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Pirke Avot chapter four, verse fifteen

Today’s verse is a short one, only seven words in Hebrew (not counting the attribution), but a trifle longer in English, because, you know, different languages. Here’s Michael L. Rodkinson’s translation:

R. Jehudah said: “Be careful in thy study, for error in study counts for an intentional sin.”

In the legal code, if (for instance) someone is accused of causing another’s death, let’s say by pushing them off a roof, we are required to ask if it was intentional or accidental. Did the accused know how high the roof is? Did the accused know that people who plunge from the roof often die? Could the accused see where the edge of the roof was? The punishments are different; it is held that a fellow who kills somebody without understanding the consequences should be punished more lightly than a deliberate murderer. And so on for lesser crimes—the legal categories are shogeg, the accidental sinner, and mezid, the deliberate sinner. Rabbi Judah is saying that shigegat Talmud, the inadvertent error in Talmud, is not to be held as lighter or less serious than an intentional sin.

Once again, I think this has to be taken for exhortative value, rather than as a legal benchmark or observation. We should be so careful in study that we fear errors as we would fear sin (back to sin-fearing again, but I’ll try not to get distracted). That is, I should fear my own errors as I would fear sin. When it comes to someone else’s error, treating that as if it were a deliberate sin seems just crazy to me.

And yet— when talmud is used as a verb, there, it can mean either study or teaching. Or both, of course, as we have lots of sayings about how students teach the teacher and teachers learn from students. The distinction between teaching and studying is not a bright line. But it is fair to interpret this verse as applying most strongly to teachers, in effect saying that as a teacher, my inadvertent error in teaching will lead to my students inadvertent errors in practice, and that those will be attributed to me as if I had deliberately taught them the wrong practice. Again, that seems a bit crazy, but not as an exhortation on the importance of careful preparation for teaching.

And Irving Bunim suggests that an inadvertent error in teaching can lead the student not just to misinformation but to disillusion. So a bad Talmud teacher, through poor preparation or sloppy discussion or ignorance, can lead a student to reject the Talmud altogether and into deliberate sin. So the Talmud teacher is exhorted to be careful, as your inadvertent error in Talmud can lead others to deliberate sin.

Still, I couldn’t really adjust myself to this verse until I read a commentary in the Avot of Rabbi Nathan, an unattributed observation which turns the things around (as so many of the best commentaries do). The unnamed sage asks which is greater, punishment or reward? Of course, reward. Then, if it is the case that in Talmud study an error is counted as a sin, can it not be true that an inadvertent mitzvah be counted as if it were a deliberate good deed?

There are thoughtless kindnesses as well as thoughtless sins; when we make our habits good habits, they can come without intention. When we are learning or teaching (and when are we not learning or teaching), our errors are magnified, but so are our strengths. When I learn from a teacher who is in the habit of unthinking politeness, of interpreting with a great spirit rather than a mean one, who is not deliberately modeling reverence and respect for the Divine, the Scripture and the Creation but who is providing that model anyway, just because that is the way she lives, then my deliberate actions in imitation of her or to earn her praise are to her credit as if she had set out to teach them. And when I study, my caution against error is balanced against my deliberate and disciplined practice that becomes unconscious and habitual, and which is nevertheless taken to my credit.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,