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Pirke Avot verse two: Simon the Just

Do we think we’re ready for the second verse of Pirke Avot? I hope so. Now, this is one of those verses that seems incredibly simple, but the problem (or one problem) is that it seems to mean different incredibly simple things depending on how you translate it. So. Here is a transliteration from the Hebrew:

Simeon ha-tzaddik (hayah mis’yaray k’neset g’dolah) hu hayah omer, al shloshah d’varim ha-olam omehd: al ha-torah, v’al ha’avodah, v’al g’milut chasadim.

Those of you who went to Jewish summer camps or had cantors in charge of your Hebrew Schools may know a tune for this one. Or several tunes. You can find people singing them on YouTube and all, so I would have to say it’s a well-known verse. But what does it mean? I have three translations in front of me (R. Travers Herford’s, Judah Goldin’s and Joseph H. Hertz’s) and the Michael L. Rodkinson translation is on-line, and the Chabad translation is on-line as well. And they are all different.

Let’s start with Chabad: Shimon the Righteous was among the last surviving members of the Great assembly. He would say: The world stands on three things: Torah, the service of G-d, and deeds of kindness.

Rodkinson: Simeon the just was one of the remnants of the Great Assembly. His motto was: "The order of the world rests upon three things: on law, on worship, and on bestowal of favors."

Hertz: Simon the Just was one of the last survivors of the Great Assembly: He used to say, Upon three things the world is based: upon the Torah, upon Divine service, and upon the practice of charity.

Goldin: Simeon the Righteous was one of the last members of the Great Assembly. He used to say: On three things the age stands—on the Torah, on the Temple service, and on acts of piety.

Herford: Simeon the Just was of the survivors of the Great Synagogue. He used to say: Upon three things the world standeth; upon Torah, upon Worship and upon the showing of kindness.

So. The easy part is that it’s a saying of Simon ha-Tzaddik, tzaddik indicating righteousness and so on, and although the history is a tiny bit murky (there were two High Priests named Simon), he is legendary figure of the late Temple days. Tradition indicates that he was the last High Priest who said the Name aloud in the Holy of Holies on Yom Kippur, and that since his death the Name has not been pronounced. So if we go back to the last verse, where we see the Oral Law handed down from the Divine to Moses to Joshua to the Judges to the Prophets to the men of the Great Assembly in a widening circle of wisdom, here we pick out an individual to stand for and exemplify the Oral Law, and to pass on its wisdom. From here on in, the saying will be attributed to individual sages, although of course there’s lots of room for skepticism concerning the accuracy of those attributions. My take on that sort of question is there is a purpose to identifying the saying with the sage, a literary or pedagogical purpose, and that purpose overrides historical accuracy, which is fine as long as you aren’t looking for historical accuracy.

As for that next bit, he used to say in the sense that he was in the habit of saying (according to Simeon ben Zemah Duran, a medieval commentator); he said it often, rather than he said it for a while and then stopped saying it.

Then there’s the three-legged stool of the world. I’ll break those down in separate notes again, shall I? torah, avodah, g’milut chasadim.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,


There's quite the difference between considering these three legs to be the basis of the world or the basis of your own personal hoped-for life.

If we are to see these three legs as equivalent, and we know that Torah and worship are vital obligations, then so are acts of lovingkindness.

If the order matters, then either the first or third is more important than the second (depending on whether we consider the first or last item in a list to be most salient).

The three legs can be viewed as internal, external with God, and external with other people. We cannot ignore any of those three aspects of our lives.

Oh! I've got a translation, too! How about "Truth, love, and charity: these three."

A question for the assembly, though. I take from this and the other PA post that the Great Assembly is something that happened that no longer does. The sense I'm getting is that it was a faintly parliamentary thing that met in the Temple, which is no more, and so neither is the Assembly. Is that an accurate sense?

Also, wouldn't it be a fine thing if the last surviving members of Parliament played the Temple? Worth the price of admission, fo' shizzle.


So, what with the flip attitude in my first and third paragraphs, the actual question that I was hoping for an actual answer to seems to have been lost.

Am I correct in my interpretation of the term Great Assembly, that it was a sort of legal/parliamentary body that met in the Temple, and that the end of the Temple and the end of the GA are roughly contiguous?


Sorry about that; I was trying to come up with something serious to say about Paul's triple and Simon's. Actually, the Great Assembly is earlier, although the chronology is kinda wacky. Ezra calls the Great Assembly together, so it starts around the time of the construction of the Second Temple, and continues for an indeterminate amount of time. They are credited with writing some of the basic prayers of the siddur, and with determining the canon. Although some of that stuff is clearly actually done much later. And although sometimes the men of the Great Assembly are referred to as a single generation, that's also clearly false.

One of the other things credited to the Great Assembly is a set of rules for living as Jews outside of Israel in lands controlled by other powers. I have the sense that this is pushing back (for the purposes of authority) the rules that are actually codified after the destruction of the Second Temple. To that extent, you could (if you want to) think of the Great Assembly as a fictional construct, created around the end of the Second Temple but set earlier. Is that at all helpful? No? No, I guess not.


Yes, helpful, thank you.

With my quotation of Paul, I was actually trying to suggest something along the lines that Paul was probably familiar with the verse, and that the specific words "faith, love, and charity" are probably a Telephone Game rendition of Simon's aphorism, channeled to the KJV or whichever (there are other possible English translations of Paul's text, too) across time and space.


I have at least temporarily added a sixth translation to my stack: Jacob Neusner's “New American Translation and Explanation”, published in 1984. Jacob Neusner is one of the great scholars of our time, so I am happy to have my hands on his translation. On the other hand, he dedicated the book to William J. Bennett. So his judgment can be called into question.

His rendering of this verse:

Simeon the Righteous was one of the last survivors of the great assembly. He would say:
On three things does the world stand: On the Torah, and on the Temple service, and on deeds of lovingkindness.


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