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A Taste of Pirke Avot

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A Taste of Pirke Avot

Finding Wisdom in the Mishnah

by John J. Parsons

Since I recently wrote about the role of oral Torah in Jewish thinking, I thought it would be worthwhile to look at Pirke Avot (פרקי אבות, "The Chapters of the Fathers"), a popular collection of ethical maxims found in the Mishnah (i.e., the core text of the Talmud). Though it is found in part of Seder Nezikin (a section of the Mishnah concerned with legal liabilities), some scholars believe Pirke Avot originally was intended to be a summary of the entire Mishnah itself.  At any rate, the tractate consists of six chapters of statements attributed to various Jewish sages of the Mishnaic period. Famous declarations such as, "The world stands on three things: Torah, service, and acts of loving kindness" (1:2); "If I am only for myself, who am I?" (1:14), and "You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to cease from doing it" (2:21), all come from this tractate of the Mishnah. In Jewish tradition it is customary to study a chapter a week of Pirke Avot during the six weeks between Pesach and Shavuot.

Pirke Avot 4:1

Specific verses of Avot (called mishnahs) sometimes provide exegetical commentary for verses of Scripture that deal with practical godliness.  For example, Avot 4:1 provides a quote from the sage Simon ben Zoma regarding Jeremiah 9:22-23[h]:

    Ben Zoma said: Who is wise? (ezehu chacham?) He who learns from all men (ha-lomed mikol adam), as it is written: "I have gained understanding from all my teachers" (Psalm 119:99).

    Who is mighty? (ezehu gibor?) He who subdues his passions (hakovesh et yitzro), as it is written: "One who is slow to anger is better than the mighty, and one whose temper is controlled than one who captures a city" (Proverbs 16:32).

    Who is rich? (ezehu ashir?) He who rejoices in his portion (hasameach bechelko), as it is written: "You shall eat the fruit of the labor of your hands; you shall be happy, and it shall go well with you" (Psalm 128:2). "You shall be" refers to this world; and "it shall be well with you" refers to the world to come.

    Who is honored? (ezehu m'khubar?) He that honors his fellow men (hamkhaber et habriyot) as it is written: "For those who honor me I will honor, and those who despise me shall be treated with contempt" (1 Samuel 2:30).

    (Pirke Avot 4:1)

Such maxims of the Pirke Avot are often used as starting points for discussions about living a Jewish life, especially in the realm of personal ethics and godly living. For example, the mishnah above teaches us that in order to be wise we must be humble. We should recognize that every person, "no matter how small," can be our teacher.  An acronym for the word "ego" I once heard is "easing God out." If we value our own thoughts more than the humble pursuit of wisdom, we are merely "rearranging our prejudices." Pride blinds us to the miracle of the other person as an agent of God's grace to our lives. The only acceptable role for pride is when we boast in the LORD and His glory (2 Cor. 10:17).

The mishnah also reminds us that true strength is the freedom to live in accordance with moral and spiritual truth. In Jewish tradition, the strong man (ish chayil) is not some macho-type fellow (let alone a "godfather of business" or forked-tongue politician), but rather is someone who overcomes the yetzer ha'ra - the evil inclination - and exercises godly self-control (Gal. 5:23). Therefore anger is often considered one of the worst of the middot ra'ot (bad qualities), since it enflames pride and leads to the loss of control. Uncontrolled anger is always a sign of spiritual disrepair...

Therefore Ben Zoma goes on to identify true riches with godly contentment. Constantly desiring things makes you a slave. You can never have enough. You can never be free of your covetous heart. But if you live in moment-by-moment surrender to God and His will for your life, you will experience serenity and inner peace. "Money can't buy you love," and neither can it buy you happiness.  Some of the most wretched people are those who are wealthy in the things of this world but who are bankrupt in their ability to love and be loved (Prov. 15:15). Thankfulness, gratitude, and appreciation are the marks of a joyful person.

Finally, the mishnah reminds us of our need for shared dignity. We all want to be respected. If you show respect to others, they will honor you in turn. Giving honor to others is a way to demonstrate our love for them. Yeshua told us to "do unto others as we would have them do to us" (Matt. 7:12) and this necessarily involves honoring them as beings created b'tzelem Elohim (in the image of God). Recognizing the dignity and infinite worth of our fellow man is a way of giving honor to God (1 Sam. 2:30).

Should Messianic Jews and Christians study Pirke Avot? I think so, primarily because it provides the context of ethical and spiritual concerns that were embedded within the culture of Jesus and his disciples. In addition, the pursuit of wisdom is an ongoing responsibility for God's people (Prov. 3:13, 4:7; 16:16; Deut. 4:5-9, Isa. 11:2, Rom. 16:19, Col. 1:9, Eph. 5:15, James 3:13, etc.).

Many of our Western Church traditions are derived from pagan influences of Greece and Rome. Sadly the early Gentile "Church Fathers" seemed more interested in the "wisdom" (i.e., philosophical speculations) of the Greeks and the power politics of Rome than they were in the godly wisdom that flowed from the cultural heritage of Jesus and his disciples. The worldly ecclesiology of the early church fathers (such as Clement, Ignatius, Justin Martyr, Tertullian, Cyprian, etc.), moved the Church to mirror the hierarchialism of imperial Rome. This process began in earnest after the conversion of Constantine (c.272-337) who enlisted the Church as a means of political control. Symptoms of these pagan influences include: The institution of a tiered priestly class (with special vestments and duties) that created a fixed dichotomy between the "laity" and the "clergy"; the attribution of hallowed powers to the sacraments (and to those who administered them); the practice of delivering Greco-Roman style orations (i.e., sermons) to a captive audience; the rejection of the Sabbath day and the institution of "Sunday" worship, and so on.  It should be noted that the Protestant Reformation did not truly reform the Church by returning it to its Jewish roots, but merely altered the role of the priest by substituting the idea of the pastor (and the sermon) as the means of mediation between the laity and God.


Today many churches (including the innumerable "Protestant" and "Evangelical" varieties) continue to stay rooted in Greek/Roman paganism through their customs and self-serving traditions. Theologically, many of these church practices are justified by means of the fallacious doctrine known as "replacement theology." This institutionalized prejudice maintains that Jewish heritage and the promises made to ethnic Israel are irrelevant to the Christian, since "the Church" is now the true "Israel of God" (for more information, see this article).  Consequently, promoting the Jewish literacy of practical godliness that Jesus' followers all were familiar with is rarely heard among most of today's Christian leaders. This is almost inexcusable for those who profess to be "clergy" of the Church, since God's plan was always to incorporate the nations into the Olive Tree of Israel... But how many Christians today are ignorant of the heritage that Jesus came to give them?  How many of them understand that they are now part of remnant Israel? How many understand that they made partakers of the covenants given to the Jewish Patriarchs by means of a Jewish Savior who lived a distinctively Jewish life? Please recall Jesus' words spoken to the woman of Samaria: "Salvation is of the Jews" (John 4:22). When the Mashiach physically returns to Jerusalem to establish the Kingdom of God on earth and fulfill the covenantal promises made to Israel, will our churches be ready?

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