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Pirke Avot chapter four, verse fourteen

Last week’s sage, Johanan Ha-Sandelar, was the friend and traveling companion of this week’s sage, Eleazar b. Shammua. They were the last disciples of Rabbi Akiva, and are credited with bringing forward into the tradition his decisions and thinking. They did not go to Yavneh after the Destruction and expulsion, but set up in Galilee, where legend says that Eleazar’s students crowded into tiny rooms, so crowded that when Judah the Nasi came to study (when he was the Nasi’s son, not the Nasi yet himself), they would not let him squeeze in to make it more crowded. Yet he stayed, and returned even after he had become the leader of the Sanhedrin, to learn from his old teacher some more. Here is the translation of Herbert Danby:

R. Eleazar b. Shammua said: Let the honour of thy disciple be as dear to thee as thine own and as the honor of thy companion, and the honour of thy companion as the fear of thy teacher, and the fear of thy teacher as the fear of Heaven.

Before I go into the language of it, I want to mention two notable moments that bookend his career as a rabbi. He had been a disciple of Rabbi Akiva, as I said, but Akiva had been imprisoned by the Romans and ordaining new Rabbis was prohibited in the wake of the Bar-Koziba rebellion. But then, how would the rabbinate survive? It is said that twenty-four thousand pupils of Rabbi Akiva had died between Passover and Shavuot, and the world was desolate and the Torah was forgotten. Rabbi Jehuda ben Baba, a man of great piety, declared that he would ordain the last of Rabbi Akiva’s pupils, in defiance of the ban. He took them out of town (so that the residents of the town would not killed in retribution) and had completed the ordination ceremony when the Roman soldiers came. The young rabbis escaped, but Jehuda ben Baba was slain. Eleazar ben Shammua, together with his companions, began their life as rabbis surrounded by death.

And ended it, too. Eleazar ben Shammua is one of the Ten Martyrs, who are supposed to be considered as if they had all died on the same day. This is not historically viable, of course, since Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Jehuda ben Baba are also among the Ten Martyrs, but we don’t necessarily have to take the poem literally. If we take it as evocation or as theme, though, we still have Eleazar ben Shammua dying in the midst of the deaths of the sages. I can’t help, then, looking at this verse as being fundamentally connected with death and the, well, the abbreviation of life. The mortality of mortality. All that.

And now to the language, because it’s a bit murky, to me (unsurprisingly). The first part is the ch’vod talmid’cha the honor of your student. Chavod can mean honor, or respect, or in the Scripture, glory. Fame, reputation, dignity, something like that. The reputation of your student is your own reputation, and that is pretty clear—the admonition is to remember it, which is always more difficult. This is more than just treat others as you would be treated, this is specific to the relationship of the teacher and the student, where there is (necessarily) a hierarchal distinction, a superiority of knowledge and experience and rank, but not necessarily of respect or honor. Eleazar carried with him the honor and reputation of his teachers, and knew that his students would carry his and his teachers after he had died, and treated them appropriately. It is said that Eleazar ben Shammua lived to be a hundred and three, and was never late to class once. You know?

But in the next part, there’s a turn, the ch’vod chaver’cha, the honor (or whatever) of your friend, should be as c’morah rabach, the fear of your teacher. There is a pun, here, at least in modern Hebrew: morah is the word for a teacher, and although (I believe) they are homonyms and have different roots (although I would be interested to know if they are connected—it seems as if the morah that means fear or awe is connected to the yir’ah that may be connected to guidance or instruction via the fellow who beats the animals for going off the path, but (a) I may be misinterpreting what I’m reading, and (2) what I’m reading may be wrong, as a lot of word origins are) one of the things about my own belief in Scripture is that I can accept that the wordplay is intentional even if Rabbi Eleazar ben Shammua didn’t use those words in that way. Because the words are there for me, and I can draw those connections.

Still, ignoring the pun, there’s a change from the honor of your friend to the fear of your teacher, and presumably the word change is intended to draw our attention to some significant change in meaning. The last bit continues with morah rabach being like morah shamayim, the fear of heaven, or rather, the Fear of Heaven. Right?

Now, almost two years ago, back when I was on chapter one, verse three, I wrote about the Fear of Heaven, comparing it to a fear of heights, not a rational fear of Divine retribution but an intuitive near-panic outside ordinary understanding. I said

I think this fear, when it is felt, is what takes us out of those metaphors of the Divine, not only servant-master but parent-child, defendant-judge, subject-king, and even sheep-shepherd, and into a dim understanding of the vast gulf that separates us from the Divine, a glimmer of the smallness of individuality in the vastness of Creation.

Digression: I had entirely forgotten saying that. I remembered, dimly, that I had said something about the Fear of Heaven, and couldn’t remember what, so I did a search and found this, which I do not remember writing. It’s clearly YHB’s writing; it’s not that I don’t think they are my words. And I haven’t come to disagree with it or anything; it’s not that I don’t think they are my thoughts. But I didn’t remember having those thoughts. Maybe I’ve been doing this too long. End Digression.

There was an excellent discussion in the comments, and I came around to a literal interpretation of fear of Heaven rather than fear of the Divine: Let the fear of Heaven be upon you because you could get struck by lightning tomorrow, whether you do good or not, so even if you do get what seems like material reward, don’t count on it lasting or take it as some affirmation of your service. Which, I think, is leading me back to where I started.

If I am to let the honor/reputation/dignity of my fellow be to me as the fear/awe/reverence of my teacher, it is not just an emphasis on the importance, but the kind of panicky clutch of the child faced with the mortality of the parent. Rabbi Akiva was killed, Rabbi Jehuda ben Baba was killed, and that is terrifying—and yet, it is part of the order of things for the student to outlive the teacher. But the fellow-students of Eleazar ben Shammua were killed under the Romans, thousands upon thousands between Passover and Shavuot, and that is terrifying and against the order of things. Our fellows, the people our age, are not immortal just because their parents and teachers are still around. Hold their honor dear, fear them and fear for them, because they, like your teachers, can be taken from you before you are ready.

And you won’t be ready. Let our fear of and for our teachers be like the Fear of Heaven, that they could be struck down at any moment, by disease, disaster, dishonor. Anything. Value them, value them enough, value them now, value them all, value them desperately, value them tremblingly, because…

Is this, then, the sense in which the Ten Martyrs were killed on the same day? Perhaps we are not supposed to learn a historical lesson from this story of history, but an emotional lesson. Eleazar ben Shammua was killed on the day that his teacher Akiba was killed, and on the day that his mentor Jehuda was killed, and on the day he was killed, and on the day Judah the Nasi died, as well. And on all those days between Passover and Shavuot. And perhaps having learned this verse was the secret to his long life, as much as anything.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.