אל תרבה שיחה עם האשה

Do Not Speak Excessively With a Woman

Mishna Avot 1:5

Interactive Learning Module

1. Introduction

  • In the fifth Mishna of Pirkei Avot, R. Yose b. Yochanan says, "Do not converse excessively with a woman".
  • How are we to understand his words? Do they betray a negative view of women, as might be assumed from an initial reading of the Mishna?
  • What types of conversations are included? With which women? Why does R. Yose advocate minimizing such conversations?
  • This module will explore several approaches to the Mishna, attempting to understand their differing attitudes towards interactions between men and women.

2. The Statement in Context

  • Let's begin by turning to Pirkei Avot 1:5 and examining both R. Yose's statement and the Sages' elaboration.
  • Does R. Yose explain why excessive talk is ill-advised? What three things do the Sages say will be the consequences of such conversations? What might this imply about what they find problematic about the interactions?
  • Which types of conversations does the Mishna intend to limit? Does it imply that all discussions are problematic, or are certain types of interactions legitimate?
  • The Mishna warns against conversing with both one's wife and other women. Does it suggest that the reason for the warning is the same in both cases?

3. Approach #1: Prevent Sin

  • One of the more prevalent understandings of R. Yose's words appears already in Bavli Nedarim 20a, accessible here. According to this source, why should one minimize conversations with women? Does the subject of the conversation matter?
  • But if this is R. Yose's concern, why should conversations with one's wife be limited as well?
  • Let's return to Pirkei Avot to see the version of our Mishna found in MS Kaufmann, the most celebrated manuscript of the Mishna. Its text is accessible by clicking on the "Show Additional Commentaries button" at the bottom of the Mishna
  • How does its formulation compare with our printed edition? [Note the line beginning, "מִכָּן אָמְרוּ חֲכָמִים"]. According to this version, under what circumstances must one limit interactions with one's wife?
  • What would appear to be the reason? How is a spouse's status, while menstruating, similar to that of other women?

4. Gossip

  • According to the above sources, the Mishna advises to minimize conversations lest one be filled with lustful thoughts and come to sin. This applies both to other women as well as to one's spouse when she is forbidden due to her menstruating state. The fact that the conversation is taking place "עם האשה", with a (forbidden) woman, is itself the problem.
  • Let us now turn to a second reading of our Mishna, found in Avot DeRabbi Natan 7:3. It is similarly concerned that excessive talk will invite sin, but of a very different type.
  • According to this source, what is the scenario to which the Mishna refers when it advises against extensive sharing with one's wife?
  • What types of talk are to be minimized? What does it suggest will result from such conversation?
  • Need the Mishna's advice be limited to conversations with one's wife, or might it be applied to excessive talk within any group of people? Why, then, might the Mishna focus on a spouse?

5. R. Ovadiah of Bartenura

  • According to Avot DeRabbi Natan, the Mishna is speaking of a very specific case: the negative repercussions of relaying to one's wife the details of an interpersonal conflict.
  • Let's return to Avot and compare R. Ovadiah of Bartenura, ד"ה "מִכָּאן אָמְרוּ חֲכָמִים". What additional issue does he raise as being a likely ramification of seeking a spouse's counsel after an altercation with a colleague?
  • How does the Midrash about Korach and his wife exemplify his point? [To see the full Midrash, click here.] How might Zeresh's advice to Haman in Esther 5:10-14 be another case in point?
  • Why might even a righteous wife, upon hearing that her husband has been wronged, provoke him to further argument? Is such a reaction necessarily coming from a negative place?
  • This approach raises important questions about how to balance the need to share and ease a hurt with the potential problems that might arise from such gossip. When is it healthy to emote and when is it better to be silent?

6. Approach # 2: Ensure Purity of Character

  • Both Bavli Nedarim and Avot DeRabbi Natan assume that extensive conversations with the opposite sex are likely to lead to sin, be this illicit relations or harmful gossip.
  • A second approach to the Mishna focuses less on the potential for transgression and more on how such conversations themselves impact one's character.
  • Let's look at the Rambam, whose comments at first glance might sound similar to Bavli Nedarim above, but actually allow for a very different understanding of the Mishna. See Rambam ד"ה "באשתו אמרו".
  • What does Rambam suggest is the focus of most conversations with the opposite sex?
  • How might he be interpreting the phrase "שיחה עם האשה"? According to him, what types of conversations are off-limits? Is the concern that one is speaking "עם האשה" (with the opposite sex) or that the discussion is a "שיחת נשים", one that revolves around immodest issues?
  • What does he think will be the impact of such speech on the individual engaging in it? How is this concern different from that of Bavli Nedarim?

7. Vulgar Speech

  • Rambam implies that the Mishna is speaking of limiting a very specific type of conversation, one which is defined as a "שיחה עם האשה", a conversation which revolves only around another's sex, one that is filled with flirtatious and immodest innuendoes.
  • He is concerned less with the possibility that this will lead to adultery than the negative impact it will have on the person's soul and character.
  • According to this reading, would "locker room talk", even in the absence of females, be problematic?
  • Why might such conversation, especially when extensive, be problematic even with one's spouse? What does it imply about how one views the other's worth?
  • How might this reading view innocent conversations with the other sex about modest subjects? How, though, does one ensure that the line between appropriate and inappropriate speech is not crossed?

8. קדש עצמך במותר לך

  • Let's now turn to R. Yonah, who is similarly less concerned with the potential for actual sin than with the impact of "שיחה עם האשה" on one's spiritual growth.
  • See his commentary on the Mishna, ד"ה "באשתו אמרו קל וחומר באשת חברו", beginning with the words "ונראה לפרש כפשוטו באשתו אמרו".
  • According to R. Yonah, why is it advisable to minimize contact even with a permitted spouse? How does the statement he cites from Berakhot 22a support his position?
  • How is minimizing conversation part of the larger goal of attaining "מידת הפרישות"? What is the ultimate purpose of such ascetic behavior?
  • See R. Yonah's comments on Pirkei Avot 3:13, ד"ה "נדרים סייג לפרישות" where he elaborates on "מידת הפרישות". What do his words, "מתרחק משרשי׳ ומתקרב אל עיקרי הנפש ויסודה והוא קרוב לעבודת הבורא ית׳ " suggest is the goal of distancing one's self from the physical and mundane?

9. Approach #3: Maximize Time

  • Both Rambam, with his emphasis on modesty in speech, and R. Yonah, with his push for abstinence, assume that minimizing talk will help ensure purity of character. A third approach to R. Yose's statement suggests that he had a different goal, viewing minimizing speech as a means to maximize time so as to engage in more worthy pursuits.
  • Let's turn to the comments of R. Menachem Meiri, who suggests that R. Yose's concern is neither that the conversation is "עם האשה" nor that it is a "שיחת נשים", but simply the fact that it is a "שיחה".
  • Look at the third paragraph of his commentary, which begins: "אמר ואל תרבה שיחה עם האשה". What distinction does Meiri make between "דיבור" and "שיחה"?
  • How does he define the latter and why does he find it problematic? [See the sentence beginning "אבל הזהיר על הדבור שאין בו צורך" until "לפי מה שהוא האדם".] What types of conversations are off-limits? Which are fine?
  • To whom might Meiri be addressing his words? Are they aimed at all laymen or specifically at Torah scholars?
  • How might this approach fit with the Maimonidean emphasis on the intellect, to which R. Menachem Meiri subscribed?

10. Search: שיחה

  • Meiri suggest that while "דיבור" refers to serious conversation, "שיחה" refers to frivolous talk, and it is the latter which the Mishna warns against, since this will distract from Torah study.
  • Does this distinction hold up? Highlight the word "שיחה" in the Mishna and from the dropdown menu select Search to see how the word is used in both Tanakh and Rabbinic literature. To refine the search, uncheck the box "Full/Lacking Spelling" at the top of the screen.
  • Scan the results in Tanakh. Does the meaning of the root appear to be limited to small talk?
  • Now, from the tree menu of results on the left of the screen, click on "Talmudim" to skip to those results. Scan the first few. What does the root mean in these sources?
  • To what extent do your findings support Meiri's reading?

11. Why "With a Woman"?

  • According to Meiri, R. Yose advises against engaging in needless conversations which might keep one from more worthy deeds such as Talmud Torah.
  • If so, though, should not such conversations be limited even with those of the same sex? Why does the Mishna single out women?
  • How might the historical reality and status of women in both the Mishnaic period and medieval times have led one to connect specifically women with frivolity and ביטול תורה?
  • What do the following Rabbinic sources suggest about women's intellectual abilities and how they filled their time? See: Bavli Yoma 66b, "אין חכמה לאשה אלא בפלך", Bereshit Rabbah 45:5, "אַרְבַּע מִדּוֹת נֶאֶמְרוּ בְּנָשִׁים, גַּרְגְּרָנִיּוֹת, צַיְּתָנִיּוֹת, עַצְלָנִיּוֹת, קַנְאָנִיּוֹת" and Bavli Kiddushin 49b, "עשרה קבים שיחה ירדו לעולם תשעה נטלו נשים".

12. A More Positive View

  • Since, until recently, women were not particularly educated or versed in Torah, it is perhaps not surprising that the Sages viewed interactions with them specifically as time wasted from learning Torah
  • Rav Hirsch, living in a more modern era, when the level of women's education had already begun to improve, has a very different understanding of why the Mishna might focus on one's spouse when warning against idle talk.
  • Here is an excerpt from his commentary, עטרת צבי:
    לא נאמר כאן אל תרבה דברים או אל תדבר הרבה עם האשה שכן עשירים דברי החכמים באימרות המפליגות מאד בערכה של האשה ובכבוד שחייב אדם באשתו ובהערכה שייחס לדעת אשתו להשקפתה ולעצותיה... כי שיחה אינה דיבור של כובד ראש, פטפוט וריבוי להג היא... האיש המכבד את אשתו לא יבדר אותה במלל חסר משמעות ובפטפוטי סרק. את משימות החיים הגדולות הוא יגולל לפניה וילבנן עמה וימצא כי יפיק ברכה מחילופי הדעות ומהשגותיה.
  • How does he manage to not only remove any negative connotations from R. Yose's statement, but even to present it as demonstrating respect and appreciation for women's roles?
  • It should be noted as well that Rabbinic literature is not monolithic in its view of women and many of its negative evaluations are balanced by positive comments elsewhere.
  • See: Bavli Niddah 45b, " מלמד שנתן הקב"ה בינה יתירה באשה יותר מבאיש", Yerushalmi Ketubot 5:6, "אין דרך האשה להיות יושבת בטילה" and Tanchuma Naso 2, "דֶּרֶךְ בְּנוֹת יִשְׂרָאֵל לֹא קוֹלָנִיּוֹת... וְלֹא פְּרוּצוֹת בִּשְׁחוֹק".
  • How do these counter each of the negative statements seen earlier?

13. Time for the Other

  • Let's close by comparing Meiri's reading of the Mishnah with that of Midrash Shemuel, who similarly suggests that certain conversations might distract from time better spent in other activities.
  • Scroll midway through his commentary, to the 9th paragraph, beginning: "ואפשר לי לומר שזכר בכאן ואל תרבה שיחה עם האשה".
  • How does Midrash Shemuel use the larger context of the Mishna to understand R. Yose's statement? Why should one limit conversations with one's wife?
  • According to him, what does the Mishna suggest about finding the proper balance between family time and obligations to the other?

14. Summary

  • We have seen three distinct approaches to the question of why the Mishna advises to minimize conversations with women.
  • Bavli Nedarim and Avot DeRabbi Natan focus on the need to prevent sin, be this forbidden sexual relations or harmful gossip.
  • Rambam and R. Yonah maintain that the goal is to ensure purity of character, either by refraining from immodest, vulgar talk or by practicing asceticism and distancing one's self even from that which is permitted.
  • Meiri and Midrash Shemuel highlight the need to make the most of one's time, to ensure that frivolous or intimate talk does not distract from Talmud Torah or acts of kindness to the other.
  • Each of the approaches read the Mishna in different ways, with Meiri highlighting the problematics of "שיחה" itself, Bavli Nedarim being concerned with the fact that it is taking place "עם האשה" and Rambam warning against specifically "שיחה עם האשה", speech marked by sexual innuendoes.
  • Finally, the various positions raise important questions about finding the proper balance in life. What is the line between emoting and gossiping, modest and immodest talk, abstinence and indulgence? How much time should be spent on family and how much on Torah or Chesed?

15. Additional Reading