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Pirke Avot chapter three, verse 9

This week we have a problematic verse, so let’s jump right in. The translation is Herbert Danby’s:

Rabbi Jacob said: If a man was walking by the way and studying and he ceased his study and said, ‘How fine is this tree!’ or ‘How fine is this ploughed field!’ the Scripture reckons it to him as though he was guilty against his own soul.

This is Rabbi Jacob who appears to have been the grandson of Elisha ben Abuya (the famous apostate who is the central character in As a Driven Leaf), and who appears to have been one of the early teachers of Judah the Prince. Taken literally, it is…well, R. Travers Herford points out that “no text is alleged” in as a proof, “… and it is hard to imagine what text would support such a thesis”. Joseph Hertz agrees that “no text is, or could well be, quoted in support of the statement”.

And, in fact, there are specific blessings for seeing beautiful trees, or for seeing any beauty of nature. There is plenty of Scriptural support for the idea that you are supposed to notice the trees and the fields. So why does Rabbi Jacob say that this is a mortal matter? One way of thinking is to attribute certain superstitions to him and his community: he is talking about someone who is traveling alone, and as such is vulnerable to attack by malign supernatural forces (particularly at crossroads). If someone needs to make such a trip, the best defense is to engage in Torah study on the way (as it is written, When thou goest, it shall lead thee;). In such a case, if a person were to be on defense, as it were, and then succumb to distraction and admire the view, the consequences could well be fatal.

Or, you know, that could be rubbish. Better off with a lamp, says I. And I am not convinced that the ooky-spooky interpretation is founded in any actual superstitions of the time—I don’t know much about the superstitions of the period, but this smells to me like a Medieval thing grafted onto the verse. I would want independent evidence that such a superstition and such a ward were common before that interpretation made sense.

Rabbi Hertz does refer to an argument of somebody named J.H. Kara, who says that the verse is not to be taken literally, but as a metaphor. The person who leaves off Torah study to devote himself to the study of Nature, or more specifically, the person who chooses to seek the Divine through the study of Nature, rather than through the study of Scripture, is the one who is guilty against his own soul. Now, as with the demon-ridden interpretation, this seems to require some sense this idea has some currency in R. Jacob’s community. But in first or second century Rome, the idea of seeking the Divine through natural philosophy, through Aristotle rather than Psalms, that seems like a legitimate fear for the Rabbis.

And, of course, it also is a useful interpretation for me, now, which the warding-off-demons, not so much. On the other hand, there’s good reason to be skeptical of this, too—why not seek the Divine through the Creation of the Divine? Why not admire the trees and the fields? No, the key to this verse has to be in ceased to study, that the man in question not only says good things about the Creation, but fails to go back to the Scriptures.

Seeking the Divine through the Creation is fine, then, as long as it doesn’t involve putting down the Scripture. What is at issue is the arrogance of thinking that the Scripture has no lessons that can’t be found in the trees and the fields, that the stars and the microbes are enough, in themselves, without the tradition and the text.

Or, at least, that’s how I read it. Because my gut reaction is still that Rabbi Jacob was a nut, and that this is one of those sayings that is just wrong. And where’s the lesson in that?

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

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