To Determine Exactly what One Hears - Middah Mechavayn et Sh'muato

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 ").

Mechavayn et sh'muato means "to determine exactly what one hears." The root of mechavayn is chaf-vav-nun, which means "to determine exactly" or "to be firm." Sh'muato has as its root shin-mem-ayin and means "to listen" or "to hear."

"The one who understands his (her) lesson will not readily forget it." (Talmud Yerushalmi: Berakot, 5.1)

Many translations of Pirkei Avot have been published and in each edition the translator has added his or her own nuances to its meaning.

Rabbi Susan Freeman, in her work Teaching Jewish Virtues, translates this middah as "being precise in transmitting what one has learned." Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, in Chapters of the Fathers, understands this middah as "he (or she) grasps and retains accurately what has been handed down to him (or her) by transmission." In the first translation, the individual is called upon to accurately transmit learning, in the second translation the individual is called upon to accurately understand and retain was has been transmitted. These two translations reflect the essence of Jewish learning and the transmission of Torah.

Pirkei Avot opens with the following teaching:

"Moses received the Torah at Sinai and conveyed it to Joshua; Joshua conveyed it to the Elders; the Elders conveyed it to the Prophets; and the Prophets conveyed it to the Men of the Great Assembly."

These individuals were our teachers and our leaders. They created the ongoing chain of Torah learning, passing Jewish learning and tradition from one generation to the next.

This is what makes Jewish learning a process and a product of thinking and acting. It is not simply a body of knowledge for an individual to absorb but a way of living both ethically and ritually. When we learn, the activity is more than mental gymnastics. Jewish learning engages our heart, our hands and our souls as well as our minds.

In this week's text the phrase reads, "The one who understands his (or her) lesson will not readily forget it." Clearly the rabbis of the Talmud knew that true learning comes when we go beyond mere memorization of information; true learning comes when we comprehend the meaning and message of what has been learned. We deepen our understanding and gain insights that will lead us to living lives imbued with Jewish values and ethics.

To Talk About

  1. The literal translation of this middah is "to determine exactly what one hears." If you depended on that translation, what would be your immediate response to the obvious or surface meaning of this middah? Reread the interpretations of Freeman and Hirsch, found in the Commentary section. What added meaning do these interpretations give to the middah? What did they 'understand' about this Jewish ethical value?
  2. What are the benefits and drawbacks of simply memorizing information and not seeking greater understanding and insights?
  3. Do you think Jewish learning demands too much of the learner? Share and discuss.
  4. Are there Jewish teachings that have led you to particular actions? What do you feel called upon to do based on your Jewish learning? Share examples of Jewish learning that have lead you to ethical and ritual actions.
  5. Jewish singer/songwriter Doug Cotler wrote, "I am standing on the shoulders of the ones who came before me." How does this lyric reflect Jewish learning?

To Do
Create a map of your own journey in the acquisition of Torah. Mechavayn also means to "determine compass points." Think about the direction your own Jewish education has taken and create a map reflecting that journey.