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Pirke Avot chapter three, verse six

We’re on the sixth verse of the third chapter of Avot, depending on how you count. Here’s the translation of Judah Goldin:

Rabbi Nehunya ben ha-Kana says: He who takes upon himself the yoke of Torah will be relieved of the yoke of government and the yoke of mundane matters, but he who removes from himself the yoke of the Torah will have imposed upon him the yoke of the government and the yoke of mundane matters.

This seems straightforward, and straightforwardly wrong. The yoke of government and of derech eretz, the paths of this world, are not lifted from Torah scholars, nor are they necessarily imposed on ignoramuses or the non-observant. If, as Maimonedes says, the imposts and extortions of the ruler are the yoke of government, and the necessity of providing for temporal needs is the yoke of derech eretz, then why was Maimonedes himself compelled to be court physician? Because he had insufficiently submitted to the yoke of Torah? Hard to believe. Nor is it hard to find idle rich who have thrown off the yoke of torah and submitted to no other yoke (but the eventual yoke of Death, of course, which comes to scholars, too).

In the Avot of Rabbi Nathan, though, Hanania the Prefect of priests is quoted as saying that we are not talking about a yoke in the sense of being compelled to action, but the yoke of thought. Or more accurately, the yoke of habits of thought. The person who takes on the discipline of Torah study develops habits of thought that prevent the other, less productive habits. “He who does not take to heart the words of the Torah is given to many preoccupations—preoccupations with hunger, foolish preoccupations, unchaste preoccupations, preoccupations with the evil impulse, preoccupations with an evil wife, idle preoccupations, preoccupations with the yoke of flesh and blood.”

To elaborate. I don’t think it is helpful to say to somebody who is suffering from a passionate crush, for instance, or who is unhealthily refreshing their political-junkie webpages, or who is jonesing for the corn chips that they cannot have, study Torah instead. The helpful thing, it seems to me, is for a person to develop the habit of Torah study without reference to any of that. And then, when that corn-chip jones hits you, you have something to fall back on.

Of course, that assumes that Torah study is (as it was for Nehunya ben Ha-Kana) a rigorous and well-defined discipline, not (as YHB does it) a matter of meandering around a text on your own, following your own thoughts. The only other place in the Mishnah that Nehunya ben Ha-Kana is quoted is in Berakhot, where it is mentioned that he would say a blessing on entering and on leaving the study room (or whatever one would properly call the place where colleagues meet to study together). He was asked what the prayer was, and he said that on the way in, he hoped that nothing bad would happen to anyone because of his rulings or teachings, and going out, he gave thanks that he could spend his day there. This is expanded in the Talmud (Ber. 28b):

I give thanks to Thee, O Lord my God, that Thou hast set my portion with those who sit in the Beth ha-Midrash and Thou hast not set my portion with those who sit in [street] corners, for I rise early and they rise early, but I rise early for words of Torah and they rise early for frivolous talk; I labour and they labour, but I labour and receive a reward and they labour and do not receive a reward; I run and they run, but I run to the life of the future world and they run to the pit of destruction.

What I think this points to, taken with the quote from avot, is that by accepting the yoke of the Torah, he has taken on a particular discipline and a particular lifestyle, to be contrasted with a lifestyle of the sinners, the scorners and the idle. When the concerns of the public good or of simply making a living come up, as they do for everybody, the person who has accepted the yoke of the Torah is able to accept those concerns without feeling them as a yoke; he addresses those that need addressing, ignores those that can be ignored, and returns to his studies. The street-corner idlers turn valid concerns about the government or the world into preoccupations and into occasions for frivolous talk and sinful action (or neglect); it is then that the world becomes a yoke.

That’s how I interpret this verse, anyway. Although, now that I have interpreted it that way, I think it’s overly optimistic. Great rabbis can fall prey to passions, political or sexual or avaricious. The habit of rigorous study is a Good Thing, surely, and it feels like a yoke when you adopt it, and it does protect you from quite a lot of temptation and error, but—

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,