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Pirke Avot chapter four, verse seven

Last week, Rabbi Ishmael son of Rabbi Yose inquired as to the motivations for learning. Here Rabbi Zadok is also on about the motivation for acquiring knowledge in the Torah, although with a different slant.

Rabbi Zadok says: Do not make them a crown for self-exaltation nor a spade to dig with. So too Hillel used to say: “And he that puts the crown to his own use shall perish.” Thus thou dost learn: He that puts the words of the Torah to personal profit removes his life from the world.

Rabbi Zadok appears to have been the originator of the saying about the rain falling on both the just and the unjust fellow. Later sages have focused on the detrimental aspects of the rain, adducing that the just man got more sodden, as the unjust man more than likely made off with his umbrella. Rabbi Zadok, however, was addressing a mostly agrarian economy in the desert, or at least an urban community closely tied in to the harvest. The rain that causes the trees of the just to fructify also falls on the fields of the unjust, and the unjust doesn’t want to use his unjustly got umbrella to prevent it. The sun rises every morning, says Rabbi Zadok, as a gift from the Divine, not only a gift to the wise, the pious and the learned, but to the heathens and idolators. Therefore be humble; the Divine gifts you have do not redound to your credit but to the Divine’s.

Here he seems to be focused on a particular issue: teachers and scholars who charge for their services, making of the Torah a spade to dig with, a tool of their trade. This is a controversial issue over hundreds of years: The Rambam speaks very strictly about the inappropriateness of a Rabbi begging people for money; the Rashbatz dismisses the idea that teachers and scholars should be uncompensated for their efforts. The tradition gradually coalesces around the latter view, and now of course in America it is not shameful to be a professional Rabbi, taking a salary and extra for bar mitzvah lessons and the occasional honorarium for a speech. I’m not saying that the bimah is the path to riches. But people expect to pay for their children’s Hebrew school and (indirectly, through shul membership) for rabbinic leadership at services and rabbinic advice in the world.

I think Rabbi Zadok would be appalled. I also think Rabbi Zadok is wrong.

There is some question, of course, as to whether anybody really does use the Torah as a spade, taking it as a job rather than a calling. I don’t know. I have always had the sense, with the Rabbis I have known personally, that they have felt passionate about the Torah for its own sake—and that they also, most of them, have felt just fine about negotiating well-deserved compensation for their work. I think that’s largely true about secular teachers. And librarians. And sysadmins, many of them. And firemen, I’m sure, and probably chefs as well. The difference, of course, is that one of the tools of the Rabbi is Scripture, and Scripture is fundamentally different from everything else. That’s my view, and Rabbi Zadok’s as well, from what I can see. He would rather have fewer Rabbis, purer Rabbis, poorer Rabbis. Better Rabbis? Or perhaps he really thinks that if you take away the spade, the same people will choose the better path to the same goal, rather than a path to somewhere else. And, frankly, while I think there are a lot of people who just dig with whatever spade they can, I don’t think that applies to very many people in secular jobs that involve a lot of learning and teaching. People in those paths (or even people who think of themselves in those paths) likely see themselves as neither using their knowledge as a spade nor buffing it into a crown, even if that’s how they look to others.

My point, here, is not that Rabbi Zadok is giving bad advice. It’s good advice. Don’t turn the Torah into a spade for digging or a crown for lording it over people. On the other hand, take that advice to yourself; don’t criticize other people for violating it. Don’t begrudge them their pay, or their moments of fame or public respect, either. The rain falls on the just and unjust alike, and one of the lessons to be learned from that is that you can’t tell which is which by who is wet and who is holding an umbrella.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,


I've just been writing about this same debate on the early Christian side (and before that, among philosophers, who are similarly uncomfortable with the idea of trafficking in the truth, as some authors put it). The worry about using scripture as a spade is a biggie; another is that you might be tempted to trim the truth to suit the taste of the person who pays your salary. In the academy, we came up with tenure as a way around that danger, and look where that gets us.

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