Rav Reuven Taragin, Educational Director at World Mizrachi
Rav Reuven Taragin, Educational Director at World MizrachiThe Western Wall Hesder Yeshiva

Chapters 1 and 2 can be read here and here.

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

הֲרֵי זֶה מִתְחַיֵּב בְּנַפְשׁוֹ: (אבות ג:ד)

רַבִּי שִׁמְעוֹן אוֹמֵר, הַמְהַלֵּךְ בַדֶּרֶךְ וְשׁוֹנֶה וּמַפְסִיק מִמִּשְׁנָתוֹ וְאוֹמֵר, מַה נָּאֶה אִילָן זֶה וּמַה נָּאֶה נִיר זֶה, מַעֲלֶה עָלָיו הַכָּתוּב כְּאִלּוּ מִתְחַיֵּב בְּנַפְשׁוֹ: (אבות ג:ז)

רַבִּי דּוֹסְתַּאי בְּרַבִּי יַנַּאי מִשּׁוּם רַבִּי מֵאִיר אוֹמֵר, כָּל הַשּׁוֹכֵחַ דָּבָר אֶחָד מִמִּשְׁנָתוֹ, מַעֲלֶה עָלָיו הַכָּתוּב כְּאִלּוּ מִתְחַיֵּב בְּנַפְשׁוֹ, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר (דברים ד), רַק הִשָּׁמֶר לְךָ וּשְׁמֹר נַפְשְׁךָ מְאֹד פֶּן תִּשְׁכַּח אֶת הַדְּבָרִים אֲשֶׁר רָאוּ עֵינֶיךָ… (אבות ג:ח)

Avot’s third perek quotes Rabbi Chanina ben Chachinai, who 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 toward meaninglessness. Why are these activities (particularly the first two) so problematic, and why is the punishment for engaging in them so severe?

Natural Danger

Many commentaries explain that the first two activities are naturally dangerous. Roads outside cities were less structured and safe, especially in ancient times. Similarly, darkness makes nights a hazardous time to be up and about, and staying up late rather than sleeping is an unhealthy practice.

Though this interpretation explains the mishnah’s first two cases, 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 naturally dangerous activities raises two additional questions. Why does the mishnah use the term “mit’chayev b’nafsho” (which implies culpability) to refer to one who puts himself in natural harm's way? Secondly, why does Avot, a masechet dedicated to ethics and morals, include a mishnah focused upon personal safety?

Meaninglessness

For these reasons, many offer an alternative explanation. They explain “mit’chayev b’nafsho” as referring not to naturally dangerous activities but to inappropriate behavior that incurs Divine 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 should focus our lives and attention on meaningful things. Though we often get distracted, we should never direct our attention to meaninglessness.

The Meiri adds that squandering an opportunity to study Torah reflects a lack of appreciation and love for it. This is why Avot’s sixth perek teaches that a heavenly voice cries over those who waste the opportunity to study Torah, and why Hillel taught that one who does not maximize (by adding to) the time he devotes to Torah study has his life (that he wastes) taken from him.

This part of the mishnah is particularly relevant to contemporary society. Though people have always been tempted to engage in meaningless pursuits, easy access to social media and entertainment in the palm of our hands has increased the temptation tenfold. Cell phones offer quick communication, helpful tools, and access to meaningful content, but also distractions and potential time wasters. Rabbi Chanina’s words encourage us to resist temptation and maintain our focus.

Using Our Nights

Many explain the problem with the mishnah’s first two activities in a similar way.

Being up at night without learning Torah is a misuse of the night. We work during the day and have free time at night; we should use this time to sleep or to learn Torah. One awake at night but not learning wastes the night and is, thus, “mit’chayev b’nafsho.” He does not deserve the life he was gifted.

This message is vital for contemporary life. Electricity has turned night into “day” and extended the time available for work and pursuing areas of interest. Concurrently, society has developed many forms of leisure and entertainment to fill this time. We must remember that we were given a wonderful gift we are meant to take full advantage of — the Torah. We do so by studying it whenever we can — especially at night.

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

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

Travel Opportunities

Many explain the problem with the mishnah’s second activity in a similar way. Someone traveling alone has no one to speak with and can, therefore, focus on Torah learning. Travel, like nights, is when we are not working and can focus our minds on Torah. One who chooses meaninglessness instead is “mit’chayev b’nafsho” because of this wasted time and opportunity.

Rabbi Chanina’s message about travel thus connects to Rabbi Shimon’s similar statement later in the perek: “One who is traveling and interrupts his study to observe the beauty of a tree or a plowed field is (similarly) considered to be mit’chayev b’nafsho.” Travel offers an opportunity we are responsible for taking advantage of. If we divert our attention from our learning, we are not worthy of the life we have been given.

Rabbi Chanina’s and Rabbi Shimon’s common usage of the term “mit’chayev b’nafsho” links their teachings and connects both of them to Rabbi Meir’s application of the same term (quoted after the teaching of Rabbi Shimon) to one who forgets his Torah learning: “Anyone who forgets (even) one point they learned is considered as if they are mitchayev b’nafsho.

The message that emerges from the three Tannaim’s use of the term “mit’chayev b’nafsho” is that we are worthy of our lives only when we appreciate and maximize our opportunities to study Torah. One who shows a lack of appreciation of Torah by diverting his attention from it while traveling or casually forgetting what he has learned is “mit’chayev b’nafsho.”

Rabbi Chanina’s and Rabbi Shimon’s message about travel is also very relevant to the modern world, where many spend hours alone in their cars or traveling with others they do not know. What do we do while driving or on the train, bus, or plane? Do we listen to meaningless things on the radio, read the paper, or let our minds wander?

Travel time is an excellent opportunity to listen to a shiur or other Torah content. When we do so, we take full advantage of our time and fulfill the words we recite thrice daily in kriyat shema — “You should speak about them (words of Torah) when you sit in your home and when you travel on the road...”

When we do so, we are worthy of the life Hashem gifts us. One who does not is “mit’chayev b’nafsho.

Inspired to Learn

Traveling alone or being awake at night are not just opportunities to learn Torah, but also situations that should inspire us to do so. The Rashbatz 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. One in danger 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, we should appreciate Hashem’s protection. One who turns his attention to meaninglessness at these sensitive moments shows profound insensitivity and is “mit’chayev b’nafsho.

Owning It — A Positive Spin

Rav Nachman Mi’Breslov recasts our mishnah positively. He explains that “nei’or b’layla” can refer to a person who takes advantage of the night (like the day) by learning Torah and being constructive. “Mehalech b’derech yechidi” can connote 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 meaninglessness and focusing only on what is meaningful. Rav Nachman explains that such a person is “mit’chayev b’nafsho”deserves his life instead of 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 full advantage of our time and opportunities and, through this, “earn” our lives!

Rav Reuven Taragin is the Dean of Overseas Students at Yeshivat Hakotel and the Educational Director of World Mizrachi and the RZA.

His new book, Essentials of Judaism, can be purchased at rabbireuventaragin.com.