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Pirke Avot chapter three, verse 16

Rabbi Ishmael says: be suppliant to a superior, submissive under compulsory service, and receive every man happily.

Rabbi Ishmael (ben Elisha) is the grandson of the High Priest, also named Ishmael; he is sometimes confused with his grandfather, and is sometimes himself referred to as a High Priest, although (the Temple having been destroyed) he never served in that capacity. He may possibly have been considered the High Priest in waiting, that is, should the Temple be rebuilt in his lifetime, he would have been chosen. Or, just as likely I feel, people just get confused over names.

Anyway, his relationship with power and authority are… interesting. He is supposed to have been imprisoned by the Romans as a child, and was about to be sold to a brothel when Rabbi Joshua ben Chananiah purchased him from captivity and restored him to learning. His lifespan (roughly contemporary with Rabbi Akiba) is under a Roman rule that went from harsh and oppressive in his youth rapidly downhill. He was an eminent and respected authority, but never held high office; he traveled back and forth to the great gatherings of scholars, rather than residing as a teacher. He must always have had in his mind the idea that, had the Romans not pulled down the Temple, he would have been wearing the jeweled breastplate and golden whatnots. And had the people not revolted against authority, would the Temple have still been standing?

In the second leg of the triple, there’s a word, tishoret, that is obscure, and that leads to two or three very different interpretations of the verse. Judah Goldin (who I’ve used above) sides with the Machsor Vitry; Herbert Danby sides with the Rambam, translating it “kindly to the young”. I have no idea, of course. On the one hand, if Rabbi Ishmael is thinking about power and hierarchies, it makes sense that the reference is to a royal official who enforces the law. On the other hand, it’s possible that he is not thinking about politics but about personal interaction and affection; having been treated roughly as a child himself, he may have wanted to emphasize the extra importance of being kind.

In fact, if one wants to view this apolitically, it is about being receptive: open to those above you and below you, as well as to absolute strangers. This is humility of sorts, putting others above yourself. These three, then, are a progression: of course you should work hard for someone who is in a position of power over you, but even for a youth, you should be helpful and not arrogant—and not only a child, but for every man, without condition.

I don’t know, though. I am inclined to the political reading, which advises against rebellion in favor of hard work. For the political superior, flexibility is required. For the outsider who is in power over you, he advises (in the translation of R. Travers Herford) patience. And for every man, a joyful greeting.

Is not the implication there that every man you meet may be (a) your superior, in the sense of learning and wisdom, in the sense of respect and community authority, in the sense of age and experience; or (2) an oppressor, a force of compulsion, a actor not from ethical authority but from power? If this is the case—and it is the case—how do you greet a stranger? With suspicion, with caution, with guards up and defenses down? No, Rabbi Ishmael is saying (it seems to me) that being aware of the potentials and possibilities, one must still greet every man with joy.

Of course, we already know, from Shammai, that we should receive every man with a cheerful expression of face, which is not so far from receiving the fellow with actual cheer. So are we learning anything new here? We are, of course: the sages are recognizing that there are reasons why a person would not have a cheerful expression of face, or happiness at heart, to meet a new person.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,