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The importance of being productive is a cherished theme in Pirkei Avot. We have already analyzed related messages in Psyched for Avot on Avot 1:14, 2:15, 2:16, 3:4, and 3:5, and we will encounter similar ideas in future mishnayot. In this Mishna (Avot 3:10) Rabbi Dosa ben Harkinas doubles down on the harsh consequences of wasting time, outlining four behaviors that “remove a person from the world.”

Rabbi Dosa ben Harkinas said: morning sleep, midday wine, children’s talk and sitting in the assemblies of the ignorant, remove a person from the world.

“The world” is an ambiguous phrase which could be referring to this world, the world to come, or both. We will assume an expansive reading, which would mean that these behaviors can be spiritually, physically, and psychologically corrosive, causing potential damage to our lives in this world and the next.

Some commentaries, however, dial back the harshness of Rabbi Dosa’s words. Rabbi Norman Lamm for instance, is bothered by the fact that these are “seemingly mundane admonitions,” which shouldn’t warrant such dire forecasting. He therefore suggests that we take Rabbi Dosa’s message in historical context. Rabbi Dosa lived during and after the destruction of the Second Temple. Therefore, he was advising, according to Rabbi Lamm that:

If you sleep, too late in the morning, the Romans may be suspicious that you were up all night plotting and acting against them. If you drink wine during the day, you may become loose-lipped and inadvertently spill a secret. If you speak too freely in front of children, they may overhear matters best concealed. And if you sit and engage in idle conversation with the riffraff, you may be drawn to let your guard down. Any of these can literally “drive a person from the world.”

The behaviors on their own are not necessarily dangerous. It is only because of the ongoing persecution that these actions became life-threatening. Also putting Rabbi Dosa’s words in a historical context, but with a slightly different emphasis, Rabbi Berel Wein writes that during that time “the Jewish world lay in tatters. It needed revival and renewal. Idle behavior and self-indulgent attitudes would only seal the then apparent doom of the Jewish people.” Being productive was essential because the nation needed to rebuild.

While both suggestions are meaningful, by historically contextualizing the message, we run the risk of downplaying its significance for contemporary times. Instead, it is advantageous to read the Mishna, like many classical commentaries do, as a call for productivity in all eras. For instance, Rabbi Yosef Yaavetz writes that the main message of this Mishna is that “a person needs to try to not waste even one moment of time.” These negative behaviors will prevent a person from growing and excelling in his or her learning, character development, and performance of pious behavior.

Rabbi Israel Lipschitz points to the real challenge embedded within these four examples, which is that each one can be healthy and beneficial in small doses. Sleep and rest are important, but not when it is too much sleep or rest. Noonday wine, which he takes to represent pursuit of physical pleasures, is healthy when done in moderation. Children’s talk, which is representative of being playful, is also psychologically important, but it must be done appropriately and within limits. Even sitting in the assemblies of the ignorant can be constructive. Talking about trivialities can be restorative after learning intensely, but it must be done with the right people and in the right amount to avoid sinful conversations. The challenge is that these are also activities that draw a person in to the point where they can be excessive and damaging. That is why Rabbi Dosa is advising us to keep our guard up while engaging in these behaviors.

Rabbi Moshe al-Ashkar adds that it is not just a spiritual failing to waste time, but it can also be physically damaging. He emphasizes that these behaviors remove a person from this world. Rabbi al-Ashkar writes that these categories represent laziness and idleness (sleeping late), bad health habits (midday wine), lack of productivity (children’s talk), and bad character traits (sitting in the assemblies of the ignorant), all of which can have damaging effects on the body.

This perspective is emphasized by Rabbi Dr. Abraham J. Twerski, who through his work with addictions, hypothesized that the root cause of many physically and psychologically harmful behaviors is escapism. He writes, justifying the harsh tone of “remove a person from the world,” that,

Escapism has deleterious consequences, because when reality problems arise and are not dealt with appropriately, they invariably get worse… This is equally true whether one tries to escape reality by rendering oneself oblivious to it by means of mind-altering chemicals, by daydreaming, by indolence, or by any other behavior that does not deal effectively with the problem at hand. These behaviors virtually "remove a person from the world." The Talmud could not have found a more accurate description.

He then translates the instances from the Mishna into modern and resonant examples:

Some people avoid reality simply by not rising early in the morning, as if the world will become an easier place in the extra few hours they remain in bed. Those who have recourse to alcohol during the day will find the same problems and usually more difficult ones will confront them when they emerge from the chemical oblivion. Similarly, engaging in juvenile behavior or spending hours at the racetrack or in other pastimes do indeed distract one from reality and remove him from the world in which he was intended to achieve something.

No matter which approach we take, the underlying message of Rabbi Dosa’s teaching is that there are certain habits that can derail us from our larger goals and values. Restorative behaviors have their place, but because of their alluring and potentially damaging impact, we need to be cautious not to be drawn into their damaging consequences. We should take Rabbi Dosa’s advice to heart and utilize our time to serve God in the most effective and efficient way possible.


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