Pirkei Avot 1:13 — Messianic Commentary

Hillel used to say: He who aggrandizes his name, loses his name. He who does not increase his knowledge, decreases it. He who learns not, forfeits his life. He who makes unworthy use of the crown (of the Torah) shall pass away.

Rabbi Hillel is one of the most famous rabbis of the Second Temple period. He lived during late first century prior to the common era through the childhood years of Yeshua. He was originally from Babylon, but came to settle in Eretz Yisrael (the Land of Israel) around the age of forty. He took up residence in the Galilee and came to establish his own rabbinic school, known as Beit Hillel (The House of Hillel), which became the dominant rabbinic school of thought at the end of the Second Temple period. Since his life briefly overlaps that of Yeshua’s and his ministry being located in the Galilee, as well as the fact that nearly all of his teachings align with Yeshua’s, many have suggested that Hillel could have possibly served as a mentor for Yeshua in his childhood. Another New Testament connection and well known fact is that Hillel was the grandfather of Gamaliel, Paul’s teacher and the nasi (president) of the Sanhedrin during Paul’s life. These are some of the words of this great sage…

“He who aggrandizes his name, loses his name.”

If this is true, then the converse should also be true: “He who loses his name, aggrandizes his name.” When we look at the words of our Master, we see that this is indeed what he taught. He said, “Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it” (Matthew 10:39). He also taught his disciples that in order to become great, one first had to become a servant:

And Jesus called them to him and said to them, “You know that those who are considered rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. But it shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:42-45).

“He who does not increase his knowledge [of Torah], decreases it.”

In Irving Bunim’s classic commentary on Pirkei Avot, Ethics from Sinai, he begins his comments on this section with the following illustration: “A man’s knowledge must keep step with his general development. It is considered an achievement when a one-year-old child begins to speak. But we can hardly continue to admire the child of twelve for his ability to talk. If he has not progressed since one, the child is a case of arrested development.” This may sound harsh, especially to the ears of those who have been under the impression that the serious study of Scripture is reserved for the elect; however, if we believe the Scriptures to be the inspired Word of God, then our knowledge of Scripture should be ever increasing, informing our day-to-day living. The author of Hebrews shows his frustration with a group of people who are slow to learn, saying:

“About this we have much to say, and it is hard to explain, since you have become dull of hearing. For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the basic principles of the oracles of God. You need milk, not solid food, for everyone who lives on milk is unskilled in the word of righteousness, since he is a child. But solid food is for the mature, for those who have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil” (Hebrews 5:11-14).

Bunim’s observation is correct. The Word of God is the daily sustenance for our souls. In reference to the Word being spiritual nourishment, even Yeshua himself, quoting from Deuteronomy 8:3, says that “Man shall not live by bread alone.” We are responsible for the teachings of the Holy Writ, particularly the words of our Master. Yeshua confirms this concept by saying, “Take care then how you hear, for to the one who has, more will be given, and from the one who has not, even what he thinks that he has will be taken away” (Luke 8:18). We generally associate these words of Yeshua to that of our spiritual abilities, i.e. our “talents” (from a sub-conscience association with the English homonym of the same name, rather than “talent” being correctly understood as a unit of currency). However, in this instance, Yeshua is clearly connecting this instruction with our responsibility as stewards of his teachings. His words are our very life. Peter came to this realization with his confession, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life” (John 6:68).

“He who learns not, forfeits his life.”

As we stated earlier, the Word of God is life. If man does not “live by bread alone,” his existence, therefore, is sustained by the Word of God. Again, if we think about the reverse, it should bear to reason that without the Word of God in our daily diet, our lives fade from existence.

“He who makes unworthy use of the crown (of the Torah) shall pass away.” The author of Hebrews says that the Word of God has the ability to discern our motives: “For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart” (Hebrews 4:12). If we are making use of Scripture for personal gain, we will be sorely disappointed in the end.

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.

slience

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.

Life Without Limits

No Limits

He [Hillel] used to say: The more flesh the more worms; the more possessions the more anxiety; the more women the more witchcraft; the more maidservants the more lewdness, the more manservants the more theft. But the more Torah the more life, the more study the more wisdom; the more counsel the more understanding; the more charity (righteousness) the more peace. (Avot 2:8)

While studying this mishnah (“saying”) from Pirkei Avot, I came across some interesting thoughts in regard to Paul, and how we might understand one of his teachings on an entirely new dimension than before. First, let me give some background.

Less Is More

The more flesh the more worms; the more possessions the more anxiety; the more women the more witchcraft; the more maidservants the more lewdness, the more manservants the more theft.

This maxim can easily stand on its own. We all realize, to some degree or another, that “less” is often “more,” and “more” is often an overdose. The main point Hillel is making here is that just because we think we need “more,” it is not necessarily a good thing. “More” can often lead to our demise.

Our Animal Nature

In Rabbi Abraham Twerski’s excellent commentary on Pirkei Avot, Visions of the Fathers, he expounds upon this saying through a couple of illustrations. He says that if we look at a human being we will find that he is composed of both a physical body, and a spiritual soul. Our bodies are essentially the same as any other animal, and living for our bodies as our main priority (it’s easy to find out if this is true or not, by simply looking at where we invest our time & resources) causes us to be no better than an animal. In actuality, in some ways being an animal would really be better, because animals generally don’t over-indulge. When they have eaten to their fill, they stop. Not so with humans. Too often we eat more for pleasure than for our physical needs. Animals don’t struggle with obesity. Humans do.

So to primarily feed our physical bodies puts us at a level that is actually below the animal kingdom. We miss our calling of truly being human. Therefore, just as this mishnah states, we must attend to our physical needs with limitations.

Our Spiritual Nature

On the other hand, however, our spiritual needs are different than our physical needs. While we must be careful to limit our physical pleasures, our neshamot (our spiritual beings) should be handled with an entirely different approach. Just as God is infinite, the needs of our neshama, made from the spark of the Divine (“…breath deep the breath of God”), are also infinite. Therefore, placing a limit upon our spiritual pursuits (in contrast to our physical pursuits) may actually be detrimental to us, rather than beneficial. Rabbi Twerski sums this thought up with the following:

There are some things for which halachah does not designate an appropriate limit, but for many other spiritual activities — such as helping others or Torah study — there are no limits.1

This immediately brought my mind back to a passage from the Mishna that is recited each morning:

These are the precepts that have no prescribed measure: the corner of the field [which must be left for the poor], the first-fruit offering, the pilgrimage, acts of kindness, and Torah study. (Peah 1:1)

These things “have no limit.” They may be done “to excess.” After all, can we be too kind? Too generous? Too devout? Should we place a limit on godliness?

The Fruits of the Spirit

This brought my mind back to something we hear from the Apostle Paul that has always troubled me in its wording. In his letter to the Galatians he introduces his concept of the “fruit of the Spirit” with the following:

But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do. (Galatians 5:16,17)

He essentially does the same thing as our mishnah. He warns us against “feeding our flesh,” and contrasts this with being sensitive to the Spirit and living a more spiritual life than a fleshly one. But the curious part about it is when he actually gives us his list for the “fruit of the Spirit”:

But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law. (Galatians 5:22,23, emphasis mine)

Paul could have stopped with “self-control.” However, he concludes his list with the phrase, “Against such things there is no law.” In other words, these are things which “have no limit,” just as the corners of the field, the first-fruit offering, the pilgrimage, acts of kindness and Torah study. There should be no limit to love, nor joy, nor peace, nor kindness, nor goodness, nor faithfulness, nor gentleness, nor self-control.

Have you been limiting yourself unnecessarily? I know I have. Are you ready to live life without limits?

I came that they may have life and have it abundantly. (John 10:10)

This is how we do it. This is how we truly live. To coin a phrase… “Just do it.”

 

  1. Twerski, Abraham, Visions of the Fathers, p. 104.

Volunteer Needed

If you would like to see more texts available freely online that related to Messianic studies, please consider helping me out. I’m looking for a volunteer to help develop my textual repository site DWD eTexts. I currently have posted all of Pirkei Avot (in both Hebrew and English, with a bit of commentary), Odes of Solomon, the Didache, and have begun adding 1 Clement.

You don’t have to be a web developer. You just need to be a little computer savvy. Essentially, you would just be logging into the site and copying/pasting in text. There would be a little formatting required, but not much. If anyone would like to help me add more texts (and finish 1 Clement) to this site, please post a comment on this post.

Book Review: Meet the Rabbis

Meet the RabbisMeet the Rabbis

by Brad H. Young
Hendrickson Publishers

Many people ask why studying Jewish sources is important. They are extremely important in that they help us to understand our faith in context. Familiarizing oneself with Jewish sources will add dimension to your faith, and help gain a more in-depth understanding of key concepts found within the Biblical narratives, particularly in the Gospels and Epistles. I recommend Brad Young’s newest work as a starting point for those who desire to explore Jewish texts.

Following his other excellent works such as Jesus the Jewish Theologian, Paul the Jewish Theologian, and The Parables, Young puts forth his most recent work, Meet the Rabbis, in an effort to continue educating his readers about the Jewish context of our Scriptures, our Savior and our Faith. Young helps to gently bridge the gap between Christian understanding and the world of rabbinic writings, thought and Scriptural application. He does a great job and engaging the reader through continual cross referencing between the rabbinic texts and the teachings of our Master. This is why MTR is such a great starting point for those new to Jewish texts.

In MTR, he introduces the reader to rabbinic writings in a way that is very engaging, even including the full text of Pirkei Avot, one of the foundational texts for understanding the teachings of Judaism. This is a “don’t miss” book.