I am part of a group that is studying the book Pirkei Avot, which translates to English as Chapters of the Fathers. It is a compilation of the ethical teachings and maxims of the Rabbis from centuries ago. Because of its contents, it is also called Ethics of the Fathers. Our teacher is Keren Hannah Pryor of the Center for Judaic-Christian Studies sends an email every week with a portion from the book and her thoughts on it, and then a Facebook group discusses it. JJ and I also discuss the teachings in our homeschool.
A couple of weeks ago, our portion was the following:
Avot 1:5 Yossei ben Yochanan of Jerusalem says: Let your house be open wide; treat the poor as members of your household; and do not converse excessively with women. They said this even about one’s own wife; surely it applies to another’s wife. Consequently the Sages said: Anyone who converses excessively with a woman causes evil to himself, neglects Torah study, and eventually will inherit Gehinnom.
When we read the part about not conversing excessively with a woman, JJ’s eyes sparkled with mischief, as you can probably imagine. Before he could speak, I said “Wait a minute!” (while feeling a bit offended and hoping this would not lead to a put down of women….). When it comes to Hebraic/Jewish teachings, it seems to me that it’s not usually what it first appears to be. “So let’s keep reading and see what this REALLY means.”
Pryor wrote in her email:
…and do not converse excessively with women. They said this even about one’s own wife; surely it applies to another’s wife.
This verse can be misread to discourage conversation and verbal communication between men and women, even between husband and wife. Communication is good, and vital to relationship, as we see so beautifully illustrated from the very beginning. God spoke all of Creation into existence and was in communion with the angels when He created the first human beings. A glorious picture of God’s intention in relationship is seen in the Garden of Eden with the Creator’s first conversation with mankind. He walked and talked with Adam, sharing His will and purposes with him and teaching him His ways. As glorious as this must have been, when God instructs him to name the animals Adam realizes he is lonely for someone equal to him to share in the goodness of God and to converse with. Only then God creates and presents him with “bone from his bone and flesh from his flesh” – his female counterpart, Eve.
Genesis 2:25 tells us that this first husband and wife were “naked and not ashamed.” Our first understanding is that they were physically naked – clothed only in the light of the glory of God. An added understanding is that they were transparent and open in their communication with one another. They shared their whole being and therefore were one. They were truly echad in the sight of God and in relationship with one another. They were two-being-one in fellowship in the glory and beauty of the Presence of God – and there we see His goal for all His children, His family, His people; at all times and through all eternity.
Here, considering the world’s fallen condition and the brokenness of man, Yossei from Jerusalem offers the practical advice that one should strive to curtail excessive or meaningless conversation. While this is obvious in the case of indulging in unnecessary and maybe frivolous chatter with other women, which, as the Sages warn, could lead to sin and dire consequences, a man should avoid this excess even with his wife. Rabbi S.R. Hirsch provides an edifying insight: “A man who truly respects his wife will have more to offer her than just trivial talk and idle chatter for her amusement. He will want to discuss with her the serious concerns of life and will derive enjoyment from the resulting exchange of views and counsel.”
A serious form of “excessive talk” is gossip or lashon ha’ra (lit. bad talk or an evil tongue). We might feel that it is fine to tell our spouse, or anyone else, something negative about someone else. If, however, it is information that he/she does not need to know, such as a warning in order to avoid damage of some kind, then it is lashon ha’ra. And if this applies to one’s spouse, how much more is it applicable in communication with others. We should always weigh our words carefully and avoid sharing things that serve no constructive purpose and might cause added distress to another.
Consequently the Sages said: Anyone who converses excessively with a woman causes evil to himself, neglects Torah study, and eventually will inherit Gehinnom.
The Hebrew word sicha, translated as converse here, means idle talk.
General chit-chat about the events of the day, for example, is pleasant and advisable up to a point. However, if we are aiming to elevate and sanctify our days and time in avodah, service of God, as the Sages exhort in Avot 1:1, then sicha is best kept to a minimum and true communion of thought should be our goal. This particularly applies to one’s spouse, one’s closest confidante and partner in life.
Any excessive form of ‘idle talk’ should be avoided with others. With the distraction this causes, valuable time is lost and wasted that could rather be applied to the study of the Word of God and related teachings. Indulgence in this frivolous form of distraction is viewed as a slippery slope that leads to a growing separation from God Himself and which could end in Gehinnom – a lost eternity apart from His Presence.
Let us rather, then, remember the couple who walked and talked with Yeshua on the road to Emmaus and whose hearts burned within them as “…beginning from Moses and from all the prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself” (Lk.24:27). In fellowship with Him, and as the eyes of our understanding are opened to see Him more and more clearly, let us joyfully go forth to share His resurrected life.
In the FB group, there was a lot of interesting discussion on this. One woman wrote:
When I read Avot 1:5 the following beautiful Talmudic saying came to mind: “Your wife is short, so bend down to whisper to her (in seeking her counsel) also “A man should love his wife as himself and honor her more.” Taking the balance of these statements with Avot 1:5 made me think of what Marvin Wilson said in his book Our Father Abraham,
“Kiddushin connects two equals, man and woman, in a relationship as husband and wife. Nissuin, which also means elevation, connects husband, wife, and God in a permanent commitment.”
There are many ways to elevate a marriage; one of those ways I see is elevating conversation to including God.
Another woman wrote quoted from Aish.com: “When a spouse places his or her primary emotional needs in the hands of someone outside the marriage, it breaks the bond of marriage just as adultery does.”
One thing EJ and I have always done is protect our marriage by being careful about our relationships with the opposite sex. We have always been careful not to get into “intimate” settings with others–for example, we never meet alone with the opposite sex, even if they are close family friends. While we occasionally give advice, we don’t give prolonged counsel to the opposite sex. We try to be very upfront, believing that if a person wants to keep a relationship secret from his/her spouse, there is probably something wrong with it. We are aware that most people do not “plan” to have affairs, and so we try to prevent too much emotional intimacy from building up, no matter how innocent it might be.
One of the people in the FB group shared the following video. I thought it was very interesting–and also helpful to know. Women tend to think that men and women can “just be friends” but men have a totally different perspective.
I just thought this was all very interesting and worth considering. I asked EJ yesterday if he thought men and women could be friends, and he said, “Absolutely not.” We had quite an interesting discussion about it.