Pirkei Avot—Chapter 1, Mishnah 11

Avtalyon would say: Scholars, be careful with your words. For you may be exiled to a place inhabited by evil elements [who will distort your words to suit their negative purposes]. The disciples who come after you will then drink of these evil waters1 and be destroyed, and the Name of Heaven will be desecrated.

There is an ancient restatement of and commentary on Pirkei Avot called “Abot de’Rabbi Natan” (ARN). It is a minor tractate of the Talmud of which I have discussed previously. ARN states our mishnah in this manner:

Abtalyon says: Sages, watch your words lest ye decide something not in accord with the teaching of the Torah, and incur the penalty of exile and be carried off to a place of evil waters; and your disciples also who come after you decide in your name something not in accord with the teaching of the Torah, and they incur the penalty of exile and be carried off to a place of evil waters.

I really like the way ARN states this portion of the mishnah: “Watch your words lest ye decide something not in accord with the teaching of the Torah.” Isn’t this the heart of any matter of teaching? If we are teaching something that contradicts the Torah, we are in danger of becoming a false prophet and leading others astray (Deuteronomy 13). This mishnah also brings to mind the words of Ja’acov (James), brother of the Master, who said: “Not many of you should presume to be teachers, my brothers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly.” (James 1:1, NIV) We must add caution to caution in this regard. Let’s take a little deeper look at the various aspects of this mishnah. My commentary is based on the synthesis of these two texts.

Be careful with your words

Those who teach others must take it as serious business. The Master spent his entire earthly ministry correcting bad teaching. Let’s make sure we are not undoing his work. We must be careful with our words in a few regards. First, we must be extremely careful as to their accuracy. Second, we must consider how they might affect others. We never know how our words might be interpreted, and therefore must make a thorough effort to clearly present our points to those who are receiving instruction. I take this seriously, but I also know that I have a target audience for my method of teaching. If someone from outside my target audience were to pick up one of my teachings on a particular topic, the chances of it being misinterpreted are near one hundred percent. The reason for this is that they do not possess the needed knowledge base to properly filter many of the subjects discussed.

For instance, when I speak of ‘the Law,’ different people have different understandings on the subject. My previous understanding, having been raised in an evangelical church, was that the Law was some sort of twisted plot by God to show man his worthlessness, holding the proverbial carrot in front of him. For close to the last decade, however, my understanding of this has shifted to understand the Law from its intended purpose and perspective—a means of transforming us into the image of our Creator. If someone having the paradigm from which I previously came were to read my commentaries on the various laws in the Torah, such as Sabbath restrictions, they could and would easily be distorted. The same is true with any subject. Some very good advise I heard towards this was, “Explain, explain and clarify your explanation.” 2

Not in accord with the teaching of the Torah

When Yeshua was teaching, he was under constant scrutiny from those who were in places of teaching authority. He responded many ways at many times. However, his ultimate response (in my opinion) was this: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.” 3 This was the foundation of his teaching. Others had stepped into evil waters. Yeshua, however, had come to establish proper halachic teaching authority as one whose words upheld Torah.

We often get into a debate over this passage in regard to whether he set aside the Torah (e.g. through the traditional interpretation of “fulfilling” it) or he “filled it up”4. Christendom has traditionally interpreted this passages via the previous method, saying that since Yeshua “fulfilled” the Torah, it is no longer necessary—it has become obsolete. On the other hand, there are others who say he “filled it up,” therefore our obedience to the specifics of Torah is not necessary, merely our proper application of its principles; somehow Yeshua “spiritualized” the Torah.

However, neither of these are the case. The problem with both of these interpretations is that they fail to consider the cultural milieu in which Yeshua’s words were cast. Both of these interpretations are based solely upon the guesswork of the interpreters, rather than the context in which they were given. Here is a brief explanation of the proper understanding of this passage:

“In rabbinic literature, the Greek words from the Gospel which are translated “abolish” and “fulfill” possess dynamic equivalents. The word “abolish” means to “interpret incorrectly.” In Greek, the word kataluo means “abolish,” and its dynamic Hebrew equivalent batel also means “cancel, abolish, destroy,” but batel is often used in contexts that deal with interpreting Scripture. One cancels Torah when it is misunderstood. The word “fulfill,” moreover, refers to interpreting a passage correctly. In Greek the word pleroo means “fulfill.” Its Hebrew equivalent kiyem is derived from a root, that means “cause to stand” and possesses the sense, “to uphold, to observe, to fulfill, or to place on a firmer footing.” It too is used in contexts that deal with interpreting Scripture.

When one misunderstands the proper meaning of Torah, one many not obey the Lord’s will and therefore will cancel the law. Hence a person may abolish Torah by misunderstanding the divine revelation. On the other hand, when one understands the proper meaning, one is able to obey God’s will and therefore fulfill Torah.”5

Ironically, by misappropriating the words of Yeshua, we are doing exactly the opposite of his example. We are abolishing the very words of the Master, rather than fulfilling them.

This the downfall of Antignos of Socho. From his one misunderstood statement regarding eternal rewards for works done in this life, his disciples constructed an entirely new doctrine that actually was in opposition to his original statement. Unfortunately, this is what has been done with the words of our Master as well.

Incur the penalty of exile…and evil waters

Unfortunately, I have a good example of this. I have a friend who believes he is a divinely appointed teacher of the Scriptures. He has been prolifically writing article after article on various subjects and unsolicitedly sending them out to a slew of people. These “teachings,” however, are nothing more than lies and slander, mixed in with half-truths in order to add a bit of credibility to his arguments. With a blind determination to vociferously attack the Jews and anything Jewish, he has neglected to accurately represent his opponents. Therefore, his arguments are all straw men. They just don’t hold any weight, because they are all based on fabrications which have been created to support his animosity. They are not necessarily fabrications that have been created deliberately (G-d forbid), but primarily out of a desire to accept information that supports with his false assumptions. His words are not only inaccurate, but they are distorting reality and possibly leading uneducated people into a false perception of the truth. Unfortunately, I can see the “exile” and “evil waters” clearly in such a person.

In the case where someone is teaching untruth repeatedly, they will eventually not know truth from fiction. They will have gone to a place of no return, especially having fallen prey to the “evil elements” (i.e. those who would perpetuate the false teachings). The Apostolic Scriptures warn us of such, by saying:

For the time will come when men will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear. They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths. (2 Timothy 4:3, 4, NIV)

This is a luring trap that we in which must be careful not to fall, and it is running rampant within Christianity, as well as the Torah movement. We are pulled to teachers that have the talk, rather than the walk; the gnosis, rather than the da’at6. As teachers of the Word of the Almighty, we must not fall into such traps. May we break this curse and have our eyes opened to this deception, and be disciples of those who walk the walk (rather than merely talk the talk) and teach others to do the same.

Who is wise and understanding among you? Let him show it by his good life, by deeds done in the humility that comes from wisdom. But if you harbor bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast about it or deny the truth. Such “wisdom” does not come down from heaven but is earthly, unspiritual, of the devil. For where you have envy and selfish ambition, there you find disorder and every evil practice.

But the wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere. Peacemakers who sow in peace raise a harvest of righteousness.
(James 3:13-18, NIV)

And be destroyed

This is the final result of those who perpetuate and “drink” false teachings. Outside of the grace of the Almighty, destruction is the payment for such labors.


1 “Evil waters” = heresy
2 Verbal quote from Boaz Michael at the Wooden Podium conference, Fall 2005.
3 Matthew 5:17, NIV
4 Ironically, David Stern’s Complete Jewish New Testament Commentary argues that Yeshua “filled up” the Torah and the Prophets, not taking into consideration the Semitic nature of this phrase.
5 Young, Brad H., Jesus the Jewish Theologian, p. 265.
6 Both gnosis (Greek) and da’at (Hebrew) mean “knowledge.” However, gnosis implies only the knowing aspect of information, while da’at implies the application of information.

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