Pirkei Avot 1:1 Moses received the Torah from [God Who revealed Himself at Mount] 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 judgment; develop many disciples; and make a [protective] fence for the Torah.
The opening chapter begins with the initial links of the chain of our biblical heritage. The first is God Himself who spoke the mighty Ten Words to the people He had called, redeemed from Egypt and gathered as His nation at Mount Sinai. He then gave His Torah, or teachings, to Moses – the appointed leader and representative of His newly formed, holy and set apart nation. Moses taught the people and conveyed the safeguarding and tranmisson of the Torah to Joshua, his closest and most devoted student and servant, who was the one destined by God to lead the Israelites into the Promised Land after Moses’ death.
Once in the Land, and the tribes were dispersed to their various allocated areas, a greater number of teachers of God’s laws and ways were needed. Joshua then passed the Torah on to the Elders or Judges. The mantle of leadership and teaching of the nation, as recorded in the book of Judges, was carried by them for 400 years when it shifted to the Prophets. We see this shift happen when leadership is transferred from Eli to the prophet Samuel, (1 Sam. 3:20; 7:15). This transition is interesting as it illustrates how, in the understanding and teaching of God’s Word, there constantly is a need for direct communication in word or vision from the Source, the Great Teacher to whom all things are eternally linked. Both a thorough knowledge of the Word and direct, personal guidance from God by His Spirit are necessary to truly walk in His ways. With this combination, the teachings of God can be preserved faithfully and be transmitted with integrity to the next generation.
The Prophets conveyed the Torah to the Men of the Great Assembly, who were a group of 120 elders, including prophets and great Torah scholars. Among them were Ezra, Zerubavel, Haggai, Zechariah and Malachi. This form of leadership, which evolved into the Sanhedrin of the Temple and the zugot (pairs of leaders) the Nasi (lit. Prince, or President) and the Av Beit Din (Father of the Court, or Chief Judge), lasted two centuries from about 130 BCE until the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE and the resulting great exile of the majority of the Jewish people from the Land.  This illustrious group obviously conveyed many wise teachings, judgments and pronouncements but here in Avot 1:1 they are distilled to three major principles, which although applicable to the individual are directed to the wider community:
…be deliberate in judgment.
The Hebrew word translated as ‘deliberate’ is metunim, which also means ‘be patient’. Effective deliberation when making a decision requires sufficient time as well as the mental effort that is involved. To one extent or another, in major issues or in daily, comparatively trivial matters, we all are judges. We often are called upon to make decisions that affect others as well as ourselves. Avot cautions us not to be hasty in our decision making. While avoiding the awful error of procrastination, acting hastily without deliberation might indicate that one is too proud, or too lazy, to seek the counsel of others who can offer objective advice. The most important factor in making any judgment is to take the time to pray and to trust our Father to clarify and confirm His directions in the matter. As Yeshua said: “ …I do nothing on my own authority, but speak just as the Father taught me” (Jn. 8:28). Also, “For whatever the Father does, the Son does likewise” (Jn. 5:19).
…develop, or raise up, many disciples.
The word ‘disciples’ in Hebrew is talmidim, meaning students. A student is one who studies and learns from his or her teacher, not only mentally but in how to live. In our context, as in that of Yeshua’s disciples, the central focus and primary source of study is the Word of God, the Hebrew Scriptures; which, throughout his life, death and resurrection Yeshua filled full of meaning. This was evidenced and reflected in his recorded teachings and that of the Apostles. Yeshua was the Living Torah and he said, “Follow me!” His life, as he walked this earth, was a shining example and testimony to all mankind of what it means to walk in the ways of our Father. As we walk after Him, we are enabled likewise to raise up and “develop many disciples” in truth and in the knowledge of the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.
…make a protective fence for the Torah.
God commanded that His foundational teaching, the Torah, be passed down uninterrupted from generation to generation (Joel 1:3). The menorah in the Holy Place was a symbol of the light and truth of His Word and He proclaimed that the tending of it, “…shall be a statute forever throughout your generations” (Lev. 24:3).
The Torah itself never changes. However, just as the methodology of teaching adapts to each generation, for example with the advent of the printing press and then with the invention of new technological tools, so too decisions would need to be made as to how to apply the biblical teachings and commandments in a way that was relevant to the life and culture of the day. In the process, care would need to be taken to safeguard the absolute principles of God’s Word and to ascertain that the basic and inherent truth would not be compromised.
The Sages of Israel, and later the rabbis (teachers), determined to institute rulings that would protect a person from transgressing the core commandments. By way of comparison, if a parent wants to teach a child to not run in the road, which could put his or her life in danger, as well as saying, “Do not run in the road!” additional rules could be made; such as, “You may only play in the front yard if an older person is with you.” Or, “When we are on the sidewalk you must walk next to Mommy or Daddy, and if we cross the road you must hold onto one of our hands.”
Just as a caring earthly parent, the basis of God our Father’s instruction and guidance is a deep love for each of His children. Therefore, as the wise Ben Bag Bag exhorts us in a later chapter of Pirkei Avot:
“Delve in the Torah and continue to delve in the Torah, for everything is in it; look deeply into it; grow old and gray over it, and do not stir from it, for you can have no better portion than it” (5:26).
Avot 1:2 Shimon the Righteous was [one] of the remnants of the Great Assembly. He was accustomed to say: The world is based on three things – on the Torah, on the service [worship of God], and upon loving-kindness.
Following Ezra, Shimon the Righteous (Shimon HaTzaddik) was the High Priest in the Second Temple for forty years. On one important occasion, it is said, he greeted Alexander the Great at the entrance to Jerusalem clothed in his Golden Garments. The Greek conqueror was so impressed with the glorious appearance and demeanor of the tzaddik that he decreed against attacking Israel and declared Shimon governor of the land. As a leader, he was a living example of the principles he taught others. This verse summarizes the basis of all he believed. Indeed, the might and glory of the Greek Empire, exemplified by Alexander the Great, has long since faded but the truths expressed by Shimon HaTzaddik remain timeless.
The three ‘roots’ of the Jewish nation are the Patriarchs – Abraham, Isaac and Jacob – who reflect the three principles. Abraham personified acts of loving-kindness through his outstanding hospitality (Gen. 18:1). Isaac, through his honor and trust of his father and willingness to be sacrificed, embodies service to God (Gen. 22). Jacob is described in Genesis 25:27 as “a man of simplicity [wholesomeness] abiding in the tents.” In rabbinic literature, tents are considered a metaphor for places of Torah study. Jacob, despite his long exile in pagan Aram, remained true to the God of his fathers and to the teachings of God that he had learned in their tents.
Renowned medieval Torah commentator, Rashi (France, 1049-1105), offers the understanding that the observance of these three principles was the justification for the continued existence of the world; and, it may even be considered, that God had created the world for these particular values. Rabbi Abraham Twerski M.D., well-known American psychologist and expert in the treatment of substance abuse as well as a respected Hassidic Torah scholar, points out that the three principles correspond to the three essential human relationships: man with God, man with his fellow man; and man with himself. Acts of loving-kindness (chessed) connect one in relationship with one’s fellow man, service of God (avodah – acts of worship, e.g., prayer and praise) connects one in relationship with God; and the study of Torah, the whole inspired Word of God, enables one to understand and connect with one’s true self.
Another interesting triad is offered by way of comparison in the commentary Ein Ya’akov. Three good and sustaining gifts were given by God to the Israelites as they journeyed through the wilderness:
- the manna – Torah [daily bread, represented by Moses who conveyed the Word of God to the people]
- the cloud of glory – worship and service [Presence of God, represented by Aaron who entered the Holy of Holies as High Priest]
- the well of water – acts of loving-kindness [life-giving water, represented by Miriam, who initially was a midwife and symbolizes the nurturing care of women].
Yeshua confirmed and affirmed these principles by embodying and illustrating them as the radiance of the Presence of God, and the Bread and Water of Life. He encapsulated them when asked what he considered to be the greatest of God’s commandments and he immediately quoted a key verse of the Shema: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind” (Deut.6:5). He then continued, “The second is like it, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself’ (Lev.19:18). On these two commandments depend the whole Torah and the Prophets” (Matt. 22:36-40).
Our love for, and relationship with, our Father God, evidenced in our avodah – our worship and service in obedience to His Word, is tested and proven in our relationships with the people He places in our path. “Aye, there’s the rub!” as William Shakespeare would say, or in American vernacular, “That’s where the rubber meets the road!” Words and deeds are the outward, tangible expressions of what is in one’s mind and heart and are indications of the state of one’s spirit. Is it empty, cold and unloving, or is it nourished with the Word of God, inspired by the fire of His Spirit, and flowing with the giving, sacrificial love of Yeshua?
~ Keren Hannah Pryor
1. During the time of the Men of the Great Assembly, while under Graeco-Roman rule and facing the threat of dispersion, the leaders realized the need to establish a fixed canon of the Hebrew Scriptures. They also undertook the task of committing the extensive Oral Torah passed down since Sinai to a written form, resulting in the Mishnah (completed by 200 CE/AD) and the Gemarah, composed of interpretations and elaborations of the former (by 500 CE). The word Gemarah has the Hebrew root gamar, meaning ‘to complete’ and in Aramaic, ‘to study’. The final compendium is known as the Talmud, from the Hebrew root lamad, ‘to study,’ which is also the root of talmidim, ‘students’ or ‘disciples’. The formulation of many Scripture-based prayers, blessings and synagogue rituals are also attributed to the Men of the Great Assembly.
Undoubtably, many if not all of the ruling body known as the Sanhedrin, established once the Temple was standing, were members of the Great Assembly. Wikipedia notes:
The Talmud (tractate Sanhedrin) identifies two classes of rabbinical courts called Sanhedrin, a Great Sanhedrin and a Lesser Sanhedrin. Each city could have its own lesser Sanhedrin of 23 judges, but there could be only one Great Sanhedrin of 71, which among other roles acted as the Supreme Court, taking appeals from cases decided by lesser courts. The number of judges were predicted on eliminating the possibility of a tie and the last to cast their vote was the head of the court.