Chapter 3, Mishna 14
The Living Dead
By Rabbi Dovid Rosenfeld
"Rabbi Dosa ben (son of) Hur'kenus said: Sleep in the morning, wine in the
afternoon, the chatter of the youth, and sitting in the gathering places
of the ignorant -- drive a person out of the world."
The author of this mishna lists a number of time-wasting activities, all
of which are detrimental to productive living. For most of us, morning
naps are unnecessary. Many of us know how heavy our eyelids become in the
afternoon. Evening may also be the home stretch of an exhausting day. But
morning is not the time to be going back to bed (at least after overcoming
the initial few hurdles ;-) . (Alternatively, the commentators Rashi and
Rabbeinu Yonah understand this to refer to a person who oversleeps --
beyond the prescribed time for morning prayers.)
Likewise, the afternoon is not the time to be inebriating oneself. I've
seen some older synagogue members down more morning schnapps than this
writer could ever handle (believe me, I've tried ;-) , but perhaps a
morning shot gives a little livening jolt to the senses. It might even
serve alternately as a stimulant or relaxant in the evening (see
commentary of Tiferes Yisrael). Afternoon beverages, however, drug the
mind and body when there are still many productive hours to go.
Finally, the coarse, empty talk of the youth and the ignorant is time-
wasting at *best*, grossly unsuited for spirituality at worst. This stands
in contrast to scholars, even whose "light" talk is filled with wisdom and
value. There is certainly room for relaxed conversation and banter in most
everyone's life. Hardly anyone mouths nothing but prayer and Torah study
all the time. (There have always been pious Jews who would speak only of
sacred matters on the Sabbath.) However, the speech of someone who lives
with -- and lives for -- the Torah's values is never totally empty. If it
involves building relationships and sharing feelings and values it is not
so mundane. The Talmud states that the light speech of the scholars of the
Talmud is considered words of Torah (Eiruvin 54b). Such speech can be a
learning and growing experience.
My teacher R. Yochanan Zweig (www.talmudicu.edu) once told me that it
often happens to him that while having a "casual" conversation with
someone he is struck all of a sudden: "Now I know what the Sages meant
when they said X...." Our words have great potential for building and
expressing our humanness and our souls. We must ever be wary that they not
be cheapened into a means of expressing our bodies. (See our discussion on
R. Dosa's language -- "drive a person out of the world" -- is surprisingly
strong. He's clearly saying more than just that these activities are wrong
or harmful. They are so counterproductive as to actively remove a person
from the world of the living. And this requires some analysis. Say someone
squanders his time in one of these ways. Is it as bad as an *actual* sin --
murder,adultery etc.? There is practically no evil so heinous that it
precludes repentance, yet here G-d seems to be so furious at this time-
waster as to actively take him out of this world, not granting him a
second chance to improve. But these faults are not even sins per se!
Everyone talks and sleeps at one time or the other, and wine has a place
in our religious ceremonies. These people are just excessive. Why do their
misdeeds warrant such vicious and condemnatory singling out?
The answer is that these actions all have one aspect in common. They are
not committed out of a strong lust for evil. They are done primarily
to "kill" time. The average person does not need sleep in the morning, nor
does he have to drug himself in the afternoon. (We are, of course, not
discussing people with real substance abuse disorders.) A person who
engages in such activities is *seeking* ways to pass the time -- even to
the extent of inventing pastimes -- ones his mind and body clearly do not
And there is a terrible evil implicit in such behavior. I've discussed
this from a slightly different perspective not long ago (2:15) ,
but I feel it deserves mention here as well -- and I think it's a message
Pirkei Avos too intended to repeat. If a person sins out of temptation --
or even out of laziness or carelessness, he knows he's done something
wrong. He knows G-d demands better of him and that he has failed.
Hopefully, such a person will own up to his mistakes, pick himself up, and
start anew. This is life. We all make mistakes. Life is a constant
challenge, and the fact that we all fail here and there does not mean the
game is over. So long as we recognize G-d has something greater in mind
for us and there is more to life, we can suffer setbacks but continue in
the game of life.
The people in our mishna are not even playing the game.
People who sit around *inventing* ways to kill time are refusing to face
life in its true sense -- or to even admit there is a life to live. They
are perennially distracting themselves -- not allowing themselves to think
about what life is all about. Read the paper, follow your ball team, go to
work, return from work, watch TV: the years will go by in mindless fog.
And that our mishna sees as tragic and unacceptable to an extreme. Sinning
does not "drive a person out of this world." Defeat and failure are a part
of all our lives. But there is no room for self-imposed brainlessness. We
*must* take life seriously. Vacations? Great. A little R&R? Fine. But
devoting ourselves to idle gatherings, drugging ourselves senseless, or
sleeping off our lives in pathetic stupor? Such G-d and the Sages can
We note again that R. Dosa does not come down so hard on sinners. Yes,
four out of five rabbis agree that sinning is not good for your spiritual
health. (Maybe even five out of five, but I can't speak for all
denominations. ;-) But you can be a sinner and know something greater is
expected of you. Idlers are committing an evil even more sinister than
transgressing a commandment. They are refusing so much as to think about
and accept the mission of life in the first place. And there is no room
for such people in the scheme of things, in G-d's plan for mankind. Such
people are not truly alive in the cosmic sense. If you're for G-d, fine.
If you're against Him...well, not so fine, but at least you're in the
picture. There is hope for you. But you must take a side or life
*literally* has no meaning. You *must* take a side!
Text Copyright © 2004 by Rabbi Dovid Rosenfeld and Torah.org.