“Sayings of the Fathers,” with a commentary for the 21st century by Esther Cameron
TO THE READER
Back in 1975, a friend placed a Jewish prayerbook on my table, opened it to “Sayings of the Fathers,” and said “Read this.” Amid all the talk that was going on about social action, “Sayings of the Fathers” fairly yelled at me: “This is what everyone is missing!”
Recently, in an email conversation about the present state of society, I found myself saying, “Read ‘Sayings of the Fathers’!” Then it occurred to me to write this commentary on a text written in a time that in some ways resembles our present.
“Sayings of the Fathers” is mainly the tractate Avot (a word meaning “principles” as well as “fathers”) which is part of the Mishna, the codification of Jewish law that was completed around 200 CE. Until that time, the traditions it preserves had been handed down orally. The fixing of oral tradition in writing was a response to a crisis that could have meant the end of the Jewish people – the destruction of the Jewish commonwealth by the Romans. After the unsuccessful rebellions of 70 CE and 130 CE, the Temple was razed, local Jewish government was abolished, and Jews were forbidden for some centuries even to live in Jerusalem. The commitment of the Oral Law to writing enabled the community to regroup in Diaspora and persist until this day. Avot became an important part of the people’s consciousness; it is included in the prayerbook to be read on Sabbath afternoons.
I submit that at present, modern humanity is experiencing something like the crisis that prompted the writing of Avot. We are not talking, of course, about conquest by an imperial power, unless we regard the global corporations in that light. But if not an active plan of conquest, the dynamic of technology, corporate structure and commercial culture has tended to dissolve communal structures, leaving people isolated and powerless to express a collective will. The Internet connects us after a fashion, but in a shallow and often destructive way.
In this situation, “Sayings of the Fathers” has much to offer. Its maxims are aimed not only at improving the spiritual health of the individual, but at orienting them toward community, rendering them capable of creating and sustaining community. And indeed, nothing is more vital to the spiritual health of the individual than orientation toward community.
Over the centuries, many commentaries have been written on “Sayings of the Fathers.” Some of them are excerpted on the Internet at https://dafyomireview.com/avot.php. I have occasionally consulted this source. But mainly, I have tried to write this commentary (prompted by another conversation, this time with an email correspondent) from the standpoint of the person I was in 1975, largely ignorant of the background of the text but suddenly addressed by it in the context of my own questions as a child of the twentieth (now twenty-first) century. Not everything in this text, of course, spoke to me equally. But what did speak to me impelled me to look past the rest. In this writing, I have considered whether to include only a selection of the sayings that spoke to me. But it felt impertinent to “edit” what is, after all, a sacred text. The text must be seen for what it is, in its particularity as well as its universality.
The translation is my own, but I consulted the translation posted on chabad.org, David Rosenfeld's translation on torah.org, and the translation posted on dafyomi.co.il.
One reader of the manuscript constructed titles for the chapters and most of the individual sayings. I did not want to attach the titles to the sayings in the text, preferring that the reader should come to the saying without a preconceived idea of what it is about; but I have added them as a table of contents at the end, as they may help the reader to go back to a particular saying.
Moses received the Torah from Sinai and transmitted it to Yehoshua. Yehoshua transmitted it to the Elders, the Elders to the Prophets, and the Prophets transmitted it to the Men of the Great Assembly. They [the Men of the Great Assembly] said three things: Be deliberate in judgement. Raise up many students. And make a fence around the Torah.
SOTF begins by establishing a “chain of custody” for the Torah. It lays claim to the authority of the Torah, which in the Jewish tradition means Divinely-given truth. (This commentary does not presuppose any traditional belief on the part of the reader; I myself had none at the point of first reading.) It is worthwhile explaining that in Jewish tradition the truth of the Torah is eternal but not static. The written text of the Torah is supplemented by the Oral Torah, which was eventually written down in the Talmud and the Midrash, and there are things in the written Torah that are not interpreted literally. And the process of interpretation goes on. It could be argued that the Torah is, in fact, inseparable from this continuing process of interpretation. The word Torah, though often translated “law,” actually means “teaching” or “direction.” It is what a community of teachers has transmitted through the generations. For present purposes, the reader might think of Torah as including any teaching that could help us to improve our world.
I will just share an “epiphany” that occurred to me toward the start of my progress toward Judaism. In one of Martin Buber’s books on Hasidism – I have looked for the place since, but never been able to find it again – there is an exchange in which a boy asks his father, “How do we know we are not wandering in one of the Worlds of Delusion?” The father answers, “We have the Torah, that is how we know.” I thought of a recent experience in which I had looked out a street through panes of colored glass and asked myself whether the colors I was seeing now, or the colors I ordinarily perceived, were “true.” Although I had no religious beliefs at the time, I found the father’s answer oddly persuasive. Even if you say the Torah is an arbitrary starting point, still from an arbitrary starting point you can create a world. Some think the code of our DNA is arbitrary.
The chain of transmission follows the chronology of the Tanakh (the Hebrew Bible), as supplemented by midrash, for the elders are not very clearly depicted in Tanakh. Moreover, in Tanakh the prophets are not clearly portrayed as links in a chain of transmission. While their language often echoes that of the written Torah (i.e. the Five Books of Moses), they claim inspiration directly from G-d. There are intermittent references to “the sons of the prophets” – evidently members of some group, perhaps a “school” of prophecy? – but the workings of such a group are never depicted. Yet the prophets evidently operated against some background of continuity, perhaps given simply by the fact that they were living among Israelites, in the land of Israel, where everyone was acquainted with the Torah, which was the basis of the “common world.”
According to rabbinic Judaism, prophecy basically ceased with the destruction of the First Temple in 586 BCE, though a few last prophets were still active at the beginning of the Second Temple period. With the destruction of the First Temple the aforesaid common world, the reality of an autonomous society living in its own country, was breached, and it was perhaps this integral reality that supplied the energy by which prophecy was powered. In the Second Temple period there was another class of writings – the “apocalyptic” writings, which told of the end of the world – which might be seen as a continuation of prophecy in a time of great stress. These writings, however, the rabbis rejected. Their concern was with how life could be perpetuated and lived well, and for such purposes apocalyptic writings were not useful.
The Men of the Great Assembly are post-Biblical, though according to the Talmud some of the last prophets belonged to the Great Assembly. They were evidently concerned with establishing guidelines for a situation in which the sense of direct, Divine guidance had dissipated, in which “the face of God is hidden.” The Great Assembly was said to consist of 120 members. It is unclear for how long they existed. They are credited with establishing the order of prayers and benedictions that form the framework of Jewish observance till the present day.
Though no record of the sessions of the Great Assembly has survived, perhaps one can compare the Great Assembly to the Constitutional Convention that took place in Philadelphia in 1787. The Constitutional Convention took place at a moment when the future of the new nation was in doubt. A loose confederation of states that had gained independence together, was threatened with reconquest by European powers. Some stronger structure was needed. Would they be able to agree on such a structure? Somehow they managed to do so, to the surprise of many; Catherine Drinker Bowen called her account of the convention “Miracle at Philadelphia.” Similarly, the Men of the Great Assembly had to create a framework for a people that no longer had complete political independence and was threatened with absorption by surrounding cultures.
The Great Assembly was perhaps an “academy” of the best minds of the time. But it was not an academy of scholars each concerned with making his own mark. It was not an assembly of authors of brilliant books. It was an assembly of people committed to thinking together about a common future.
This assembly of unnamed thinkers comes up with three pieces of advice, the first of which is “Be deliberate (metunim, derived from a root meaning “wait”) in judgment.”
It should be noted that the core audience of SOTF is men who may be called on to act as actual judges. The distinction between judge and layman is not sharp in Judaism; any three adult males who are orthodox in practice can constitute a court, though most courts consist of judges who have received special training.
However, it is not only judges who judge. All of us make judgments every day, those who consider themselves “nonjudgmental” included. To judge as judges are supposed to judge – by examination of all the evidence, evaluation of the credibility of witness, and application of sound logic – is given here as the first responsibility of a member of the community. For a community cannot be constituted of people who are always ready to condemn one another, or who act and speak on the basis of unexamined judgments.
The second piece of advice is “Raise up many students.” A person who has knowledge or understanding is bound to share it. The community envisaged by SOTF is a community of teachers and learners.
The third piece of advice – “Make a fence around the Torah” – seems at first glance mainly applicable within the Jewish world. While the Torah contains precepts that are universally applicable, it also contains instructions that are given specifically to the Jewish people. Such prohibitions are often surrounded with further regulations so as to prevent any approach to the forbidden act. For instance, it is forbidden to write on the Sabbath, so it is also forbidden to touch a pen or pencil, lest having touched it one should pick it up, and having picked it up one should write with it.
However, this principle does have a wider application. When one intends to keep a commitment, one also avoids situations that might tempt one to break the commitment, e.g. if one has sworn off alcohol, one does not attend a frat party. Moreover, anyone who has anything to do with rule-making needs to keep in mind that rule-breaking is a very popular sport. Therefore if only what is really harmful is prohibited, harm will follow, whereas a “zero tolerance” policy moves the battle lines farther from the city. Or as I said to my brother years ago, “Peg your limits well within the bearable, because they will be transgressed.”
Shimon the Righteous was among the last surviving members of the Great assembly. He would say: The world stands on three things: Torah, service (ha’avodah), and deeds of kindness.
We note the recurrence of the number three. This use of numbers continues throughout SOTF. This was an aid to memory (remember this was originally an oral tradition), like the techniques of poetry, which sometimes used to be called “numbers.”
(It does not hurt to be able to remember things, even if one has Google. Human memory helps hold the world together. That is why poetry could still be useful, if people could realize what they are throwing away when they stop reading poetry. Just thought I’d mention it.)
From the anonymity of the Great Assembly a name emerges, and from now on, for the most part, each saying will be attributed to one of the Talmudic sages.
In Shimon the Righteous’s saying, “the world” can be understood to refer to the community. (In Yiddish the word “oilem” – world – still means the community.) But in the Jewish view, humanity is the apex and purpose of creation, so if we destroy ourselves, we also destroy the rest of the world. It is said that if Israel had not accepted the Torah on Mount Sinai, Creation would have reverted to chaos. Confirming anecdote: on a plane I once sat next to a man who said he had worked in Kenya as an ecologist. Actually, he said, he ended up being more of a sociologist, because the way the people treated the environment depended on their social relations.
Of the three things that sustain the world/the community, “Torah” – the ongoing tradition of teaching and learning – is mentioned first. As aforesaid, Torah is on the one hand the “script” given on Mount Sinai, and on the other hand the continuing process of interpretation, teaching and learning.
Next comes “service” (ha’avodah). In Talmudic parlance, “ha’avodah” often refers to the Temple sacrifices, which were performed three times daily, with additional sacrifices on the Sabbath at the beginning of the lunar month, and on the holidays. In the time of Shimon the Righteous, these sacrifices were still being offered. After the Temple was destroyed, the morning, afternoon and evening prayers were viewed as substitutes for the sacrifices.
Why should these sacrifices have been believed to sustain the world? The Temple was believed to connect heaven and earth. We may note that the prescribed sacrifices – cattle, sheep, goats, grain – were the stuff of livelihood in an agricultural society. The Temple represented a dedication of human labor to a transcendent end. I have suggested that a modern substitute for the sacrifices might be a dedication of some part of one’s professional work to the construction of a better order of society. “Ha’avodah” can also be translated simply “work.” But clearly, it cannot mean work done solely for the profit of the worker or the corporation.
The third pillar of the world, according to Shimon the Righteous, is “deeds of kindness.” This covers not only charity but all forms of helpfulness.
That deeds of kindness are essential to any hope for the world should go without saying; but unfortunately, in my limited experience with movements for social change, it does not always. People seemed at times to feel that since they were protesting great injustices, they could afford to be a little careless when it came to relations with the mere individuals they happened to know. One of the characters in Sartre’s play No Exit is doomed for this very mistake. From the ‘60’s I remember a meeting in Berkeley, where I mentioned that people who want to change the world need to be careful not to put one another down – a suggestion that was greeted with embarrassed silence. A few years later I took part in a “Utopian” commune that broke apart precisely because some of the members were not nice to some of the others.
Recommended reading: Zelig Pliskin’s Love Your Neighbor, which undertakes to spell out what that injunction implies. It is not a slim volume. Here we see already the connection between “Torah” and “deeds of kindness” – if we sincerely wish to meet our obligations, we must put some effort into finding out what they are.
Not that the larger aims should be abandoned. We need to be looking for a way to address the growing social inequality which global corporate technocracy is producing. In the face of this, individual charity may not be enough. Economic inequality means that most of the money is in the hands of the rich, who are less inclined than other classes to donate money to the poor. Since the Industrial Revolution began replacing people with machines, it has been imperative to find some socioeconomic arrangement that does not result in all the money winding up in the hands of the machine-owners. It is an immense problem, to be addressed without slogans and with attention to the real consequences of any measures proposed. I can’t resist plugging in a poem of mine:
Antignos of Socho received from Shimon the Righteous. He would say: Do not be like slaves who serve their master for the sake of reward. Rather, be like slaves who serve their master not for the sake of reward. And the fear of Heaven should be upon you.
Here we encounter a metaphor which no longer works for most people. Slavery was a given of the ancient world (there is plenty of it today, but in the West, at least, it is not viewed as normative). The founding story of Judaism is the going forth from Egypt, where the Israelites were slaves to Pharaoh, toward the encounter at Mount Sinai, where they became “slaves” to God by accepting the commandments of the Torah.
Many commentators see the kingdom of Egypt as a metaphor for a deterministic world. The Torah with its commandments represents, so to speak, an alternative system of causality. If one accepts it, one is to some extent no longer subject to deterministic pressures, or at least is given strength to resist them. But on the other hand, one is no longer free to act in contravention of the commandments. Suppose, for instance, one accepts the Sabbath. (While Judaism does not regard the Sabbath as binding on non-Jews, a version of it was widely enforced in the United States until some years into the last century.) Having accepted the Sabbath, one is not free to do certain things for one day each week. However, acceptance of the Sabbath by a community creates a space in which people can interact for non-commercial purposes, in which culture and solidarity can arise. Without the day of rest, people are subject to the slavery of “24/7” – a relatively new expression that reflects this grim state of affairs.
Antignos’ saying also presupposes the belief that those who “serve G-d” are rewarded in some way – whether with prosperity in this world, or with a comfortable place in the next world. However, he wants “service” to be based not on such expectations, but on love for the “master” – again, a difficult metaphor to stomach in the light of our associations. However, if we replace the metaphor of the “master” with that of the “designer” of a better world, perhaps the suggestion will have a better flavor. Or we could think of G-d as the “composer” or the “conductor” of a piece of music. If we want to participate in a harmonious society, then we voluntarily try to play our parts in tune.
The second part of Antignos’ saying invokes the “fear of Heaven,” which again is not a popular concept in today’s culture. We have heard too much about rulers who inspire fear. However, in Judaism “fear of Heaven” has a dual meaning. There is the fear which is based on the aforesaid belief in reward and punishment. But there is also the kind of fear that accompanies love and reverence – if one loves and reveres someone, one does not want to do anything that would distress that person or lower one in that person’s estimation.
It is interesting that Antignos does not try to draw this second distinction, as we would expect given his injunction to serve G-d without hope of reward. Perhaps he sensed that it is difficult for some to refrain from wrongdoing without fear of punishment. Attempts to control crime without deterrence generally fail, though people keep trying. Perhaps before science cast doubt on the existence of a Creator who could deal out rewards and punishments, there was more ethical conduct; the Nazis, who rejected conscience, were like crows who have realized that the scarecrow is just straw. On the other hand, in times when fear of Divine punishment could be more effectively invoked, there was the Inquisition.
Maybe we need to learn to get along without the fear of Divine punishment, and for a deterrent make do with the vision of a world in which there is only the cost-benefit analysis and the bottom line. Or is that perhaps a version of Divine punishment?
Yossei the son of Yoezer of Tzreidah, and Yossei the son of Yochanan of Jerusalem, received from them. Yossei the son of Yoezer of Tzreidah would say: Let your home be a meeting place for the wise; get dusty from the dust of their feet, and drink their words thirstily.
Beginning here, SOTF likes to introduce the speakers in pairs, as if to emphasize the social nature of their thinking. Sometimes, though not always, the sayings of the two are in contrast. This reflects a pervasive awareness of duality: in Judaism there is one G-d, but there are also right and left, kindness and strictness, etc.
By “the wise,” SOTF means scholars versed in the oral traditions, in the details of the laws and the aggadot (legends) and midrashim. They were gifted with prodigious memory and keen analytical abilities. The deference which they demanded from their listeners was part of what sustained the tradition and facilitated the learning process (the more we respect people, the more readily we learn from them).
Modern society has no such class of people. But we can still read this as a call to reorient our social life toward learning from one another.
Yossei the son of Yochanan of Jerusalem says: Let your house be open wide, and let the poor be members of your household. And do not hold much talk with woman. This is said regarding one's own wife—how much more so regarding the wife of another. Thus the sages said: One who holds much talk with a woman brings evil on himself, neglects the study of Torah, and in the end inherits Gehinnom.
This saying has two parts. The first offers, by implication, a corrective to the emphasis on family. The value and importance of family life was an unquestioned given in Talmudic society. However, the practitioner is cautioned against allowing the family to become a closed circle. The home is to be "open wide," and particularly to those of lower economic status. (A mindset of "class warfare," of course, would not allow for this.) In Jewish communities, hospitality is exercised particularly on the Sabbath, when there is a truce the battle for survival, and it is easier to rise above divisions and envision a time when strife will cease; thus the Sabbath is called "a foretaste of the coming world."
But then we get to Yossei's second piece of advice, which, needless to say, is my least favorite saying in SOTF. Ms., which I was reading in the 70’s, would have put it in their “No Comment” section. Though the Talmud does record a few women’s voices, the tradition as established by these sages was basically a dialogue among men only; women were mostly excluded from intellectual life.
This, however, need not prevent women from learning from this or any other male-authored text. Despite all gender differences, there is much about us that is neither male nor female but simply human. The fact that men have had more opportunities to express these things, should not prevent women from learning what they can from them.
Why does a saying which begins by extolling openness to outsiders, end by closing the door on half the members of the household, as well as of society? Perhaps there is another point to be made here. I know of at least two major attempts to build an intellectual community that blew up because some of the participants fell in love with each other, others were hurt, etc. It seems as if the energy that brings people together is a higher form of erotic energy (the interpretation of the Song of Songs as an allegory of the love between G-d and Israel, bears witness to this), and the attempt to bring people together for a communal purpose can lead to such "short circuits." The rabbis avoided this problem by factoring women out of the equation. If we do not like the solution, still we should not ignore the problem.
(“Gehinnom” is sometimes translated “hell,” but does not mean hell in the sense of eternal punishment; Judaism holds that the maximum sentence in the afterlife is one year.)
Yehoshua the son of Perachya and Nitai the Arbelite received from them. Yehoshua the son of Perachia would say: Appoint for yourself a master, acquire for yourself a friend, and give every person the benefit of the doubt.
The phrase “Appoint for yourself a master” translates “’aseh lekha rav,” which can also be translated “make for yourself a teacher.” “Rav” means both “teacher” and “master”; the students of the sages were expected to serve them (perhaps a form of tuition). But note the verb “make.” A person is responsible for identifying someone from whom he or she can learn, even if it means appointing as a teacher someone who may not know much more than you. For those placed in the teacher’s role often grow into it, while assuming the attitude of a pupil develops humility—which, in society as in science, is indispensable to the attainment of truth.
In the second clause of the saying, the word “acquire” translates a word that can also be translated “buy.” Some of the commentators go so far as to say that if necessary one should even pay someone to be one’s friend! (Therapy…?) In any case, one is urged to invest in creating friendship, to go out of one’s way to win someone’s good will.
Maimonides notes that there are three types of friendships – friendships based on usefulness (as when I seek X’s friendship because X has connections in high places), friendship based on pleasure (someone to have fun with) and friendship based on dedication to some high aim. The last, he says, is what the sages had in mind (though I think we should also enjoy one another’s company). The rabbis of the Talmudic period were also known as chaverim (friends).
From the teacher to the friend, the circle expands to the whole of one’s acquaintance. In order to have hope for society, one must have faith in human beings, starting with everyone one meets, and this requires a conscious effort to give everyone the benefit of the doubt.
This injunction is related to the prohibition against speaking evil of others (lashon hara), which is strongly stressed in the Orthodox world. Lashon hara (“badmouthing” is a good translation) means spreading negative information about someone, even or precisely if it is true. The sages say that badmouthing kills three people – the one talked about, the one who speaks, and the one who listens. Badmouthing someone is justified only in order to protect another person from harm, e.g. to prevent someone from being cheated or abused.
Modern society has a serious badmouthing problem because of the media, which relay almost exclusively negative information. It is a problem of human nature that negative information tends to grab attention more than positive information, and the media are all about attention-grabbing. It is necessary to work against this tendency, by cultivating another kind of attention – by focusing on the positive traits in each person one encounters, on the positive things in the world.
This is especially important in interactions with people who hold different political views. However much one dislikes the other person's views, one must consider the possibility that they reflect some valid concern. The rules that apply in political debate are, of course, very different. Saul Alinsky states them candidly in Rules for Radicals. Speaking of the Declaration of Independence, he points out that the Declaration omits any mention of the benefits which the British government had conferred on the colonists. It was necessary to present British rule as completely negative in order to move the colonists to revolt. He writes:
The problem with this approach, from our point of view, is that it is helpful only when the intention is to separate oneself completely from the other side and to have no more to do with them. If, however, both sides are going to have to remain part of the same society, the approach is extremely harmful; it is vital that each side be listening for any valid points the other may be trying to make. Likewise, it is not helpful to divide people, as Alinsky does, into "haves" and "haven-nots," or any other classification based on power relationships between groups, because that excludes a priori the possibility of coming to an arrangement that reflects anything other than the balance of power. (If one doesn't believe in the possibility of arrangements that are actually just, there is nothing to talk about.)
Nitai the Arbelite would say: Distance yourself from a bad neighbor, do not cleave to a wicked person, and do not despair of retribution.
Here we meet the phenomenon of contrasting pairs, where the two represent somewhat opposite approaches. The student willing to follow the sages’ advice has to decide which approach to take in a given situation.
In contrast to Yehoshua ben Perachya, Nitai the Arbelite addresses the negative side of human interactions. The injunction to give everyone the benefit of the doubt applies only as long as there is doubt.
Nitai does not ask us to fight the carriers of negative energy – not even by talking about them – but simply to steer clear of them. This is not always easy because such people often gain a lot of power by intimidating others or drawing them into complicity. Thus if one wants to be effective oneself, it is tempting to try to associate with someone of this sort. Depending on one’s situation, resisting this temptation can be difficult. Perhaps it may sometimes help to find something good in the person to connect to. One can at least try not to connect on the basis of their negativity.
The last clause – “Do despair of retribution” – brings us to a problem that bothered the rabbis a lot, as it has bothered many people since: the prosperity of those who are willing to exploit and hurt others (“the wicked”). It is not only a theological problem but a social one: how do you encourage people to do the right thing and keep up their idealism, if wrongdoing so often brings success? There is the criminal justice system, there is social disapproval; but justice is often perverted and social disapproval can give way to the worship of success and the romanticization of evil. The rabbis’ solution, like that of some other religions, was to spread the idea that the wicked are punished in the afterlife. This displacement of deterrence to the afterlife, however it may have worked in the past, is probably less successful today due to the widespread skepticism about traditional religious beliefs.
However, the function of the idea of retribution in this saying is not so much deterrence (“the wicked” are not the target audience) but a dampening of the impression which the success of wrongdoing creates on others. Perhaps some of the same effect could be achieved by reminding ourselves that people who act on the principle of “dog eat dog” are living in a world where that principle prevails, and that cannot be a very pleasant world, despite the mansions and expensive cars and so forth.
On a more positive note, I think of another quotation from Buber’s works on Hasidism which I haven’t been able to trace: “Those who work for the coming world, live in the coming world.” As long as you yourself are acting on idealistic principles, you can have a vision of a world in which these principles prevail – whether here or in the hereafter, makes little difference.
The problem touched on in this saying has two further dimensions which did not exist in the rabbis’ time, or not to the same extent.
First, entertainment – especially commercial entertainment, funded and promoted by corporations – is far more pervasive today than in the ancient world. In a sense we associate with the characters in the shows we watch, the books we read (those who still read), the personae of the singers we listen to. Members of the community would need to evaluate their entertainment preferences in the light of Nitai the Arbelite’s admonition.
Second, the corporation is almost by definition an association of “the wicked.” Under the law, individuals are not personally liable for the obligations of the corporation. This denies individual responsibility, which is the basis of all moral law. The increasing dominance of this form of association is something that needs to be addressed; and it could only be addressed by legal means, by making new rules for the corporation that preserve individual responsibility. Hopefully the community could recruit some people trained in the law and willing to take on the task of formulation.
I see that I am wanting the community to be more actively opposed to “the wicked” than Nitai the Arbelite recommends. Nitai was living in a time of political oppression and apparently did not feel there was anything one could do about it, except try to keep oneself from being corrupted.
At this point I’m thinking of something that the poet Paul Celan is said to have said a few years before his suicide: “Against manipulation – and can anyone tell me what is not manipulation today – nothing helps except solitude.”
Rather than coming to that conclusion, I would wish the community to at least be able to dream of doing something about it. Here I must introduce a term that does not occur in Pirkei Avot – tikkun olam (repair of the world). You may have heard it tossed around in political discourse, as it was introduced around 2000 and quickly came to mean whatever slogan was in the air at the moment. But I first encountered the term “tikkun olam,” three decades earlier, even before my encounter with SOTF, in a book on Kabbala. I didn’t understand much of what it said about Kabbala, but the context suggested some kind of method that was grounded in a profound knowledge. Kabbala is mysticism, but it is a very intellectual kind of mysticism. It doesn’t operate by slogans.
A community that would seriously aim at changing society for the better, would come up against formidable intellectual problems, of which the reshaping of the corporation would be one. Great intellectual effort has gone into the pursuit of various interests that combine to degrade the world; some intelligence would need to be recaptured for use in its rehabilitation.
Yehudah the son of Tabbai and Shimon the son of Shetach received from them. Yehudah the son of Tabbai says: [When acting as judge] do not make yourself like an attorney. When the parties stand before you, consider them both guilty; and when they leave your courtroom, consider them both righteous, as they have accepted the judgment.
Shimon the son of Shetach says: Cross-examine the witnesses thoroughly. Be careful with your words, lest they learn from them how to lie.
These two sayings are addressed specifically to judges, in a much simpler system than the American court system. They are intended to guard the integrity of the judicial process.
We see that even back then there were attorneys who represented one party in a dispute. The first saying warns the judge against being like a lawyer, i.e. taking the part of either litigant. Perhaps today one might add a warning against being influenced by the manipulative tactics of lawyers. As I learned during a mistaken attempt to enter the legal profession in the 90’s, that profession has made the manipulation of judges and juries into a veritable science. Since lawyers who are expert at this command high fees, in effect justice today is sold to the highest bidder. Fixing this system would be another distant aim of the community.
Shmayah and Avtalyon received from them. Shmayah would say: Love work, hate lordship, and do not cultivate acquaintance with the government.
The word translated as “work” in Shmaayah’s saying is not “avodah” but “malachah”, which means specifically the practical activities which one does for a living and which are forbidden on Shabbat. Perhaps one could translate: it is better to make a living in some simply useful occupation than to be a professional intellectual.
Today the injunction to “love work” seems more difficult than ever to follow, given that so many of the jobs that might have been lovable are now done by machines and independent enterprise gives way to corporate servitude. One of the challenges facing an intelligent community would be to devise ways of 1) distributing more evenly the fruits of technology and 2) enabling people to live dignified lives even when the labor market no longer wants them. I sometimes think those haredi (“ultra-Orthodox”) men who devote their time to study and are always being criticized for not contributing to the economy, may be onto something. (The haredim also do a lot of volunteer work.)
The second clause of Shmayah’s saying seems in contrast to the words of Yehoshua ben Perachiya. Yehoshua ben Perachiya tells us to “make for yourself a master (rav),” while Shmayah tells us to hate “lordship” (rabbanut). Presumably a “master” in Yehoshua ben Perachiya’s sense is one who teaches, while “mastery” in Shmaayah’s sense means control. But of course control can be sought on a pretext of teaching.
The common denominator of both injunctions is the quality of humility. A person who is humble seeks to learn from others and is not quick to offer to lead or teach them. In Jewish tradition humility was the most important quality of Moses, who was reluctant to accept the call to leadership.
Taken together, these two sayings place a responsibility on all of us for identifying, indeed in a sense creating, those who can lead us in the right direction. Contests among those who desire mastery over others do not produce good government. Democracy without a discerning and responsible electorate is hollow.
The third clause of Shmayah’s saying reminds us that the Talmud was written down in a situation where good government was not an achievable aim. The people were under the domination of rulers who did not share their values. For the most part, the rabbis did not try to overthrow those rulers; instead, they built a culture that would outlast them. Shmayah’s counsel in this situation is to stay “under the radar” rather than courting the influence of people in high places, whether because these people are fundamentally unsympathetic, or because enlisting their influence may cause one to become a tool of their program of domination.
Avtalyon would say: Scholars, be careful with your words, lest you incur the penalty of exile and be exiled to a place of evil waters, and the students who will come after you will drink and die, and the name of Heaven will be profaned.
This saying is somewhat puzzling. It seems to refer to some specific set of circumstances, which the reader cannot quite reconstruct. But it evidently reflects an experience of the environment as unfriendly. There are two dangers here: first, that incautious speech may draw reprisals from the powers that be; and second, that in the wrong context the teachings may be distorted and cause harm rather than good. One modern commentator (Rabbi David Rosenfeld, https://torah.org/series/pirkei-avos/) associated at this point to Facebook.
Hillel and Shammai received from them. Hillel says: Be of the disciples of Aaron, loving peace, pursuing peace, loving people and drawing them close to Torah.
Hillel and Shammai are the classic example of paired opposites. In the Talmud, Hillel emphasizes kindness and leniency, and Shammai represents judgmental strictness. Hillel’s view generally prevails, though it is said that in the Messianic age Shammai’s view will prevail, as people will then be under less pressure to compromise and thus freer to follow the commandments.
In this saying, Hillel allies himself with Aaron rather than with Moses the lawgiver. This is typical of the way the tradition elaborates on the Biblical account. In the Bible, the one instance in which Aaron’s relation to the people is portrayed, is when Aaron yields to the people’s urging and makes the golden calf, to the displeasure of G-d and Moses! But the tradition builds the figure of Aaron into that of a peacemaker. One story is that he would approach each party to a quarrel and tell him or her that the other is really anxious to reconcile, thus bending the truth in order to bring them together. The view here is that since Moses, the possessor of absolute truth, is no longer among us, it is best to take a path of conciliation and even compromise, though without abandoning the ultimate aim of teaching.
He would say: One who aggrandizes his name, destroys his name. One who does not increase, decreases. One who does not learn deserves death. And one who makes use of the crown [of Torah] shall pass away.
This saying does not exemplify Hillel’s reputation for leniency; on the contrary, it seems to point a path very difficult to follow.
And here I am going to belabor a point, relentlessly, ad nauseam. I shall fulminate, I shall rant. Because there is something that needs to be said loudly and over and over, until people get it.
“One who aggrandizes his name, destroys his name.” A long time ago, the child that I was then expressed a wish to have her picture in the paper. Her mother responded with a saying: “Fools’ names and fools’ faces always appear in public places.” This stuck in my mind, perhaps because of the rhyme, and has come back to me in various contexts since. I think my mother said she got it from her mother, who (since her parents’ language was not English) probably learned it in school late in the 19th century, when there were still a lot of places that were not public: the family, the circle of friends, the neighborhood, the local congregation.
Today, it often seems that publication and publicity are everything – that not enough importance is attached to exchanges of thoughts, ideas, writings, among friends. If you are a writer, people are more likely to inquire if you are published than to ask to see your writings. The effects of this on intellectual life are disastrous.
Someone has an idea, and they write a book. The idea then becomes their property. In order to be a profitable property it has to be distinct from anyone else’s ideas on the subject. And once a book is published, it is generally set in stone. It may make some valid points, but overlook some important aspect of the question. The author is then identified with this partial truth, which sells books, enables them to give lecture tours, and perhaps assures their tenure at some institution of learning.
Suppose you have just read a book about some pressing social / environmental problem. The author has given a brilliant analysis, and in the last chapter starts to approach the question how we might solve the problem. This chapter is a bit sketchy, as such chapters tend to be. (This widespread phenomenon deserves a name – perhaps simply Last Chapter Syndrome.) You have some ideas about how the author’s suggestions could be expanded and applied, and you manage to get hold of an address (a few authors do provide an address at the end of the book or on their websites), and you write the author a letter. In reply, you may get a) crickets b) a letter from a secretary saying that your letter will be passed on to the author or c) in rare cases, a few lines actually signed by the author, thanking you for sharing. And books like this keep getting written and people keep reading them. I guess such books give people the impression that someone is minding the store. That impression is so erroneous. And as to whatever good intentions may have prompted the writing of those books – well, on first tumbling to this situation, back in 1971, I sputtered:
Once again: A couple of years ago I saw a movie which alleged and attempted to document a vast global conspiracy. I found it fairly convincing, but that is not the point here. The point is that on going to the filmmaker’s website, I looked for a “contact us” page; surely he’d want to hear from people who’d be interested in organizing? There was none. Only an opportunity to subscribe.
It was not always this way. The oeuvre of many authors from previous generations includes a volume or so of letters, which were originally written not for publication but just to share thoughts with someone whose opinion the author evidently respected. In one of her letters Edna St. Vincent Millay wrote that she felt obliged to reply to every reader who wrote to her; she felt it as an onerous duty, but she did it. The letters of Rilke are equal in bulk to the rest of his work. The letters of Flaubert to one of his readers are a classic in themselves. But the current intellectual industry divides us into those who have achieved publicity and those who haven’t, and the latter are as present to the former as the audience behind the footlights to an actor. (This phenomenon also deserves a name – one might call it “footlight blindness.”)
I once had the privilege of living in a milieu (Berkeley in the 1960’s) where a lot of people were writing poetry and exchanging it, not with the idea of publication but just as part of a conversation about life. A number of the poems that were shared then still come back to me today. Most of the poets, I never heard of again. But I later saw published poems by two of them. It wasn’t the same. The obsession with publication is very damaging to poetry.
When you rely on published sources, you are reading what someone else has decided you should read. And these gatekeepers very often are choosing to transmit, not what they themselves like, but what they think that someone else would like, or what fits the particular stencil of the organization they work for. I once sent some poems to an editor who told me she shared them with her family, but they weren’t right for the magazine (a family magazine).
Perhaps we were better off without the printing press. The Divine Comedy was circulated in manuscript for a couple of centuries.
How could the situation be mitigated? Well, if this ever comes to the attention of any prosperously published authors, they might consider devoting some part of their revenues to hiring a secretary who thoroughly understands them and who could respond to readers and connect them with one another. Maybe serious writers, those who have something to say and want to make sure their messages connect with others and elicit some commitment, could form an association of bloggers committed to reading one another. There must be some way out of here.
Hey, that was only 1019 words. Please read them over and over. They are worth the next ten books you may read on pressing social questions. I can be reached at derondareview at g mail.
The second part of the Hillel’s saying – “He who does not increase, decreases,” is uncontroversial; no one will disagree with the idea that you have to keep learning and growing.
The third clause –“And one who makes use of the crown [of Torah] shall pass away” – reminds me of someone whose career I followed for a number of years, because he was a good writer and I found his analyses articulate and insightful. When the protest movement he headed got started, he was a small businessman. At a certain point he and his closest associate decided that they needed to give up their outside occupations and become full-time organizers. From that time on, the movement ceased to consist of people who were equally concerned and co-responsible. It became divided into a few people who acted (mostly theatrically) and a larger number who donated. The two became media personalities (see preceding). The movement became one more organization whose main preoccupation was fundraising (after staff salaries, the funds went for bumper stickers, posters, videos and the like). The movement created few connections among its supporters, and as time went on the supporters became disillusioned and dropped off. To compensate, the leaders began to seek support from a wide variety of interest groups whose concerns had nothing to do with the original reason for the movement, and its program became a hodgepodge. I don’t know what the two leaders are doing for a living today; they are still around, but nobody takes them seriously.
Had he resisted the temptation to make the movement his source of income, he would have had less time to devote to it. But the movement would have lasted longer if a number of people had committed to it what time they could, and concentrated on internal communications and person-to-person outreach.
He would say: If I am not for myself, who is for me? And if I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?
This statement of Hillel’s tells us that we are not only offered the choice between selfless absorption into a collective (being “not for myself”) and mere egoism (being “only for myself”). Individuals have needs which they must insist on being met, wishes that they are right to pursue. But life is only meaningful when it is also lived for something beyond the self.
The last clause I read as an admonition not to leave action to the next generation, on the grounds that “the time is not right.” The time is always right.
Shammai would say: Make your Torah study a regular commitment. Say little and do much. And receive every man with a pleasant countenance.
Shammai, you will remember, is commonly seen as representing the principle of self-restraint and strictness. And structure. Whatever you can learn or do in order to help the community, it should be constant commitment, even if you can only give a few minutes a day. “Say little and do much” speaks for itself. The last clause may be compared to Hillel’s advice to be like the “disciples of Aaron.” Shammai does not expect one to be necessarily outgoing, but pleasantness to everyone is part of the discipline.
A friend who is a teacher commented:
My friend’s point is well taken. Today, to counteract the pressures toward isolation, we should be trying to emulate the outgoing approach of Hillel.
Rabban Gamliel would say: Appoint for yourself a master; keep away from doubt; and do not frequently tithe by estimation.
The first clause repeats the first clause of Yehoshua ben Perachia’s advice, from which Rabban Gamliel proceeds in another direction: “keep away from doubt.” To those who hold no theological belief, this might still be an injunction to keep one’s faith in the possibility of making things better. Cynicism and doubt are a waste of energy.
The third clause refers to the Torah-mandated practice of giving a tenth of one’s income to charity, which, like many of the Torah’s commandments, has precise quantitative measurements.
A friend commented: “A tenth of my small income after taxes would leave me on the street. I hope they recognize different income groups.”
Answer: First, this is a commandment specially for Jews – it doesn’t necessarily apply outside that community. Second, I gather that sometimes taxes are counted as tithes, and there are various ways of adjusting the amount, depending on circumstances. Third, many of the Jewish communities of the past were unimaginably poor, yet this expectation remained in place. Even those receiving charity were expected to give charity!
His son, Shimon, would say: All my life I have grown up among the wise, and I have found nothing better for the body than silence. The main thing is not study, but action. And one who talks excessively brings on sin.
Like many of the rabbis’ sayings, this one seems directed against the temptation of intellectuals to show off! No tradition values study more highly than theirs, but they emphasize that the main aim of study is not to be brilliant but to learn how to serve the Creator – in our terms, how to do some good to the world. I am not sure I understand how excessive talking brings on sin, but I can say that in a meeting, when someone cannot stop talking, it does considerable harm.
A friend commented: “As we know from history, silence can also be dangerous.”
True. As it says in Ecclesiastes, there is “a time to speak, and a time to be silent.”
Rabbi Shimon the son of Gamliel would say: On three things the world stands: on truth, on judgment, and on peace. As it is said (Zachariah 8:16), "Truth, and a judgment of peace, you shall judge in your gates.''
Rabbi Shimon gives a different set of “three pillars” than Shimon the Righteous. Here, the sage is thinking chiefly of judges and their responsibility to the community. But we can all reflect on the importance of judging justly – and also on the challenge of reconciling truth and peace, which do not always readily combine.
This chapter of SOTF is focused primarily on the individual, though the community is never forgotten. I shall not have as much to say about it as about the first chapter. The maxims will give the reader an idea of the rabbis' vision of character and a glimpse into their workshop as teachers.
Rabbi [Yehudah HaNassi] says: What is the straight path that a person should choose? himself? Whatever is harmonious (tiferet) to oneself, and harmonious to others. Be as careful with a minor mitzvah (commandment) as with a major one, for you do not know the rewards of the mitzvot. Weigh the cost of a mitzvah against its rewards, and the rewards of a transgression against its cost. Contemplate three things, and you will not come to the hands of transgression: Know what is above you: a seeing eye, a listening ear, and all your deeds written in a book.
The man referred to as Rabbi -- Yehudah the Nassi, a word which in modern Hebrew means "president" -- was the head of the scholars of his generation, and thus his words set a framework for the chapter. Like Hillel's saying in the first chapter, Rabbi's first sentence points out the need to balance personal development with the needs of others. The word "tiferet" has a spectrum of meanings. In its first use in the Torah it means "glory" with a connotation of power. Elsewhere the meaning is close to "beauty". In the Kabbala, the esoteric teachings that have become somewhat popularized lately, Tiferet is the synthesis of kindness and strictness and is sometimes interchangeable with rachamim (compassion). The choice of "tiferet" to express the ideal of personality is consonant with the idea of the tselem Elokim, the Divine image in the human being, which is one of the central concepts in Judaism. Right conduct is that which preserves this vision of human dignity, in oneself and in others.
The second and third sentences are directed specifically to those who follow the very complicated system of commandments that are incumbent upon Jews. Some of these commandments have a meaning and purpose that is easy to discern (like not working on Shabbat) while others appear arbitrary (like not wearing a mixture of linen and wool). But the practitioner is asked to accept the system as a whole and not pick and choose.
More generally, one is asked to behave on the assumption that one’s right or wrong conduct will be repaid in kind by a higher authority that observes and records what people do. (Those who do not believe this can still accept it in the spirit of Bokonon, the fictional sage of Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle: “Live by the foma [fables] that make you brave and kind and healthy and happy.”)
Rabban Gamliel the son of Rabbi Yehudah HaNassi would say: Beautiful is the study of Torah with the way of the earth, for the labor of them both causes sin to be forgotten. Ultimately, all Torah study that is not accompanied with work will be neglected and lead to sin.
Those who work with the community should do so for the sake of Heaven; for the merit of their ancestors will help them, and their righteousness will endure forever. As for you, [says G‑d,] I shall credit you with great reward as if it was your doing.
"The way of the earth (derekh eretz)" here means earning a living. In the view of the rabbis, it is vital to be involved in the work of the world rather than wholly devoted to study. Without involvement in the world, study ceases to be meaningful. See also Hillel's comment above.
The second paragraph is directed to community leaders. Its second sentence is somewhat obscure, but some read it as saying that if the leaders inspire the community to do good things, they are credited with the community’s accomplishments.
Be careful with the government, for they only cultivate a person for their own purposes. They appear as friends when it is useful to them, but they do not stand by a person in his hour of need.
This may be compared to the third clause of Shmaayah’s saying in 1:10. Shmaayah focuses on the negative effects which the courting of the powerful may have on one’s character, while Rabban Gamliel focuses on the external consequences.
He would also say: Make His will your own will, so that He should make your will His own will. Nullify your will before His will, so that He should nullify others’ will before your will.
This is one saying that seems to me a bit dangerous. We are all familiar with the phenomenon of piety which is really a way of dominating others. But this sentence can also be understood to say that if a person's intention is truly for the good of the world, then others will perceive the intention and adopt it.
Hillel says: Do not separate yourself from the community. Do not believe in yourself until the day of your death. Do not judge your fellow until you have stood in his place. Do not say something that cannot be understood [thinking] that it will ultimately be understood [or: Do not say something that ought not to be heard, for ultimately it will be heard]. And do not say "When I have leisure, I will study,'' for perhaps you will never have leisure.
“Do not separate yourself from the community” is basic to SOTF. The romanticism of the lone wolf, of the one who is right while the community is wrong, does not appeal to the sages. Yet the saying “Do not believe in yourself until the day of your” is not meant to undermine faith in oneself. Hillel after all said “If I am not for myself, who is for me?” Here he is telling us to keep in mind that we are fallible, that there is no guarantee we will not wake up tomorrow thinking “Oh no, why did I do that?” This, like not judging others till one has put oneself in their place, is essential to living in a community, since infallible individuals seldom get along with one another. Hence, too (see also the comment on “make a fence around the Torah”), one should avoid situations that may test one too far.
He used to say: A boor cannot be sin-fearing, an ignoramus cannot be pious, a bashful person cannot learn, an impatient person cannot teach, and not everyone who does much business becomes wise. In a place where there are no men, strive to be a man (ish).
The first two clauses emphasize once again that in order to act rightly one must have studied and reflected on what right conduct is. (When it comes to right conduct, the sages are not great believers in instinct.)
A friend, strongly disagreeing that “an ignoramus cannot be pious,” tells the following story:
I agree that this perspective is important. I think SOTF is contemplating people who could study but don’t, who choose not to think about what they are doing.
In the last part of this passage, the term “ish” is masculine, but it refers not so much to gender as to character. An “ish” is someone who takes responsibility. (In this sense the nineteenth-century feminist Lucretia Mott is said to have said, “I wish I were a man, because then there would be one.”) Again we see the desire of SOTF that leadership should arise not from dominance contests but as a response to the need of the community.
He also saw a skull floating upon the water. He said to it: Because you drowned others, you were drowned; and those who drowned you, will themselves be drowned.
A picturesque statement of the belief in retribution.
He used say: The more flesh, the more worms; the more possessions, the more worry; the more wives, the more witchcraft; the more maidservants, the more promiscuity; the more man-servants, the more thievery; the more Torah, the more life; the more study, the more wisdom; the more counsel, the more understanding; the more charity, the more peace. One who acquires a good name, acquires it for himself; one who acquires words of Torah, has acquired life in the World to Come.
This is my second least favorite of the sayings, because while recommending the choice of a life of study and charity rather than materialistic acquisition, he does not seem concerned about the people treated as possessions. I am also a little surprised by the last sentence. A “good name” is acquired by ethical behavior, and it surely seems that ethical behavior, as well as study, would assure life in the World to Come. The contrary implication would not be typical. However, the sentence does typify the high spiritual value that is placed on study.
Rabban Yochanan the son of Zakkai received from Hillel and Shammai. He would say: If you have learned much Torah, do not give yourself the credit, since it is for this that you were formed.
One more admonition to humility. High as is the value that the sages place on study, they are equally anxious that intellectual prowess should not lead to conceit. A person did not give oneself their intellectual abilities.
If all intellectually gifted persons would have this firmly in mind, it might avoid the resentment of the less gifted, which fuels anti-intellectualism and can sometimes even turn life-threatening. (I am thinking of one terrible mass shooting at a university, which was committed by a not very gifted student.)
Rabban Yochanan the son of Zakkai had five disciples: Rabbi Eliezer the son of Hurkenos, Rabbi Yehoshua the son of Chananya, Rabbi Yossei the Kohen, Rabbi Shimon the son of Netanel, and Rabbi Elazar the son of Arach. He used to enumerate their praises: Rabbi Eliezer the son of Hurkenos is a cemented cistern that loses not a drop; Rabbi Yehoshua the son of Chananya---happy is she who gave birth to him; Rabbi Yossei the Kohen---a chassid (pious one); Rabbi Shimon the son of Netanel fears sin; Rabbi Elazar ben Arach is like an ever-increasing wellspring.
[Rabbi Yochanan] used to say: If all the sages of Israel were to be in one pan of the scale, and Eliezer the son of Hurkenos in the other, he would outweigh them all. Abba Shaul said in his name: If all the sages of Israel, including Eliezer the son of Hurkenos, were to be in one pan of the scale, and Elazar the son of Arach in the other, he would outweigh them all.
Rabbi Yochanan is one of the greatest of the Talmudic teachers; he is given a major share of the credit for the regrouping of the sages and the preservation of the tradition after the destruction of the Temple in 73 CE. He is shown here in his quality as a teacher appreciative of his students and sensitive to their different qualities of mind.
[Rabbi Yochanan] said to them: Go and see which is the good way that a person should cleave to. Rabbi Eliezer says: A good eye. Rabbi Yehoshua says: A good friend. Rabbi Yossei says: A good neighbor. Rabbi Shimon says: One who sees what is born [i.e. the consequences]. Rabbi Elazar says: A good heart. He said to them: I prefer the words of Elazar the son of Arach to yours, for your words are included in his.
A “good eye” is generosity; an “evil eye” is stinginess. It should be noted that the Hebrew word “lev,” generally translated “heart,” often means “mind” as well. Here, Rabbi Shimon’s “To see what is born,” i.e. to predict the future from the present, is something which we would consider an intellectual ability, but it is included, along with “a good eye,” in “a good heart.”
He said to them: Go and see what is the evil way that a person should keep away from. Rabbi Eliezer says: An evil eye. Rabbi Yehoshua says: An evil friend. Rabbi Yossei says: An evil neighbor. Rabbi Shimon says: One who borrows and does not repay; for to borrow from man is to borrow from the Almighty, as is stated, ``The wicked borrows and does not pay back; but the righteous is gracious and gives’’ (Psalms 37:21). Rabbi Elazar says: An evil heart. He said to them: I prefer the words of Elazar the son of Arach to yours, for your words are included in his.
They each said three things:
Rabbi Eliezer says: The honor of your fellow should be as dear to you as your own, and do not be quick to anger. Repent one day before your death. Warm yourself by the fire of the sages, but be beware of their coal lest you be burnt; for their bite is the bite of a fox, their sting is the sting of a scorpion, their hiss is the hiss of a viper, and all their words are like coals of fire.
On Rabbi Eliezer’s second sentence, the Gemara elaborates: “Rabbi Eliezer would say: Repent one day before your death. His students asked: Does a man know the day he will die? He said to them: In that case, he should repent today, for perhaps tomorrow he will die; so that all his days are passed in a state of repentance. Indeed, so said Solomon in his wisdom (Ecclesiastes 9:8): “Let your garments always be white, and your head not lack oil'" (Talmud, Shabbat 153a).” We note that being in a state of “repentance” is associated with being well dressed! Again we are back to the ideal of tiferet. The word translated as “repentance” is teshuvah, which literally means “return.” To do teshuvah is to resume one’s primal dignity.
With the third sentence, a bit of history is inserted here, perhaps also some self-criticism of the movement. As recounted in the Gemara, Rabbi Eliezer was one of the leaders of his generation, but on one point he differed with the majority and refused to accept their opinion. As a result, his colleagues ostracized him, and he died while still under the ban.
Rabbi Yehoshua says: An evil eye, the evil inclination, and the hatred of one's fellows, drive a person from the world.
In the discussions of the Talmud, it appears that the “evil inclination” most often means the sexual urge. (In today’s usage the term covers any impulse recognized as unconstructive.) In the rabbinic ethos, sexual desire is expected to be satisfied within marriage and somewhat damped down even there. Yet Rabbi Akiba held that the collection of erotic poetry known as the Song of Songs is the “holy of holies”! The explanation for this seeming paradox is that the rabbis interpreted the Song of Songs as an allegory of the love between the Creator and the community. In Freudian terms, erotic energy was supposed to be “sublimated” into the devotion to God and the people.
This, of course, is now totally obsolete. For the last century or so we have all been deluged with messages, ranging from high art through psychology to pornography, to the effect that unlimited sexual indulgence is everyone’s right and privilege, and that sexual pleasure is the summit of human fulfillment and above all, a mark of freedom. But promiscuity destroys social bonds and leaves people isolated and vulnerable to pressures. It is time to understand who has sold us this bill of goods and for what purpose.
I am writing these lines, reader, and have written much else, thanks to the support of my dear parents of blessed memory who, when I felt I had to embark on a non-remunerative path in order to develop certain ideas independently, were there for me, as they would not have been if they had split up to follow each their own desires. Ultimately only those are free who can count on others.
Rabbi Yossei says: Let property of your fellow be as dear to you as your own. Prepare yourself for the study of Torah, for it is not an inheritance to you. And all your deeds should be for the sake of Heaven.
Rabbi Shimon says: Be careful in the reading of the Shma and in prayer. When you pray, do not make your prayers routine, but [a plea for] mercy and a supplication before the Almighty, as is stated ``For He is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and great in loving kindness, and relenting of evil'' (Joel 2:13). And do not be wicked in your own eyes.
The last clause balances Hillel’s admonition “Do not believe in yourself till the day you die.” Knowledge of one’s own fallibility does not mean losing faith in one’s own basic goodness.
Rabbi Elazar says: Be diligent in the study of Torah. Know what to answer a skeptic. And know before whom you toil, and who is your employer who will pay you the reward of your labors.
Since belief in a Creator who rewards and punishes good and bad deeds was basic to the sages’ way of life, they were constantly needing to deal with the skeptic philosophies which were already present in the Roman empire. See the comment on the first saying in this chapter.
The third clause introduces the metaphor of God as an employer, which we shall also see in the next two sayings. The employer is an authority figure, like the king, another frequent metaphor. But the employer metaphor places less emphasis on obedience to authority and more on the work to be done.
Rabbi Tarfon says: The day is short, there is a lot of work, the workers are lazy, the reward is great, and the employer is pressing.
He would also say: It is not incumbent upon you to complete the task, but neither are you free to desist from it. If you have learned much Torah, you will be greatly rewarded, and your employer is faithful to pay you the reward of your labors. And know that the reward of the righteous is in the World to Come.
The first clause of this saying is one of my favorites.
On the one level it is saying: you are responsible for what you can do, and no more. But behind it is an awareness that the work is not yours alone, that you are just one worker on a very big project. What you do will not be complete in itself, but it will contribute to the completion of something larger.
This saying is quoted by the critic Harold Bloom in a provocative and much-discussed book entitled The Anxiety of Influence, which reflects on the cult of the individual artist, the “strong” poet who, anxious to appear original, tries to disguise his debts to his predecessors. (All of Bloom’s “strong” poets are male.) Over time, Bloom theorizes, this tendency leads to cultural decline. Bloom seems to consider this decline inevitable; only at one point does he note that there is an alternate approach, and then he quotes Rabbi Tarfon’s saying.
In the Talmud there are no great individual works, just this continuum of thought that is often compared to the ocean. SOTF is a sample; it has no single author, but a number of speakers whose words add onto one another.
Akavya the son of Mahalalel would say: Reflect upon three things and you will not come to the hands of transgression. Know from whence you came, whither you are going, and before whom you are destined to render an account. From whence you came—from a stinking drop; whither you are going—to a place of dust, maggots and worms; and before whom you are destined to render—before the King of kings of kings, the Holy One, blessed be He.
This is not a pleasant saying; the “tiferet” approach of Rabbi Yehudah the Prince in the first saying of the preceding chapter is much more likeable. Akavya recommends trying to dampen the impulse to transgress – primarily, probably, the sexual impulse – by instilling disgust of one’s physical being, and also invoking an intimidating image of G-d. If one has decided that one needs to control an impulse and other methods aren’t working, perhaps this would be helpful, I don’t know.
Rabbi Chanina, deputy to the kohanim, would say: Pray for the welfare of the government; for if not for the fear thereof, each one would swallow his fellow alive.
The government in Rabbi Chanina’s time was the Roman government, which ruled Judea with an iron hand and eventually destroyed the Temple. According to some accounts, Rabbi Chanina himself was executed by the Romans. Yet according to the saying ascribed to him, even a terrible government is preferable to anarchy! One wonders if he regretted this saying at the last; in any case, his colleagues preserved it in his name.
A fruitful comparison can be made between SOTF and Saul Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals (1971). Alinsky aimed at righting various wrongs in society. He apparently achieved some local successes. But he relied on tactics which, even though “nonviolent,” were disruptive rather than constructive. They have been copied by groups with widely differing ideologies, but his method has not built a lasting community, and may have contributed to the social chaos we are now experiencing. SOTF accepts the prevailing order, however unsatisfactory, as a framework, and builds within it.
Rabbi Chanina son of Tradyon would say: Two who sit and no words of Torah pass between them, this is a session of scoffers, as is stated, "And in a session of scoffers he did not sit" (Psalms 1:1). But two who sit and exchange words of Torah, the Divine Presence rests among them, as is stated, "Then they who feared the Lord spoke to one another, and G‑d-fearing spoke to one another, and G‑d listened and heard; and book of remembrance was written before Him for those who fear the Lord and give thought to His name" (Malachi 3:16). From this, I know only two; how do I know that even one who sits and occupies himself with the Torah, G‑d appoints him a reward? From the verse, "Let him sit alone in silence, and he will receive [a reward] for it.” (Lamentations 3:28).
This and the following saying, as well as 3.6, urge us to devote the time we spend with friends to learning and teaching – which happens in any serious conversation – rather than to talk about trivialities. Time alone should also be used for learning (see also 3.4). Any free time people have is a precious resource. To drive this point home, the rabbis use drastic threats and are lavish with promises of reward.
I think of a time many years ago when my younger brother, then nineteen years old, stopped to visit me on his travels around the country. A friend of his was also passing through, and before going their separate ways they exchanged book lists.
(Note that the scriptural verses which are quoted in the above passage are interpreted quite freely, and not quite in accordance with their original intent. Interpreting scripture in this way allowed the rabbis to keep in touch with the authoritative text while speaking to the present occasion.)
Rabbi Shimon would say: Three who at at one table and did not speak words of Torah over it, it is as if they have eaten of idolatrous sacrifices; as is said, “For all the tables are full of vomit and excrement, without a [clean] place [or: without the Omnipresent, who is sometimes referred to with the word “Makom (Place)"] (Isaiah 28:8). But three who ate at one table and spoke words of Torah over it, it is as if they ate from G‑d's table, as is stated, "And he said to me: This is the table that is before G‑d" (Ezekiel 41:22).
Rabbi Chanina the son of Chachina'i says: One who stays awake at night, or walks alone on the road, and turns his heart to idleness, has forfeited his life.
A person is enjoined to use even the hours of solitude for constructive thoughts, and this injunction is backed up with a drastic warning. Every moment, of course, is some fraction of one’s life, which one “forfeits” by not using the time well. At every moment, there is something one can accomplish.
Rabbi Nechunya the son of Hakanah would say: One who takes upon himself the yoke of Torah is exempted from the yoke of government and the yoke of derekh eretz; but one who casts off the yoke of Torah, the yoke of government duties and the yoke of derekh eretz will be laid upon him.
“Derekh eretz,” which, as we saw earlier, can mean “earning a living.” Contrast 2:3: “Beautiful is Torah with derekh eretz.” SOTF incorporates different approaches. Here, however, perhaps Rabbi Nechunia is speaking to those who claim they are too busy to study, saying that if you do not study you are liable to have difficulties with the government and with earning a living, because your worldly affairs will not be blessed.
Rabbi Chalafta the son of Dosa of the village of Chananya would say: Ten who sit together and occupy themselves with Torah, the Divine Presence rests among them, as is said: "The Almighty stands in the congregation of G‑d" (Psalms 82:1). And from where do we know that this is also true when they are five? As it is said, "Who founded his group on earth" (Amos 9:6). And three? As it is said, "He judges among the judges" (Psalms 82:1). And two? As it is said, "Then they who feared the Lord spoke to one another, and G‑d listened and heard" (Malachi 3:16). And from where do we know that this is true even of one? As it is said, "Every place where I cause my name to be pronounced, I willll come to you and bless you" (Exodus 20:21).
Rabbi Elazar of Bartosa would say: Give to Him from what is His, for you, and all that is yours, are His. As David says: "For all is from You, and from Your own hand we give to You" (I Chronicles 29:14).
Rabbi Yaakov would say: One who walks along a road and reviews his learning, and interrupts his review to say, "How beautiful is this tree!", "How beautiful is this plowed field!"--- Scripture regards him as having forfeited his life (soul).
Many people have objected to Rabbi Yaakov’s statement, perhaps beginning with the Zohar, Judaism’s central mystical text; in one passage a group of sages are sitting in a grove of trees and make a point of praising its beauty, evidently considering natural beauty as a means to spiritual elevation. In the context of this chapter, it is one more extreme statement aimed at getting people to study! The beginning of the next saying is in the same vein.
The word for life (soul), here and in the following passage, is nefesh, which means approximately “the force which animates the body.”
Rabbi Dostai the son of Rabbi Yannai in the name of Rabbi Meir: Anyone who forgets one word of his learning, Scripture regards it as if he had forfeited his life. As is said, "Only take care and guard your soul (life) greatly, lest you forget the things that your eyes have seen" (Deuteronomy 4:9). One might think that this applies to one who whose studies were too hard for him; but the verse continues "and lest they be removed from your heart all the days of your life." Thus one does not forfeit his life unless he sits and removes them from his heart.
Rabbi Chanina the son of Dosa would say: One whose fear of sin takes precedence over his wisdom, his wisdom endures. But one whose wisdom takes precedence over his fear of sin, his wisdom does not endure.
This and the following saying balance the foregoing by reminding us that intellectual effort achieves nothing without right action.
He would say: One whose deeds are more than his wisdom (knowledge), his wisdom endures. But one whose wisdom (knowledge) is more than his deeds, his wisdom does not endure.
He would say: One with whom the spirit of his fellow-men is pleased, is pleasing to G‑d. But one with whom the spirit of his fellow men is not pleased, is not pleasing to G‑d.
Rabbi Dosa the son of Harkinas says: Morning sleep, wine at noon, children's talk, and sitting in the meeting-places of the ignorant, drive a person from the world.
The combination of the second and third parts of this passage requires us to walk a fine line. The service of the ideal is not supposed to make us disagreeable to other people. On the other hand, sociability is not to draw us into wasting time. (Though I doubt that many of us would consider talking with children a waste of time.)
Rabbi Elazar of Modi’in would say: One who profanes the kedoshim (“holy things” consecrated for the service of G‑d in the Holy Temple), scorns the festivals, humiliates another in public, annuls the covenant of our father Abraham (i.e., circumcision), or who gives invalid interpretations of the Torah -- even if he possesses Torah and good deeds, he has no share in the World to Come.
This saying condemns a number of seemingly unrelated actions. Perhaps the common denominator is: lack of respect, for the tradition on the one hand and one’s fellow-human on the other.
Rabbi Ishmael saya: Be submissive to a head, pleasant to the black-haired, and receive every person with joy.
This saying illustrates the rabbis’ nuanced attitude toward the fact of social hierarchy. “The black-haired” is generally understood to refer to younger people (who in that society were expected to defer to their elders). In the natural “pecking order,” the highest ranking animal bullies the next-highest ranking animal, who bullies the next one down, and so on. Rabbi Ishmael does not urge us to try to abolish the pecking order by starting up with the one above us. That may get us into trouble; and besides, among the sages, the “head” was assumed to have earned his rank by a demonstration of learning and wisdom, so that he would probably have had good reasons for his directives. Thus one is urged to accept one’s own lesser rank, but not to be oppressive toward those with less status than our own. The dynamic of the pecking order stops with me. The third part deepens Shammai’s injunction to receive everyone “with a pleasant countenance”: since humans are made in the Divine image, an encounter with any human being should actually be an occasion for “joy.” There is no room for “oneupsmanship” or the art of the “putdown.”
Rabbi Akiva would say: Laughter and levity accustom a person to promiscuity. Tradition is a fence to Torah, tithing a fence to wealth, vows a fence to abstinence; a fence for wisdom is silence.
I think what the first part of this saying refers to is the obligatory lightness that is found in some milieus. If nothing can be taken seriously then perhaps it is easy to slide into promiscuity, which drains meaning from one of the most intense human experiences. The second part of the saying takes us back to the injunction in 1:1 to “make a fence around the Torah.” By “tradition” I imagine Rabbi Akiva means the restrictions that were added by the sages in the development of the Oral Law. The third part perhaps implies that if we are careful to tithe then we are likely to keep better track of our resources. “A fence for wisdom is silence” is a commonly-quoted saying.
He would also say: Beloved is man, for he was created in the image [of G‑d]; by an extra love it was made known to him that he was created in the image, as it says, "For in the image of G‑d, He made man" (Genesis 9:6). Beloved are Israel, for they are called children of G‑d; by an extra love it was made known to them that they are called children of G‑d, as it is said: "You are children of the L-rd your G‑d" (Deuteronomy 14:1). Beloved are Israel, for they were given a precious instrument [kli]; by an even greater love it was made known to them that they were given a precious instrument, as it is said: "I have given you a good possession; do not forsake My Torah" (Proverbs 4:2).
This passage states a belief in the dignity of all humans, as well as a belief that Israel, through receiving the Torah, has a special relation to G-d. The Torah is described as a “kli” – a word that can mean “vessel” or “tool”. Torah is a tool for shaping one’s life and one’s world.
But for me the main point of this passage is its emphasis on consciousness. We all have inherent dignity, but we can only claim it by being conscious of it. The tradition stresses being aware of who one is and what one is doing, not being pulled along by one’s subconscious or one’s automatic responses.
All is foreseen, and freedom is given. The world is judged with goodness, and all is in accordance with the greater part of one’s deeds.
The first sentence of this saying combines two ideas that are generally viewed as contradictory. Perhaps it is a paradox, like the dual nature of light as particle and wave. Or perhaps the passage is telling us that we need to be willing to hold two contradictory beliefs if both are useful. It is useful to believe in an all-knowing who sees the future as well as the past. It is also useful to believe that we have free choice.
The second sentence seems to be generally taken to mean that a person is judged according to whether the majority of one’s deeds are good or not. Or perhaps it could be taken to mean that in judging, we should pay more attention to the good than the bad. This could also be an instruction on how to read texts by people we do not entirely agree with.
He would also say: Everything is given on collateral, and a net is spread over all the living. The store is open, the Storekeeper extends credit, the ledger is open, the hand writes, and all who wish to borrow may come and borrow. The collectors make their rounds every day without fail and exact payment from man, whether he knows it or not. They have proof of their claim, the judgment is a judgment of truth, and all is prepared for the feast.
This saying repeats some of the well-known unpleasant truths of life – that we don’t get to keep anything forever, that we’re all going to die, that life may cut us some slack for a while but in the long run we can’t escape consequences of our actions --- and yet conveys an odd cheerfulness, making one feel part of a great enterprise. The last clause is optimistic: somehow, all this activity get us to a good place.
Rabbi Eliezer the son of Azariah would say: If there is no Torah, there is no common decency; if there is no common decency, there is no Torah. If there is no wisdom, there is no fear of G‑d; if there is no fear of G‑d, there is no wisdom. If there is no knowledge, there is no understanding; if there is no understanding, there is no knowledge. If there is no flour, there is no Torah; if there is no Torah, there is no flour.
This saying asserts the mutual dependency of mind and heart, the abstract and the practical, the intellectual/spiritual and the physical. The term translated as “common decency” is derekh eretz, a phrase that has several meanings; earlier we saw that it meant “earning a living.” But the phrase also stands for universal morality, the values Israel shares with the rest of humankind.
We understand from previous sayings that any teaching that does not make one good for one’s surroundings is valueless. In what sense, however, does it go in the other direction – in what sense is Torah necessary to “common decency”? There are a lot of decent common people in the world who don’t know any Torah! This may relate only to Israel’s situation; possibly once the Torah was given and accepted, morality depended on keeping the Torah.
But perhaps this saying has recently gathered a new force. We see that “common decency” has been seriously eroded by a commercial pseudoculture to which the values that once constituted common decency are obstacles to be cleared away. In order to create resistance to this pseudoculture, people need to understand what is going on. In an age of constant brainwashing, seemingly spontaneous responses need to be examined.
He would also say: One whose wisdom is greater than his deeds, to what is he similar? To a tree with many branches and few roots, and the wind comes and uproots it and turns it upside down, as it is said: “He shall be like the juniper tree in the desert and shall not see when good comes; he shall dwell in the parched places of the wilderness’ a salt land and uninhabited, a salt land and not inhabited” (Jeremiah 17:6). But one whose deeds are greater than his wisdom, to what is he similar? To a tree with many roots and few branches, and even if all the winds in the world come and blow on it, they will not move it from its place. As is said: “He shall be as a tree planted by the water, that spreads its roots by the river, and shall not see when the heat comes, but its leaf shall be green, and shall not be anxious in a year of drought, nor cease to bear fruit” (ibid., v. 8).
See also 3:10.
Rabbi Eliezer [the son of] Chisma would say: the laws of kinin (bird offerings) and the laws of menstrual periods---these are the main course of Halachah (Torah law). Astronomy and gematria are the side-dishes of wisdom.
This is specific to the rabbinic system of halakha. “Astronomy” perhaps stands in for natural science in general. “Gematria” is numerology, in which letters of the Hebrew alphabet are assigned numeric values and are used to extract additional meanings from the text. Alternately, some say that in Talmudic times the word “gematria” simply meant “geometry.” Rabbi Eliezer stresses that the natural sciences (and perhaps also, mystical interpretations) are of less importance than the rules that regulate the life of the community.
Ben Zoma says: Who is wise? One who learns from every person. As is said (Psalms 119:99): "From all my teachers I have gained wisdom, for Your testimonies are my conversation."
Who is strong? One who conquers his inclination. As is stated (Proverbs 16:32), "Better one who is slow to anger than a mighty man, one who rules his spirit than one who captures a city."
Who is rich? One who is happy with his lot. As is said (Psalms 128:2): "If you eat the labor of your hands, happy are you, and it is well with you"; "happy are you" in this world, "and it is well with you" in the World to Come.
Who is honored? One who honors his fellows. As is said (I Samuel 2:30): "For those who honor me I shall honor; those who contemn me shall be disgraced."
In these four sayings Ben Zoma seeks to reclaim the sense of self-worth from externals to the inner being. Rather than pursue external conquest, acquisition, or recognition, the person is urged to seek self-control and to appreciate what is given. Even wisdom is less an acquisition than a willingness to be taught. One who masters this discipline is self-centered in a good way.
Ben Azzai would say: Run to do a minor mitzvah, and flee from a transgression. For a mitzvah drags a mitzvah, and a transgression drags a transgression. For the reward of a mitzvah is a mitzvah, and the reward of transgression is transgression.
I recently read about some research that supports this. Two groups of people were tested. One group believed that exerting one’s willpower is tiring, while the other group believed that each time you exert your willpower it makes the next time easier. On successive tests involving the use of willpower, the second group showed better stamina. Thus, each time one does the right thing (mitzvah), one strengthens oneself for the next occasion.
He would say: Despise no man, and do not be dismissive of any thing. For there is no man who has not his hour, and no thing that has not its place.
This is another point I would like to belabor – it is related to Hillel’s saying that “he who advances his name, destroys his name.” In rebuilding the community, it is of utmost importance not to dismiss anyone. Everyone has a contribution to make, and it is our task to try to see what it is.
Of all the organizations purporting to fix something in the world, I don’t know of even one that understands this simple principle. Just the latest example: a certain organization that aims to promote a certain cultural agenda has a tab in its website that says “Join us.” The tab leads to a page which promises that those who join will gain certain perks, like free access to webinars. How do you “join”? Well, you give a certain amount of money. There is no form to fill out with any information about yourself – where you live, what is your occupation, what are your interests and skills, what aspect of the program you are interested in. You can’t contact their lecturers, and no one is going to contact you for anything except money. You are simply the audience for a set of people who will display the keenness of their insight as you watch their webinars in the privacy of your home. In effect these organizations “scorn” their supporters and “discount” their potential non-monetary contributions.
If, instead, such an organization had a staff responsible for collecting information about the members, putting people with common interests in touch with each other, sorting them into work groups, there would be a real movement.
Rabbi Levitas of Yavneh would say: Be very, very humble of spirit, for the hope of mortal man is worms.
Rabbi Yochanan the son of Berokah says: Whoever desecrates the name of Heaven in secret, is punished in public. There is no difference between intentional and unintentional desecration of the Name.
Rabbi Levitas’ saying should be read in conjunction with Rabbi Yochanan’s saying in 3:8: “If you have learned much Torah do not take credit to yourself, for it is for this that you were formed.” Our intelligence is not of our own making; and just as we are not self-made, we are also not permanent. Also see the preceding saying. A person who is humble is able to value another’s gifts as well as one’s own, which, as we have seen, is essential for the work of community.
Rabbi Yochanan son of Berokah’s saying springs from the particular position of the Jews as an outsider group, the wish that each member should act so as to reflect credit on the group as a whole. The sages’ teachings generally make a strong distinction between deliberate and inadvertent wrongdoing. There are, however, matters so vital that no excuse can be accepted, and therefore this distinction collapses.
Rabbi Ishmael the son of Rabbi Yossei would say: One who learns in order to teach, is given the opportunity to learn and teach. One who learns in order to do, is given the opportunity to learn, to teach, to observe, and to do.
One more saying emphasizing the vital connection between learning and action.
Rabbi Tzaddok says: Do not separate yourself from the community. Do not act like an attorney (when serving as a judge). Do not make the Torah a crown to aggrandize yourself, or a spade with which to dig. So would Hillel say: one who makes use of the crown of Torah shall pass away. Thus you learn that one who derives benefit from the words of Torah, removes his life from the world.
Once again the sages advise against trying to go it alone. Truth is found not by solitary searching but by a dialogic process.
Rabbi Tzadok’s second piece of advice seems directed primarily to judges, who are urged not to take the part of one of the litigants: but perhaps it is also directed against any biased or self-seeking relation to reality. We are to strive for objectivity. This also precludes using the Torah for self-aggrandizement or in advocacy of a merely personal agenda. See again the remarks on 1:13, above.
Rabbi Yossei says: Whoever honors the Torah, is himself honored by the people; whoever disrespects the Torah, is himself disrespected by the people.
If one reveres the teachings and tries to act in a way that reflects credit on them, then one sets a level for one’s relations to others which is above the common code of cynicism. If, however, one shows disrespect for the teachings, or misuses them, then one has no basis on which to relate to people besides the common code of cynicism, and then one can expect to be treated accordingly.
His son, Rabbi Ishmael, says: One who refrains from serving as a judge spares himself enmity, robbery and false oaths; and one who is high-handed in his rulings is a fool, wicked and arrogant.
One recalls that at the beginning of the book of Exodus, Moses tries to persuade G-d to send someone else. Judgeship, or any leadership position, is not to be sought as a privilege but to be approached with a healthy fear of the pressures and temptations to which it exposes the holder. One of these is the sense of power that rendering judgment gives a person. Of this not only the judge, but anyone who has to form a judgment, must beware.
He would say: Do not be a lone judge, for there is only One lone judge. And do not say, "Accept my opinion," for that is their prerogative, not yours.
Rabbinic courts were always composed of at least three judges, and the judgment was according to the majority.
I remember one time in a high school class when there was an argument about a certain point, and the teacher told us to vote on it. I spoke up and said, “Truth is not decided by majority vote!” According to the sages, I was wrong, or at least would have been wrong if the polling had been preceded by extensive discussion. I was acting like Rabbi Eliezer (see 2:10), who refused to accept a ruling of the majority. Rabbi Eliezer even invoked signs from Heaven in support of his view, and the signs were given, but his colleagues were unimpressed. The rabbis believed in exhaustive examination and debate on all points of difference; but once all points had been debated, all members of the group were expected to accept the majority view.
Rabbi Jonathan says: Whoever fulfills the Torah in poverty, will ultimately fulfill it in wealth; and whoever neglects the Torah in wealth, will ultimately neglect it in poverty.
Rabbi Meir says: Engage minimally in business, and occupy yourself with Torah. Be humble in spirit before every person. If you neglect the Torah, you will be given many reasons to neglect it; if you have toiled in Torah, He has a great reward to give you.
Rabbi Eliezer the son of Yaakov says: Whoever does one mitzvah, gains one angelic advocate; whoever commits one transgression, gains one angelic accuser. Repentance and good deeds are as a shield against retribution.
Rabbi Yochanan the Sandal-Maker says: Every assembly that is for the sake of Heaven, will in the end endure; that is not for the sake of Heaven, in the end will not endure.
Rabbi Yochanan the Sandal-Maker’s saying has many possible applications, but I think here of many groups and organizations that I have seen that were formed around some issue or other. Most of them didn’t last, whether because they succeeded in their aim and dissolved, or because they didn’t and gave up. In either case, they were focused on one specific problem (and usually on only one side of it) and had little or no connection with other groups who were working on related problems, and certainly no comprehension of the whole picture.
Here, again, a fruitful comparison can be made with Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals. While Alinsky professes to pursue social justice, the tactics he recommends are tactics of disruption, which in the long run make for chaos. SOTF recommends, instead, a buildup of character, relationships, and knowledge -- the creation of lasting value. Over time, its students might build up a responsible presence in the community and acquire the capability of identifying sincere and competent leaders and preparing remedial measures that would eventually be adopted. And their efforts would center on the matter that is at the heart of all the problems -- the matter of human dignity, which is rooted in the belief that humans were created in God’s image.
Rabbi Eliezer the son of Shammua says: The honor of your student should be as dear to you as your own; the honor of your colleague, as your awe of your teacher; and your awe of your teacher, as your awe of Heaven.
Humility is the flip side of respect, which is vital to communication. Students who are not respected by their teachers tend not to learn well. Colleagues who don’t deeply respect one another do not listen to one another’s ideas. And likewise we don’t learn from a teacher we don’t respect.
Rabbi Yehudah says: Be careful with your learning, for a mistake in learning is counts as an intentional transgression.
Rabbi Shimon says: There are three crowns: the crown of Torah, the crown of priesthood and the crown of rulership, and the crown of a good name is greatest of all.
Rabbi Shimon’s saying should be compared to that of Hillel in 2:7. There, it appeared that Hillel valued Torah study over the acquisition of a good name. Rabbi Shimon takes the “opposite” view. Yet, obviously, Hillel does not minimize the value of a good name, nor does Rabbi Shimon minimize the value of Torah study; each simply chooses to emphasize a different side of the ideal character.
Rabbi Nehora'i says: Exile yourself to a place of Torah; do not say that it will come after you, that your colleagues will help you maintain it; and do not rely on your own understanding.
The word “exile” is meant to convey the quality of effort and sacrifice a person should be willing to invest in order to increase their knowledge and wisdom. A person should look for a place where there are already people who can teach them, not assume that they themselves will be the attraction that will draw colleagues to wherever they choose to go. The last sentence sounds a familiar warning: again, absolute truth does not reside in the individual, the approach to truth must be through exchange with others.
Rabbi Yannai says: We have no power to explain the tranquility of the wicked, nor the suffering of the righteous.
The fact that people who are willing to hurt and exploit others sometimes appear to be quite happy, and that other people’s lives are destroyed through no fault of their own, has been one of the great problems of faith since the book of Job. It is especially problematic for a world-view that stresses reward for good deeds and punishment for bad ones. In a modern play based on Job, one of the characters says, “If God is god he is not good, If God is good he is not God.” (Archibald MacLeish, J.B.) The sages simply refrain from drawing this conclusion; they admit “we don’t have the answer,” but continue to assert the belief in reward and punishment, perhaps because such a belief is helpful. We proposed something similar in connection with the saying “Everything is foreseen, and free will is given.” It is helpful to believe both statements even though they seem to contradict each other. (For the sake of skeptics, I am interpreting these sayings in a “Bokononist” spirit [see 2.1]; the answer of faith would be that G-d resides in a higher dimension where the seeming paradoxes of human existence are reconciled.)
Rabbi Matya the son of Charash says: Be the first to greet every person. Be a tail to lions, not a head to foxes.
Again we see the warning against “dominant” behavior, the temptation to assert one’s relative importance by making the other seek contact first. The second sentence contrasts with a saying attributed to Julius Caesar: “I would rather be first in a small Iberian village than second in Rome.” For the transmission of wisdom it is vital that people should seek the company of those from whom they can learn something. Whoever prefers to associate only with those to whom they never feel inferior, does his or her part to prevent genuine leadership from arising. As we saw in Rabbi Yehoshua ben Perachiya’s saying (1:6), the responsibility for good leadership rests with the followers.
Rabbi Yaakov says: This world is like an antechamber to the World to Come. Prepare yourself in the antechamber, so that you may enter the banquet hall.
He would say: One hour of repentance and good deeds in this world is better than all of the World to Come. And one hour of delight in the World to Come is greater than all of the present world.
Here we see the rabbis’ belief in the afterworld, which does not interfere with their commitment to this one. The World to Come is a “Sabbath” world where the righteous bask in the light of the Divine presence, which is a greater delight than this world can offer. On the other hand, it is only in this world that we have the possibility of action.
Rabbi Shimon the son of Elazar says: Do not appease your friend in the hour of his anger; do not comfort him while his dead lies before him; do not question him in the hour of his making a vow; and do not try to see him in the hour of his disgrace.
These are situations when a person may think that they are speaking with good intention, but the speech is likely to do more harm than good. If you try to pacify someone in a rage you will probably make them angrier; if you try to comfort someone who has just heard of the death of a loved one, your comfort will sound like mockery; if you question a person about a vow they are making (vows in Judaism are taken very seriously) they may double down and formulate the vow in a way that will make it harder to annul should they regret it. As for trying to see someone at a moment of disgrace, I’m reminded of that passage in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, when Elizabeth is told that a neighbor has come to condole with the family on the disgrace of one of the daughters:
"She had better have stayed at home," cried Elizabeth; "perhaps she meant well, but, under such a misfortune as this, one cannot see too little of one's neighbours. Assistance is impossible; condolence, insufferable. Let them triumph over us at a distance, and be satisfied."
Samuel the Small says: "When your enemy falls, do not be glad; when he stumbles, let your heart not be rejoice, lest G‑d see and be displeased and turn his wrath away from him [to you]." (Proverbs 24:17-18).
Elisha the son of Avuyah says: One who learns Torah as a child, what is this like? Like ink written on new paper. One who learns Torah in old age, what is this like? Like ink written on erased paper.
Elisha ben Avuyah was a great scholar who eventually turned away from Torah and became a skeptic and a libertine. As a result, his colleagues ostracized him, except for Rabbi Meir who continued learning from him, saying, “I eat the fruit and throw away the rind.” By preserving this saying of his, perhaps the compilers of the Mishna implicitly accepted Rabbi Meir’s approach.
Rabbi Yossei the son of Yehudah of Kfar HaBavli says: One who learns Torah from the young, what is he like? Like one who eats unripe grapes and drinks wine from the press. One who learns Torah from the old, what is he like? Like one who eats ripe grapes and drinks old wine.
Rabbi Meir says: Look not at the jug, but at what it contains. There are new jugs that are filled with old wine, and old jugs that do not even contain new wine.
Rabbi Elazar HaKapor says: Envy, lust and [desire for] honor drive a person from the world.
He would say: Those who are born will die, and the dead will live, and the living will be judged, to know, to make known, and to comprehend that He is G‑d, He is the former, He is the creator, He is the One who comprehends, He is the judge, He is the witness, He is the plaintiff, and He will ultimately judge. Blessed is He, for before Him there is no iniquity, no forgetting, no favoritism, and no taking of bribes; know that everything is according to the reckoning. Let not your inclination assure you that the grave is a refuge for you; for against your will you were formed, against your will you weredf born, against your will you live, against your will you die, and against your will you are destined to render an account before the king of kings of kings, the Holy One, blessed be He.
With ten utterances the world was created. What does this come to teach us, for surely it could have been created with a single utterance? However, this is in order to exact retribution from the wicked, who destroy the world that was created with ten utterances, and to give good reward to righteous, who sustain the world that was created with ten utterances.
“The ten utterances” are the words of the Creator in the first chapter of Genesis.
This chapter of SOTF is built, even more than previous chapters, on numbers. Moreover, the first six passages in this chapter are composed of legendary and homiletic material that seems of a quite different character from the rest of the sayings. One wonders why it was included in a set of maxims for community leaders and their followers.
Perhaps this first saying gives us a clue: a transcendent, supernatural dimension of the world is invoked in order to motivate us to take care of the world by being “righteous” rather than “wicked.” The enumeration of miracles, and of other things, backs up the ethical advice with a vision of Divine order.
There were ten generations from Adam to Noah. This is to teach us the extent of G‑d's patience; for all those generations angered Him, one after the other, until He brought upon them the waters of the Flood.
There were ten generations from Noah to Abraham. This is to teach us the extent of G‑d's patience; for all those generations angered Him, one after the other, until Abraham came and received the reward of them all.
With ten test our father Abraham was tested, and he withstood them all, in order to make known how great was the love of our father Abraham.
Ten miracles were performed for our forefathers in Egypt, and another ten at the sea. Ten plaguess were inflicted by G‑d upon the Egyptians in Egypt, and another ten at the sea. With ten tests our forefathers tested G‑d in the desert, as is said (Numbers 14:22), "They tested Me these ten times, and did not hearken to My voice."
Ten miracles were performed for our forefathers in the Holy Temple: No woman miscarried from of the smell of the meat of the sacrifices. The meat of the sacrifices did not spoil. No fly was seen at the place of slaughter. No High Priest had an accidental emission on Yom Kippur. The rains did not extinguish the wood-fire burning upon the altar. The wind did not prevail over the column of smoke. No disqualifying blemish was ever found in the Omer offering, the Two Loaves or the Showbread. They stood pressed together but had ample space in which to prostrate themselves. No snake or scorpion caused injury in Jerusalem. And no one said to his fellow, "The place is too crowded for me to lodge overnight in Jerusalem."
Ten things were created in the twilight of Shabbat eve: the mouth of the earth [that swallowed Korach]; the mouth of [Miriam's] well; the mouth of [Balaam's] donkey; the rainbow; the manna; [Moses'] staff; the shamir [a miraculous stone-cutting worm used in the building of the first Temple]; the writing, the inscription and the tablets [of the Ten Commandments]. Some say also the destructive spirits and the grave of Moses and the ram of our father Abraham. And some say also the original tongs, for tongs are made with tongs.
There are seven things that characterize a boor, and seven that characterize a wise man. A wise man does not speak before a superior in wisdom or years. He does not interrupt another. He is not in haste to answer. His questions are on the subject and his answers to the point. He responds to first things first and to last things last. Concerning what he has not heard, he says "I have not heard." He acknowledges the truth. With the boor, the opposite of all these is the case.
Here, for once in this chapter, we are back in the domain of practical advice. Except perhaps for the first, these “seven things” are obvious traffic rules for the kind of discussion by which a group may arrive at reasonable conclusions. The first seems to reflect the deference toward teachers that was valued in that environment. How does this function as a “traffic rule”?
In any group discussion, it is desirable that the wisest should get a chance to speak. But it cannot be up to the wise themselves to make themselves heard, because the “assertiveness” that they would need in order to do so is disapproved. In saying 20, below, we read: “The brazen – to Gehinnom, the bashful – to paradise.” It is up to those who recognize their authority to make way for them. Again we see the responsibility of the followers for recognizing the leaders.
Since learning this saying, I have adopted one practice: in answering someone’s email, I respond to first to their first paragraph, second to their second, and so on.
In response to that last sentence, one reader wrote:
I hope SOTF can encourage readers to pay closer attention to one’ another’s messages…
Seven kinds of punishment come to the world, for seven types of sin. When some tithe and others do not, a famine caused by drought comes: some are hungry and others are filled. When the people have determined not to tithe, a famine caused by social upheaval and drought comes. When the people have determined not to separating challah, a famine of extermination comes. Plagues come to the world for death penalties prescribed in the Torah and not given over the court, and for desecrating the fruits of the sabbatical year. The sword comes to the world for the delay of justice, the perversion of justice, and because of those who expound the Torah in ways contrary to halachah.
Here and in the next saying, various disasters are attributed respectively to common public and private transgressions, thus imposing a scheme of order on a chaotic reality.
Wild beasts comes to the world for false oaths and the desecration of G‑d's name.
Exile comes to the world for idolatry, illicit relations, murder, and failure to observe the sabbatical year.
There are four time-periods when plagues increase: in the fourth and seventh years [of the sabbatical cycle], after the seventh, and after the festivals of each year. in the fourth year, because of [the neglect of] the tithe to the poor that must be given in the third year; in the seventh, because of the tithe to the poor that must be given in the sixth; after the seventh, because of the fruits of the sabbatical year; and after the festivals, because of the robbing of the poor of the gifts due to them.
There are four traits in people. One who says, "What is mine is yours, and what is yours is mine" is a boor. "What is mine is mine, and what is yours is yours" — this is an average character; others say that this is the trait of a Sodomite. "What is mine is yours, and what is yours is yours" -- a chassid (pious person). "What is mine is mine, and what is yours is mine" -- a wicked person.
Property rights have a central place in Jewish law, which lays great emphasis on boundaries (and in fact holds, contrary to Robert Frost, that good fences do in fact make good neighbors). The “boor” is one who has no boundaries; this is a negative characteristic because where boundaries are undefined, clashes are likely to occur. Interestingly, the pious person or “chassid” – in the language of this period a chassid is one who goes beyond the letter of the law – allows others to cross their boundaries, but respects others’ boundaries.
The middle statement puts one in rather a bind. The person who respects others’ boundaries and expects that their own boundaries will be respected, is first described as “middling” – an average person, neither a saint nor a sinner. But alternately, he is described as a “Sodomite”! “Sodomite” in rabbinic parlance does not refer to “sodomy” but rather to the meanness which the midrash ascribes to the people of Sodom: according to the midrash, in Sodom it was actually illegal to give charity or offer hospitality! (I thought that was a weird fantasy until, in the 90’s, I first heard the saying “No good deed goes unpunished.” It seemed that in certain milieus – I was in law school at the time -- the scale of moral values had indeed become inverted.) The effect of this “bind” is to make us a little uncomfortable about standing on our rights.
There are four traits of temperaments. Easily angered and easily appeased -- his loss is offset by his reward. Difficult to anger and difficult to appease – his reward is offset by his loss. Difficult to anger and easily appeased – a chassid. Easily angered and difficult to appease -- a wicked person.
There are four traits in students. Quick to understand and quick to forget – his reward is offset by his loss. Slow to understand and slow to forget – his loss is offset by his reward. Quick to understand and slow to forget – that is a good portion. Slow to understand and quick to forget -- that is a bad portion.
There are four traits in givers to charity. One who wants to give but does not want others to give – his eye is evil toward others. One who wants others to give but does not want to give – his eye is evil toward himself. One who wants to give and that others should give, is a chassid. One who does not want to give and does not want others to give, is wicked.
There are four traits in those who go to the study hall. One who goes but does not study has the reward of going. One who studies but does not go to the study hall has the reward of studying. One who goes and studies, is a chassid. One who neither goes nor studies, is wicked.
Note that attendance at study hall, even if one does not study there, is considered meritorious! Again we are reminded that in this tradition, learning is a social activity.
There are four traits of those who sit before the sages: the sponge, the funnel, the strainer and the sieve. The sponge absorbs all. The funnel takes in at one end and lets it out at the other. The strainer lets the wine go through and retains the sediment. The sieve lets the coarse flour go through and retains the fine flour.
Any love that depends on some thing—when the thing ceases, the love also ceases. But a love that does not depend on anything never ceases. What is a love that depends on something? The love of Amnon for Tamar. And one that does not depend on anything? The love of David and Jonathan.
Here, unfortunately, we again come up against the sages’ blind spot. The episode of Amnon and Tamar in the book of Kings is not a love story.
Any dispute that is for the sake of Heaven is destined to endure; one that is not for the sake of Heaven is not destined to endure. What is a dispute that is for the sake of Heaven? The dispute of Hillel and Shammai. What is a dispute that is not for the sake of Heaven? The dispute of Korach and all his congregation.
As we have seen, Hillel and Shammai are portrayed as two sages who have opposite approaches, yet each approach has some validity. Korach, however, in the book of Numbers, has no real point to make. He says to Moses and Aaron, “All the people are holy; why do you lift yourselves up above the congregation?” But if the people had not followed Moses and Aaron, they would not have been “holy” – they would have remained slaves in Egypt and would never have gotten to Mount Sinai. Korach is simply envious of Moses’ position. The story is played out again whenever leadership is decided by a contest for power, rather than by acknowledgment of merit.
One who brings merit to the community, no sin will come about through him. One who causes the community to sin, is not given the opportunity to repent. Moses was meritorious and brought merit to the community to be meritorious, so the community's merit is attributed to him; as is said, "He did G‑d's righteousness, and His laws with Israel" (Deuteronomy 33:21). Jeroboam the son of Nebat sinned and caused the community to sin, so the community's sin is attributed to him; as is said, "For the sins of Jeroboam, which he sinned and caused Israel to sin" (I Kings 15:30).
Whoever has the following three traits is of the disciples of our father Abraham; and whoever has three other traits is of the disciples of the wicked Balaam. A good eye, a lowly spirit and a humble soul – these characterize the disciples of our father Abraham. An evil eye, a haughty spirit and a greedy soul – these characterize the disciples of the wicked Balaam. What is the difference between the disciples of our father Abraham and the disciples of the wicked Balaam? The disciples of our father Abraham eat in this world and inherit the World to Come, as is said, "I will cause those that love Me to inherit a substance; and their treasuries shall I fill” (Proverbs 8:21). The disciples of the wicked Balaam inherit Gehinnom and go down to the pit of destruction, as is stated, "And You, G‑d, shall cast them into the pit of destruction; bloody and deceitful men, they shall not attain half their days. And I shall trust in you" (Psalms, 55:24).
Once again, a “good eye” is generosity, and it is also the tendency to see others in a good light.
Yehudah the son of Teima says: Be bold as a leopard, light as an eagle, swift as a deer and mighty as a lion to do the will of your Father in Heaven. He would say: The brazen -- to Gehinnom; the bashful -- to paradise. May it be Your will, L-rd our G‑d and G‑d of our fathers, that the Holy Temple be rebuilt speedily in our days; and grant us our portion in Your Torah.
Note here the juxtaposition of “bashfulness” with the boldness of a leopard! The discipline and craftsmanship of the sages demands a strength, stamina and courage that are lodged deep within.
Ben Bag Bag would say: Turn it over and over, for everything is in it; look into it; grow old and worn over it; do not budge from it, for there is nothing better.
Ben Hei Hei would say: According to the pain is the gain.
Ben Bag Bag’s claim immediately raises an objection, for how can one say that “everything” is in a text comprised of some 80,000 words? And one can think offhand of a number of subjects that it doesn’t cover. But for this there is a process of interpretation which elaborates, unfolds hidden meanings, and sometimes appears to read things into the text that would never be guessed from the plain meaning of the words. The interpretation of this text over millennia has produced a vast literature, perhaps comparable to the library of “great books” of the rest of the world’s culture. The fact that all this literature is anchored in one text gives it a great coherency and ensures that thinkers widely separated in time and space are still “on the same page.”
Perhaps this coherency can inspire us to try to make something whole out of all our discoveries, inventions and creations – to set things in relation to one another and tie them back to the basic aims of the human community.
He would also say: Five years is the age for Scripture. Ten, for Mishnah. Thirteen, for the mitzvot. Fifteen, for Talmud. Eighteen, for marriage. Twenty, for earning a living. Thirty, for strength. Forty, for understanding. Fifty, for counsel. Sixty, for sagacity. Seventy, for old age. Eighty, for power. Ninety, to stoop. One hundred, as one who has died and passed away and disappeared from the world.
This chapter is not part of the Mishnaic tractate Avot; it is taken from a different part of the Talmudic literature and added on to the five chapters when Avot is studied as a separate text. It is concerned mainly with the practice of Torah study.
The sages expounded in the language of the Mishnah; blessed is He who chose them and their learning.
Rabbi Meir would say: Whoever studies Torah for its own sake, merits many things; not only that, but the whole world is worthwhile for him alone. He is called friend, beloved, lover of G‑d, lover of humanity, one in who G‑d and humaniy rejoice. The Torah clothes him in humility and awe and makes him fit to be righteous, pious, upright and faithful, keeps him far from and draws him close to merit. From him people draw counsel and wisdom, understanding and power, as is said (Proverbs 8:14): "Mine are counsel and wisdom, I am understanding, mine is power." The Torah grants him sovereignty, dominion, and ability to analyze the law. The Torah's secrets are revealed to him, and he becomes as an ever-increasing wellspring and as a river that never stops flowing. He becomes modest, patient and forgiving of insults. The Torah uplifts him and makes him greater than all [G-d’s] works.
Rabbi Yehoshua the son of Levi said: Every day, a heavenly voice goes forth from Mount Horeb (Sinai) proclaiming and saying: "Woe to the people because of the insult to the Torah." For one who does not occupy himself in Torah is called “rebuked,” as is said (Proverbs 11:22), "A golden nose-ring in the pig’s snout, a beautiful woman devoid of reason." And it says (Exodus 32:16): "And the tablets are the work of G‑d, and the writing is G‑d's writing, engraved on the tablets"; read not "engraved" (charut) but "liberty" (chairut)---for there is no free person save one who occupies himself with the study of Torah. And whoever occupies himself with the study of Torah is elevated, as is aidd (Number 21:19), "And from Matanot to Nahaliel, and from Nahaliel to Bamot (The Heights)."
This merits a comment on the nature of freedom according to the rabbinic tradition. It does not mean just absence of outward restraints, but the ability to act so as to realize one’s highest goals – the freedom from inner as well as outer compulsion.
The two defining moments in Judaism are the exodus from Egypt and the acceptance of the Torah on Mount Sinai. Many commentators take Egypt as a symbol of a deterministic universe. In leaving Egypt, the Israelites were freed from outward servitude, but paradoxically they only became truly free by accepting the “yoke of the commandments.” Following the commandments preserves a person from falling under the domination of mere instinctual behavior. Yet if one relates to the commandments as something imposed on one from outside and follows them in a “Simon says” manner, then it is still a kind of servitude, better than being driven by impulse, but still not true freedom. But to study the Torah is to begin to understand, to internalize, to make the Divine will your will. And it is to see the big picture, to view each proposed action not only from one’s own viewpoint but from the viewpoint of a higher intelligence. This is the ultimate freedom.
[Note: the names in the last sentence are names of places to which the Israelites traveled. The commentator Rashi explains that since the Torah was given them as a gift (Matanot) they became the inheritance of G-d (Nachliel) and thus became elevated (Bamot). Another homiletic use of a Scriptural verse; see 3.2.]
One who learns from his fellow a single chapter, or a single law, or a single verse, or a single word, or even a single letter, he must treat him with honor. For so we find with David, king of Israel, who learned from Achitofel only two things, yet he called him his "master," his "guide" and his "close friend," as is stated (Psalms 55:14), "And you are a man of my worth, my guide and close friend." And if David, king of Israel, who learned only two things from Achitofel, nevertheless called him his master, guide and close friend, all the more so should anyone who learns from his fellow a single chapter, law, verse, saying, or even a single letter, is obligated to pay him honor. And there is no honor but Torah, as is said (Proverbs 3:35; 28:10), "The sages shall inherit honor" "and the sincere shall inherit good"; and there is no good but Torah, as is said (ibid. 4:2), "I have given you a good purchase; do not forsake My Torah."
Such is the way of Torah: Bread with salt you shall eat, water in small measure you shall drink, and upon the ground you shall sleep; a life of suffering you shall live, and in the Torah you shall toil. If you do thus, "happy are you, and it is well with you" (Psalms 128:2): happy are you in this world, and it is well with you in the World to Come.
Do not seek greatness for yourself, and do not covet honor. More than you study, do; and desire not the table of kings, for your table is greater than theirs, and your crown is greater than theirs, and faithful is your Employer to pay you the reward of your labor.
Torah is greater than the priesthood or sovereignty, for sovereignty is acquired with thirty virtues, the priesthood with twenty-four, and Torah is acquired with forty-eight qualities. These are: (1) study, (2) listening, (3) articulate expression, (4) comprehension of the heart, (5) intuition of the heart [בשכלות הלב] (5) awe, (7) fear, (8) humility,(9) joy,(10) purity, (11) serving the sages, (12) discussion with friends, (13) debating with one's students, (13) composure, (14) study of the scriptures, (15) study of the Mishnah, (16)minimizing engagement in business, (17) minimizing derekh eretz, (18) minimizing pleasure, (19) minimizing sleep, (20) minimizing talk, (21) minimizing laughter, (22) slowness to anger, (23) a good heart, (24) faith in the sages, (25) acceptance of suffering,  knowing one's place, [27) contentment with one's lot, (28) making a fence for one's words, (29) not taking credit for oneself, (30) likableness, (31) love of G‑d, (32) love of humanity, (33) love of charity, (34) love of uprightness, (35) love of rebuke, (36) fleeing from honor, (37) not being arrogant in learning, (38) not being glad to hand down rulings, (39) helping one’s fellow bear his burden, (40) giving him the benefit of the doubt, (41) setting him on the path of truth, (42) setting him on the path of peace (43) being settled in study, (44) asking and answering, (45) listening and adding, (46) learning in order to teach, (47) learning in order to do, (48) making one's teacher wiser, (49) exactness in conveying a teaching, and (50) saying something in the name of its speaker. Thus we have learned: Whoever says something in the name of the one who said it brings redemption to the world, as is said (Esther 2:22), "And Esther told the king in the name of Mordechai."
This section could serve as a review of much that we have heard in the first five chapters! One practice that I have heard of is to contemplate one of these “qualities” each day. I have added the numbers for convenience (I counted fifty rather than forty-eight, but perhaps some of them are meant to be combined).
A number of items on this list represent the more austere side of the sages’ way of life, as in 6.4; for balance, see 6.7 and 6.8, below. The rabbis of Talmudic times were sometimes called Perushim, a word which means “separate, apart.” With very few exceptions they were not celibate, considering it a duty to reproduce, but they often (though not unanimously) mistrusted sensuality and worldly pleasure, perhaps associating pleasure with egotism. In #17 the expression “derekh eretz,” which has several meanings, is probably used in the meaning of “sexual intercourse.” They were often, though not always, poor, and did not consider poverty something to look down on. On the whole the picture that emerges from the Talmud is that of a heroic way of life sustained under adverse conditions. Contemplating this list, I ask myself how many of qualities could possibly recommend themselves to those whose culture has for decades extolled pleasure as the highest good. Perhaps to those for whom it has, after all, not been that much fun…. In view of the forces confronting community today, a bit of heroism would not come amiss.
But after all the main emphasis in this list is on the art of being a sage, and in the enumeration itself there is something playful. The last quality – saying a thing in the name of one who said it – harks back to the book of Esther. Early in the story, Mordechai overhears two courtiers plotting the death of the king. He tells Esther, who tells the king, giving Mordechai credit for the discovery. Later, the turning point of the story comes when the king remembers that Mordechai did him a service and has not yet been rewarded. In this saying, the Biblical story stands for the importance of giving credit where credit is due, of acknowledging one’s sources and influences. For it is these chains of transmission that hold the tradition together.
Great is Torah, for it gives life to those who observe it, in this world,and in the World to Come. As is saidd (Proverbs 4:22): "For they are life to him who finds them, and a healing to all his flesh." And it says (ibid. 3:8): "It shall be health to your navel, and marrow to your bones." And it says (3:18): "She is a tree of life for those who hold fast to her, and happy are those who support her." And it says (1:9): "For they shall be a garland of grace for your head, and necklaces about your neck." And it says (4:9): "She shall give to your head a garland of grace, a crown of glory she shall grant you." And it says (9:11): "With me, your days shall be increased, and years of life shall be added to you." And it says (3:16): "Long days in her right hand; in her left, wealth and honor." And it says (3:2): "For long days, years of life and peace, they will add to you."
Rabbi Shimon the son of Yehudah would say in the name of Rabbi Shimon the son of Yochai: Beauty, strength, wealth, honor, wisdom, seniority, old age and children are becoming to the righteous and becoming to the world. As is stated (Proverbs 16:31): "The hoary head a crown of glory, to be found in the ways of righteousness." And it says (ibid. 20:29): "The glory of young men is their strength, and the glory of elders is the grey head." And it says (ibid., 17:6): "Children’s children are the crown of old men, and the glory of children are fathers." And it says (Isaiah 24:23): "And the moon shall be abashed and the sun ashamed, for the L-rd of hosts has reigned in Zion, and before his elders is glory."
Rabbi Shimon the son of Menasya would say: these seven qualities listed by the sages for the righteous were all realized in Rabbi [Yehudah the Nassi] and his sons.
Yehudah the Nassi (“president”) headed the community during the period after the destruction of the Temple and is said to have been very wealthy.
Said Rabbi Yossei the son of Kisma: Once, I was walking on the road and I encountered a man. He greeted me and I returned his greeting. He said to me: "Rabbi, where are you from?" Said I to him: "I come from a great city of sages and scholars." He said he to me: "Rabbi, would you like to dwell with us in our place? I will give you a thousand thousand gold dinars, precious stones and pearls." I said to him: "If you were to give me all the silver, gold, precious stones and pearls in the world, I would not dwell anywhere but in a place of Torah, and thus it is written in the book of psalms by David the king of Israel: `Better for me is the Torah of Your mouth than thousands in gold and silver' (Psalms 119:72). Furthermore, when a person passes from this world neither silver, nor gold, nor precious stones, nor pearls accompany him, only Torah and good deeds, as is stated (Proverbs 6:22): `When you go it will direct you, when you lie down it will watch over you, and when you awaken it will speak to you.' `When you go it will direct you' -- in this world; `when you lie down it will watch over you' -- in the grave; `and when you awaken it shall be our speech' --in the World to Come. Also it says (Chaggai 2:8): `Mine is the silver and Mine is the gold, so says the L-rd of Hosts.'"
G‑d acquired five acquisitions in his world. These are: the Torah, one acquisition; the heavens and the earth, one acquisition; Abraham, one acquisition; the people of Israel, one acquisition; the Holy Temple, one acquistion. The Torah, as it is written (Proverbs 8:22), "G‑d acquired me as the beginning of His way, before His works of yore." The heavens and the earth, as it is written (Isaiah 66:1), "So says G‑d: The heavens are My throne and the earth is My footstool; what house, then, can you build for Me, and where is My place of rest?"; and it says (Psalms 104:25), "How many are your works, O G‑d, You have made them all with wisdom; the earth is filled with Your acquisitions." Abraham, as it is written (Genesis 14:19), "And he blessed him, and said: Blessed be Abram to G‑d Most High, acquirer of heavens and earth." Israel, as it is written (Exodus 15:16), "Till Your nation, O G‑d, shall pass, till this nation You have acquired shall pass"; and it says (Psalms 16:3), "To the holy who are upon earth, the noble ones, in whom is all My delight." The Holy Temple, as it is written (Exodus 15:17), "The base for Your dwelling that you, G‑d, have achieved; the Sanctuary, O L-rd, that Your hands have established"; and it says (Psalms 78:54), "And He brought them to His holy domain, this mount His right hand has acquired."
Everything that G‑d created in His world, He created only for His honor. As is said (Isaiah 43:7): "All that is called by My name and for My honor, I created it, formed it, also I made it." And it says (Exodus 15:18): "G‑d shall reign forever and ever."
For all their stringencies, the sages of the Talmud held to the vision of the first chapter of Genesis, of a Creation essentially good, and on this view rests the belief in the possibility of bringing the world to perfection. “All is prepared for the feast.” It is important to hold onto this view, in the face of the bombardment of bad news that we all live under. The human race really is better than the news sources would lead us to believe.
SOTF ends on a triumphal note: “G-d shall reign for ever and ever.” This is the last line of the song sung by the Israelites after the crossing of the Red Sea, which has always stood for the belief that the iron laws of a deterministic world, invincible though they seem, will eventually be surmounted.
I would like to conclude this commentary with a poem that came to me about the time I first read SOTF – to the best of my memory, shortly after. It was meant as an opening meditation for a meeting of minds committed to the reconstitution of community. It has stayed with me through the years, and I am still hoping that this invitation will one day be accepted.
Actually, here is one more. It was written in 2001 and can be sung to the tune of the “Partisan Song”( https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f5RvjRzAjgg):
“Never Say That There Is Nothing You Can Do “
say that there is nothing you can do
Chapter One – For Judges
1.1 Chain of Custody
1.2 Shimon the Righteous – The Three Pillars
1.3 Antignos of Socho – Masters and Slaves
1.4 Yossei, Son of Yoezer – Home as Meeting Place
1.5 Yossei, Son of Yochanan – Home and Household
1.6 Yehoshua – Miscellaneous Personal Advice & Admonition
1.7 Nitai-- Miscellaneous Personal Advice & Admonition
1.8 Yehudah – Conduct of Judge
1.9 Shimon – Examination of Witnesses
1.10 Sbmaayah – Work and Government
1.11 Avtalyon—Care with Words
1.12 Hillel 1—Be Like Aaron
1.13 Hillel 2 – Self-Aggrandizement
1.14 Hillel 3 -- Self-Knowledge
1.15 Shammai – Miscellaneous Personal Advice and Admonitions
1.16 Rabban Gamliel – Miscellaneous Advice and Admonitions
1.17 Shimon, son of Rabban Gamliel 1 Action Not Words
1.18 Shimon, son of Rabban Gamliel 2 – Sustenance of the World
Chapter Two -- Individual Aspiration
2.1Rabbi Yehudah HaNassi – Choosing the Right Path
2.2 Rabban Gamliel – Advice on Study, Government and Will
2.3 Hillel – Miscellaneous Admonitions and Observations
2.4 Rabban Yochanan Miscellaneous: Humility, Elegies and Personal Traits
2.5 Miscellaneous Advice and Admonitions
2.6 Rabbi Tarfon – Observations on Work
Chapter Three – Advice on Place and Conduct
3.1 Akavya – Know Your Place
3.2 Rabbi Chanina – Pray for Government; Speak the Torah
3.3 Rabbi Shimon – Dinner Conversation
3.4 Rabbi Chanina – Wasting Time
3.5 Rabbi Nechunia – Torah or Government
3.6 Rabbi Chalafta – He is With Us
3.7 Elazar – Belongs to Him
3.8 Rabbi Dusta -- Apostasy
3.9 Rabbi Chanina – Admonitions on Wisdom, Be Pleasing
3.10 Rabbi Dosa – Bad Living Habits
3.11 Rabbi Elazar – Retribution for Bad Behavior
3.12 Rabbi Ishmael – Conduct of Leaders and Followers
3.13 Rabbi Akiva – Staying in Bounds
3.17 Rabbi Eliezer – Torah and G_d as Fundamental, Actions and Words
3.18 Rabbi Eliezer – Torah Law
4.1 Ben Zoma – Miscellaneous Definitions
4.2 Ben Azzai – Good Deeds and Conduct to Fellow Man
4.4 Rabbi Levitas sums it up!
4.5 Rabbi Yochanan -- Blasphemy
4.6 Ishmael – Learning and Action
4.7 Rabbi Tzaddok – Miscellaneous Admonitions to Individuals
4.7 Rabbi Yossei – Honoring the Torah
4.7 Rabbi Ishmael – Admonitions on Judging
4.8 Rabbi Jonathan – Torah and Wealth
4.9 Rabbi Meir – Torah Before Business
4.10 Rabbi Eliezer – Customer Rewards Plan
4.11 Rabbi Yochanan – Gathering in His Name
4.12 Rabbi Eliezer – Dignify Others
4.13 Rabbi Yehudah – Admonition to Students
4.14 Rabbi Shimon – Good Name
4.14 Rabbi Nehora’I – Advice on Torah Study
4.15 Rabbi Yannai – Beyond our Comprehension
4.16 Rabbi Matya – Advice on Personal Behavior
4.17 Rabbi Yaakov – Preparation for the World to Come
4.18 Rabbi Shimon – Anger Management
4.19 Samuel the Small – Next Time it Might be You
4.20 Elisha – Learn While Young
4.21 Rabbis Yossei and Meir – Discernment in Learning
4.22 Rabbi Elazar HaKapor – Miscellaneous Observations
Chapter Five – Tens, Sevens and Fours, and 100
5.1 The Ten Utterances
5.2 Ten Generations
5.3 Ten Tests of Abraham
5.4 Ten Miracles
5.5 Boors and Wise Men
5.6 Retribution and Sin
5.10 Four Types of People
5.11 Four Temperaments
5.12 Four Types of Student
5.13 Four Types of Charity
5.14 Four Types of Study
5.15 Four Types Among the Sages
5.19 Traits of Abraham or Balaam
5.20 Character Traits -- Desirable Traits
5.21 Ben Bag Bag – Immerse Yourself
5.22 Ben Hei Hei – No Pain, No Gain; Stop at 100
Chapter Six – Talmud Excerpts