Pirkei Avot 1:17 — Messianic Commentary

The following is a brief, messianic commentary I recently wrote for a messianic newsletter on (Pirkei) Avot 1:17.


Shimon his [Rabban Gamaliel’s] son said: All my days have I grown up among the wise and I have not found anything better for a man than silence. Studying Torah is not the most important thing, but rather fulfilling it. Whoever multiplies words causes sin. (Avot 1:17)

In our above mishnah (saying), Rabbi Shimon states his observations from the time which he has “grown up among the wise.” In this he states that true wisdom is found in two main principles: holding the tongue, and living out the beliefs one espouses. These are principles that are commonly supported in the Scriptures.

Subduing the Tongue

The first principle, holding the tongue, is a base requirement for godly living. Proverbs tells us the following:

“When words are many, transgression is not lacking, but whoever restrains his lips is prudent.” (Proverbs 10:19)

Rabbi Shimon’s saying that “whoever multiplies words causes sin” is merely a succinct restatement of this proverb. His introductory words, “I have not found anything better for a man than silence,” however, are a fence he establishes for guarding against sin. This fence is based on Proverbs 21:23, which states:

“Whoever keeps his mouth and his tongue keeps himself out of trouble.”

James, the brother of our Master agrees:

“… the tongue is a fire, a world of unrighteousness. The tongue is set among our members, staining the whole body, setting on fire the entire course of life, and set on fire by hell. For every kind of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by mankind, but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers, these things ought not to be so.” (James 3:6-10)

Our words are important. We must be extremely careful with them, for “Death and life are in the power of the tongue” (Proverbs 18:21).

In the late nineteenth century, Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagan, commonly known as the Chofetz Chaim (the “Desire of Life” – based on the title of his most famous work, founded on Proverbs 34:12-15), wrote extensively on the subject of Shemiras Halashon (“proper speech” — literally “guarding the tongue”). He became a world-renown authority on the biblical ethics of proper speech, and his works are the benchmark on the ethics of speech within Judaism to this day.

Yeshua taught about the overuse of words in regard to prayer. He taught his disciples,  “And when you pray, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do, for they think that they will be heard for their many words” (Matthew 6:7). In this teaching, Yeshua agrees with Rabbi Shimon in that “less is more.” In one instance, Yeshua says regarding our speech, “Let what you say be simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything more than this comes from evil” (Matthew 5:37). In another instance, he says, “The good person out of the good treasure of his heart produces good, and the evil person out of his evil treasure produces evil, for out of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaks.” (Luke 6:45). Yeshua’s focus is on the quality of one’s words, verses the quantity. His concern was whether they emanated from the heart, or were a means of manipulation.

Knowing vs. Doing

Back to Rabbi Shimon. Sandwiched between these two expressions regarding speech, he states, “Studying Torah is not the most important thing, but rather fulfilling it.” In the tradition of a true master of Scripture, he ties these expressions of making ones words few to the living out of the principles of Scripture. But the question we must ask is how does Rabbi Shimon connect these teachings, regarding speech, to the “doing” of Torah? How are they related?

Throughout the existence of humanity we have witnessed an epic struggle between knowing and doing. There is a constant battle in relation to these two forces, ever the struggle to marry knowledge and application. This is the difference between knowledge and wisdom. Whereas knowledge is being informed, wisdom is acting on the knowledge we have been given. When we choose to ignore the knowledge we have been given and make choices that contradict this information, we are being foolish. Hence, it is the fool who ignores instruction and correction according to Proverbs. It is the fool who repeats his folly, not taking heed to warnings from his elders or even his peers. It is the fool who is informed, but who lacks wisdom in his actions.

The chasm between belief and faith have long been the discussion of seminaries, pulpits and armchairs. It is precisely here that we find the spiritual struggle of every believer. Our actions, however, reveal our true nature — we act according to our values. Don’t we justify ourselves in judging others based on their actions, rather than their intentions, but judge ourselves solely on intention? Dallas Willard is quoted as saying, “You can live opposite of what you profess, but you cannot live opposite of what you believe.” This is a very accurate observation, which is in the same line of thought as the words of Rabbi Shimon. We may have an ample number of intentions, but it is our actions that ultimately carry the weight of our beliefs.

This is the litmus test of genuine faith. It is only genuine faith in which “faith and works” walk hand in hand, as James tells us (James 2:18-26). Rabbi Shimon recognized the truth of the common aphorism that “actions speak louder than words.” He places emphasis on minimizing words, and maximizing actions, realizing that one’s actions are the sermons that others will hear quicker than any eloquent speech or illustration. Within the Christian tradition we have a well known saying which agrees with this assessment. St. Francis of Assisi is attributed to have said, “Preach the gospel at all times. And when absolutely necessary, use words.

May it be so.

Yeshua – Preserving Life, Establishing Halacha

As a well known fact, in its history Judaism has struggled with the balance of sanctifying the Sabbath and preserving life. The first book of Macabees gives us one such account of how the Jews in the time of Antiochus IV had to realize that preservation of life in regard to self-defense took precedent over Sabbath restrictions. After nearly being wiped out by the armies of their enemies, the made a determination that they would fight on Shabbat, rather than letting their brothers and sisters be exterminated like vermin (1 Macabees 2:29-41).

In the Gospels (less than two centuries later), there is still a struggle with balancing Sabbath restrictions with compassion for humanity. Yeshua chastises the opposing Pharisees for their lack of compassion and adamantly declares that bringing wholeness to a person on the Sabbath is the overriding element of the normal Sabbath stringencies. Mark records the account of the man with the withered hand as follows: Continue reading “Yeshua – Preserving Life, Establishing Halacha”

Heavy Burdens Reprise

Toby Janicki of FFOZ, recently posted some thoughts in regard to the Oral Torah and Yeshua’s statement, “They tie up heavy burdens and lay them on men’s shoulders, but they themselves are unwilling to move them with so much as a finger.” It was a very insightful post that confirmed some ideas I’ve been developing over the last several months. I think his quote from Schimmel’s book, The Oral Torah, is a key to help us understand a basic principle regarding the work of Yeshua. Here is the quote from the book:

Before instituting a decree of enacting an ordinance or inducing a custom which is deemed necessary, Beit Din [House of Judges] must calmly deliberate and make sure that the majority of the community can live up to it. At no time is a decree to be imposed upon the public, which the majority cannot endure. (The Oral Torah, H. Chaim Schimmel, pg. 112)

I posted my thoughts as a comment on the FFOZ blog, but I thought I would include them here for easy reference…

In regard to the spiritual leadership of Israel during the first century, Yeshua did not come to negate the Oral Torah (as many of us already know, but we would do well to emphasize this point here). He came to 1) expose, rebuke & correct hypocrisy and 2) make the Torah accessible to the “am ha’aretz,” the common person – the “average Joe” (so to speak).

At this point in history, Torah study and mitzvot had almost completely been relegated to the aristocracy. There was a great chasm between the “learned” and the am ha’aretz. Yeshua’s rebuke is often quoted ending with the first portion, “They tie up heavy burdens and lay them on men’s shoulders.” However, the heart of the matter is found in the latter part in which he said, “but they themselves are unwilling to move them with so much as a finger.”

This is huge! Yeshua’s rebuke worked! The word of Hashem that he spoke did not return void. They did not fall on deaf ears. The difference between the “burdens” the common man faced during the time of Yeshua and the Oral Torah of today is this very principle. We cannot equate the Oral Torah with the “burdens” that the hypocrites, during the time of Yeshua, had placed on the general populous.

Although I do not believe we should follow the Oral Torah blindly, nor in its entirety (for various reasons associated with our Master), we have to recognize that these are two different animals, and speak out against the slanderous accusations from those who are ignorant (not “dumb,” merely uneducated in this particular area) of the differences.

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.