Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Covered in the dust of your Rabbi

It seems like this quotation about dusty Rabbis ("May you be covered in the dust of your Rabbi") is all over the internet. It has made me want to figure out exactly where it comes from.
Rob Bell says
One of the Sages from the Mishna is quoted as this, "May you be covered in the dust of your Rabbi." Rabbis are passionate and animated. They would spend their days taking their disciples around teaching them, and as they traveled from place to place, they would literally kick up a cloud of dust. And because the disciples were following the Rabbi, at the end of the day, they would actually be covered in the dust their Rabbi kicked up - May you be covered in the dust of your Rabbi.…
This is from Mishnah, Abot, what's known as Pikrei Avot, "the sayings of the fathers."
MISHNAH 4. Yose b. Yo'ezer (a man) of Zeredah, and Yose b. Yohanan [a man] of Jerusalem received [the oral tradition] from them. Yose. b. Yo'ezer used to say: “Let your house be a house of meeting for the sages cover yourself with the dust of their feet, and drink in their words with thirst.”
The Neusner version of the Mishnah reads (p. 673):
"Let your house be a gathering place for sages.
"And wallow in the dust of their feet.
"And drink in their words with gusto."
The verb ´äbäq translated as "cover" or "wallow" means "to cover oneself with dust, to be dusted." My first inclination when I read this text was to think of the context of sitting at a teacher's feet, rather than walking behind a rabbi. The word "sage" here literally means "the wise one." The term "rabbi" does not appear in the text. Remember that Mishnah is the core of the Talmud; the Talmud contains commentary on the Mishnah. It can help us interpret what the context is for the language found in the Mishnah. Here's the section of the Talmud on this passage:
MISHNA D. Jose b. Joezer of Zereda and Jose b. Johanan of Jerusalem received from them. Jose b. Joezer used to say: "Let thy house be the meeting place of the wise; sit gladly at their feet, and drink in their words with avidity."
Tosephtha--Aboth of R. Nathan.
"Thy house shall be the meeting-place for the wise." What does this mean? That the house should be for the use of scholars, their disciples and their disciples, in the sense that one man says to the other: "I shall wait for you at that place." Another explanation of that phrase is this: If a scholar comes to thee for the purpose of being instructed by thee, and thou art able to comply with his wish, do so; if thou art not able to teach him, dismiss him at once. Neither shall he sit before thee on the bed, chair, or bench, but on the floor; and every word that thou utterest he shall receive with awe, terror, fear, and trembling./p>

"Sit gladly at their feet." It means that when a renowned scholar comes to the city you shall not say: "I need him not," but go to him; and do not sit before him on the bed, chair, or bench, but con the floor; and every word that comes from his lips, receive with awe, terror, fear, and trembling, for so our ancestors received the Torah from Mount Sinai. According to another explanation the words: "Sit gladly at their feet," are referred to Rabbi Eliezer, and the words: "Drink their words as a thirsty man drinks water," are referred to Rabbi Aqiba.
It's a nice image to think of Rabbi's walking around like Jesus did. But that's not what Mishnah describes as the social location of teaching. It was sitting in a house. It's problematic to read back into the first century from second century texts, particularly after so much had changed during the intervening years. We also need to do our research and understand what we're talking about before we make sweeping generalizations about historical practices.

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