Talmud and Ethics - the Study Guide for Lesson 1

Introduction to Course with Discussion of Pirkei Avot


A.      Discussion of the Talmud - its history, its structure and nature, who were involved, its importance throughout time, and value to us.

B. Discussion of the nature of our project - study of law, ethics, virtue within the order of Nezikin in the Talmud. 

C. The structure of our sessions - 1) a grounding in this first session that will give us both a sense of the underlying approach and wisdom of the Talmud to prepare us for later exploration and study, through an exploration of Pirke Avot, the sayings of the fathers/sages; 2) two sessions regarding specific ethical matters that will be fairly straight-forward but will get our feet wet in the language and process and flow of Talmud thinking;  and 3) three yet more challenging, complex, and, I think, more rewarding exercises within the order, for which you will be prepared.

D. This is about ethics, ethics that emerged from ancient sages in a religious context, and that served in foundational ways for ethical development throughout the ages, and, importantly, that can guide us in the conduct of life in our own times.

While this is an ethics course, it’s not like the more typical ones that tend to be of one dimension - “here’s what’s right, and here’s what’s wrong.” Real life isn’t, as you know, so simple. Particularly when we get to the wrong, the evil, it tends, as Buber says, to come in flows and swirls and is not susceptible to being treated easily and effectively as if by simply saying, “Well, we don’t do that.” Understanding the nature of ethical challenges is one of the great achievements of these sages, as is thinking out, developing, and calling for multi-dimensional and effective solutions to address them. 

This approach is grounded in faith in God and a powerful commitment to God’s place both in this and the other world. We must study with the understanding that this wisdom is religiously grounded. This grounding was crucial to the sages who “participate” in Talmudic discussions and those who compiled these materials.

Their work on the ethical and moral prescriptions is complex and sublime. Some of it has an archaic feel, and some of that is both hard to understand and seemingly irrelevant and inappropriate to us and to our times. And some of it is! But there are pearls of wisdom and such a high quality of thinking through ethical issues that I think you’ll find extraordinarily relevant and valuable. That’s why I’ve done this study and am teaching this course.

So, let’s get started. Today we’re going to focus on Pirkei Avot.

Pirkei Avot 

Introduction - Sayings of the Fathers. These teachings about how to live wisely and well were largely from the Tanna’im, the sages who lived roughly just before the Common Era through the first two centuries of the Common Era. This text is found in the Mishnah, at the end of Nezikin, the order of the Talmud that we will be studying in this course.

We’ll spend a good bit of time in this first session on these sayings because I want you to get a good sense of the wisdom of the Talmud before we head off to choppier waters. Also, you’ll get a better feel for the mindset and the general approach of these ancient sages to dealing with the problems they encountered in their world.

Recall that the principal goal of this course is to show the enduring value of this wisdom and its meaning to us in our own time. So, we’ll look at these wisdom sayings both with an eye to understanding what they meant to the sages and the people so many centuries ago, but also what they mean to us.

Again, our theme is law, ethics, and virtue in the Talmud. As I have mentioned, we’re centering on the order of Nezikin, the order that involves business law and civil damages, because this is an excellent, perhaps the best, place within Talmud to study this theme.

Ready? Here we go!

I.        Let’s look at portion 1 - Chapter 1:1-2. 

1:1.  Moses received the Torah at Sinai and handed it on to Joshua; Joshua to the elders; the elders to the prophets; and the prophets handed it on to the Men of the Great Assembly.They [The men of the Great Assembly] said three things: Be careful in judgment; raise up many disciples; and make a fence for the Torah.

1:2.  Shimon HaTzaddik [the Just] was one of the last survivors of the Great Assembly. He used to say: On three things the world stands: on the Torah, on divine worship, and on acts of loving-kindness.

A. We learn a few important lessons that will be key to our study. It’s vital that these virtues be taught widely and understood throughout the community, especially by disciples. It’s also vital to understand that they’re centered in three ideas: the centrality of Torah, God’s Instruction, worship of God, and acts of loving-kindness.

B. As we’ve discussed, belief and devotion to God were not prerequisites for taking this course. But it is essential to know that those who thought and wrote these words had such belief and devotion.

Their faith and their lives were centered on: a) the truth in God’s revealed word; b) active study of, and seeking meaning in, that word; c) training oneself in the basic virtues of righteousness, justice, mercy, and loving-kindness that were the direction of the word; d) worship of God; and d)  living as best one could, especially in acts of loving-kindness (recognizing that straying and error do occur and that both and return to the path are a fundamental feature of such life).

C. Making a fence around the Torah is a concept we’ll see frequently. It’s seen in both Christian and Jewish thought. One example with which you’re familiar is: one must not only not strike another; one must turn the other cheek. In other words, we’re so careful not to strike another, in this example, we place ourselves as far away from doing so as we can. There are so many places where we’re taught, ethically really, not to get even close to a boundary of wrongdoing by refraining from doing something that might not be that bad, in and of itself, but gets too close to wrongdoing.

An example we’ll study in a later lesson: don’t even get into a quarrel with your wife because it often leads to wronging her with words, which is a big no-no. So, keep this idea in mind.

II. Look at portion 2. 1:3. This is an important precept. We’re not to do the good significantly for reward or honor but rather mostly, if not purely, for the benefit of Heaven, that is, for God’s sake, or its own sake.

1:3.  Antigonos of Sokho received [the Torah tradition] from Shimon HaTzaddik. He used to say: Do not be like servants who serve their master on condition of receiving a reward, but be like servants who serve their master not on condition of receiving a reward; and let the fear of Heaven be upon you.

III. Look at portion 3. 1:4. There are big virtues here. We not only value the wise: we listen to them and learn from them and honor them. And we do so - for a variety of important reasons - with doors open to all, including the poor. 

1:4.  Yose ben Yo'ezer of Tzereda and Yose ben Yohanan of Jerusalem received [the tradition] from them. Yose ben Yo'ezer of Tzereda used to say: Let your house be a meeting place for sages; sit in the dust at their feet, and with thirst, drink in their words.

IV. Look at portion 4. 1:7. There is a great concern, as will see in our studies, about how bad people and bad ways in the culture can affect us, change us, for the bad, even, especially, when we’re not aware of it. The virtue of guarding through a hedge against falling into doing wrong born by associating too closely with wrongdoers is an important principle of these ethics.

1:7.  Nittai the Arbelite used to say: Keep far from a bad neighbor, do not associate with a bad person, and do not despair of divine retribution.

V. In portion 5, 1:8-9, we see early on the emphasis on justice and just procedure. 

1:8.  Yehuda ben Tabbai and Shimon ben Shatah received [the tradition] from them. Yehuda ben Tabbai used to say: [When sitting as a judge] do not act as an advocate;when the parties to a lawsuit appear before you, regard them both as guilty;  but when they leave you, having accepted the verdict, regard them both as innocent.

1:9.  Shimon be Shatah used to say: Examine the witnesses thoroughly, and be careful in your words, lest through them they learn how to lie.

VI. In portion 6, 1:14, we come to a profound piece of wisdom of the great sage, Hillel, widely studied throughout all time. Let’s discuss it. What does it mean to you? 

1:14.  Hillel: He used to say: If I am not for myself, who will be for me? And if I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?


VII. Look at portion 7, 1:18. We won’t dwell here, but I do want to note this wisdom because we’ll see versions of it in our study. Know the sages are quite aware that attaining all three together is an exceedingly difficult result, if indeed possible at all. The work here is to strive toward a harmony of the three.

1:18.  Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel used to say: On three things does the world stand - on truth, justice, and peace, as it is said  "Administer truth and the judgment of peace in your gates."

VIII. Let’s look at portion 8, 2:1, toward the end, ”Reflect on…” This is a piece of wisdom of Judah haNasi, Judah the Prince, also known as Rabbi. We’ll encounter him more in our studies. It’s important to know that he is generally regarded as the leader of the sages who compiled the Mishnah. His statement is important to the foundation we’re building today. Explain it.

Reflect on three things and you will not fall into transgression: Know what is above you - a seeing eye, a hearing ear, and a book in which all your deeds are written.


IX. Read portion 9, 2:6. This is wisdom from Hillel. The virtues of being respectful, learned, inquisitive, and patient are probably self-evident, though worth remembering.

2:6.  He used to say: An uncouth person cannot be sin-fearing, nor can an ignoramus be pious. A shy person cannot learn, nor can an impatient one teach. A person over-occupied in business does not always become wise. In a place where there are no worthy people, strive to be worthy.   

I want to pay special attention to two virtues in particular: 1) the idea of not being so “busy” one doesn’t study and work at garnering wisdom, and 2) the idea of striving to be worthy where there are no worthy people. Thoughts?

(Among other things: Being unaware or ignorant or remaining neutral in the face of evil draws punishment, even if one doesn’t do the evil itself.)

X. Let’s look at portion 10, 2:13-14. These are sayings of the famous sage, R. Yohanan ben Zakkai, who saved Judaism after the fall of the second Temple by achieving an understanding with the Romans to let sages convene at Yavneh to carry on the tradition and actually create and preserve much of the wisdom we’re studying. Let’s read this and learn from it. Thoughts?

2:13. He said to them: Go and see which is the right way to which one should cling.

Rabbi Eliezer said:  a good eye [generosity of spirit]. Rabbi Yehoshua said:  a good companion. Rabbi Yose said:  a good neighbor. Rabbi Shimon said:  one who considers the consequences. Rabbi Elazar said:  a good heart. Then he said to them: I prefer the answer of Elazar ben Arakh, for his view includes all of yours.


XI. Let’s read portion 11, 2:17. This conveys an important principle that underlies this wisdom: there’s a crucial nexus between the principles taught in the text and action that demonstrates fair and loving treatment of others. They’re intertwined in the mindset of the sages. That’s why ALL, that is, religious and secular and study and action, must be done for the sake of Heaven.

2:17.  Rabbi Yose said: Let the property of your fellow be as precious to you as your own. Prepare yourself to study Torah, for it does not come to you as an inheritance. And let all your deeds be for the sake of Heaven.

XII. Let’s read portion 12, 2:20-21. This is a statement of Rabbi Tarfon. It well expresses the fundamental underlying principle here, that we have a duty to live in ways pleasing to God. Take note of the metaphor of employee/master. This is common.

2:20.  Rabbi Tarfon said: The day is short, the task is great, the laborers are lazy, the reward is much, and the Master insistent.

XIII. Let’s read portion 13, 3:11-12. These are important principles within Talmud wisdom. It is not consistent necessarily with other philosophical or other wisdom traditions, but is here: if fear of sin, which is another way of saying fear of offending or going against God, comes before wisdom, wisdom endures. If it’s the other way, wisdom does not endure.

3:11.  Rabbi Hanina ben Dosa said: For one who puts fear of sin before wisdom, wisdom endures. For one who puts wisdom before fear of sin, wisdom does not endure.

 3:12.  He also used to say: For one whose good deeds exceed his wisdom, wisdom endures. For one whose wisdom exceeds his good deeds, wisdom does not endure.

Further, wisdom endures when good acts exceed wisdom; wisdom does not endure if the reverse is so. Read portion 14 as well, 3:22.

3:22.  He used to say: To what may one whose wisdom exceeds his deeds be compared? To a tree with many branches but few roots. When a wind comes, it uproots and overturns it, as it is said, "He shall be like a juniper tree in the desert, which does not sense the coming of good:  it is set in the scorched places of the wilderness in a barren, uninhabited land." To what may one whose deeds exceed his wisdom be compared? To a tree with few branches but many roots.  Even if all the winds of the world come and blow against it, they cannot dislodge it from its place, as it is said, "He shall be like a tree planted by waters, sending forth its roots by a stream: it does not sense the coming of heat; its leaves are ever fresh; it has no care in a year of drought; it does not cease to bear fruit."

I don’t teach this to convince you of this but rather to help ground you in the system of thought we’ll be studying. These two ideas are crucial to the mindset of the Talmud. Why, how, and/or when do you think this might be so?


XIV. Read portion 15, 3:20. Let’s read it. What does this metaphorical statement of Akiba mean? 

3:20.  He used to say: All is given on collateral, and a net is spread over all the living. The shop is open, the shopkeeper extends credit, the ledger is open, and the hand records. Whoever wishes to borrow may come and borrow. The collectors continually every day make their rounds and collect payment from a person, whether he realizes it or not. They have [a record] on which they can rely; the judgment is just; and all is prepared for the banquet.

(Life is on loan from God. We’re free agents. The shop of life is open for us to do what we will. But there’s a ledger. We owe, and yet we pay what we will. There’s a clear thought in the religious tradition here that a banquet awaits those who live in accord with the expectations of the “shopkeeper.”) 

XV. Read portion 16, 3:21. This is a very balanced notion of the interplay of key virtues in the Talmud. Would one of you explain this in simple terms? 

3:21. Rabbi Elazar ben Azarya said:If there is no Torah, there is no respect; if there is no respect, there is no Torah. If there is no wisdom, there is no reverence; if there is no reverence, there is no wisdom. If there is no knowledge, there is no understanding; if there is no understanding, there is no knowledge If there is no flour [sustenance], there is no Torah if there is no Torah, there is no flour.


XVI. Read portion 17, 4:2. It shows us the idea that each good act drives toward more good, and each bad act tends to more bad. We’ll encounter this view of flow, of spreading, of one thing building on itself, in our studies.

4:2.  Ben Azzai said: Run to do even a minor mitzva, and flee from sin, for one mitzva leads to another, and one sin leads to another - for the reward of a mitzva is another mitzva,  and the recompense of a sin is another sin.

XVII. Read portion 18, 4:19. Despite the promise in this wisdom that there is reward for living true to Torah wisdom, there is a real modesty and humility in how much we know, especially as to the timing and manner and details of what precisely happens in our lives, when and why.

4:19.  Rabbi Yannai said: It is not in our power to explain either the peace of the wicked or the suffering of the righteous.

XVIII. Read portion 19, 4:23. Explain the wisdom in these ideas of “love of neighbor.”

4:23.  Rabbi Shimon ben Elazar said: Do not try to placate your fellow in his hour of anger. Do not try to comfort him while his dead lies before him. Do not question him about his vow at the time he is making it. Do not try to see him in his hour of disgrace.


XX. Read portion 20, 6:6, as a summary of the wisdom of the fathers. Reaction to any or several of these prized ways of living and their importance?

6:6.  The Torah is greater than priesthood and kingship for kingship is acquired with thirty attainments, and priesthood is endowed with twenty-four [gifts]  but the Torah is acquired by forty-eight virtues.

They are:

                    study, attentive listening, well-ordered speech,

                    intuitive understanding, awe, reverence, humility,

                    joy, purity, serving the wise, association with colleagues,

                    debate with students, serenity, knowledge of Scripture

                    and Mishna; minimizing time spent on business,

                    worldly matters, pleasure, sleep, small talk, or laughter;

                    patience, a kindly heart, faith in the sages, and acceptance of suffering;

                    knowing one's place, being happy with one's lot, restraining

                    one's words, and claiming no credit for oneself; being loved, loving God,

                    loving mankind, and loving righteousness, justice, and admonishment;

                    shunning honors, avoiding arrogance in one's learning or delight

                    in giving decisions; sharing someone else's burden, giving him the benefit

                    of the doubt, guiding him to truth and peace; concentrating on one's study,

                    asking and answering questions, listening and adding to one's knowledge;

                    learning in order to teach, learning in order to do, making one's teacher

                    wiser, being precise in one's studies, and reporting a saying in the name

                    of the one who said it.


Conclusion -

Where are we at the end of our study today?


Talmud and Ethics - the Study Guide for Lesson 1

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