Ethics – Now & Then 9 – Avot 1:10

Avot 1:10 Shema’yah and Av’talyon received the tradition from them. Shema’yah says: Love work; despise lordliness; and do not become over familiar with the government.

The next pair of Nasi and Av Beit Din (the spiritual leaders – President and Chief Justice of the Sanhedrin) took office in 65 BCE. They were Shema’yah, whose name literally translates as “Hear God,” and Av’talyon, meaning “Father of young ones.” Fitting names for leaders! It is recorded that they both were descendants of of the Assyrian King Sennacherib (Gittin 57b) who had, like Ruth, come to faith in the God of Israel.

Shema’yah says: Love work…

Shema’yah had strong convictions regarding the value of honest labor and emphasized that one should love whatever work one was privileged to undertake. The first human beings were not created merely to enjoy a life of ease and relaxation surrounded by blue seas and palm trees, rather they were to work with God in tending His Creation. They were exhorted “to be fruitful and multiply.” In the case of this first couple as well as their subsequent descendants, this was naturally applied to the procreation of the species and also in tilling the soil from which would come forth food for sustenance (cf. Gen. 2:5).

In the context of the mind and the spirit of a human being created in the image of God, we also have the ability and the responsibility to “till the soil” of our inner being – to “break up the fallow ground” (Hos.10:12) of our hearts, to remove stones of hardness and bitterness, to sow seeds of truth and righteousness and to produce the living fruit of the Spirit. This work also requires joyful diligence and includes the disciplines of the study of the Word of God, prayer, dialogue and the practice of obedience to God’s will and of deeds of loving-kindness to others.

The Sages of Israel encouraged the pursuit of a balance of work and study. They did not sanctify work, however, and neither did Yeshua. They did not teach, or even consider, for example, that material success as a result of one’s work was a sign of God’s favor. Biblically, although we are enjoined to engage in six days of work, the crown of the week is Shabbat, when the aim is to do no mundane work but to focus on and enjoy our Creator and all the good He has created.

To a very large extent in American culture, the initial Puritan and biblical work ethic has been lost. Many early founders and people of influence, such as Benjamin Franklin and Ralph Waldo Emerson, steered the Protestant work ethic toward what William Berkson, the American director of the Jewish Institute for Youth and Family, terms, “The Success ethic: the equating of competitive success with self-worth and happiness.” He goes so far as to say, “In time, success became an idol that Americans worshipped.”[1] That may sound extreme, but it is worth our while to consider the influence that this “success ethic” has in the lives of young (and not-so-young) people today and the effect it has on the decisions they make and the goals to which they aspire.

The question remains, “How do we love work?” The renowned medieval Jewish philosopher and theologian Maimonides makes the common-sense observation, “..the reason we should love work is that we would otherwise shirk it, become destitute, and be led to earning through dishonest means.”[2] It also is important to find joy in what the Lord has called and prepared for us to do. Albert Einstein expressed it well: “The most important motive for work in school and in life is pleasure in work, pleasure in its result , and the knowledge of the value of the result to the community” (Ideas and Opinions, 62). This ethic, when God-focussed, can apply whether you are a celebrated scientific genius or one like Brother Lawrence (1611 – 1691), who rejoiced in the Presence of God even as he spent hours in a hot kitchen washing dishes, peeling mounds of potatoes and performing other menial chores for the Carmelite community in which he served. He called himself a “servant of servants” and was determined that, “…the only thing I was seeking was to become wholly God’s.”[3]

What a true blessing it is when one can say in faith, as did Yeshua, “I glorified You on earth, having accomplished the work that You gave me to do!” (Jn. 17:4).

…hate the holding of high office;

The danger of inordinate power and control are inherent in the spheres of both religion and politics. When this is the case, the reaction in the lives of those not in authority is fear. This principle also can be applied in work situations, in family life, and sometimes also in friendships. The focus here, however, is on ‘Synagogue – or Church’ and ‘State’. Both have the power to do much good, but both are capable, as evidenced in history, of executing great evil; even when it is with the proclaimed aim of the “greater good” of the population concerned.

At the time of the Second Temple, Judea and Samaria and the surrounds were part of the Roman Empire and, as we saw in the account of Shimon ben Shetach, much bribery and corruption was occurring as people vied for high office, both in religious and secular circles. The Sages held, as Yeshua emphasized and illustrated, that when our trust is in the One who truly is greater than all men can devise apart from Him, our lives can be based on love and reverential fear of our Father in Heaven and not on fear of man. We can “be still” and our hearts can rest in the knowledge that we are shielded from any abuse of power and negative control of man. We can overcome fear as, “…greater is He who is in us than he who is in the world” (1 Jn. 4:4).

Rather than striving for high position, Yeshua proclaimed: “He who is greatest among you shall be your servant. And whosoever exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted” (Matt. 23:8-12; Mk. 9:35). The exhortation to “humble oneself” appears many times in Scripture.

…and do not become over familiar with the government.

Shema’yah, also in the context of the Roman domination of the time, advises that one should not aim to befriend those in places of power and authority. Such relationships potentially restrict one’s personal decisions and actions.

The influence of these ‘friends’ could cause one to engage in matters that are contrary to one’s own views and desires. Due to the corruption that often attends power, one should be wary and rather avoid those who like the unrighteous judge in Yeshua’s parable, “…do not fear God nor regard man” (Lk. 18:2).



1. William Berkson, Pirke Avot, JPS; 33
2. Ibid.; 34
3. Devotional Classic, Ed. Richard Foster; 82

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