Pirke Avot, verse sixteen

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Rabban Gamaliel said, Provide thyself a teacher; be quit of doubt; and accustom not thyself to give tithes by a conjectural estimate.

I am using Hertz here, which may be an error; the middle bit has a bit of a wide range of translation. As does the name of the Rabbi; He is Gamliel in Herford. The Hebrew is closer to Gahm’lee-el; I believe that in churches he is Guh-MAY-lee-el. Is that right? This sage is primarily known for two things, I believe: he is the first to be given the title rabban, or rabbi, and Paul of Tarsus, Saul that was, claimed to have studied at his feet. TSOR shows that he is also St. Gamaliel, with a feast day of August 3. I had never known that he was a saint, or that church tradition claims he joined the Jesus-ist camp. The Jewish tradition, of course, does not hold with that; he’s Rabban Gamliel, and that’s it. On the other hand, he conspicuously does not receive the tradition as all of the previous sages do. Are we to understand that he became a rabban without receiving the tradition? Or is the title rabban enough to tell us that he received the tradition, without saying it? Or are the rabbinate and the tradition two separate things, each important but parallel?

I’m not sure what to make of this. After leading in with the absent tradition marker, the first leg of the saying is an exact repetition of verse six: l’cha rav, get a teacher. Only, as will not be a surprise, rav, teacher, is the same word as rabbi and the same word as rabban. Is his advice the same as Joshua ben Perahyah’s advice? Or does he mean something like get a rabbi, as we later understand the term?

And the second leg, about doubt, is also problematic to me. Herford says remove yourself from what is doubtful and Goldin says eschew doubtful matters. The Rashi tradition seems to interpret this as connected to the first: if you are in doubt about whether a particular action is lawful, find a teacher rather than remain in doubt. But they list as another interpretation to avoid those things that may be forbidden, doubtful things, as it were. These seem to me opposed, as of course they seemed to the compilers of the Machsor Vitry; in cases of doubt, should we be cautious and leave it at that, or should we seek for a definite ruling? I lean toward the latter: when peanuts were introduced to Europe, there was doubt about whether they were kitniyot, and instead of getting a rav to rule on the matter, each town seems to have decided on its own. And since there is a rule that minchag, tradition, has the force of halacha, law, that means that when it was eventually decided that peanuts were really nothing like grains at all, the rule became that they were allowed for Passover consumption unless your family came from a town where they were traditionally forbidden. Too confusing.

On the other hand, while I think that the instinct for cautious doubt over a teacher’s ruling leads to problems, I don’t want to eschew doubt altogether. I like doubt. I like the questioning process. I would rather eschew certainty than doubt as things. There’s a distinction, I think, between eschewing doubtful things and eschewing doubt; a distinction between yearning for certainty and yearning for certainty about stuff. The first two together can be read either way. Find a teacher and be quit of doubt could be instructions for the frequent occasions when one is in doubt about a particular matter: don’t stay in doubt, but do something, go get help, resolve the thing, move on. Or it could be a more permanent and general command.

Then the third leg, to avoid getting used to sloppy shit. I can’t imagine this was ever viewed as narrow advice about accounting; this seems to be a specific application of a general rule. And that places the earlier legs into a specific framework as well, and lo! it’s the one I prefer. When in doubt, don’t get used to making guesses, get a teacher, do the math, get it right. This isn’t about not having doubts, it’s about what to do when you do have doubts.

This doesn’t only apply to matters of law, either, the questions of what to eat and not to eat, what to wear and not to wear, how much to donate to the poor and how much to save for your children, what is owed to whom on which occasions. I take it as advice on an even more general level. Perhaps that’s because I have a distressing tendency to avoid difficult decisions.

For example. Our family has been able, more years than not, to have Passover Seder with Gentle Reader Michael and his family and guests. He does a wonderful seder, and my Best Reader often helps with the cooking, and sometimes things are set on fire. When we were all living in Greater Boston, there wasn’t much of a decision to be made: we had seder at Michael’s, and that was that. Now that we live in Greater Hartford, there comes an invitation every winter, followed by a ridiculously long period of dithering. We would like to go, we have stuff we need to do here, there’s this thing and that thing, we could arrange the other, etc, etc. We remain in doubt. Rabban Gamliel says: get off your ass, make a decision, don’t guess or make other people guess, and get advice if you need it. That’s right, you know? Even if it means ruling out going this year.

Now we just have to make some decisions about going to California in May.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

1 thought on “Pirke Avot, verse sixteen

  1. Michael

    I make an important distinction between doubt and questioning, despite their close relationship. In a dream journey, doubt is the mud and fog you find yourself standing in, while questioning is the deep forest you are running through. Neither is comfortable. Neither means that you know your location or your destination. I was taught to revere questioning and to hate doubt, and those attitudes have remained with me. I’m glad to see that Rav Gamliel agrees, at least on the doubt side.

    On the accounting advice, the IRS also generally follows Rav Gamliel. (I was just reading a lengthy chapter on audit advice, because that’s what business owners do for fun.) There are plenty of situations where it’s ok to reconstruct records, but you’re not supposed to get used to doing that. And your reconstructions should be based on facts and reasoning rather than sheer speculation. Keeping contemporaneous records is vastly preferred to records reconstructed later for that reason.


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