Pirke Avot chapter four, verse twenty

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This week’s note will be even more incoherent than usual, I’m afraid. Your Humble Blogger has more questions than answers, of course, but this time the questions don’t even fit together on connected subjects. Ah, well. Let’s start with the words, in R. Travers Herford’s translation:

R. Mattithiah ben Harash said: Be first in greeting every man; and be a tail to lions and not a head to foxes.

OK, first the words. Because the way one greets someone in Hebrew is with the word peace, being first in hello-ing is being first in peace-ing. This has a happy connotation, but it doesn’t (so far as I can tell) mean anything more than greeting, as one cannot use peace as a transitive verb (and peace the other guy before the bastard peaces you). The lions, aryot, are clearly lions (lions having been native not only to North Africa but to Judea and the whole Mediterranean coast all the way up past Turkey to the Balkans) (and did you know that in the Twelfth Century, there were walrus as far south as Spain?), and I only bring up the Hebrew word because the way that A is for Apple, the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet, aleph, is for aryeh in children’s abecedaries. Foxes are shu’alim, and appear to include both burrowing foxes and jackals in the term. There is some murkiness about the derivation of the word (of course), but it appears to be related to the digging, and therefore is possibly not altogether unrelated to she’ol, or the pit. Although, of course, it’s an utter fallacy to claim much meaning in the distant relationships of word origins.

Still, if we are willing to play along with that, we have a contrast not just between the lion and the fox, but between the aleph, or the beginning, and Sheol, or the end. Better to be the end of the beginning than the beginning of the end? That interpretation does connect to the first leg of the triple, which otherwise does appear to be connected to the other two. The emphasis would be on timing—be first in Peace, if you can, but better to be second in the beginning (that is, to respond in kind to continue the Peace) than to be first in the ending (that is, to break off Peace—or for that matter, simply to break off civilities and the connection that conversation brings).

Sadly, though, that interpretation does require ignoring the plain meaning of the words. R. Mattithiah pretty clearly is warning against being the head of foxes, yes metaphorically in the sense that foxes symbolize (to him) low cunning, deceit and slyness. And he praises being a tail to lions, where lions in Scripture tend to be associated with valor and trustworthiness, although they are also sent as Divine punishment, so there’s that. But the most obvious reading is of course that it is better to be a lesser part of a good enterprise than the head of a bad one, and not to let pride tempt you to bad enterprises simply so you do not suffer the indignity of being the tail—and there, I suppose, is the connection to the first bit, with pride being presumably the reason one would wait to be addressed rather than being the first to greet.

Although, of course, one might also wait to be addressed out of diffidence, rather than pride. The Machsor Vitry (I think, I can’t track down the quote) points out that the lion holds his tail high, while the fox holds his head low. It is better to be part of a group that supports you than head of a group that undermines you. The Rambam points out that it is better to be a student than a teacher, to associate with those who know more than you rather than less, as simply being around people you respect helps you to your better self. In this case, it is not pride that might keep you from being the tail to lions, but rather a sense that you are not even worthy of tagging along with your betters. Rabbi Mattithias says that you should follow the lion, even if you are not worthy of being its mane, its claws or teeth or powerful legs, but only its tail.

Here’s the thing, though. How often in life have you had the opportunity to choose between being a tail to lions or a head to foxes? I mean, looking at the newspaper ads, I’m not seeing a lot of Lions seek tail, must be willing to wave proudly, three years experience as tail or in related fields, lions are an equal opportunity employer. Irving M. Bunin says that any time you join an organization, you should ask yourself first whether it is an organization of lions or jackals, and only then whether you will be a head or a tail—but are you seriously going to join the organization of jackals? I mean, if you are thinking about joining the Associated Brotherhood of Carcass and Dead thing Eaters, you probably are considering the organization to be a group of fine upstanding lions, trustworthy and valorous, or else you wouldn’t be filling out that form, right? Frankly, as practical advice, the whole lion/fox thing doesn’t seem to be all that useful.

And here’s another thing: Mattithiah ben Harash went to Rome after the expulsion, and although he does seem to have been in contact with the other sages of his time, he doesn’t seem to have participated fully in the discussions that become the Oral Law. That is, very few of his rulings are written down and attributed to him, and there are no disciples of his recorded. Is this verse a defense of his choice, that being a tail to the Imperial Lions of Rome was better than being a head to the clever foxes at Yavneh? Or is he expressing regret, that it would have been better to have stayed and been a tail to the Judean lions, rather than heading his own, lesser yeshiva in Rome?

And yet—he is one of the sages who in the famous story break down at the border of Israel and weep, saying that living in the Holy Land is equal to all the weight of all the commandments in the Torah. And he appears to have been buried in the Galilee. Did he return from Rome? The only good story about him (the weeping-at-the-border story is not really about Mattithiah ben Harash, as he just happens to be one of the group) is about him blinding himself to escape from temptation when the Devil appeared in the guise of a beautiful woman. Is this related to the preference for tail over head?

OK, sorry about that last. But really, in the whole question, I am reminded of the bit in Catch-22 where Nately is talking to the old man in the whorehouse, and insists that it is better to die on one’s feet than to live on one’s knees.

“But I’m afraid you have it backward. It is better to live on one’s feet than die on one’s knees. That is the way the saying goes.”

“Are you sure?” Nately asked with sober confusion. “It seems to make more sense my way.”

“No, it makes more sense my way. Ask your friends.”

Nately turned to ask his friends and discovered they were gone.

Nately, of course, dies in his plane, but then the old man is killed by the MPs. And it turns out that being a head of lions is better than being a foxtail, and more useful, too.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

1 thought on “Pirke Avot chapter four, verse twenty

  1. textjunkie

    Re: lions and foxes–I dunno, I think it’s still a useful comment. I’m going with the idea that just your being the head of something is not enough to make it a good idea; you need to consider who you will be associating with and whether it is a moral/righteous enterprise to begin with. I.e., don’t take the job just because it’s got more pay–consider whether you are selling your soul in the bargain. It may be obvious, but it’s commonly not considered in real world considerations when there are bills to pay and mouths to feed.


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