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Biblical Studies

Pirkei Avot as a Statement
of Rabbinic Political Theory

Daniel J. Elazar

Masekhet Avot, known familiarly as Pirkei Avot, is a Mishnah included in the Talmud without a Gemarah attached to it. Jews know it is the subject of popular Jewish study in the synagogue and elsewhere whose maxims have become part of the rhetoric of normative Judaism. It is placed at the end of Seder Nezikin which is the talmudic order dealing with civil damages or civil matters and includes the talmudic teaching on the organization of government and courts, especially the judicial system.

Avot may once have been placed at the very end of the Mishnah as its final word. We can assume that the inclusion of Avot in Nezikin was deliberate and not merely an afterthought. The construction of the order begins with the discussion of the laws of private damages and builds up to a discussion of the institutions of governance to enforce civil law. It concludes with Avot which, I would suggest, deals with the theoretical principles on which the first two subjects rest.

Had the placement of Avot remained at the very end of the Mishnah, its public purpose might not have been entirely clear. By placing it where it is, however, we can discover it as unmistakably designed to teach leadership, that is, to inform leaders, particularly the judges and those who interpret the Torah, of their role, their position in the edah (the biblical term for the Jewish Polity), and what character traits they must cultivate in order to fulfill that role properly. As such, it becomes the closest that we have to a tract of political (rather than legal or sPirkeiritual) thought in the Talmud and as such it is worthy of particular attention from the political perspective.

Indeed, when we examine Avot carefully we discover that it clearly states the classic or normative Jewish political world view and elaborates on it by presenting the platforms or points of emphasis of leading sages and Torah interpreters in the period from Ezra to Judah Hanasi, roughly what is known as the Mishnaic period, from the transfer of power from the Biblical regime of kings, priests, and prophets, to the first post-biblical regime based first and foremost on the sages, with lesser roles for priests and magistrates (nesiim), in the fifth century BCE to the end of the second century CE, during what I elsewhere have described as the two constitutional epochs of Malkhut Yehuda/The Kingdom of Judah and Hever ha-Yehudim/The Jewish Commonwealth.

The fundamental political principles of the tractate are set out in the Chapter One, verse 1. They deal with two subjects: one, the source of authority and the chain of tradition in Jewish life which are supplied in shorthand in the first verse of the chapter.

Moses received Torah from Sinai, and transmitted it to Joshua, Joshua to the Elders, the Elders to the Prophets, and the Prophets transmitted it to the Men of the Great Assembly. They said three things: Be deliberate in judgement; and raise up many disciples, and make a fence for the Torah.

The verse starts by indicating that the authority of the Torah reflects the Torah as a constitution and a teaching given by God, whose interpretation and implementation was transmitted to the greatest of all Jewish leaders, Moses, and from him to successive generations of leaders responsible for its interpretation and application, ultimately reaching the hands of the Anshe Knesset Hagedolah, the assembly which Ezra led, the sages who were to compose the Mishnah.

Two things need to be noted about the chain of transmission. One is that those who were exclusively responsible for the civil rule of the edah such as Judges (Shoftim) and Kings are excluded from the chain, which secures the claim of authority for those responsible for the interpretation of the Torah as God's word. Close examination of the biblical account shows that the kings and shoftim, with the exception of Samuel who also is referred to as a prophet, were strictly civil rulers and therefore were not sufficient to receive the chain of tradition in the view of the sages of the Mishnah. Moses, Joshua, and the elders held elements of both civil rule and powers of constitutional interpretation as did the Men of the Great Assembly and so could, in the rabbinic view be parts of the chain of tradition, able to receive it and pass it on, something which required different skills than civil rulers or, for that matter, priests, who are even more decisively excluded from the chain of tradition in Avot, desPirkeite their important role in the biblical period. Hence what we have here is a claim as to who controls authority in the edah, or as it was being called by then, Knesset Israel. (Edah in Aramaic is Kenishta, which, retranslated into Mishnaic Hebrew is knesset.) This claim is the foundation of rabbinic Judaism.

But the claim is to supremacy, not total domination because the tradition itself forbids the latter. The second dimension of the theory is expressed in the second verse.

Shimon the Righteous was one of the last survivors of the Great Assembly. His platform was that the universe stands on three things: on the Torah, on worship (Divine Service), and on the reciprocation of righteous acts.

There Shimon HaZaddik, who became the leader of the Edah sometime after Ezra, presents the requisites of human existence: Torah, avodah (worship), and gemilut hasadim, that is to say, acts that involve loving kindness between humans in order to live up to the covenant (hasadim, from hesed) between God and humans. Each of these is a domain of human activity. One us the domain of God's communication to and teaching for humans via the Torah; the second is the domain of human offerings to or petitioning God: avodah; and the third, the domain that requires the organization of political society to foster and extend gemilut hasadim beyond individual acts.

The political consequences of this three-fold division of life are expressed in chapter 4, verse 17 where Shimon HaTzaddik speaks again.

R. Shimon says there are three crowns: the crown of Torah and the crown of priesthood and the crown of kingship (civil rule) and the crown of a good name rises above them all.

He mentions three crowns, i.e., three realms of leadership and public activity: keter torah, keter kehunah, and keter malkhut. Each of those three crowns relates to one of the three domains set out in chapter 1, verse 2. Keter Torah involves the responsibility of interpreting and teaching Torah and handling God's communications to humans. Keter Kehunah involves the maintenance of avodah and responsibility for organizing human communications to God. While Keter Malkhut has responsibility for gemilut hasadim, i.e., the purposes of the good political regime are to make possible and to ensure gemilut hasadim. This follows the Biblical account quite closely. Moses is the exemplary bearer of the Keter Torah for all time. Aaron is the Bible's exemplary bearer of the Keter Kehunah and Abraham, the exemplary bearer of the Keter Malkhut, who is presented in the Bible and rabbinic tradition as the exemplar of gemilut hasadim.

Verse 4 concludes with a statement that keter shem tov, the crown of a good name, stands above the other three. That could be read non politically as a matter of reputation only; I would suggest that it completes the political teaching suggesting that character rather than merely formal authority or function is most important in leadership. The rest of the tractate is an elaboration of these fundamental principles.

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