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Pirke Avot chapter three, verse one

Let’s start the third chapter of Pirke Avot with yet another translation, this one by Herbert Danby, D.D. Residentiary Canon of St. George’s Cathedral, Jerusalem, back in 1933.

Akabya b. Mahaleel said: Consider three things and thou wilt not fall into the hands of transgression. Know whence thou art come and whither thou art going and before whom thou are about to give account and reckoning. ‘Whence thou art come’—from a putrid drop; ‘and whither thou art going’—to the place of dust, worm and maggot; ‘and before whom thou art about to give account and reckoning’—before the King of kings of kings, the Holy One, blessed is he.

Well, that’s cheerful.

Can we talk about about Akabya b. Mahaleel? We learn about him in the Talmudic tractate on witnesses and testifying. When Shammai died, Akabya b. Mahaleel was offered his position (Av Bet Din, the head of the court of judges) on condition that he retract some positions that he held on fairly obscure issues. He refused. He said he would rather to hear people call him a fool than to hear people say he sold his principles for high office. He was then excommunicated, although it isn’t exactly clear why; the story is obscure in a bunch of places, and what is most clearly recorded is the protest of R. Jehudah some time afterward that it was somebody else entirely who was excommunicated, and that the record is wrong.

Anyway, there’s a story about Akabya b. Mahaleel as he lay dying. His children all come to him, and he says nu, who’s minding the store? No, wait, that’s a different story. His son comes to him, and he says to the son, about those rules that I held against the majority—you should accept the majority viewpoint. I took my judgment from many people speaking on both sides, but you have heard everybody on one side, and then just me on the other. And if you have to judge between a one-person minority and the majority, you should choose the majority. If you were to side with me, it would only be because I am your father; that is no way to make legal decisions.

And then, after he died, the Bet Din threw rocks at his coffin. (Unless it wasn’t him, of course.)

I want to note that in the Rabbi Nathan collection, the quote is substantially different, saying that we come from darkness and go to darkness. The version here in avot is more physical, less existential. We come from a putrid drop, we go to dust and worms and maggots. And if you keep this in mind—what? You will not fall into transgression. Why not?

After all, if you come from putrescence (and not everyone would agree with the characterization of semen as putrid; the description of semen in the rabbinic literature could itself be the topic of fruitful discussion, pardon the pun) and go to maggots, why wouldn’t you transgress? Wouldn’t keeping that in mind be an encouragement to transgress, rather than an encouragement to piety?

Or is the point that in between the putrescence and the maggots, there is something that is not disgusting?

In the commentary, R. Simeon b. Elazar asks if it wouldn’t be nice if, you know, people pissed perfume instead of piss? I mean. But as proud and haughty as we are, even with the foulness coming out of our body every now and then, if we didn’t have that, we would be utterly beyond everything.

On the other hand, I think this bracketing of your life in putrescence and maggots could highlight just how wonderful your physical body is. I mean, if at some point you are cranky about your bad knee or your sore back, remember that you came from a drop and will be eaten by maggots, but for a few magnificent years, you are something else.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,