This week we begin masechet Avot. The first Mishnah opens:
Moshe received the Torah from Sinai and passed it to Yehoshua; and Yehoshua to the zekeinim (elders); and the zekeinim to the prophets; and the prophets passed it on to the Men of the Great Assembly. They said three things: be deliberate in judgement, establish many students and make a fence for the Torah.
Previously (10(41)) we addressed the opening of the Mishnah. In this article we shall look at the substance of their teaching.
Pirkei Avot include teachings of the Chachamim, and generally begin with "[he] used to say". It is understood that these great Rabbis taught much more than that which was contained in the individual Mishnah. Nevertheless, these teaching were the motto or central message of these Rabbis1. How does this understanding of Pirkei Avot help us with this Mishnah, which appear to be the teaching of a group of people?
We shall present two explanations that understand that the message of this Mishnah was critical in the historical context in which it was taught.
The Ruach Chaim (second answer) explains that the capacity to retain the Oral laws was beginning to wane, threatening its transmission. It was only two generations later that the first irresolvable halachic question arose (Chaggigah 16a). Consequently, the first call to the people was "havei metunim be'din". Following Rashi's explanation of "metunim", the Men of the Great Assembly were instructing everyone to the learn the Torah - the denim - thoroughly. They understood however that for the learning to be clear and fault-free, it needed to be vocalised. The best way to know something thoroughly is when one is forced to teach it. Consequently, the second directive of establishing many students was part of the solving this problem. Finally, despite learning fastidiously, fences still need to be erected to prevent transgressing any sins.
The Ruach Chaim summarise that to deal with the threat of the day, the Men of the Great Assembly demanded a three-pronged attack – thought, speech and action. Thought in its clear study; speech in its teaching and action, by establishing a structure to guide one on the path of the Torah.
The Tifferet Yisrael also explains that these teachings were relevant to the generation in which they were taught. The Tifferet Yisrael however explains that these were three different teachings taught in three different generations.
Yehoshua witnessed how three thousand halachot were forgotten during the days of mourning Moshe. Consequently, he was warning the judge to be extra cautious when passing judgements. While it is true that doubts regarding biblical laws are resolved by ruling stringently, for monetary disputes, a stringency for one party results in a leniency for the other. The zekeinim who saw the end of prophecy, expressed the urgency to increase the number of students, so through the study they may find something of a prophetic nature. Finally, the prophets, who saw that Bnei Yisrael were to be scattered amongst the nations, prepared them to weather the external influences by constructing fences - the rabbinic enactments that stand to ensure the keeping of all mitvot.
1 See Ethics from Sinai 1:2.
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