SIGNS OF WISE MEN
Studies in Pirkei Avos
Rabbi Moshe Ben-Chaim
Pirkei Avos (Ethics of the Fathers) mishna 5:7 outlines 7 signs of the wise and of the unrefined personality:
“7 [indications] of the golem [unrefined person] and 7 of the wise:
1) The wise [man] does not speak prior to someone greater in wisdom or in years
2) He does not interrupt his friend’s speech
3) He is not hasty to respond
4) He inquires in accord with the topic and answers according to halacha
5) He addresses the first matter first and the second matter second
6) And on that which he did not hear he says, “I have not heard anything [on this topic]”
7) And he admits to a truth.
And the converse is true of the golem.”
Unlike the boor who is completely bereft of intelligence and morality, Maimonides teaches that the golem is a person with partial, yet undeveloped intellect and morality. His mind is therefore inconclusive about both areas. The wise person is the opposite; he or she possesses refined intelligence and morality. He is clear about both realms of knowledge. Let us now define each of the 7.
THE WISE [MAN] DOES NOT SPEAK PRIOR TO SOMEONE GREATER IN WISDOM OR IN YEARS
The wise man respects knowledge over all else. He also recognizes that knowledge is found in people possessing keen intellects, and also with aged people. Years offers man knowledge gained through trial and error, and through witnessing many events and their outcomes.
A keen intellect can think better (thought process), and the aged person more accurately forecasts outcomes (results). Thus, wisdom is attributed to how we think, and also our real knowledge of the workings of the world, what we call experience.
HE DOES NOT INTERRUPT HIS FRIEND’S SPEECH
As Moshe Barbanel stated, waiting to hear a complete thought of others is mandatory for our acceptance and responses. For interrupting another person’s speech does not allow the listener to grasp the intended words of the speaker, and therefore, any response is futile. Waiting for one to complete his thought, only then might we accurately agree or disagree. But no one can assess an idea unless it was fully expressed.
Why does one interrupt? This is due to one’s brazen conviction in his own ideas; his subjectivity. But the wise man is objective, not subjectively tied to his personal views. Therefore the wise man has no urge to push forward his views. He does not interrupt others. He patiently awaits his friend’s concluded idea to ensure he has fully grasped his friend’s notions. For the wise man does not feel he possesses a monopoly on truth. His friend might offer a new insight, and his love of wisdom compels his patience. He wishes to learn from any person.
HE IS NOT HASTY TO RESPOND
Haste does not allow a person to fully digest, examine and conclude his thoughts.
HE INQUIRES IN ACCORD WITH THE TOPIC AND ANSWERS ACCORDING TO HALACHA
The wise man follows a trend of thinking, not veering at all. This is required to fully exhaust any given topic. And only when a topic is exhausted and all possibilities reviewed, can one possess a truth. If for example one wishes to offer a description of man, he must address his muscles, bones, sinews, and the various systems such as the digestive and respiratory systems. However, if one does not discuss these fully, or omits man’s intelligence or other components, his description of man will be inaccurate.
Rashi comments that respond- ing in accord with halacha refers to answering a person in accordance with the core issue. Wise people do not speak of peripheral matters, but they get to the main point, upon which the topic rests. In this manner, he best assists the questioner (which we’ll address next). For example, if one asks, “What is wrong with this specific idolatry?”, the wise man’s does not respond that it is ancient, or that he never saw it work. But he explains that all was created by one being, who also continuously governs all He made. Thus, nothing else is capable of overriding His rule. And it follows from this essential core idea, that all idolatrous expression is futile. By offering a core definition, the questioner is thereby enabled to apply this concept to more cases, than if he was merely told that “this” idol never worked.
HE ADDRESSES THE FIRST MATTER FIRST AND THE SECOND MATTER SECOND
Rabbeinu Yonah teaches that this doesn’t mean that he simply goes in order. Here, “first” means “prior in logics.” For example, if one asks, “How do you open a door, and what is a key?”, the wise man first addresses the more prior issue, which here is the second question. For once he explains how a key works, the questioner also understands how a door opens. Had the wise man
answered in the order of the questions put to him, he could not answer successfully, for he would still require resorting to explain- ing what a key is. Saying, “You open a door by putting in a key and turning it” cannot answer this questioner, as he is ignorant of what a key is. The wise person anticipates this problem, and answers the questioner in the manner that best addresses all his concerns.
We also learn that the wise man is concerned about others. His attachment to wisdom is not for himself alone, but he treasures wisdom so much, that he wishes to share it. And he does so in a manner that best helps others. The wise man has a relationship with wisdom, as stated by King David, “it is a plaything” i.e., a most treasured pursuit. And he appreciates that wisdom is intended for everyone, and he therefore acts on this. Avraham was a prime example, as he taught others wherever he traveled. This was his primary concern in life.
ON THAT WHICH HE DID NOT HEAR, HE SAYS, “I DID NOT HEAR”
The wise man’s ego is not involved in his pursuit of wisdom. Wisdom is about exploring that which is external to the self: the
psyche is absent in this pursuit. He cares nothing about being wrong, or saying “I don’t know.” He has no personal agenda or biases that could cloud his search.
HE ADMITS TO A TRUTH
He actually expresses a truth, even if it contradicts his stated position (Rashi). This is a further development of the previous trait, for here, he must say, “I am wrong”, not simply, “I did not hear anything on the topic.”
Finally, why is the barometer of wisdom limited to the realm of “dialogue”? Why are we not taught that a wise man is one who turns one cent into one million dollars, or one who invented a telescope, or some other great accomplishment? Perhaps the answer is because the tool of wisdom is speech. Meaning, in one’s very process of acquiring wisdom, dialogue, herein lays the phenomena most crucial to attain- ing wisdom. What man does with this knowledge afterwards – accomplishments – is merely an expression of that acquired wisdom. But to become wise in the first place, this requires a specific set of behaviors in the “attainment” stages, not how he expresses that attained wisdom.