Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Pirkei Avot 1:4 and 1:5: There's No Place Like Home

Home is where the heart is. Charity begins at home. Even the chickens come home to roost. For many people, the home is more than just an abode or a dwelling place to protect oneself for the elements. It is supposed to be a place where something more transformative and meaningful takes place. As I was studying Pirkei Avot with a dear friend yesterday, I ended up asking what the purpose of a home is, particularly in a Jewish context. What makes for the hallmark of a Jewish home?

A Jewish home entails more than putting up a mezuzah on doorposts or making sure there is enough kosher food in the home. In Pirkei Avot, there are two opinions as to what is the [primary] intention of a Jewish home. Yosei ben Yoezer of Tzeredah opines that the home is meant to be a meeting place for the sages (Pirkei Avot 1:4). Although חכם literally means "intelligent person," the rabbis of yore interpret it to mean "Torah scholar," which is to say that the home is a gathering place for Torah scholars to meet and discuss Torah. Not only that, as the host, you are supposed to wait on them. The reason for this is based on an analogy provided by Rav. Much like being in a perfumery, by merely being in the presence of a Torah scholar, one absorbs more Torah knowledge through the process of osmosis.

Conversely, Yosei ben Yochanan of Jerusalem is of the opinion that the home is meant to be לרוחה (ibid 1:5). The reason why I don't provide a direct translation of לרוחה is because the word can have two different interpretations, depending on the vocalization. On the one hand, Rav and R' Yonah interpret לרוחה to mean "open wide," much like the tent of Avraham was open. Tiferet Yisrael interprets לרוחה as "for relief," i.e., have the place ready for food, shelter, etc. The difference between the two interpretations is that of passive and active.

Regardless, which Talmudic rabbi is correct?  I ask this question because Judaism presents a bit of a dichotomy between Torah study and good deeds. When push comes to shove, is the home meant to be an exclusive place for Torah scholars, or is it meant to be a place where anyone requiring help can wander in and/or receive aid? This question would be better answered by determining whether Torah study leads to good deeds, or vice versa.

On the one hand, Torah study is important enough to be in the recitation of Shema. It is so important that some consider it more important than any of the other mitzvahs (Babylonian Talmud, Kedushin 39b; Mishnah Peah 1:1; Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Talmud Torah, 3:3). I can see that making sense. After all, you have to know what you're doing before you actually do it, and Torah study is the way to acquire said knowledge. On the other hand, Torah scholars will not just go anywhere because they do not frequent the homes of those with "low spiritual standards" (R' Yonah). It takes time and effort to make it a spiritually appealing place for a Torah scholar to spend his time there. Looking back at the hospitality homily in Genesis 18, the Talmudic rabbis (Shabbat 127a) concluded that hospitality (הכנסת אורחים) is so great that it is even greater than receiving the Divine Presence. As another insight, why does one put on the tefilin (תפילין) for the arm before the tefilin for the head? It is to act as a reminder that action precedes thought. It doesn't take years of profound Torah study to know that הכנסת אורחים is an important mitzvah.

So rather than say that your house needs to have one function, why not realize that a home can serve multiple functions? After all, a house has multiple rooms in which the abode can be multi-purpose. Since the Pirkei Avot teaches ideals in a Jewish, ethical context, there would be no reason to say that one is more important than the other: both are necessary for a vibrant Jewish home. Looking back at Pirkei Avot 1:2, the world stands on three principles: תורה (Tosafot Yom Tov interprets this to be active study of Torah, as opposed to passively accepting Torah as a concept), עבודה (literally meaning "service," interpreted as prayer), and גמילות החסדים (acts of loving-kindness). The concept of the home is embodied within these three principles. The communal home, i.e., the synagogue, is a place for prayer. An individual's home takes care of the other two principles. By being a place for both Torah study and acts of loving-kindness (e.g., הכנסת אורחים), the Jewish home actualizes its full potential.

No comments:

Post a Comment