Rabbi Reuven Taragin on Pirkei Avot: Earning Our Lives

By BJLife/Rabbi Reuven Taragin - Summarized by Rafi Davis
Posted on 03/19/23

Earning Our Lives

רַבִּי חֲנִינָא בֶן חֲכִינַאי אוֹמֵר, הַנֵּעוֹר בַּלַּיְלָה וְהַמְהַלֵּךְ בַּדֶּרֶךְ יְחִידִי וְ(הַ)מְפַנֶּה לִבּוֹ לְבַטָּלָה,

הֲרֵי זֶה מִתְחַיֵּב בְּנַפְשׁוֹ: (אבות ג:ד)

Rebbi Chanina ben Chachinai lists three activities that cause a person to be “mit’chayev b’nafsho (mortally guilty)” — staying awake at night, traveling alone and directing one’s heart towards meaninglessness.[1] Why are these activities problematic, and why is the punishment for engaging in them so severe?

Natural Danger

Many mefarshim[2] explain that the first two activities (being up at night and traveling alone) are naturally dangerous. Roads outside of cities are (especially in ancient times) less structured and safe. Similarly, darkness makes nights a dangerous time to be up and about. Additionally, staying up late, rather than sleeping, is an unhealthy practice.

Though this interpretation explains the first two cases listed by the mishnah, it does not explain the third — mefaneh libo l’vatalah (one who directs his heart towards meaninglessness). Why is this dangerous?

Furthermore, the assumption that the mishnah deals with activities that are naturally dangerous raises two additional questions. Firstly, why does the mishnah use the term “mitchayev b’nafsho” (which implies culpability) to refer to one who puts himself in natural harm's way? Secondly, why does Avota mesechet dedicated to ethics and morals — include a mishnah focused upon personal safety? 


For these reasons, many mefarshim offer an alternative explanation for the mishnah. They explain the term mitchayev b’nafsho as referring not to naturally dangerous situations, but, rather, to inappropriate behavior that incurs heavenly punishment.

Let us examine the three activities listed by the mishnah from this perspective. The problem with the third activity — mefaneh libo l’vatalah — is understandable. We are meant to focus our lives and attention on meaningful things. Though we often become distracted, we should never direct our attention to meaninglessness.

The Meiri adds that not taking advantage of the opportunity to study Torah reflects a lack of appreciation and love for it.[3] This is why the heavens cry over those who do not take advantage of their opportunities to study Torah.[4]

This part of the mishnah is critically important to contemporary society. Though people have always been tempted to involve themselves in meaningless pursuits, the easy access to social media and entertainment in the palm of our hand has increased the temptation tenfold. Cell phones offer quick communication, helpful tools, and access to meaningful content, but also distractions and potential time wasters.

Using Our Nights

Many mefarshim explain the problem with the first two activities mentioned by the mishnah along similar lines.

Being up at night without learning Torah is a misuse of the night. We work during the day, but have free time at night.[5] We should use this free time to sleep or to learn Torah.[6] One awake at night but not learning wastes the night, which was created for these two purposes,[7] and is thus “mit’chayev b’nafsho.” He does not deserve the life he has been gifted.

This part of the mishnah is also very relevant to contemporary life. Electricity has turned night into “day” and extended the amount of time available to pursue areas of interest. To fill the void of the newly available time, society has developed many forms of leisure and entertainment. We need to remember that we were given the wonderful gift of Torah that we are meant to take full advantage of. We do so by studying it whenever we can — especially at night.[8]

It is also important to use our nights to sleep so we are able to fully maximize the coming days. Electricity and technology often cause us to stay up later than we should. Sadly, this impairs our ability to get up on time and function properly the next day. The Shulchan Aruch begins by emphasizing the importance of having the “strength to wake up like a lion.” In today’s world, we (also) need the self-control to go to sleep on time.

According to this approach, the real issue is not being up at night, but the waste of precious time. In essence, the significance of the mishnah’s opening phrase —  nei’or balayla —  is explained through the mishnah’s closing phrase — mefaneh libo l’vatalah.[9]  One is mit’chayev b’nafsho not for being up late, but, rather, for focusing on meaninglessness during that time.

Travel Opportunities

Many mefarshim explain the problem with the mishnah’s second activity in a similar fashion. Someone traveling alone has no one (they need) to speak with and can use the time to focus on learning Torah.[10] Travel, like nights, is a time when we are not working and are able to focus our thoughts on Torah learning. One who, instead, chooses to focus on meaninglessness is “mitchayeiv b’nafsho” because of this waste of time and opportunity.

This idea is also very relevant to the modern world, where many spend hours alone in their cars or traveling with others who they do not know. What do we do while we are driving, or on the train, bus or plane? Do we listen to meaningless things on the radio, read the paper, or, maybe, allow our mind to wander aimlessly? This travel time is an excellent opportunity to listen to a shiur or study other Torah content. When we choose the latter, we take full advantage of our time and merit the life Hashem blesses us with. One who does not is “mit’chayev b’nafsho.[11]


Inspired to Learn

Traveling alone or being awake at night are not just opportunities to learn Torah. They are also situations that should inspire us to do so. The Rashbatz[12] connects the two explanations of the mishnah and explains that we should alleviate the potential danger posed by traveling alone or being up at night by learning Torah, which protects those who study it.[13] One in danger (because he is up at night or traveling alone) who intentionally chooses to focus on meaninglessness shows a complete disregard for the protective power of Torah and is, because of this disregard, “mit’chayev b’nafsho.” 

The Knesset Yisrael adds that travel and nighttime should also inspire us to think about Hashem. After a full day, when we prepare to return our soul to Hashem, we should reflect upon our relationship with Him. Similarly, when in potential danger while traveling alone, one should appreciate Hashem’s protection. One who turns his attention to meaninglessness at these sensitive moments shows deep insensitivity and is “mit’chayev b’nafsho.” 

Owning It — A Positive Spin

Rav Nachman Mi’Breslov[14] presents our Mishnah in a positive light. He explains that “nei’or b’layla” refers to a person who takes advantage of the night like the day by  learning Torah and being constructive. He adds that “mehalech b’derech yechidi” connotes one who lives his life in his own, unique way, not affected by those who mock him. The mishnah’s third clause explains that one accomplishes these things by being “mefaneh libo l’vatalah, clearing his heart of all batalah and focusing only on what is meaningful. Rav Nachman explains that such a person is “mit’chayev b’nafsho”deserves his life, as opposed to receiving it as a gift.

May the mishnah’s simple explanation caution us against misuse, and may Rav Nachman’s explanation inspire us to take advantage of our time and opportunities and, through this, “earn” our lives!

[1] Avot 3:4.

[2] See Meiri, Rabbeinu Bachya, Machzor Vitri, and Maharal ibid.

[3] Instead of calling the time one wastes instead of learning Torah “bittul zeman,” Chazal referred to it as “bittul Torah.” The time wasted could have generated more Torah.

[4] The mishnah later in Avot (6:2) teaches that a bat kol bemoans daily: “Woe to people who insult Torah” by not taking advantage of the opportunities they have to study it.

See also Talmud Bavli, Masechet Sanhedin 99a, which describes such a person as “denigrating the word of Hashem.”

[5] See Rabbeinu Yonah (Avot 3:4) who explains that not needing to work or be with others at night allows us to focus on Torah learning.

[6] See Rashi (Avot 3:4) quoting Avot D’Rabbi Natan (29), who explains that the problem of being “nei’or b’layla” is that one is not learning Torah at night.

See Chovot HaLevavot (Sha’ar Ahavat Hashem 6) who elaborates on how nighttime is an opportunity to draw close to Hashem.

[7] See Talmud Bavli, Masechet Eiruvin 65a.

[8] Talmud Bavli (Masechet Bava Batra 121b) teaches that from Tu B’av and on, when the nights start getting longer, we are expected to devote more time to Torah learning. Those who do so will live longer lives. Those who do not use their time well will not.

The Gemara emphasizes both the importance of learning at night and the danger of not doing so in many places. Masechet Sanhedrin (92a) speaks of how a fire will eventually consume a house where there is no learning at night. Masechet Eruvin (18b) adds that a house in which there is Torah learning will never be destroyed.

Masechet Chagigah (12b) teaches that a person who learns at night has a “chut shel chesed” drawn over him during the day. Masechet Menachot (110a) asserts that a person who learns during the night is considered as if involved in the avodat hakorbanot. Masechet Tamid (32b) explains that the shechinah joins a person who learns at night.

The Rambam says that “rov chochmato” of a person comes from learning at night, and one must therefore be very careful to use every night properly.

[9] This understanding of the mishnah is rooted in the reading of the third case — mefaneh libo l’vatalah — as modifying the first two. (This reading is based upon the Rambam’s version of the mishnah, which drops the “hei” from the description of mefaneh libo l’vatalah.)

[10] See Midrash Shmuel (Avot 3:4) who explains the mishnah this way.

The gemara in Masechet Sotah 49a and Masechet Ta’anit 10b adds that (even) two people walking together should learn with one another.

[11] See Kol Tzofayich 2, p.517, who elaborates on the opportunity for Torah learning available at night and when traveling alone.

[12] Rashbatz, Avot 3:4.

[13] See Talmud Bavli, Masechet Eruvin 54a and Masechet Sotah 21a and 46b.

[14] Likutei Moharan 52.