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Pirke Avot chapter three, verse three

We were speaking of politics and Pirke Avot, and Rabbi Hananiah’s admonishing to pray for the Empire. This next verse is political, too, although not so obviously. Before I type in the text (and it’s longish), a little about the speaker.

Rabbi Chanina ben Teradion was a teacher who was chided by Rabbi Yosi ben Kisma (his former study partner) for endangering his life by continuing to teach under the Roman interdict. His friend was on his sickbed, and he was dismayed that Rabbi Chanina would put all his knowledge and tradition at risk. He spotted that the teacher had a forbidden book in his pocket at that moment, and predicted that he would be caught with it in his possession, and put to death. Rabbi Chanina said that the Divine would have mercy, and Rabbi Yosi responded that it was up to people to take care of themselves, not to rely on the mercy of Heaven.

Rabbi Yosi died of that illness a short time later, and his funeral was attended not only by Jews but by prominent Roman officials, who (according to the story) found Rabbi Yosi a congenial collaborator. Whilst returning from the funeral, the Roman officials came across Rabbi Chanina ben Teradion, teaching disciples from the forbidden Torah scroll. He was taken, condemned to death, and martyred by burning wrapped in the scroll itself; there are stories about that martyrdom that are less gruesome than one would expect. But the saying in Avot touches on this martyrdom only indirectly.

R. Hananiah b. Teradion said: If two sit together and no words of the Law [are spoken] between them, there is the seat of the scornful, as it is written, Nor sitteth in the seat of the scornful. But if two sit together and words of the Law [are spoken] between them, the Divine Presence rests between them, as it is written, Then they that feared the Lord spake one with another, and the Lord hearkened, and heard, and a book of remembrance was written before him, for them that feared the Lord, and that thought upon his name. Scripture here speaks of ‘two’; whence [do we learn] that if even one sits and occupies himself in the Law, the Holy One, blessed is he, appoints him a reward? Because it is written, Let him sit alone and keep silence, because he hath laid it upon him.

So. What’s going on here? This is Herbert Danby’s translation, by the way, and the square brackets are his, not mine, and as usual are a method of indicating in English that the Hebrew idiom allows the verb to be understood, and one hopes, understood correctly. None of my translations show really substantial differences; this seems to be fairly straightforward in its language.

We begin with two sitting together, and the admonition that such opportunities not be wasted. This is fairly common. The proof texts are appropriate and reasonable. The transmission of the tradition from one to another, the disputative tradition, are not possible if the Divine Presence does not sit between two people who exchange words of Torah.

Digression: this Divine Presence is the Shechinah. This is the presence that dwelt in the mishkan (a related word) and in the Temple. The Divine is everywhere, but the Shechinah dwelt in the Temple (dwelt to indicate temporary residence rather than permanence; we sing about the dwelling-places of Israel, mishk’enotecha yisroel, which are more than sukkot, booths, but not permanent homes). After the Destruction, the Shechinah was, if you will, cut loose, to dwell here and there amongst the people in Exile. Now, shechinah is a feminine word (that is, the noun takes feminine forms, plurals, etc, as Hebrew is a gendered language), so the Shechinah took on feminine attributes and became (in some parts of the tradition) a sort of Mrs. JHWH, in a mystical marriage where the male and female aspects of creation are both divided and together. For most of us who aren’t into that whole mystical kabbala business, this really only manifests itself in the Shabbat Queen or Shabbat Bride, who is said to visit every household where the Sabbath is kept, both to partake in and intensify the joy. The l’cha dodi is an invitation to this Presence, sung early in the Friday night service and a very popular hymn (with thirty different tunes). End Digression.

As I said, it is not remarkable that the Divine Presence should sit between two pious men that speak of Torah. Even under Roman persecution, Rabbi Chanina sat to speak of Torah, at great risk, and ultimately was martyred for it. After the martyrdoms, and the Destruction of the Second Temple, as the Rabbis sat to discuss their options, one of the concerns was the status of the written books of the Oral Law. Was it acceptable to write them? Was it acceptable to study alone? When the Law was entirely oral, it was not possible to study alone; it is of course possible to be alone and pious, but solitary study was actively discouraged. The sages that put together the Avot, and the Mishnah, were radicals, engaged in something new and dangerous: the transmission of tradition by the written word. Who died and left them in charge?

Rabbi Chanina did. This verse, to my eyes, is a justification for solitary study, from a sage who was martyred for possessing a book of the Law, and martyred while enfolded in the scroll of the Law. While much of Avot contains as subtext (or explicit text) the transmitted authority of the Sages, that is, the authority of the book itself and the Mishnah that contains it, this verse suggests the conceptual authority of learning your Torah from the book.

In addition to having a teacher of course, as we see explicitly stated several times. But still.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,