This second mishna of Avot’s third perek quotes two seemingly unrelated statements in the name of two Rabbi Chaninas. Why are the two statements placed together? Are they connected by only the shared first name of the rabbis?
Looking more carefully at the two statements, we notice that both include the same three words — אִישׁ אֶת רֵעֵהוּ (“man with his fellow”). This is because both statements address forms of interpersonal relationships.
Though people are meant to assist and enrich each other’s lives, our natural selfishness and competitiveness often makes relationships tense and even hurtful. Our mishna teaches how to avoid dangerous relationships and how to forge positive ones.
The mishna opens with Rabbi Chanina Segan HaKohanim warning of an anarchic situation where people “swallow each other alive.” Government is needed to keep people from abusing one another. Rabbi Chanina Segan HaKohanim encourages us to pray for the peace of the monarchy, so it can fulfill this important role.
Rabbi Chanina ben Teradyon’s statement, quoted immediately after Rabbi Chanina Segan HaKohanim ’s, teaches how to create the ideal interpersonal relationship — one that (even!) Hashem’s Shechina resides within. He explains that when people include Torah as a basic part of their relationships and meetings, Hashem not only joins, but even records their words in a special “book.”
Though the idea of Hashem’s Shechina residing amongst people learning together appears later in this perek1 as part of Rabbi Chalafta ben Dosa’s longer list, it is also mentioned by our mishna to highlight the impact that Torah learning has on our relationships. Rabbi Chanina ben Teradyon ’s usage of the term: “yesh beineihem divrei Torah,” to describe the context of two people learning Torah emphasizes this point.2 His goal is to depict not just two people learning, but specifically the Torah presence “between them.” Hashem is not just present, but also records their Torah, because Torah is what the two share — their bond — and what “fills the space between them.”3
Meeting Without Torah
Rabbi Chanina ben Teradyon also relates to the flipside — the problematic nature of meetings that lack Torah content. Sharing Torah at meetings is not just ideal; it is critical. Without it, the meeting is deemed a “moshav leitzim (meeting of scoffers).” Why is meeting without including Torah content so severely problematic?4
Some5 explain that when meetings lack a Torah context, they inevitably gravitate to problematic content.6 The Rambam7 details a process like this: conversations may initially concern neutral (meaningless) matters, but the topic often moves to negativity about other people and eventually towards even Hashem Himself. The Rambam concludes by contrasting this with “sichat kashrei Yisrael (the conversation of kosher Jews)” which focuses on Torah and wisdom.8
This answer explains the juxtaposition of our mishna to the perek’s first mishna. The first mishna encourages reflecting upon the nature of our existence in order to inspire us to avoid aveira. Our mishna adds that avoiding aveira is not enough. We need to involve ourselves in positive content. Spiritual —like physical — nature abhors a vacuum. If we do not fill our time with chochma, it will end up being filled with negative content.9
What We Desire
We can take the mishna’s message a step further: A meeting lacking Torah content is problematic, not only because of the eventual negative consequence, but in and of itself. We see this in the prooftext quoted by mishna:10 “... u’vemoshav leitzim lo yashav (he did not sit in the scoffer’s seat).” How does this pasuk, which merely encourages avoiding a “moshav leitzim,” teach that meeting without Torah is considered one?
The Avot commentaries11 explain that the proof is from the continuation of the pasuk: “... ki im b’Torat Hashem cheftzo (rather, he desires Hashem’s Torah).”12 Both parts of the pasuk together make an important point. We should avoid meaningless meetings, because we desire Torah learning so much that we cannot bear to waste the time we could be spending learning. Additionally, a person passionate about Torah will naturally share Torah with anyone he meets.
The Chasid Yavetz and the Sefat Emet compare such a person to one given the opportunity to keep whatever gold coins he manages to count out, over a limited period of time. A person who squanders the opportunity by wasting his time, clearly does not appreciate the value of gold. So too, a person who truly values Torah will take full advantage of the opportunity to speak in Torah with anyone they meet.13
A Yosheiv Beit Midrash
The question of how we spend our time with others and in general has become even more important in contemporary times. The industrial and technological revolutions afford us more time and meaningful opportunities for how to spend it. Most of the world devotes most of this newfound precious time to (at best) meaningless pursuits. We are blessed with access to Torah — the study of which is the best use of our time.
The tefilla that Rabbi Nechunya ben Hakaneh said when leaving the beit midrash14 (which we recite as part of a siyum) includes thanks to Hashem for including us amongst the yoshvei beit hamidrash (those who sit in the Beit Hamidrash) and not yoshvei karanot (idlers). It is one or the other: either we have Torah learning as a constant goal (even when we are unable to be involved in it) or, inevitably, we waste much of our time idling. Even if we, sometimes, have meaningful things to be involved in, only a commitment to and focus upon Torah learning ensures that we maximize our time.
May our mishna inspire us to enrich all of our friendships and meetings with Torah learning, and make Torah learning the staple of our lives.
*Summarized by Rafi Davis
Rabbi Reuven Taragin is the dean of overseas students at Yeshivat HaKotel.
1 Masechet Avot 3:6
2 Note that the original version of this mishna (as evidenced by manuscript versions) leaves out the part about one person learning.
3 For more on this topic, see Rav Chaim Volozhiner’s Ruach Chaim.
4 This question is less problematic according to Rabbeinu Yonah (Avot 3:2) who explains the mishna as referring to two people who set aside time to be involved in problematic or meaningless pursuits. The simple interpretation of the mishna, though, is that it refers even to people meeting for constructive purposes. (See, for example, Rashbatz in his Magen Avot to this mishna.)
5 See, for example, the commentary of the Mirkeves HaMishna (Rav Moshe Alshakar).
6 See Masechet Avodah Zarah 18b.
7 Mishna Torah Hilchot Tumat Tzara’at 16:10.
8 The Rambam quotes the same pasuk as our mishna, Malachi 3:16, to bolster his assertion.
9 See Avot D’Rabbi Natan 20:1 and Rambam, Mishna Torah Hilchot Issurei Bi’ah 22:21.
10 Sefer Tehillim 1:1-2.
11 See the commentaries of the Rambam, Rabbeinu Yonah and others on the mishna.
13 Similarly, Chazal explains that one example of “davar Hashem bazah, someone who denigrates the word of God,” is one who has the ability to learn Torah, but does not take advantage of that opportunity. Avot 6:2 records that every day, a bat kol comes from Har Chorev and decries those who have the opportunity to learn Torah and don’t take advantage. Berachot 5a teaches that if a person is suffering and can’t identify a particular sin as the source, he should assume that he is being punished for not taking full advantage of his time to learn Torah.
14 Masechet Berachot 28b.