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Gimme Shelter - Ethics of the Fathers 1:4

May 9, 2009 | by Yaakov Astor

How to turn your house into a Jewish home.

"Yosi Ben Yo'ezer from Tzreida and
Yosi Ben Yochanon from Jerusalem
received the tradition from them. Yosi Ben Yo'ezer from Tzreida said: "Let your home be a gathering place for the wise, sit at the dust of their feet, and drink their words with thirst."

Ethics of the Fathers 1:4

This Mishnah wants to impress upon us the importance of Torah. As the second Mishnah stated , Torah is one of the pillars the universe stands upon. The wording here, though, raises some immediate questions:

  • Why are two Sages identified as the receivers of the tradition, where previously only one was mentioned?
  • Why is the "home" emphasized if the real purpose is to teach the value of Torah?
  • What does it mean to "sit at their feet" and "drink their words?" And what is added by telling us to sit in the "dust" of their feet and drink their words with "thirst"? Couldn't the teaching be conveyed without those modifiers?


The second Mishnah had cited Shimon HaTzaddik as the leading scholar of his generation, the one who possessed the full body of Torah given Moses on Sinai and passed down from generation to generation. Similarly, the third Mishnah cited Antignos as the leading scholar of his generation who received Torah. Now, however, two leaders are cited as the bearers of the Torah tradition in one generation.

What this signals is an historical change in the leadership structure caused by the beginning of the horrific Greek persecution of Jews.1 Before these persecutions, a single individual Sage held the position of both political and spiritual head. Now, however, the acute needs of the nation demanded the duties be divided. One Torah Sage (the "Nasi") specialized in political leadership, 2 acting as Torah spokesman to the outside world, while the other (the "Av Bet Din") specialized in the Torah/spiritual well being of the people.

Although the history behind these events makes for fascinating study, there is an important ethical point to be made here. Both these Sages at the beginning of this period of extreme turmoil placed emphasis on the same thing: the home. 3 When things break down and a nation's political, societal, economic structures begin to crumble, the Jewish instinctual reaction should be to rebuild through the home.

The health of a Jewish home is measured by the degree of two components present within its walls: Torah wisdom and kindness.

Home life is the nuclear core of the nation; it is the microcosm of Jewish life. Each individual Jew is always responsible to make sure their home is Jewishly strong. However, in times of national, cultural and societal meltdown, the need is even more pronounced. Indeed, chances are the origin of the meltdown was some type of negligence in the home. This Mishnah and the following one emphasize the absolute centrality one needs to give the home. The health of a Jewish home is measured by the degree of two components present within its walls: Torah wisdom (Mishnah 4) and kindness (see Mishnah 5).


Psychologically, each of us has a need for emotional shelter. We need to feel rooted. This is the inner meaning of having a "home." A house is merely a vehicle for creating the idea of a home. If a person neglects the idea of home in the process of building a house, what has he gained? How often do we hear of people who enslave themselves to their careers and move into a beautiful mansion, only to find they have neglected their children, their marriage, their very selves?

This is the first thing this Mishnah itself comes to teach us: Your goal is to acquire a home, not just a house. How do you create a home? Start by bringing Torah into it. Torah is one of the pillars of the world, one of the things that give life meaning. Torah is the real thing.

And it is not just enough just to bring Torah books into the home. The Mishnah says a home should be a gathering place for "the wise," chachamim in Hebrew.

Judaism, as book-oriented as it is, is not about book knowledge. Our task is to emulate God through knowledge. But what is knowledge? True wisdom is intellectual knowledge transformed into emotional knowledge which, in turn, results in action. Theoretical knowledge without practical application is not enough. Without action, the concept will wither and fade.

A true Talmid Chacham -- Torah scholar -- isn't just book-smart (although he's that too). He's come to embody everything the books say, becoming the epitome of genuine wisdom.
That's why it is not enough just to bring Torah books into one's house, although that's a very good and important step. One must bring living representatives of Torah into one's house. A true Torah scholar is a living, breathing piece of Torah. He's not a professor in an ivory tower, but a person in whom the Torah ideals rattle down to his very core and ripples outward in every little action.

Line your shelves with Torah books. But don't lose sight of the fact that that's not the same as having living embodiments of Torah in your home. Of course, literally having them in the home is not always possible or practical. However the Mishna is teaching that we should endeavor to make our homes a place where a Torah scholar would feel at home if they would come there. At the same time, learn as much Torah yourself in your home. Become a Torah scholar yourself. Train your children to become little scholars and embody Torah principles. In that way, you begin to convert your physical house into a home, a place that houses Torah.


The last part of the Mishnah reads: "…sit at the dust of their feet, and drink their words with thirst." What does this teach and what do the words "dust" and "thirst" add?

Torah is something a person can take for granted. The prophet Isaiah castigated the people of his time for observing Torah by rote (Isaiah 29:13). It was something they were born into, something they were trained to do from their youth. It was not necessarily something they studied deeply enough to call their own, to make it more than just an exercise in ritual observance.

The same danger lurks today. Many people living a fully observant lifestyle are nevertheless missing a truly deep commitment and/or the overflowing sense of joy that living the Torah should engender.

The Torah uses the word "heart" (lev) constantly in connection with mind and/or wisdom. Thus, "wise of heart" (Exodus 28:3; 31:6, 35:10, 36:1), "a heart to know" (Deut. 29:3), "a wise and understanding heart" (I Kings 3:12). A "good heart," then, is inseparable from a "good mind" because a good heart is not mere intellect, but intellectual awareness attached to emotion. The emotion sets the thought in motion. It supplies the energy to translate thought into deed. That is the good heart.

The heart is where the human being starts. The main thrust of Judaism's teachings is to take intellectual knowledge and convert it into emotional, experiential knowledge: "Know [intellectual knowledge] and lay it upon your heart [emotional, experiential]" (Deut. 4:39).


How does one create a "good heart" and develop an attitude of enthusiasm for Torah if one does not necessarily feel so excited about it?

"The outside awakens the inside" means one can shake off lethargy by doing something external that wakes up the dormant potential within.

The solution is known in Jewish sources as "The outside awakens4 the inside." Each of us has a dormant quality inside that is capable of coming to the fore with proper coaxing, just like coal has a dormant energy capable of getting ignited with the proper methods. "The outside awakens the inside" means one can shake off lethargy by doing something external or physical that wakes up the dormant potential within.

A study conducted a few years ago with Downs Syndrome children called for some of them to be trained to smile, even if it was just a plastic smile. Nevertheless, the study found that as a result others treated them better, which in turn made them feel better about themselves, which in turn made them smile naturally more often.

The same is true for those of us without Downs Syndrome. (As the famous song goes, "Smile though your heart is aching.") Who says that feeling unhappy, lethargic and downbeat is our true state, anyway? None of us were born that way.

Just as we can do that for our general emotional state, we can do that for our Torah learning and living.
The commentators point out that it's possible, even probable, that if one fulfills the first part of this Mishnah -- regularly inviting Torah scholars into their home -- one can begin to take them for granted. Therefore, the Mishnah emphasizes, "sit at their feet." Be humble in their presence. Do not become desensitized to the fact that a Talmid Chacham is the bearer of Torah.
What if one finds oneself lacking the requisite inner humility, perhaps not respecting Torah or the Talmid Chacham as much as one knows one should?

Answer: don't just sit at their feet; sit at the "dust" of their feet. Don't be merely humble toward them -- which telling us merely to sit at their feet, would imply. Rather be exceedingly humble. How? By putting one's entire heart and soul into it -- by moving vigorously to serve their needs, by generating external movements to stir the dormant inner respect for this person who represents Torah.

There's always more to a true Talmid Chacham than meets the eye. Don't let yourself forget that and what he represents. By serving his needs with alacrity, you will inculcate within yourself sincere humility -- humility that comes from genuine respect. A person tends to emulate that which he respects most. When you give a Talmid Chacham the respect due to him -- due to Torah -- you actually deepen the potential for Torah within yourself. The more you sit in the dust of their feet, the more you deepen that potential.

Similarly, don't just "drink their words," but drink them with "thirst"! Even if you've heard the Torah they are saying before, treat it as if you're hearing it for the first time. Inculcate yourself with the "beginner's mind." If you are enthusiastic about Torah, and people who represent Torah, you breakthrough the crusty core of rote behavior. You connect mind to heart and become whole. You make your house a home.

Indeed, you make your body a home for the soul.

1. This included, but did not end with, Chanukah.
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2. The Nasi was not a mere official, but the leader of the Sanhedrin (Berachot 27b), and therefore among the most erudite Torah scholars of the nation.
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3.Yossi ben Yochanan's teaching emphasizing a different aspect of the home is found in Mishnah 5.
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4. Sefer HaChinuch, Mitzvah 11.
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