« Songs that don't exist | Main | Book Report: Lord of Emperors »

Pirke Avot chapter three, verse 17

Well, and we have got to Rabbi Akiba at last. For those who aren’t up on their great and holy sages, I will say that there are three sages that are the most prominent, the chief examples, legendary figures, and inner-circle Hall-of-Famers among them. Those are Hillel, of course, and Akiba and Judah the Prince. Just to mention: in Gershom Bader’s Encyclopedia of Talmudic Sages, there are 23 pages devoted to Rabbi Akiba, compared to 7 for Chanina ben Dosa or five for Rabbi Tarfon. I don’t know if non-Jews have heard of Rabbi Akiva, but I would say that most Jews who go to any kind of Hebrew School in America probably know the name and some of the sayings or stories (and don’t know Chanina ben Dosa or Rabbi Tarfon).

Rabbi Akiba says:
Merriment and frivolity accustom one to unchastity.
Tradition is a hedge about the Torah
Tithes are a hedge about riches
vows are a hedge about abstinence
a hedge about wisdom—silence

Again with the hedges (or fences, or whatever the translator decides). I want to quote R. Travers Herford here who says that the idea of the hedge “is open to abuse and misconstruction, and has found these in abundance; but in itself it is worthy of the profoundly earnest men who made it their rule of life.” I tend to focus on the abuse and misconstruction, because there is so much of it about. In fact, I am skeptical of the worthiness of the principle altogether. On the other hand, Rabbi Akiba was smarter, more pious and more learned than YHB (I think we can all accept that), and some deference is due. So let’s look at this verse with some deference, yes?

First of all, I’m not altogether against unchastity, but leaving that aside for the moment, I think it’s true that merriment and frivolity accustom one to it, or that (to switch from R. Travers Herford’s translation to that of Rabbi Hertz) they lead one on to unchastity. It’s fairly easy (in for instance, a room alone with someone to whom one is attracted but with whom unchastity would be a Bad Thing) to say that I’m just having a good time here, and we’re just friends, and nothing is going to happen—and it’s even easier for something to happen. This does not mean that merriment and frivolity are bad in themselves, or that one shouldn’t engage in them, just that it’s good to be aware of things. And, of course, even if nothing does, quite, happen, there’s a certain emotional cost involved, and therefore a certain ethical cost as well. Again, I don’t want to endorse the idea that because merriment and frivolity can lead to unchastity, or can break down one’s practical opposition to it, that you should avoid them altogether or even avoid them in Certain Situation. I’m just saying that Rabbi Akiba is right that you don’t get them without risk and for free.

Then there’s tradition being a hedge around the Torah, which is, I would think both obvious and profound. There’s a story—I don’t think it’s Rabbi Akiba, I think it’s Hillel, but I can’t remember where I found it—of a scoffer who goes to a sage and says Why should I learn from you, and all of your traditions? I can learn directly from the Scripture itself! The Rabbi, in response, draws an A (well, an aleph, but the story is the same) and asks the scoffer what it is. That’s an A, says the scoffer. The Rabbi nods and draws a B. That’s a B is the response. Again, the Rabbi draws and the scoffer responds That’s a C, I know the letters, I know the whole alphabet, A-B-C, yes, what’s your point? The Rabbi looks at him and asks how do you know these things, if it is not from the tradition?

In fact, aside from the alphabet, there are lots of things in the Scripture that are obscure or capable of a multitude of interpretations, and tradition protects the Scripture by guiding us to an understanding, so we don’t reject the thing altogether. On the other hand, tradition often guides us to the wrong interpretation—I would say an interpretation with which I disagree, which is usually what I mean by wrong, but also in many cases an interpretation which simply is wrong. The book of Wisdom was not written by King Solomon, that’s just not true. Tradition attributes to the Romans, the Egyptians and the local Canaanites habits and norms that they did not have. Tradition can be wrong. And even when it is not wrong as such, tradition can solidify interpretations that would be better served by flexibility; can engrave in the stories cultural biases that we now want to rid ourselves of, which may be worse.

A Gentle Reader recently wrote about the idea that Divine Right of Kings was widely prevalent (in one form or another) for very large chunks of human history in lots of the world, much not having to do with each other but overlapping in a sense that the ruler of the government partook in some sense of the Divine, to the extent that ruler, government and Divine are concepts that albeit ill-defined are recognizable and themselves have substantial overlap. She suggest that “probably 90% or more of the human population agrees that’s a bad idea”, which I think is overstating it, but certainly the idea of popular sovereignty has really remarkably overtaken that concept, and without claiming (and I don’t think she intends to claim) that it is going down without a pretty damned good fight, it does seem at the moment to be going down. I bring this up because that kind of major cultural shift—the concept of government, the idea of human rights and the dignity of the individual, the conceptualization of childhood, the relationships of humans to animals, etc, etc, etc, all really do vary over the centuries and continents. Tradition, by its nature, changes only very, very slowly, and when you want to change the mindset (without necessarily changing the Law), tradition is a hedge in your way.

Now, as for tithes being a hedge about riches, I have never had much experience with either. But the interesting thing for me that the parallelism of the verse makes it clear that (a) riches are a good thing, in and of themselves, and (2) tithes somehow protect that good thing, which would otherwise be in danger. I’m not sure how this works—except as a talismanic kind of thing, which is how it is often interpreted in (yes) the tradition. Rabbi Jonah ben Abraham and Simeon ben Zumah Duran both suggest that he who tithes or gives charity from his riches will, as this verse relates, increase rather than decrease them. Casting your bread upon the face of the water, you know, reassuring the ROI folk that it isn’t wasted. On the other hand, this is one of those cases where it is simply false—at least in any individual sense. Your contributions do not inevitably lead to riches; self-interest is not a good way to get people to tithe.

I will say, in a broader context, that the prosperity of a culture is (I maintain) largely dependent on its stability, which is (again, I maintain) largely dependent on the voluntary contribution of the wealthy toward its institutions and its people, that is, tithing. Tithing in the mass is a hedge around prosperity in the mass. While I don’t believe that an individual who refuses to contribute to anything larger than his family or his own business will necessarily be made poorer because of it, I do think that a society-wide negligence increases the chances of massive economic and political upheavals (not to mention plague, pestilence and war, which are profit drivers for some people, but high-risk for people who already hold riches). So there’s that.

Vows are a hedge around abstinence. Well, and we’re presumably talking about abstinence of various kinds, not just sexual abstinence. I have to say in my experience, trying to cut down on potato chips or other kinds of badformes, that vows and promises are not much of a hedge. And I think that’s all I have to say about that.

And wisdom? And silence? The Rabbis do praise silence, both actual silence and verbal reticence—Rabbi Jonah ben Abraham claims that this verse teaches us silence on the part of a student in the presence of his teacher or anyone greater in wisdom, but he can’t really be talking about silence, just about not blurting out answers, interrupting or holding forth without listening. My inclination is to say that silence is an effective hedge around a reputation for wisdom, but that wisdom is as likely gained as lost in active participation in discussion. But then I would say that, wouldn’t I?

As for the verse as a whole… I don’t know that I have any observations. I will add that I’m thinking that I should, in the new year, to try to keep these avot notes confined to one note for a verse, rather than breaking them up. The purpose of posting them in three or four parts was to facilitate discussion, which (as y’all have probably noticed) isn’t so much happening, so the actual outcome is just aggregator clutter. It may make for long notes, but we have enough pixels for that, don’t we?

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,


Oooh, you're reading my blog, you're reading my blog! :)

I have to admit I snorted a bit reading the last line of the verse. Hee!!

But yeah, hedges--I'm wondering whether this verse works in the somewhat idiomatic usage of the word "hedge", as in "hedging your bets". Tradition would certainly hedge the Torah: We can't know the Torah exactly, but tradition's a good hedge if you have to bet how to intepret it. Tithing doesn't guarantee riches, but in the ancient Jewish thought, wasn't generosity to others a good way to hedge your bets on that too? In the sense that God rewards good deeds? (something of the prosperity gospel there, not sure if ancient Judaism thought along those lines)

And vows, well, vows are definitely a way to hedge your abstinence, try to shore it up, help it out a bit. Might not work, but you're at least doing something. ;)

But with that thought, the last phrase can be read as, well, you're not sure about wisdom or how to get it, so... silence is your best bet. ::chuckle::

I know Rabbi Akivah was a mighty smart cookie, so I don't put it past him to be saying these things with multiple meanings in mind. Hedge as protection, or hedge as a good approximation...

A hedge can also be a barrier to access.

If you rely on the tradition, you can live your whole live without learning the Torah. If you tithe too heavily, how can you be rich? If you're always making vows, chances are pretty good you're not abstaining. If you don't talk, how can you acquire wisdom?


I think multiple meanings are important, whether Rabbi Akiva had them in mind or not—after all, this is Inspired stuff, part of the Oral Law, and certainly within the Divine bailiwick to use different meanings at different times, even using different translations… I like both of those ideas. I am so accustomed to thinking of the hedge as a Good Thing (within the context of Rabbinic thought) that it didn't occur to me that there could well be a sly counter-meaning going on. If tradition is to Torah like tithing is to riches, does it imply that tradition takes away from Torah? That it is the poor man's part of Torah? And then vow's are a sort of poor man's abstinence, a substitute that is only a tenth part of its real value. And silence is only a tenth part of wisdom...


Post a comment

Please join in. Comments on older posts will be held for moderation. Don't be a jerk. Eat fruit.