What’s the essential difference between Yaakov and Eisav? Why did Yaakov turn down Eisav’s brotherly offer to be his neighbor? What constitutes moshav leitzim? When is reading literature a mitzva, and when is it not? Is chess a recommended leisure activity? What about dice or card games? Is game hunting a permitted sport? And what about a hunter who goes hunting to make a living? Can humor be used positively? Is playing music professionally or travelling around the world a goal in and of itself? Of this and more, in the coming article.
Eisav meets Yaakov
After a 36-year separation, the world-famous twins meet again: Yaakov and Eisav greet each other on the way to their childhood home. Eisav suggests they reunite, while Yaakov turns down his offer, agreeing to meet him again at a future date, which Chazal teach us, will arrive only in the final days of history.
The Hafla’a (Panim Yafos, Bereshis 32:11) explains the pasuk (ibid 12) “Now deliver me from the hand of my brother, from the hand of Eisav”: deliver me from “my brother” – when Eisav behaves as a brother, suggesting I follow his ways; “from Eisav” – when he comes after me to kill me.
The Midrash (Bamidbar Raba, Naso, 11:1) writes that the descendants of Eisav are categorized as leitzim, or mockers (this topic has been discussed extensively in the past two weeks). In Mishlei we read of their end: “If to the scoffers, He will scoff…” (Mishlei 3:34). In the end of days, Hashem will make a mockery of those leitzim. Christianity was born of a letz who mocked Chazal’s teachings, which in turn, is represented by Edom, and their end is assured.
In this week’s parasha we learn how far Yaakov went to protect himself and his descendants from having any relationship with his brother, and how he feared to be influenced by him or learn from his ways.
Why was Yaakov so scared? And what is considered a moshav leitzim?
The Gemara (Avoda Zara 18a) mentions that gladiator games and sport contests come under the definition of moshav leitzim.
The last two articles discussed what leitznus was and why frivolousness is the root of all evil. On the other hand — sometimes it is a mitzva to let go and joke around a little. This week’s article will complete the series on leitznus and explore Judaism’s approach to areas of culture, sports, and recreation. Are all recreational activities included in leitznus? Can a game be a mitzva? Some things are clear-cut while others are more nuanced. Joining a moshav letzim can lead one to lose his portion in this world and the next, and at the same time sinking into life-sapping depression also results in lost human resources. Where is the fine line that separates the two? When and where is each activity recommended?
The Rambam (Shmona Prakim, 5) lists the essential components of healthy servants of Hashem, and he writes that they must possess a healthy body, and calm peaceful spirit. Therefore, anything that calms the body and spirit and gives the mind the peace it needs to delve into the Torah’s wisdom are considered spiritual pursuits. Anything utilized for spirituality receives the status of holiness and is a mitzva.
Eating healthy and appealing foods; traveling to calming or interesting places; intellectual stimulation; musical enrichment — they all fill us with pleasure, a feeling which is necessary to bring one’s life’s mission to fruition. However, we must not forget they are merely a means and not a goal. When turned into an independent ideal they are no longer a mitzva, but a moshav leitzim.
The Rambam mentions eating as a case in point: on the one hand, we can’t live without it, a necessity for keeping one’s body healthy. However, eating as a goal, for pleasure; the “foodie” culture — is missing the point entirely, and a terrible misuse of G-d’s resources. The same is true whenever a person eats unhealthy food. However, one who eats to serve Hashem eats foods that are healthy for him. Enjoying one’s food is also necessary for calmness of spirit just as any other physical pleasure. Therefore, one who sees he has no appetite and does not eat well, or the food does not digest properly, should prepare appealing dishes to help him eat properly and be strong to serve G-d.
On a side note, it is interesting to mention that the Chazon Ish was known to tell parents of finicky eaters that their child’s poor eating habits are a manifestation of the yetzer hara. Since those children’s energy should be used to learn Torah and serve Hashem, the yetzer hara tries everything possible to prevent them from receiving proper nourishment.
The same is true for music, travel, or other non-prohibited pleasures. Most things in the world can be turned into a mitzva and made holy – when used to put one in a positive mindset, to pick up his mood, to raise up his spirits so he can serve Hashem properly it is a mitzva. Engaging in pleasures for their own sake, though, is both useless – because empty pleasure leaves one hungry for more; and harmful. Life’s bucket list must not include exotic vacations, exclusive restaurants, furs, concerts, or race cars. The way should never be destination.
The Rambam lists certain fields of wisdom which, while having no practical use, aid in sharpening cognitive skills and logical reasoning. This eventually aids Torah study, and is permitted.
The same concept is true for the arts, comfortable living, and other pleasures – they are necessary for the Torah student who needs to relax so he can return to his studies with renewed vigor. The point is to use them as a means, not a goal; a road – not the destination.
On the other hand, the Rambam (introduction to Perek Chelek) discusses certain literatures such as Ben Sira (“The Book of Sirach”) and Arabic poetry, history books, chronicles, and song and music events as useless wastes, void of wisdom, nor serve a physical purpose. Indeed, the Gemara (Sanhedrin 100b) forbids reading them.
As mentioned in previous articles, a lighthearted approach to life can be responsible for transgressions, while at the same time the Gemara praises two jesters as being “Sons of the Next World” for using their sense of humor to put a smile on drawn faces and make peace between enemies.
We might settle the contradiction as follows: thinking a good bottle of wine is the best life gets creates a drunkard, who lives for his next drink. But a bottle of wine used for Kiddush, Havdalah, Pesach, and Purim is consecrated and holy. When used for spirituality, the physical world realizes its ultimate purpose.
The Rambam (Tumas Tzara’as 16:10) explains how spiritual decline takes place. In the beginning, one sits with the leitzim who speak about nonsense. Then, they speak against the tzaddikim. From there, they go on to speak against the prophets and mock their words, until finally they deny G-d Himself. The Rambam adds that leitzim are those who sit at street corners, beer halls, and pubs. When Jewish people sit together, they should speak words of Torah and yiras Shomayim. Then, Hashem helps them get closer to Him through their discussions.
The Maharsha points out that certain things which are categorized by Chazal as leitznus actually seem pretty harmless. What could be wrong with proverbs, poems, fables, and folk tales? Can’t they also serve to calm the anxious and give respite to the worried?
He answers that using non-Jewish means of relaxation is included in the prohibition of joining a moshav leitzim. While typically forbidden, Sefer Chassidim instructs one who feels himself drawn to depression to do anything it takes to get out. The same is true when one feels drawn to forbidden desires: he must do anything possible to distract himself, but if a kosher solution is available getting involved in nonsense is forbidden.
The Chida (Birkei Yosef OC 338:1) lists many poskim who include chess in the prohibition of moshav leitzim. He nevertheless adds that many Torah scholars did play it when they were feeling down or depressed, and the game was used to distract themselves. Once they felt better, they returned to their studies. For them, chess was a tool, not a goal.
Rabbi Yosef Chaim Zonnenfeld (Shalmas Chaim OC 363-365) also discusses the above contradiction. He quotes the Gemara (Bave Basre 91b) where it seems that Gemara-era teenagers of sixteen and seventeen had set recess times for playing in the marketplace, which was not condemned as moshav leitzim. The Rama (OC 447:12) discusses card games, instructing they not be played on a table, but does not forbid it under the prohibition of moshav leitzim. Are games in general prohibited, or encouraged?
Rabbi Yosef Chaim Zonnenfeld settles the contradiction: playing games as a full-time occupation is a time waster and constitutes moshav letzim. However, one needs to rest for his health and might need a game to decompress. During the times of the Gemara teenagers had a special time for games and relaxation, a recess or Bein Hazamnim of sorts. As long as that time is not the goal but a means, and is used in balanced way, it is a big mitzva. However, one who lives for vacation, or goes to school for the recess sees it as a goal in and of itself. His vacation is a true moshav leitzim.
The Shulchan Aruch (OC 307:16) rules that reading history books, war accounts, fables, and poetry, such as Immanuel (a Jewish literary work which was popular at the time) falls under the definition of moshav leitzim. The Shulchan Aruch adds that Chazal explain the pasuk: “You shall not turn to the worthless idols” (Vayikra 19:4) – don’t turn to anything that causes you to remove G-d from your hearts. The Mishna Brura (footnote 58) explains that this refers to books that have no moral benefit. Jewish history books, however, such as Josephus, contain important musar messages, and thus — reading them is a mitzva.
The Maharsha (Shabbos 116b) and Yaavetz (Mor U’Ketzia OC 307:22) write that the prohibition to read these books applies only when one makes a set time for it. Occasionally reading a short passage, however, is not prohibited.
The Yaavetz (She’elas Yaavetz 1:162) and Tiferes Yisroel (Sanhedrin chapter 10) add that reading newspapers is permitted because news might be important for one’s day to day conduct. Additionally, those who derive pleasure form knowing the news find it calming, and therefore necessary for their emotional well-being. The prohibition of moshav leitzim in this regard is to become totally engrossed in the content, and reading it regularly at a set time. Occasional reading or glancing through the news is permitted. The Tiferes Yisroel adds that reading literature or history books in the rest room is permitted, provided they don’t contain immoral content.
The Rama (OC 316:2) rules that hunting with a dog on Shabbos is forbidden, adding that even during the week hunting is forbidden under the prohibition of moshav leitzim. The Pri Megadim writes (ibid, footnote 5) that the prohibition only refers to hunting as a sport, not one who hunts for a living.
The Magen Avraham adds (footnote 5) that the punishment for sport hunting is being banned from the Seudas Leviathan, the ultimate joy and pleasure in the future world.
Apparently, the Magen Avraham chose specifically this punishment (from the long list of punishments mentioned for joining a moshav leitzim) because one who chooses to hunt animals for no reason misuses G-d’s creation to the greatest extent, therefore he will miss the future greatest pleasure which will be enjoyed by those who have fulfilled their purpose in life.
A head of a teshuva organization once told me about the seminars they run to raise Jewish awareness among the non-religious public. While rare is the one who takes on a Jewish lifestyle as a result of a comic presentation, one such speech always begins every seminar. A stand-up comedian can open up the listeners and break barriers. Once the ice is broken, the deeper speeches — about life’s purpose and our Jewish mission, can be absorbed.
Summary – Moshav Leitzim
Rabbi Tzadok Hakohen (Tzidkas Hatzadik 259) defines leitzanus both as an active verb and a passive one. The passive leitznus manifests itself as laziness, time and energy waste, and finally — rejecting G-d and His mitzvos as the ultimate purpose of life. Active leitzanus includes engaging in non-constructive activities as one’s main occupation and goal. Various culture and entertainment venues meet the second criterion, along with sports and games that have no real content.
Dovid Hamelech chose to begin Sefer Tehilim with (Tehilim 1:1) “Blessed is a man who did not follow the counsel of the wicked, neither did he stand in the way of sinners nor sit in the company of scorners.” The Gemara explains what is considered a “company of scorners”, or moshav leitzim: a sports arena, clown show, gladiator game, snake charmers, and the like. Torah study and leitzanus do not go together, and one must choose his purpose in life – one, or the other. Praiseworthy is one who chooses Hashem’s Torah, and keeps his distance from “the way of sinners” (what some call “culture”).
The Gemara (Avoda Zarah 18b) uses the pasuk to explain how moral decay occurs. It begins with simply walking – “follow the counsel of the wicked” – following occasional negative advice. Then, it continues with “standing in the way of sinners” – standing is more permanent than walking. The next step is sitting – in a company of scorners.
It starts with a careless occasional walk-by; continues with standing around; and ends up with sitting-in permanently, becoming a full-time letz.
Hashem requires us to live by our inner moral compass, not go into sleep-mode and live by rote. Every action must be weighed and categorized – does it help build the world, or is it part of the world’s disintegration? Even leisure activities can have a place of honor if harnessed as a means for a higher purpose. It all depends on the goal and overall intention.