Asking and Answering - Middah Shoayl U'Mayshiv

Marlene Myerson

About Mussar and Middot
The Hebrew word "mussar" means moral conduct, instruction, or discipline. The Mussar Movement arose in the 1800’s in Lithuania and encompasses a range of spiritual practices, focusing on the individual’s personal characteristics, traits, or virtues, which are called middot (in Hebrew, singular: a "middahMiddahמִדָּהcharacteristics, values, or virtues of Jewish life that focus on becoming a better and more fulfilled person; plural: middot ").

Shoayl U'Mayshiv translates as "asking and answering." Shoayl comes from the Hebrew root shin-aleph-lamed, meaning, "to ask" and mayshiv comes from the Hebrew shin-vav-vet meaning "to turn back" or "to answer."

"When Rabbi [Judah1, the Patriarch] is engaged with one tractate, you are not to question him about another." (B. Shabbat 3b)

Traditional Jewish sources provide us with many examples from which we can learn the correct protocol for asking and answering questions. The Talmudic sages explain that a wise student asks questions of his teacher only regarding the issue at hand. The teacher, who is totally involved in that subject, can then provide correct and appropriate answers. When a student asks a tangential question, the teacher will often be unable to redirect his thoughts to be able to reply intelligently and to the point. It was for this reason that R. Chiya told Rav, "When Rabbi is engaged in the study of one tractate, do not question him concerning another tractate." (Shabbat 3b)

The disciples of the Baal Shem Tov heard that a certain man was a sage. Some of them were anxious to see and hear his "Torah." The master gave them permission to go, but first they asked him: How will we know that he is a true teacher? The Baal Shem replied: Ask him for advice on how to pray and learn without distraction. If he answers, you will know there is nothing to him. (Stern, Day by Day, p.335)

We have all experienced the frustration of having to listen to someone who purports to wanting to ask a question, but who, in fact, uses the opportunity to expound his/her views on a particular subject. According to Tiferes Yisrael, a commentary on Pirkei Avot, a learned person asks only relevant questions and does not use halachic discussion as a forum to display his intellectual prowess. Likewise, when he answers questions, he gives the most simple and straightforward response, rather than engaging in an exegetic display. His major concern in both cases is to discover the truth. The Talmud also praises the learned man as one who does not mix domains of knowledge, either in questioning or in answering. He does not ask for logical proofs in areas of faith, nor does he offer theoretical answers to practical questions. His answers are always relevant to the type of question asked and are within the parameters of the discipline under discussion (Rambam, R'Yonah)

Our sages placed a great deal of importance on the art of listening to questions rather than on answering them. Rabbi Eichanan Wasserman offered his son an important piece of advice on achieving success in his Torah studies: "Seeking answers to the questions of Tosafot (a 13th century group of Talmudic commentators) should be left for one's later years, when one's mind is less innovative. When one is young, and fresh, all his energies should go into 'listening' to Tosafot, trying to fully understand the question. Discovering an answer to a question is not cause for celebration; it anything it may be a loss, for it usually indicates that one has not fully understood what bothered the commentators in the first place."

To Talk About

  1. Reread the Text section. What reasons were given for not questioning the Rabbi about another tractate? Do you agree or disagree with this advice? Why?
  2. There are times when the answer to a question is not easily understood. Such is the case with the Baal Shem Tov's response to his disciples' question. What do you think his answer implied?
  3.  "There are seven characteristics in a sage, including the following: A sage does not hasten to answer, asks questions that are relevant and replies to the point." (Avot 5:7) Explain why the rabbis considered these particular characteristics necessary for one to be considered a sage.
  4. "A learned man's question is half the answer." (Mivchar HaPeninim) What does this saying mean? Consider someone who is a learned person by this definition. What distinguishes her/him? Try to share some examples of a question that contains "half the answer". Was it difficult to formulate these questions? Why?
  5. Make a list of the "rules" related to asking and answering questions that you have learned from reading the Commentary section. Are there additional "rules" that you would add to this list?

To Do

Read the list of "rules" that you have created each morning before you start your day. Think carefully about how you are going to ask or answer questions. Consider whether the Talmudic rabbis would have considered you a learned person.