Pirkei Avot – Chapter 1, Mishnah 1

Moses received the Torah from Sinai, and transmitted it to Joshua, Joshua to the Elders, the Elders to the Prophets, and the Prophets transmitted it to the Men of the Great Assembly. They said three things: Be deliberate in judgement; and raise up many disciples, and make a fence for the Torah.

During the time from Pesach to Shavuot it is traditional to study a chapter a week from Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers), a portion of the Mishnah which focuses on ethical conduct and practical steps for living. As we have been re-studying this as a family this week, it has been interesting to see all of the connections and parallels to teachings from the Apostolic Scriptures. In the next few posts I’ll be sharing some basic insights into these mishnayot. Let’s begin with the very first one.

Moses received the Torah from Sinai, and transmitted it to Joshua, Joshua to the Elders, the Elders to the Prophets, and the Prophets transmitted it to the Men of the Great Assembly.

Many times this is used to try and authoritatively prove the divine origin of the Oral Law. However, if we examine the text itself, this is not the point of the text. The purpose of the text is to show how the teachings of the Torah were transmitted from Moses down through the ages, where people were entrusted to learn and teach Torah. And then from these different people in this long line we have sayings that provide methods of living out the Torah, and protect oneself from being ensnared by sin. The first of which is:

Be deliberate in judgement; and raise up many disciples, and make a fence for the Torah.

“Be deliberate in judgement” – In every matter we must be diligent in seeking truth. In judging any situation we must be sure to receive all of the information necessary to make an educated decision. This is especially important when others are involved. We must not discount information that others may bring into the picture in order that we may make an honest, rather than a biased decision. (After reading this article, we might just want to revisit our judgements against the Pharisees as a whole.)

Raise up many disciples – Isn’t this also what Yeshua taught us to do, saying

Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, immersing them into the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.

In order to accomplish this we need to know what it means to make disciples. But in order to make disciples, we must ask the question of “what is a disciple?” In the time of Yeshua, a disciple (or talmidim) was someone who first had a teacher (or rabbi). He had someone from which to learn. He wasn’t just a renegade trying to interpret the Scriptures on his own, by his own means. He had a person who was trained in the Scriptures to guide him through his studies, keeping him from the pitfalls of shallow understandings, going beyond (but not neglecting) the mere literal interpretation of the text, to the fuller, richer meanings. A classic example of this is Yeshua’s mini-discourse on the laws of Torah from the context of what many call the “Sermon on the Mount.” In this teaching he puts forth a literal interpretation of a passage, and then puts forth a more rich, deeper understanding of it. And, if we do our homework, we find that his “deeper” understandings of these passages are actually common teaching among the rabbis of his time. Yeshua was not teaching anything new, but teaching them “with authority,” declaring his halachah as binding (Matthew 7:24-27). These are the types of things that would be passed from teacher to disciple, in order that they would not be lost along the way. Unfortunately, many in Yeshua’s day (and many in our day) had lost these deeper understandings because they did not have a teacher.

Although some will argue the point, I sincerely believe that even Yeshua had this mentoring relationship with a teacher. Many believe that since he was the son of the Almighty, his wisdom was simply imparted unto him. However, I believe we see a glimpse into his early years when he visits the Beit HaMikdash (Temple) during one of the feasts. During this time he is engaged with the rabbis in Torah discussion, and they are amazed at his grasp of the Scriptures. Although his mentorship is not recorded, the great sage Hillel lived during the days of Yeshua, and if we look at the positions of Yeshua on the various matters of Torah, he agrees with Hillel in all but two: Divorce and the Prosbul (which we will have to leave for another discussion). This at least gives the indication that Yeshua could have belonged to the school of Hillel, whether by direct tutelage or extension. We will discuss this more in a future mishnah.

Ultimately, a disciple was a miniature copy of his rabbi. He was the recipient of all that the rabbi had learned, and should be nearly a carbon copy of his rabbi. He should have an ability to render judgements and decisions on matters of Torah with the same precision (or better) of his rabbi. His life should model that of his teacher in nearly every manner. And for his true discipleship to be “complete,” he must take on his own disciples and pass down the wealth of wisdom he received. Because when the river is dammed, the water becomes stagnant.

Make a fence for the Torah – This is the statement that raises the blood pressure of all Christians, and causes heart failure in most Kara’ites (the self-proclaimed “modern day Sadducees”). For anyone who has a negative outlook on the Pharisees as a whole (because of either tradition, or a one-sided reading of Scripture) this causes real problems. “The problem with fences,” they say, “is that not only do they keep some people in, but they keep others out.” This is definitely true, and with this we need to exercise caution. However, just as the old adage goes, we don’t need to “throw the baby out with the bath water.” While some fences are built to the extreme (you don’t need a 20 ft fence to keep your dogs in the yard… unless you have my dogs…), a properly built fence keeps in the children and pets, keeps out the unwanted solicitors, and maintains a healthy relationship with the neighbors. It’s the same with Torah. The fence must be built properly in order to merit it’s usefulness.

We see this modeled by Yeshua, again, in the Sermon on the Mount. In his series of “you have heard it said…but I say…” he models the institution of making fences around Torah. The letter of Torah says, “Do not commit adultery.” The spirit of the Torah says, “Do not look at a woman lustfully.” In making this declaration, Yeshua is making a fence around Torah to ensure that his disciples do not violate Torah by merely obeying the literal understanding of the commandments.

Akhnai’s Oven

A few people have been asking about where to read the account of Akhnai’s Oven (which can also be “Aknai’s Oven”). This is the link to the source of this text.

Here is the text of the argument:

We learnt elsewhere: If he cut it into separate tiles, placing sand between each tile: R. Eliezer declared it clean, and the Sages declared it unclean; and this was the oven of ‘Aknai. Why [the oven of] ‘Aknai? — Said Rab Judah in Samuel’s name: [It means] that they encompassed it with arguments as a snake, and proved it unclean. It has been taught: On that day R. Eliezer brought forward every imaginable argument, but they did not accept them. Said he to them: ‘If the halachah agrees with me, let this carob-tree prove it!’ Thereupon the carob-tree was torn a hundred cubits out of its place — others affirm, four hundred cubits. ‘No proof can be brought from a carob-tree,’ they retorted. Again he said to them: ‘If the halachah agrees with me, let the stream of water prove it!’ Whereupon the stream of water flowed backwards — ‘No proof can be brought from a stream of water,’ they rejoined. Again he urged: ‘If the halachah agrees with me, let the walls of the schoolhouse prove it,’ whereupon the walls inclined to fall. But R. Joshua rebuked them, saying: ‘When scholars are engaged in a halachic dispute, what have ye to interfere?’ Hence they did not fall, in honour of R. Joshua, nor did they resume the upright, in honour of R. Eliezer; and they are still standing thus inclined. Again he said to them: ‘If the halachah agrees with me, let it be proved from Heaven!’ Whereupon a Heavenly Voice cried out: ‘Why do ye dispute with R. Eliezer, seeing that in all matters the halachah agrees with him!’ But R. Joshua arose and exclaimed: ‘It is not in heaven.’ What did he mean by this? — Said R. Jeremiah: That the Torah had already been given at Mount Sinai; we pay no attention to a Heavenly Voice, because Thou hast long since written in the Torah at Mount Sinai, After the majority must one incline.

Another source for this text (with a slight variation) can be found at this link. Be sure to scroll down to the page 140 marker.

Both Avi ben Mordechai and his inspiration Daniel Gruber use this passage in order to try and cast reproach upon rabbinical authority. The claim is made that the rabbis are actually in opposition to the Written Word of God, and will not listen to Hashem even if they hear from Heaven itself. For some time I was swayed into this line of thinking, until challenged to examine the context of this argument firsthand. Upon a cursory exmination, it appears that I have been duped.

In short, this argument is a classic example of how the rabbis upheld Scripture in a case where a person wanted to try and outwit Scriptural authority through clever devisiveness. R. Eleazer, siding with Akhnai (apparently the owner of the oven, or a nickname for such, meaning “snake” in Aramaic), is the classic representation of the false prophet warned against in Deuteronomy 13. R. Eleazer rules that the clay oven (Read the Biblical laws associated with the contamination of earthen vessels, including ovens), which has been “broken” via being cut apart and mortared back together is oblivious to contamination from contact of a dead animal. First, both Akhnai and R. Eleazer in this scenario are intentionally working to find a loophole around the Biblical ordinance for contamination, and immediately shows a rebellious nature towards the commandments of Hashem.

Second, the halachah of R. Eleazer actually is working to “abolish the Torah” in the same way that many within Christianity are doing today, and have been doing throughout the centuries. Rather than using the written Word of Hashem as the plumbline by which all things are aligned, they follow charismatic leaders with whom are signs and wonders.

Opposite of what we have been lead to believe, the case of Akhnai’s Oven actually is one in which the rabbis are upholding the Written Word of God over the opinions of man, even when backed by signs and wonders.

You must not listen to the words of that prophet or dreamer. The LORD your God is testing you to find out whether you love him with all your heart and with all your soul.
(Devarim / Deuteronomy 13:3)