To Attend to the Sages - Middah Shimush Chachamim

Barbara Binder Kadden, RJE

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 ").

Shimush Chachamim means "to attend to the Sages." Shimush comes from the Hebrew root shin-mem-shin and means "to serve" or "to attend." A related word is shamash—the servant candle used to kindle the lights of the Hanukkiah—the Hanukkah menorah. Chachamim translates as "sages" and usually refers to the rabbis of the Talmud. The word Chachamim is the plural form of chacham, coming from the Hebrew root chet-chaf-mem meaning "wisdom."

A person who studies on their own is no match for one who studies with a teacher. (Babylonian Talmud, Ketubot 111a)

"To attend to the Sages" means apprenticing oneself to a scholar. (Avot, Soncino, p. 84, n.11)

This text, while not mentioning the specific words shimush chachamim, conveys the meaning of this middah or ethical value.

To learn and to study on one's own is of uncertain value in Jewish life. By studying with teachers and companions one truly learns Torah. Rabban Gamliel advises in Pirkei Avot 1:16 "provide yourself with a teacher, and remove yourself from uncertainty." Jewish tradition instructs us to turn to others for more knowledge and wisdom. Our sages know human nature. Midrash Shmuel interprets "remove yourself from uncertainty" to mean that you are to find a teacher who surpasses you intellectually and ethically, so that you will be comfortable in yielding to them. (The Pirke Avos Treasury, ArtScroll p. 48)

Further, Rabbi Nehorai said,

"Go as a willing exile to a place of Torah, and do not suppose that the Torah will seek you out, for it is only your companions in study who can make it your permanent possession. And as for your own understanding, don't depend on it." (The Book of Legends - Sefer Ha-aggadah, 428:258)

Jewish tradition warns that one should never consider oneself an expert, but rather be willing and open to the instruction and teaching of others. In essence we are "to attend to the Sages" by absorbing the ideas, explanations and interpretations of our teachers to whom we have apprenticed ourselves.

How shall we apprentice ourselves? "Yose ben Joezer of Tzeredah used to say:

Make your house a meeting place for sages, be willing to be covered by the dust of their feet, and drink in their words thirstily." (The Legends of the Jews - Sefer Ha-aggadah, 429:269)

In this teaching, one is instructed to create a physical space from learning by opening up one's home and extending hospitality. Bialik and Ravnitzky in Legends of the Jews -Sefer Aggadah explain that "being covered by the dust of the sages' feet" means either to follow the sages closely or to sit on the ground while they teach. Lastly we are told to drink their words thirstily. This means we are not to approach the teaching of the sages in a lackadaisical manner but rather with great passion.

To Talk About

  1. In your own words explain what it means to "attend to the Sages." How do you understand the concept of apprenticing yourself to a teacher? Is this something you have done? Describe.

  2. Identify individuals who have been your teachers. What made these teachers memorable? What did you learn from them?

  3. It is written in the Mishnah, "One who learns a single chapter from a companion, a single law, a single verse, a single expression, or even a single letter should treat that companion with respect." When has a companion or friend been a teacher to you?

  4. It is told that when Rav Ashi was presented a question concerning whether the meat of an animal was kosher, he would gather all the butchers of the city for consultation "in order that we each carry only a chip of the beam." (The Pirke Avos Treasury, ArtScroll p. 48) In light of the material contained in the Commentary section, how would you interpret Rav Ashi's actions?

  5. According to Rabban Gamliel and Rabbi Nehorai we are not to trust our own understanding of what we learn. Do you agree with their assessment? Why or why not?

To Do

Is there a special teacher in your life either past or present? Take time this week to write about that person, what you learned from them, how they influenced your life - and share it with others. If possible, share what you have written with this teacher.