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Pirke Avot chapter four, verse sixteen

So. Your Humble Blogger is on the road, so I don’t have access to my books and things, and besides am (a) not altogether healthy, and (2) spending time with family and friends. So this week’s Pirke Avot verse is getting short shrift. In fact, I’m typing it in from memory, so I may have some of the wording wrong. I was reading it from the Judah Goldin translation, but errors here are mine, not his.

Rabbi Simeon says: There are three crowns, the crown of priesthood, the crown of royalty, and the crown of Torah. But the crown of a good name goes with them all.

Or possibly ’surmounts’ them all, or perhaps ’supports’ them all. If I had all my translations with me, I could give you the variations, because I think the different English translations quite likely come from differences of interpretation of the verse.

One of the commentators (I think it was in the Machsor Vitry, but again, making it up, here) makes the point that the crown of priesthood is available only to the descendants of Aaron, and no amount of wealth or good works or piety can gain it for someone who is not a cohen by birth. And the crown of royalty belongs to the descendants of David, and again, you must be born to it or you cannot hope to gain it. But the crown of Torah is available to all.

This made me think of the crown in relation to claims on it—perhaps it’s all the Shakespeare this Spring, but there is a big difference between claiming the crown of royalty and ruling as monarch. Similarly (or it seems similar at the moment), one may claim the crown of Priesthood, but that’s a very different thing from actually getting to cut up dead things and put them on the altar at the Temple. Each of those claims must be recognized before they mean much of anything, and they have to be recognized by the right people. Is that what Rabbi Simeon is getting at with the Good Name Crown? The crown of Torah, then, while of course it is available to all, is only a crown if it is recognized by…the sages? The Bet Din or the Assembly or the Sanhedrin? Or the teacher? Or the student? I’m not sure.

There is another commentary that makes the (restrospectively obvious) connection between the three crowns and the three pillars of torah, avodah, and g’milut hasadim in a different Simeon’s verse back in Chapter One. The crown of Torah is connected to the pillar of Torah, of course, and the crown of priesthood is connected to the pillar of avodah or worship/temple service, presumably. Which leaves the crown of royalty to be connected to the pillar of g’milut hasadim, deeds of loving-kindness. Which is not what I immediately think of when I think of royalty. But if I take that connection and tie in the idea of exclusivity, we open up the crowns quite a bit. The crown of Torah, of course, is available to everybody, as was pointed out below, but while nobody can be a priest but a born cohen, in these post-Temple days, anyone can engage in avodah. That word itself having changed over time from the temple services to the siddur liturgy seems to imply the opening up of the priesthood; this tells us we are on the right path, yes? And in these days when there is no King, is our path to the crown of royalty the path of g’milut hasadim? By being noble, or kingly, not in the sense of arrogance or privilege, but in the sense of taking responsibility for others, of providing for them, you can earn yourself that crown after all.

And now the fourth crown comes in, with the distinction between the claim and the crown; while Rabbi Zadok, not so long ago, warns against making knowledge of the Torah a crown for self-exaltation. All of these crowns are good things when sought for the sake of the Divine or when sought for the sake of others, or even when sought for their own sake. But when you seek these crowns in order to lord it over other people, they are not good things at all. So, the ambiguous relationship between that fourth crown, the crown of a good name, and the other three. Is this crown above them all, in the sense that someone who has a good name is not alienating people by pride and arrogance? Or is the crown beneath them all, in the sense that the desire for a good name in the negative sense, the desire to be set above other people, to be deferred to, to be crowned over them, negates the three crowns themselves?

I think I prefer to leave the ambiguity there. I would like to see Rabbi Simon as having mixed feelings about the whole crown business to begin with. Seeking crowns can be a good thing and a bad thing together, and is never an unmixed good. Remember that Bar Koziba was claiming the crown of royalty.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,


Just for your information, I pretty much always enjoy reading your commentary on the commentary, even if I seem to have little to say about it afterwards. I'd probably say a great deal of ignorant crap in conversation, so thanks for saving me the embarrassment by being several hundred miles away.


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