Avot de’Rabbi Natan

I’ve recently been working my way through The Fathers According to Rabbi Nathan (The Fathers According to Rabbi Nathan), as translated by Judah Goldin. It has been interesting to see even more parallels to the Apostolic Writings from this ancient text. For those interested, Abot de’Rabbi Natan (ARN) is a minor tractate of the Talmud and is an ancient commentary on Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers).

There is a version of it contained in the printed texts of the Babylonian Talmud, but this particular version is based on two versions of ARN which were translated and documented by Solomon Schechter more than a century ago. Schechter had not only translated and compared these two “non-canonical” versions of ARN, but had come upon a third as well. What is interesting to note is that these versions of ARN contain information from Pirkei Avot (PA) in a different form than what exists in the Talmud. The arrangements of the various mishnayot are not parallel to PA, and often it attributes sayings to persons other than whom PA claims as their source. I plan on incorporating some of the information within ARN in my ongoing commentary on PA. I can’t help but feel a sense of amazement at the parallels to the Apostolic Writings in several instances. Here’s a sneak peek at some of what I’ve come across already:

Regarding the statement “Thy belly is like a heap of wheat hedged in by lilies (Cant. 7:3)1 ” the following statements are made.

“Thy belly is like a heap of wheat refers to the minor commandments that are tender. Hedged in by lilies teaches this: when Israel put them into practice, they are led thereby to the life of the world to come. How so? One’s wife in her menses2 is alone with him at home. If he is so minded he cohabits with her; if he is otherwise minded he does not cohabit with her. Does then anyone see him, or does anyone know to tell him aught? He fears only Him who commanded against contact with a menstruant.

(Again,) one has suffered a pollution. If he is so minded he bathes; if he is otherwise minded he does not bathe. Does anyone see him, or does anyone know to tell him aught? He fears only Him who commands ritual immersion.

The same may be said of the law of dough offering; and the same may be said of the law of first shearings. These minor commandments, tender as lilies, when Israel put them into practice, lead them to the life of the world to come.”3

To me, this brings to mind the warning the Master gives his disciples in Luke’s Gospel:

Meanwhile, when a crowd of many thousands had gathered, so that they were trampling on one another, Jesus began to speak first to his disciples, saying: “Be on your guard against the yeast of the Pharisees, which is hypocrisy. There is nothing concealed that will not be disclosed, or hidden that will not be made known. What you have said in the dark will be heard in the daylight, and what you have whispered in the ear in the inner rooms will be proclaimed from the roofs. “I tell you, my friends, do not be afraid of those who kill the body and after that can do no more. But I will show you whom you should fear: Fear him who, after the killing of the body, has power to throw you into hell.
(Luke 12:1-5, NIV)

Food for thought…

  1. Abbreviation for Canticles or the Song of Solomon. This reference is 7:3 in a Jewish published Bible and 7:2 in a non-Jewish published Bible.
  2. Menstruation
  3. Goldin, Judah. The Fathers According to Rabbi Nathan. Yale University Press, New York, 1955, p. 18.