5/03/2005

A reading of Mishna Avot 3:7 - not how they taught it in yeshiva

משנה מסכת אבות פרק ג משנה ז

רבי שמעון אומר המהלך בדרך ושונה ומפסיק ממשנתו ואומר מה נאה אילן זה ומה נאה ניר זה מעלה עליו הכתוב כאילו מתחייב בנפשו:

Rabbi Shimon says: one who is walking on a path and is repeating,
and he interrupts his repetitions and says, “What a beautiful tree! Or, what a
beautiful plowed field!”, the Torah treats it as though he owes his life.



I’ve always been taught that it means that if one is engaged in Torah study, one shouldn’t ‘stop and smell the roses’, or otherwise appreciate nature. What’s at stake here is bittul Torah, which is tantamount to a capital crime. It’s possible to read this into Rashi, who refers to the comments on the trees and fileds as ‘devarim beteilim’, i.e., frivolous things, a category which, in the yeshivas, includes pretty much anything aesthetically pleasurable.

But I’ve got a couple of questions and observations which lead me to a different conclusion (Hey, I’m the ADDeRabbi):
1) Who ever comments on how beautiful a plowed field is? A sunset. A flower. Maybe even a tree.
2) An ilan, as far as I can ascertain, specifically refers to a FRUIT tree. Witness: We only make birkat ha-ilanot on fruit trees (and you’d better hurry up if you haven’t yet). All other contexts that I can think of, it means fruit tree.
3) The terms shoneh and mishnato have very specific connotations. One would be diligently repeating terse statements that he had memorized. Learning was done orally, and repetition was the name of the game. Thus, interrupting one’s mishnah means neglecting one’s learning altogether. If it’s not committed to memory, all is lost.
4) This last point is reinforced by the subsequent Mishna which distinguishes between actively allowing one’s mishnah to atrophy and what we’d call normal memory loss. The Mishna after that might also be relevant to the discussion, as it may suggest that learning won’t last unless accompanied by a requisite degree of seriousness, though that Mishna speaks of chokhma, not mishnah.

Thus, I think that the Mishna isn’t talking about ‘bittul Torah’ in the way it’s understood in the yeshivos. Rather, the Mishna criticizes one who interrupts his study at a time when he risks atrophy, because he’s distracted by something of PRACTICAL value. Like he stopped to check hisstocks or something. Both fruit trees and plowed fields are of this latter category. The Mishna is not criticizing aesthetic appreciation of things; it’s criticizing an attitude which would allow one to interrupt Torah study and allow it to atrophy in order to engage in important but ultimately mundane ‘chayei sha’ah’.

2 points to reinforce my reading:
1) R’ Yonah there doesn’t talk about ‘devarim beteilim’ like Rashi, rather about ‘sichat chullin’ - mundane conversation - which undermines the sense of awe that ought to accompany Torah study.
2) If the correct version of the Mishna is indeed R’ Shimon (some have R’ Yaakov), then the Mishna can be read in light of the Gemara in Shabbat 33b, where R Shimon (b. Yohai), when coming out of the cave, can’t understand how someone would neglect the chayei olam of Torah study in order to engage in the chayei sha’ah of planting a field
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