Pirke Avot Chapter Five, verse one

      4 Comments on Pirke Avot Chapter Five, verse one

Well, and we left off a liturgical year ago, we had reached the end of the fourth chapter of Pirke Avot. We had begun our study, lo these many proverbials ago, with a bunch of triples: we pick up with a bunch of tens. The first of the ten is appropriate for this first week of the year, in which we read the first parshah of the first book of the Scriptures, describing the creation of the world. Chapter Five of the Avot goes back to the beginning of the world as well:

The world was created with ten utterances. What does this come to teach us? Certainly, it could have been created with a single utterance. However, this is in order to make the wicked accountable for destroying a world that was created with ten utterances, and to reward the righteous for sustaining a world that was created with ten utterances.

The ten sayings are, of course, the sayings in Genesis 1, most famously let there be light (Genesis 1:3), which is prefaced by vayomer elohim, the Lord said. The verb is omar, to say; the ten utterances are amarim, the plural noun form of the verb. That verb, though, appears nine times, not ten times, in Genesis 1. In order to make ten, as listed above, we have to assume that in 1:1 the Heavens and the Earth are created by Divine Utterance, as are the stars and the fish and so on in later verses. This seems a reasonable assumption, although now we have to wonder why we are not told that this was an utterance.

Or, rather, let’s begin with another question, even more basic than the Sages are asking above: why was the world created with any utterances at all? We are not told, first thing, that there was an utterance to create the Heavens and the Earth to begin with. Yes, the Psalmist says that it was by the word of the Lord that the heavens were made (Psalms 33:6), but that was bid’var adonai, not ba’amar, potentially at the Divine commandment, that is to say, at the will, rather than the utterance of the Divine. And if, as we read above, the world could have been created with a single word, surely it could have been created without any word at all!

I think, and this is me here and not the commentaries, that we are told that the world was created with words in order to underline, for us, the importance of words, of the speech act. Sticks and stones may break your bones, but the world was created with words. And still is. Not only the Divine words, but human words create the world we live in. And not only by shaping the universe we perceive (which is very important) but by shaping the universe that actually exists whether we perceive it or not. The cities and towns we live in were created by words, the jobs we do, the bonds between us as people, as nations, as cultures. Not by words alone, but not without words, either. And the wrong words still make the world, they just make the world wrongly.

Now, having said that, there is clearly a difference between the way that we create the world every day and the way in which the Divine created the world at the Beginning, and still creates it every day. Which brings me back around to the First Utterance, which is not an utterance, or is only ambiguously an utterance. My feeling is that 1:1 is different from 1:3 and the rest of them, that there is some fundamental difference between saying that the Divine created the moon and that the Divine created the Heavens and the Earth. And that I am willing to believe that the rest of the Divine Utterances are appropriately analogous to our utterances in the same way that the Divine Arm or the Face of the Divine are—useful tools for human understanding—but that the First Utterance was not. That is we know that Divine Utterance was actually not made by expelling Divine Breath through Divine Vocal Folds and shaping it with a Divine Tongue and Divine Lips, making Divine Plosives and Divine Close-Mid Front Rounded Vowels; we express the idea of the Divine Utterance in a way that makes sense to humans, because we are humans, and that’s a good thing. But it seems to me that where the rest of the Divine Utterances are understandable through the somewhat distant metaphor of human speech, the First Utterance, made before the universe even existed, can’t even be understood metaphorically but stands outside our understanding entirely. Thus the lack of explicit metaphor in the text: we presumably join the story after let there be a Heaven and an Earth occurred in whatever inexplicable and ineffable way that did occur.

Which, then, brings me to another response to the question: why ten utterances? Why not one? Because, by the cosmology I have come to above, there was the First and then the others that occurred within the Heavens and the Earth created by that First. Why not two, then? Because the nine that follow are smaller, more complex, more detailed than the First, and are subsidiary to it, to emphasize that difference between the Implied First and the Explicit Nine, and by extension, the rest of the ongoing Creation. This emphasizes our responsibility for the continuing Creation through speech while also underlining that we are not Creators but creators, that we create the world but did not Create the world, that our works are derivative works of the Great Work and should be entered into in the spirit of support rather than pride. This response only makes sense if we see the ten utterances above as One and Nine, of course, which I think is there in the text. The Sages have another answer, which we’ll get to in a separate note, as I think this one has gone on long enough.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

4 thoughts on “Pirke Avot Chapter Five, verse one

  1. Jed

    Fascinating discussion. Two thoughts:

    1. I’m told that the word “logos” can be interpreted as meaning “organizing principle” rather than (or in addition to) just “word.” If so, is that true in pre-Greek versions of the text as well? I guess what I’m asking is, how does “In the beginning was the Word” tie in to what you’re talking about here?

    2. Your “One and Nine” formulation makes sense, but if it’s only to separate the One and make it more important, then why Nine per se? (I know, “for mortal men, doomed to die”) Why not, say, three utterances, the One and Two? …But I guess that gets into what you say in the next entry: we can’t question the number (it’s just the number that there were), only the presentation of the number.

  2. Vardibidian

    The word of the Lord is bid’var adonai, or sometimes in Numbers al-pi adonai, by the mouth of the Lord. Nouns. This is a nouned verb. So if there’s anything logos– or John 1:1- related going on here, it’s at a remove. Which isn’t to say no argument could be made for a word connection to utterance, but there doesn’t appear to be justification for it in the Scriptural text itself. The connection has to be in the basic connection between word and speech and thought and command and organizing principle and so on and so forth.

    As for whether the “One and Nine” formulation makes more sense than a “One and Two” or “One and Six” formulation, I don’t really know. I mean, obviously threes and sevens are great, but so are tens, as we will be seeing in the next verses.


  3. Dan P

    Well, and One and Nine has the advantage of being One and A Triple of Triples. Do the Tens tend to group that way? If so, it’s a nice bit of poetics.

  4. Kendra

    Logos means a ton of things, including word, reason(ing), story, explanation, conversation, and organizing principle. (Erasmus caused a big stir by translating it into Latin as sermo [“conversation”] rather than the Vulgate’s verbum [“word”]. Both translations have their merits, but they yield rather different results. You can see which won out in the tradition.)

    John 1:1 can be read as a commentary on Gen. 1, just like this verse from the Avot.


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