Family Time (Ketubot 62b)
We live in a world today where professionals spend more time at the office than at home with their families. Some of us may at least have weekends with our loved ones, while others dedicate even the hours of Shabbat to their work. This epidemic of distance from the people we ought to be with most often is nothing new. While at one point in time, the work days were shorter, finding family time has always been an issue. As I transition from rabbinical student to rabbi, I too will be confronting the issue of family time more deeply. Any congregation that I may serve will demand a great deal of my day. Designating time with my family will need to be one of my utmost priorities.
In previous discussions, I have pointed out that the rabbis of old suggested that wives prefer intimate time with their husbands over a higher paying career. I also mentioned that for students of Torah who recieve their wives' permission to go off and study, Rav Yochanan (30-90 CE) recommend that they spend two months at home for every month that they are away. In Ketubot 62b, the Gemara goes onto suggest another point of view. Despite the wise advice of Rav Yochanan, Rav Adda bar Ahava (c. 300 CE) rebuffs that students of Torah in his time can spend two or three years away from home when they have their wives' permission (1). Commenting on this work-centered mentality, the Gemara adds an interesting note:
ועבדי עובדא בנפשייהו
We might translate this literally to mean: "They did this on their own accord (ועשו מעשה בעצמם)." Yet Rashi offers a compelling explanation of the word בנפשייהו based on the subsequent aggadah (lore) that follows. Rashi suggests that "והוא בא להם ליטול מהם נפשות, שנענשים ומתים, they went and did this at the expense of their own lives, knowing that they would be punished with death." Essentially, students of Talmud in Babylonia put their work before their families knowing that they or their loved ones might receive a death sentence.
To illustrate this, the Talmud recounts aggada (lore) that teaches us about the repercussions of putting our work before our family. In the first instance, a scholar puts off sexual relations with his bride so that he can become a learned scholar; his punishment is coming home to a wife too old to have children. The punishment of death is thus rendered on the life of his potential child. In another story, Rav Chananya the son of Chachinai studies for twelve years in the academy without returning home. When his wife finally lays her eyes on him, her excitement causes her heart to give out. Rav Chama bar Bisa, who similarly went away to study for twelve years, happens to sit and study with his son Rav Oshaya at the yeshiva without recognizing the grown face of his boy.
The gist is simple and clear: despite our cultural tendencies towards being overworked, we ought to remember that family comes first! If we fail to find time for our family, we may not be punished with death, but we may find our relationships fractured, our families less healthy, and our lives bereft of love.
(1) While the Vilna Shas notes that this is said in the name of Rav, the texts of Rosh and Ran omit the word אמר רב (in the name of Rav). Further evidence that the original text was likely not in Rav's name can be found earlier in the Gemara, where Rav recommends that for every month away at study, a student should spend one month at home.