to one who stays up when ordinary people are sleeping) is abrogating the order of nature.  Even while espousing this, however, Maharal recognizes that studying Torah would represent an exception to the rule he just made.

 

In this reading - we will come back to the other reading below - the problem with being mefaneh libo le-battala (clearing one's heart for idleness) has to be along the same lines.  I would note that Maharal seems to see that as the next clause in the mishna, even though our version of the mishna, places it after the one about walking alone along the road.  Maharal reads this clause as independent of the others (some read it as a qualification of the first two, meaning that the mishna only meant to decry those who, either when awake at night or while walking on the road, clear their hearts for idleness), noting that idleness goes against the human condition.  In that reading, the clause simply echoes (or articulates) the general abhorrence of idleness found in Jewish thought.

 

IDLENESS IS THE DEVIL'S WORK

 

One other example of that attitude is the Gemara's objection to non-Jews establishing a day of rest.  The Gemara cites a verse in Yirmiyahu that says the ordinary course of nature will always proceed.  While the verse mentions the order of natural events as never ceasing - day will follow night, etc. - the Gemara takes it to mean also that non-Jews must live their ordinary lives every day.  From this perspective, the verse insists that life move forward consistently.

 

As an aside, I have never been sure whether or not this precludes only a ritual day off, like Sunday as a religious holiday, or if it means that we expect non-Jews to work at their jobs seven days a week.  The latter seems unlikely, since people want and need time to work productively on areas of life outside of their careers.  I would instead read that gemara as frowning upon non-Jews' taking a day for specifically resting from all one's labors, with the idea of that day as set each week - put aside for religious contemplation.  That kind of spiritual oasis, as a ritual, was a gift to the Jews.

 

The gemara also frowns on idleness in Jewish contexts as well.  In one example, it objects to a wife's being freed from all her household responsibilities regardless of how wealthy she is and how much of a household staff her husband can provide her (or, nowadays, she can provide herself).  While if the money is there, then the husband is required to free her from many of her tasks, she must be left with some responsibilities to avoid idleness, the source of much grief.  For men, even just the (ideally) ever-present responsibility to study Torah makes it clear that idleness is never a valid option. 

 

WALKING ALONE ON THE ROAD - AN UNNATURAL ACTIVITY

 

The final clause in the mishna is ha-mehalekh ba-derekh yechidi, one who walks alone on the road.  In Maharal's presentation, we would expect this, too, to be a problem because it is unnatural. To explain how, Maharal says that people should be involved in society.  By walking alone, the person is repressing his naturally social nature.

 

To prove his point about society, Maharal quotes an interesting gemara that says that the first man, Adam, accurately predicted (or decided) which places on earth would become humanly inhabited and which would not.  Maharal explains that Adam was not only the first but also the paradigmatic human, so that he was able to judge which places had a connection to the human condition.  Those that did, he designated as fit for human habitation; those that did not, he did not.

 

THE LIMITS OF BEING HUMAN

 

I care less about the accuracy of the Gemara's assessment of human habitation than about two other elements.  In terms of truth, certainly there are people living places now where they never lived during Adam's time.  If someone who wants to uphold the statement were to argue that Adam viewed the entire globe - including sections of the world undiscovered until relatively late in human history - then it might be true, but largely meaningless.  Any place that becomes inhabited at any point, we would just say that Adam had delineated it as inhabitable, giving us no real useful information. 

 

I am instead intrigued first by the notion of Adam as paradigmatic; the idea that he set the pattern for all of the humans who followed is worth mulling.  It suggests that Adam defined our human nature to some extent, so that in the first generation of humanity, our range of options for what it means to live a human life was shaped.

 

More relevant to our mishna, the gemara seems to say that we are supposed to live in humanly habitable places, that there is little value (and, perhaps, a negative value) in constructing a mountain retreat off away from all other people.  In that view, of course, solitary travel has the same problem.  That distrust of solitude is an issue worth considering - other Jewish thinkers have stressed the value of periods of solitude, even extensive periods.  Maharal seems to reject using even an inter-city trip as a time for solitude.

 

OR, IN CONJUNCTION WITH IDLENESS

 

The other way to read the mishna, which Maharal also offers, is to say that it is not the act of being awake (or, presumably, walking along the road alone) that is a problem, but having those be opportunities for idleness rather than productive activity.  Maharal seems to come to this reading because he recognizes that some people will be up at night occupied with their livelihood, and he cannot imagine that that is a problem, if it is necessary.  He therefore suggests that the problem arises if one is up at night and focuses on battala (idle matters) instead of seeking productive activity.  Note that in this version, it is the lack of productivity that is blameworthy, not the lack of sleep. 

 

MISHNAH 5

 

     The mishna reads:

 

R. Nechuneya b. ha-Kana says: Anyone who accepts upon him/herself the yoke of Torah will have removed from him/her the yoke of the kingdom and of derekh eretz; and anyone who throws off the yoke of Torah will have placed upon him/her the yoke of the kingdom and of derekh eretz.

 

This is a relatively short mishna, so I thought we could discuss it here as well.  Maharal notes that there are three realms in which a person can operate - the natural realm, the Divine realm, and the human realm (which is not fully natural, since people have free will - animals respond to instinct, to needs and urges; people are able to choose their response).  The point of the mishna is that operating in the Divine realm puts a person above the natural and human realms (so that the yokes of government and of livelihood, representatives of each of those realms, are removed). 

 

Part of what is interesting about this is that Maharal has viewed the mishna as referring to general areas rather than the specific examples cited.  It is not that Torah frees us from government per se, but from having to worry about ordinary human interactions as a whole.  It is also, clearly, a view tinged with supernatural overtones that we as 21st century people might have a hard time swallowing, but eminently worth considering nonetheless.

 

Maharal connects the assumption of this mishna - that Torah trumps nature and society - to the placing of the objects in the Mishkan, the Tabernacle in the desert.  The Shulchan (table), is the symbol of kingship, for reasons Maharal does not explain.  The Menora has seven branches symbolizing the seven days of the week.  In Hebrew, the term for seven days of the week is shiv'at yemei Bereishit (the seven days of Creation), which puts into the concept of weekdays the concept of nature as well.  Those two objects were in the outer room of the Mishkan.  The Aron (ark that held the original Ten Commandments), symbol of Torah, was placed in the innermost chamber, the Holy of Holies, again showing that the Torah realm is qualitatively superior to the other two.  Here, too, the placement and symbolism of the various objects in the Mishkan make a point about the world and how it works, a point that stresses the supernatural underpinnings to that world.

 

 

Next week we will look at how God relates with different groups of people.