48 - Situations - A Wise Person Does Not Speak Before Someone Greater Than He In Wisdom Or Age

Although a wise person has worthwhile things to say, he prefers to first listen to those greater than he, for his soul desires wisdom and yearns to gain knowledge and perfection, rather than recognition.



We are stretching in ahavas yisrael together to create

z’chuyos for K’lal Yisrael in these urgent times.


Last week’s stretch of the week was:  When you feel jealousy or desire for something you can’t have, redirect and help someone out.

Please allow ONE person to share her experience with this exercise for ONE minute. 


Lesson #48


A Wise Person Does Not Speak Before Someone Greater Than He In Wisdom Or Age

חכם אינו מדבר לפני מי שגדול ממנו בחכמה ובמנין

Chacham Aino M'Daber Lifnai Mi SheGadol Mimenu B'Chochma U'v'Minyan

Perek Hai, Mishna Tes

Story(based on a true story) 

My in-laws were coming for a long summer weekend.  I was a little stressed, because my mother-in-law is the type of person who knows everything.

There are two categories of things she tells me and everyone else:  the things she really does know, which is a lot, and the things she’s positive she knows even if that might not be the case.  She’s not trying to be overbearing or to speak more often than most others about pretty much every topic.  It’s just her way of being, of sharing her knowledge and advice with the world because she really does want to help. 

They arrived just before lunch on Friday, and within two hours I was out the door to run errands.  She had already told me a better way to make my main course and recommended a different type of light bulb for the guestroom, and I was ready to snap.  I told her we were quite happy with our meatball recipe and the light bulb was fine and not changing.  I picked up the baby and told her I was going to the store for more eggs.  I left before I got a nostalgic speech about how she remained organized when her kids were young, and as I got in the car I dialed a friend for help.

“You have to help me,” I said.  “She’s driving me crazy.  I keep answering back, which isn’t good.  Or cutting her off with my own way of doing things so she can’t suggest hers.  I know I need to respect her more because she’s my mother-in-law and she’s lived life and all of that, but my head is exploding!  She just told me my meatballs would be better if I made them with seltzer!”

“Well,” my friend said, “I actually do make mine with seltzer.  The ones you had a few weeks ago and you asked for the recipe.”

What could I say to that?  So my mother-in-law was right.  She often is.  After a few words of encouragement from my friend I hung up and started my shopping.  As I walked through the aisles, I tried to figure out what bothered me so much about my mother-in-law that I felt I needed to answer her back or preempt her, that made me want to speak up and be right instead of listening.  I guess I wanted to be heard; for her to know that I could know just as much as she did about running a home or other things because if I didn’t, that might mean I’m inferior.

But that wasn’t true.  Judaism teaches us to look up to our elders and that they have a lot to offer us, and that we are better people for listening to and respecting them.  My mother-in-law wasn’t trying to make me feel inferior.  She had raised a house full of boys quite well and now she wanted to help me raise my family.  Granted, it might not be my way all the time, but I would be no less right if I listened to her, thought about her idea, and thanked her for sharing it.  I could then let it go in a respectful way while my mother-in-law felt useful and heard.  I might even decide that the advice was useful and not discard it because of my pride.

Over dinner, instead of guiding the conversation carefully to avoid my mother-in-law’s frequent outpourings, I asked her about her life growing up on the Lower East Side.  She smiled wide and began to tell some really interesting stories about her childhood, including a description of lack that I could see had led to some of the efficiency tips she often gave me.  For much of the meal we asked and she told, and even when my attention waned I could see that my kids were fascinated.  They followed my example and asked more and more.

I told myself not to waste future opportunities for my children to hear from their grandparents.  At each meal for the rest of their stay we asked both my in-laws about different periods of their lives, about their work, and about their hobbies.  My baseball-fan father-in-law took my son to Little League instead of my husband and helped coach a little.  And, when my mother-in-law asked if we were interested in her taking my older daughter out to buy flowering plants so the two of them could plant them along our front walk, I agreed happily.  Just days ago I would have taken this as an affront to how I kept my lawn.

Each day now when I pass those plants and remind my daughter to water them, I think about growth and roots.  I may not like everything my elders tell me, and we don’t need to take all of their advice now that we run our own household.  But they are our roots, and have a lot to share.  Our relationship and the m'sora of our people will flower if I listen and teach my children to listen, instead of needing to speak and be heard.

Pirkay Avos:


"...חכם אינו מדבר לפני מי שגדול ממנו בחכמה ובמנין" 

"...Chacham aino m'daber lifnai mi shegadol mimenu b'chochma u'v'minyan;"

"...A wise person does not speak before someone greater than he in wisdom or age;"(Perek Hai, Mishna Tes).

Although a wise person has worthwhile things to say, he prefers to first listen to those greater than he, for his soul desires wisdom and yearns to gain knowledge and perfection, rather than recognition.

Basing itself on the specific Hebrew phraseology, Midrash Sh'muel adds that a thoughtful individual does not speak before someone who merely believes himself to be superior, although he is not.

The author of the Pirkei Moses states that the mishna does not mean that a wise man must remain mute in the presence of someone greater.  Rather, the mishna is stating that when a wise person stands before someone greater than he, he does not speak to others, for that would be disrespectful.  Also, a wise person does not proffer his own opinion if someone greater than he is in the vicinity and could be easily consulted.

(Reproduced from Rav Lau on Pirkei Avos and from Pirkei Avos with Ideas and Insights of the Sfas Emes and other Chassidic Masters, with permission of the copyright holders, ArtScroll / Mesorah Publications, Ltd.)

Discussion Question Options:

Why do we sometimes vocally disagree with or speak before our elders?

What are some practical ways to deal with an elder who says things you disagree with?

How can we take advantage of the knowledge of our elders?  What are some ways to remind ourselves to do so?

Stretch of the Week:

Ask a parent or in-law to share some of their knowledge with you.


Stretch Of The Week