Rabbi Chananiah ben Chakinai said: One who stays awake at night, one who travels alone on the road, and one who turns his heart to idleness, behold, he bears guilt for his soul. (Avot 3:4).
Rabbi Chananiah ben Chakinai startles the reader with a grim prediction for those who don’t follow his cautionary messages. Yet when we read the three problematic behaviors he describes, the punishment doesn’t seem to fit the crime. How does staying up at night, traveling alone, and being idle deserve what sounds like death? Even if we don’t take “he bears guilt for his soul” literally to mean mortality, why the harsh predictions and consequences for these behaviors?
The first group of commentaries frame the violation in terms of wasting time. Rambam takes the word idleness (“levatala”) from the last phrase and uses it as the key interpretative tool for the first two phrases as well. The problem isn’t staying up at night but staying up at night and wasting time. There is nothing wrong with being alone, particularly if that time is used for contemplation. The issue is purposeless isolation. For the Rambam, we should be on a constant quest for truth, and any time misused toward that pursuit is a devastating waste of potential.
In a similar vein, and with a homiletic flourish, Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm reads this mishna as a criticism of a person of great potential who squanders his or her talents and skills on purposeless and meaningless activities. He writes:
[A] person who… has the vision and the insight and the foresight to dream great dreams, when others slumber without any vision… and who, in addition, possesses the priceless virtue of being able to travel the highways of life by himself… who has the courage of his convictions… who is willing to remain true to his conscience, even if he is but one man against the entire world; one who possesses these fantastic talents of vision and courage, and yet misuses them for matters that are petty and trivial – he has indeed forfeited his soul. For he had taken such invaluable spiritual qualities and abused them, reduced them to a joke.
He concludes, however, in the more positive formulation, that “[i]f, however, a man possesses such talents and uses them properly – then he has not forfeited but affirmed and enhanced his spiritual image.”
Other commentaries focus more explicitly on the obligation to learn Torah (Rabbeinu Yonah, for example). The assumption is that while there are many good excuses that distract us from learning during the day and when we are around others, at nighttime, and when we are alone traveling, there are less legitimate disturbances, affording us the opportunity to use that time to learn Torah. Perhaps for others that quiet time is not at night or when traveling alone, but on a different occasion or in another context. Whenever or wherever it may be, if we squander that opportunity, that would indeed be a dire disgrace.
Rabbi Berel Wein places the message within Rabbi Chananiah ben Chakinai’s historical context. Living around the time of the destruction of the Second Temple, Rabbi Chananiah was concerned not just with one’s personal obligation to learn Torah, but the national continuity of the Jewish people during a time of persecution. Rabbi Wein writes:
In a generation when the light of Torah was threatened with extinction by the Roman despots, when thousands of Torah scholars were hunted down by Roman police, there was no excuse for idleness and wasted time on the part of the Jewish people as a whole. Rabbi Chanina’s words emphasize the vital message of Jewish survival.
The importance of not squandering opportunities to learn is not just an abdication of personal responsibility or failure of personal growth but has larger repercussions for the national survival of the Jewish people, and that is why Rabbi Chanina uses such strong admonishment.
In a fascinating explanation that differs fundamentally from most other interpretations, Rabbi Menachem HaMeiri understands the mishna as an exhortation to avoid dangerous situations that can cause physical or mental harm. Not getting enough sleep at night (eight hours according the Meiri) is very harmful. While he does not spell out the specific harm, recent research points to several negative consequences of sleep deficiency. According to the National Institutes of Health, “Sleep deficiency can lead to physical and mental health problems, injuries, loss of productivity, and even a greater likelihood of death.” It also can “interfere with work, school, driving, and social functioning,” causing “trouble learning, focusing, and reacting,” and can make it more likely for people to experience maladaptive negative emotions.
Meiri continues his elucidation of the mishna by noting the inherent physical danger in traveling alone where there is a strong likelihood of getting attacked by robbers. This was particularly true of travel in medieval times but still has resonance in any situation where the risk of harm should lead us to rethink engaging in dangerous behaviors. Finally, there is physical and psychological danger inherent in turning our hearts to idleness. Not engaging in productive or constructive activity for extended periods of time leads to depression and deluded thinking.
Whether he meant the consequences literally or figuratively, Rabbi Chanina is exhorting us to take advantage of our time in pursuit of truth (Rambam), make use of our vision and conviction (Rabbi Lamm), and learn Torah (Rabbeinu Yonah), not just for our own fulfilment, but for the continuity of the Jewish nation (Rabbi Wein). All the while, we should make sure to protect ourselves from physical harm, ensuring that we create healthy sleep habits, and engage in productive activities that promote physical and mental health (Meiri). In so doing, instead of bearing guilt for our souls, we will amass merit for our souls, allowing us to flourish physically, psychologically, and spiritually.