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Pirke Avot, chapter two, verse two: a path in the world

I’m off to a late start this morning. Too much drama at the blog, and Spring Fling at the university. Which makes for less traffic within the library on a Saturday, certainly, but not necessarily less work, as for the second week in a row, the student desk worker has not been able to come in. This year, the poor thing was actually sick beforehand with a cold or virus or some such, and is not just hungover, vomiting, useless, newly adult, and full of regrets. So. On to 2:2, and I’ve got my hands on a Jacob Neusner’s translation again, so let’s go with that.

I  A. Rabban Gamaliel, son of R. Judah the Patriarch, says, “Fitting is learning in Torah along with a craft, for the labor put into the two of them makes one forget sin.
    B. “And all learning of Torah which is not joined with labor is destined to be null and cause sin.
II C. “And all who work with the community—let them work with them for the sake of Heaven.
    D. “for the merit of their fathers strengthens them, and their [fathers’] righteousness stands forever.
    E. “And as for you, I credit you with a great reward, as if you had done [all of the work required by the community on your own merit alone].”

At some point, I need to read his introduction to this volume (Yale University Press, The Mishnah) to figure out why he breaks things down the way he does. I’ll accept for now the two parts to the verse (he sees a third and fourth part in the next two verses) and work with those.

I’ll also say that in the Hebrew, the phrase is Talmud Torah combined with derech eretz, study of Torah combined with an earthly path. We use derech eretz to mean both a path through life, so a career or avocation, and the way of the earth, that is, correct action. Both Joseph ben Judah ibn Aknin and Menahem ben Solomon Ha-Meiri take this as correct personal relations. Study of Torah combined with a pleasant manner, a polite society, a cheerful countenance—these are what make your students, your neighbors, your associates all want to come to Torah themselves. That view breaks the first two sentence into separate matters: the first discusses the combination of study with good manners, and the second the combination of study with labor. Mr. Neusner sides with those who take derech eretz to connect to the idea of labor in the second sentence, or rather to connect it directly rather than through a sort of pun.

We talked about labor back in verse ten: work; that was m’lacha, which is the word in B up there, and YHB noted his own distinction between creative work and trade. I think here the distinction is less meaningful. Where the injunction there was to love work, here the injuction seems to be a combination of keep busy and make a living. The latter being a way to both avoid the pressures of poverty (“Many are the sins a man is dragged into when he has no food!” -from the commentary of Simeon ben Zemah Duran) and because an occupation provides stability, which is a good thing (“He who does not bring up his son to some occupation, is as if he were teaching him robbery” Rabbi Judah, Babylonian Talmud, Kiddushin 29a).

The article Ideal Occupations: The Talmudic Perspective by Hershey H. Friedman gives an idea of the rabbinic discussion of what was a good job and what wasn’t. There are differences of opinion, of course. But it’s clear that the question of derech eretz in the sense of a path in life was considered a very important one for rabbinic discussion. A lot of the discussion is crazy, of course, but still. It’s more than keeping your hands busy, more than avoiding idleness.

On the other hand, idle hands are the devil’s proverbial, here as well as elsewhere. I think the twin terrors of idleness and poverty are tremendously powerful, in the rabbinic viewpoint. It’s worth wondering how that would best be put into place as social policy. The obligation to provide a path (a derech) away from those terrors seems inescapable, but one wonders about the nature of the obligation. Does voting for legislators that support jobs programs fulfill that obligation? Does hiring interns? Does hiring a contractor to fix the wiring? Does investing in a business? Does investing in a venture capital fund? Where I’m going is that from this perspective those are all questions of Talmud Torah, to carve out a path on this earth, to keep the two together to avoid sin.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,