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Mishnah Avot 1-5: The Ethics and Wisdom of the Rabbis

Pirkei_AvotThe Mishnah includes one tractate, Avot, known also as Pirqe Avot, “Chapters of the Fathers,” which provides a chain of tradition for Rabbinic Judaism, tracing the authority of both the written and the oral laws from Moses at Mount Sinai to Rabbi Judah the Prince. In many respects, this tractate may be regarded as a wisdom text, advice for judges, scholars, and to a great extent the common man, showing the persistence of this trend in later Jewish tradition.

1-1 Moses received the Law 60 from Sinai and committed it to Joshua, and Joshua to the elders, and the elders to the Prophets; and the Prophets committed it to the men of the Great Synagogue. 61 They said three things- “Be deliberate in judgment, raise up many disciples, and make a fence around the Law.” 62

2 Simeon the Just 63 was of the remnants of the Great Synagogue. He used to say- “By three things is the world sustained- by the Law, by the Temple service, and by deeds of loving-kindness.”

3 Antigonus of Soko received [the Law] from Simeon the Just. He used to say- “Be not like slaves who minister to the master for the sake of receiving a bounty, but be like slaves who minister to the master not for the sake of receiving a bounty; rather let the fear of Heaven be upon you.”

4 Yose ben Yoezer of Zeredah and Yose ben Yohanan of Jerusalem received [the Law] from them. Yose ben Yoezer of Zeredah said- “Let your house be a meeting-house for the sages, and sit amid the dust of their feet and drink in their words with thirst.”

5 Yose ben Yohanan of Jerusalem said- “Let your house be opened wide and let the needy be members of your household; and talk not much with womankind.” 64 They said this of a man’s own wife, how much more of his fellow’s wife! Hence the sages have said- “He that talks much with womankind brings evil upon himself and neglects the study of the Law and at the last will inherit Gehenna.” 65

6 Joshua ben Perahyah and Nittai the Arbelite received [the Law] from them. Joshua ben Perahyah said- “Provide yourself with a teacher and get yourself a fellow[-disciple]; 66 and when you judge any man, incline the balance in his favor.”

7 Nittai the Arbelite said- “Keep yourself far from an evil neighbor and do not consort with the wicked, and lose not belief in (divine?) retribution.”

8 Judah ben Tabbai and Simeon ben Shetah received [the Law] from them. Judah ben Tabbai said- “Do not make yourself like those who would influence the judges; and when the litigants stand before you, let them be in your eyes as wicked men, and when they have departed from before you, let them be in your eyes as innocent, as soon as they have accepted the judgment. 67

9 Simeon ben Shetah said- “Examine the witnesses diligently and be cautious in your words lest from them they learn to swear falsely.”

10 Shemaiah and Abtalion received [the Law] from them. Shemaiah said- “Love labor and hate mastery and do not seek acquaintance with the ruling power.”

11 Abtalion said- “You sages, give heed to your words lest you incur the penalty of exile and you be exiled to a place of evil waters, 68 and the disciples that come after you drink [of them] and die, and the name of Heaven be profaned.”

12 Hillel and Shammai received [the Law] from them. Hillel said- “Be of the disciples of Aaron, loving peace and pursuing peace, loving mankind and bringing them near to the Law.”

13 He used to say- “A name made great is a name destroyed; he who does not increase, decreases; he who does not learn is worthy of death; and he who makes worldly use of the crown 69 shall perish.

14 He used to say- “If I am not for myself who is for me? And being for my own self what am I? And if not now, when?”

15 Shammai said- “Make your [study of the] Law a fixed habit; say little and do much, and receive all men with a cheerful countenance.”

16 Rabban Gamaliel said- “Provide yourself with a teacher and remove yourself from doubt, and tithe not overmuch by guesswork.” 70

17 Simeon his son said- “All my days have I grown up among the sages and I have found naught better for a man than silence; and not the expounding [of the Law] is the chief thing but the doing [of it]; and he that multiplies words occasions sin.”

18 Rabban Simeon ben Gamaliel said- “By three things is the world sustained- by truth, by judgment, and by peace, as it is written, ‘Execute the judgment of truth and peace’ (Zech. 8-16).”

2-1 Rabbi 71 said- “Which is the straight way that a man should choose? That which is an honor to him and gets him honor from men. And be as heedful of a light precept as of a weighty one, for you do not know the reward of each precept; and reckon the loss through [the fulfilling of] a precept against its reward, and the reward [that comes] from transgression against its loss. Consider three things and you will not fall into the hands of transgression- know what is above you—a seeing eye, a hearing ear, and all your deeds written in a book….”

4 He 72 used to say- “Do His will as if it were your will so that He may do your will as if it were His will. Make your will of no effect before His will so that He may make the will of others of no effect before your will.

5-1 By ten Sayings 73 was the world created. And what does the Scripture teach thereby? Could it not have been created by one Saying? But this was to requite the ungodly who destroy the world that was created by ten Sayings, and to give a goodly reward to the righteous which sustain the world that was created by ten Sayings….

10 There are four types among men- he who says, ‘What is mine is mine and what is yours is yours’—this is the common type, and some say that this is the type of Sodom; 74 [he who says,] ‘What is mine is yours and what is yours is mine’—he is an ignorant man; [he who says,] ‘What is mine is yours and what is yours is your own’—he is a saintly man; [and he who says,] “What is yours is mine, and what is mine is my own’—he is a wicked man….

17 Any controversy that is for God’s sake shall in the end be of lasting worth, 75 but any that is not for God’s sake shall not in the end be of lasting worth. Which controversy was for God’s sake? Such was the controversy of Hillel and Shammai. 76 And which was not for God’s sake? Such was the controversy of Korah and all his company. 77

59. Trans. H. Danby, The Mishnah(London- Oxford, 1933), pp. 446-48. 455. 457-8.

60. Both the oral and written Torahs.

61. Or “Men of the Great Assembly,” a group of 120 sages which, according to Rabbinic tradition, existed in Judea in the Persian period.

62. Add restrictions to the lawin order to ensure that its essentials will be properly observed.

63. High priest, ca. 250 B.C.E.

64. This sage’s view, while shared by some of his colleagues, should be contrasted with statements taking a much more positive view of women. Although the status of women was evolving in the Rabbinic period, there certainly were some who continued to hold older views.

65. Punishment after death.

66. With whom to study.

67. Examine both sides strictly and be suspicious of both. But once they have accepted your judgment, treat them as righteous people.

68. False teachings and interpretations of the Torah.

69. The crown of the knowledge of the Torah.

70. Give exact tithes rather than estimated.

71. Rabbi Judah the Prince, editor of the Mishnah.

72. Rabban Gamliel,the son of Rabbi Judah the Prince.

73. Divine commands.

74. The residents of Sodom were said to be totally selfish.

75. The differing views will be transmitted to later generations.

76. Where many disputes are preserved in Rabbinic literature.

77. Korah’s rebellion against the leadership of Moses (Numbers 16) had no purpose except to wrest power from Moses.

Posted in: The Rabbis

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