Rabbi Jacob says: If a person is walking on the way while learning Mishnah, and he interrupts his recitation to declare ‘How lovely is this tree!’ or ‘How lovely is this furrow!’—they consider him as if he were deserving of death.
This austere pronouncement appears in the Mishnah tractate Avot, and a survey of traditional commentators finds few indications that they were troubled or puzzled by this text. For the most part they did not regard it as a disparagement of natural beauty, but rather as an encouragement to focus on religious study. We should bear in mind that studying Mishnah was an enterprise that was more susceptible to distractions in ancient times when the vast oral Torah remained unwritten and had to be preserved through memorization and recitation, even at the expense of otherwise laudable values like the admiration of God’s creation. As explicated by Rabbi Israel Lipschutz of Danzig, a person’s failure to concentrate on his studies demonstrates that “his eye and his heart are not bound to the words of the living God.”
Although the basic message—that one should not interrupt one’s religious learning in order to indulge in extraneous musings—may seem clear enough, commentators differ as to the significance of specific details in Rabbi Jacob’s scenario.
Some were troubled by the vague “they” who purportedly pass such severe judgment on the culprit. In similar contexts it is common for the rabbis to present such statements with the wording “Scripture considers him...” and to adduce an appropriate verse from the Bible. In the present instance, indeed, some texts of the Mishnah do use that formula but do not provide any proof text. This omission served as a challenge to interpreters to come up with passages from the sacred scriptures that could serve as a source for Rabbi Jacob’s pronouncement. Some chose Deuteronomy 4:9: “Only take heed to thyself, and keep thy soul diligently, lest thou forget the things which thine eyes have seen, and lest they depart from thy heart all the days of thy life.” Others invoked Job 30:4, in which the hero speaks of starving people “who cut up mallows by the bushes” [Hebrew: “siaḥ”]; the verse was expounded homiletically in the Aramaic Targum and the Talmud as a condemnation of those who interrupt their recitation of Torah in order to indulge in idle chatter [also expressed by “siaḥ”].
Rabbi Yom-Tov Lipmann Heller felt that Rabbi Jacob seemed somewhat reserved in his wording—employing the qualified expression “as if as if he were deserving of death,” rather than the more straightforward “he is deserving of death,” a formula used elsewhere in the Mishnah. Rabbi Heller inferred from this that the student’s lapse here was, after all, viewed as a temporary and inadvertent one, and therefore should be treated leniently.
Some interpreters stressed that under different circumstances there would have been nothing objectionable about admiring the beauties of nature. Quite the contrary, it is through the appreciation of our environment that we are inspired to praise the Almighty’s creation through the recitation of blessings. Indeed, the classic Jewish rationalists taught that the study of natural science is an essential stage in the refining of the religious mind. In this spirit, Rabbi Azariah dei Rossi (16th>-century Italy) argued that Rabbi Jacob's condemnation was only aimed at persons who failed to recognize that the true appreciation of nature is an indispensable component of religious study rather than being a distraction. A similar position was cited in the name of the Ḥasidic master Rabbi Menahem Mendel of Kotzk.
Other ḥasidic preachers combined their antipathy to talmudic casuistry with a flair for ingenious interpretations and blatant disregard for the formalities of Hebrew etymology. A metaphoric explanation ascribed to the Ba‘al Shem Ṭov turned the Mishnah passage completely on its head, presenting it as a metaphoric criticism of scholarly egos—targeting those arrogant talmudists who see themselves as the tall trees and lush meadows of the Jewish religious landscape.
Some commentators attached significance to the fact that the Mishnah depicts its subject as walking along a path, a place where he would have been especially vulnerable to the assorted human, natural and supernatural dangers that imperil wayfarers. Jewish tradition taught that involvement in a spiritual pursuit bestows divine protection on travelers; hence ceasing from sacred study is the religious equivalent of unfastening one’s seat belt on the freeway.
In a similar vein, the Maharal of Prague observed that by specifying the two examples of a tree and a furrow, the Mishnah was trying to convey the extreme gravity of the transgression: students are deemed culpable not only for allowing their attention to wander afar to a distant tree, but even for noticing a field, presumably one that is lying right next to them.
In more recent times, Rabbi Jacob's statement acquired considerable notoriety. Pioneer Hebrew authors like J. Ḥ. Brenner and M. J. Berditchevsky felt that the Mishnah’s attitude epitomized all that was wrong with the Judaism of the rabbis; it advocated an anemic commitment to a cloistered scholarly ethos that is entirely removed from the glories of nature or esthetic pleasures. Modern writers insisted that the reborn Jewish nation must reject and overturn the values that issue from that insidious Mishnah text.
For instance, in his seminal novel Fishke the Lame, the renowned “grandfather of Yiddish literature” S. Y. Abramovitsh introduced his persona “Mendele the Book-peddler [Moykher-Sforim]” as his soul was ensnared in a dilemma during the solemn prayers on a fast day, struggling to choose between the demands of Rabbi Jacob’s teaching and the seductions of his “evil urge” in the guise of an idyllic pastoral vista of lush trees and fields.
I suspect that Martin Buber had this same Mishnah passage in mind when he penned his famous description of an “I-Thou” encounter with nature:
It can happen, if will and grace are joined, that as I contemplate the tree I am drawn into a relation with it, and the tree ceases to be an “It”... This does not require me to forego any of the modes of contemplation. There is nothing that I must not see in order to see, and there is no knowledge that I must forget.
The poet Ḥayyim Naḥman Bialik tried to salvage the Mishnah’s teaching by suggesting an audaciously novel reading: it is only as long as Jews are “walking on the way” of exile in foreign lands that they must take care not to become too enamored of the local landscapes, lest they extinguish their desire to return to their ancestral soil.
However, Bialik’s hero Asher Ginsberg (“Aḥad Ha‘am”) had to remind the poet that the author of the problematic statement was not some medieval denizen of the diaspora, but a resident of the land of Israel.
All this concern about the dangers of distracted strolling prompts me to wonder how those authors would have coped with a world in which the students (who might well have their earphones tuned to a Talmud lesson) are not just ambling along peaceful country paths, but hurtling ahead in motorized vehicles while their concentration is being continually assaulted by intrusions from their cell phones and iPods.
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