Avot 1:13 [Hillel] used to say: He who seeks renown loses his reputation; he who does not increase [his Torah study] decreases it; he who fails to teach [Torah] deserves death; and he who exploits the crown [of Torah] shall fade away.
Interestingly, the flow of the Hebrew text of Pirkei Avot is interrupted and this verse is written in Aramaic. This was the lingua franca of Babylonia, where Hillel was raised, and was a common language in the Ancient Near East. As the place of exile for the Jewish people after the destruction of Solomon’s Temple, since the time of the prophet Daniel, Babylonia had become a great center of Torah study, in which the Talmudic academies of Sura and Pumbedita would later be predominant. After the return to the Land of Israel at the end of Nebuchadnezzar’s reign, Aramaic remained the language of trade and the market place, as well as of biblical scholarship together with Hebrew.
With reference to Hillel, the Talmud says: “In ancient days when the Torah was forgotten from Israel, Ezra came up from Babylon and re-established it. Then it was again forgotten until Hillel from Babylon came up and re-established it” (Sukkot 20a). Although the bulk of the Talmud is written in Hebrew in accord with the Scriptures, the Gemara, the commentary and discussion in relation to the Talmud is written in Aramaic. Yeshua certainly was familiar with the language and he speaks it on certain occasions; for example, when he said to the synagogue leader’s young daughter who had died: “Talitha, kumi!” “Girl,” or, literally, he uses an affectionate term, “Little lamb, get up!” (Luke 8:54).
As mentioned in connection with Avot 1:12, Hillel was instrumental in formulating rules for interpreting the Word of God that provided a structure and set careful boundaries for the ongoing teaching and study of the Scriptures while encouraging creative and practical application in daily life. This structure could be applied contemporaneously by each future generation in order to keep Torah relevant without compromising the integrity of the Scriptures. Personally, Hillel was admired and respected for his middot (character traits) of savlanut – patience, annavah – humility, and kavannah – devotion to learning. He also, like Aaron, was recognized as a rodef shalom, one who seeks peace.
He who seeks renown loses his reputation…
In Aramaic, ‘name’- sh’mah and ‘reputation’- sh’meh sound very similar, thus the verse also can be translated as, “He who seeks a name for himself loses his reputation.” This is linked with another mishnah (verse) in the Talmud: “Anyone who chases after honor, the honor will flee him” (Eruvin 13a). Not only will the honor or fame he pursues flee from him, but also the honor, or reputation, he has will desert him.
There are many nuances in the interpretation of this verse. For example, it could simply mean that with fame one is bound to have critics who will do what they can to spoil your reputation. Election campaigns offer proof of that. The context here, however, seems to imply that the person who seeks fame is motivated by an inflated ego or, perhaps, is using improper means and methods to gain personal attention or selfish advantage. Rabbi S.R. Hirsch proposes that a good name that endures must come unsought, and it will come only to him who performs good and commendable deeds without aiming to impress others. This is reminiscent of a familiar saying: Character is who you are [as a person], reputation is who others think you are [your persona]; seek to build character [the real you]!
Two of the most prestigious medieval commentators, Rashi and Maimonides (Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon, also known as Rambam) agreed that even if one did not seek to promote oneself, a rise to fame would bring with it the possibility of pride and disaster. This is reflected in the often quoted verse, Proverbs 16:18, “Pride precedes a fall.” Sadly, many examples of this truth are seen in the rise and fall of countless movie stars and entertainers. The sages concur, however, that a physical toll can be paid by one in a position of prominence even when the person is righteous and has every good intention. They draw a comparison with a model of righteousness, Joseph the son of Jacob, who, although the second youngest of the twelve, died before his brothers.
…he who does not increase [his Torah study] decreases it;
An area in which man can never feel that he has “done it all” and can now relax, sit back and leave it to others, is the study of Torah and the doing of mitzvot – the practical application in one’s life of the study, which results in good deeds.
According to Rabbi Hirsch, he who stands still on his path [of Torah study] is actually regressing. One who does not study is not experiencing the fulness of life because he neglects to acquaint himself with the goals and the purpose for which he was given life and fails to acquire the skill and knowledge necessary for their fulfillment.
…he who fails to teach [Torah] deserves death; and he who exploits the crown [of Torah] shall fade away.
In a later chapter of Pirkei Avot, reference is made to three crowns that can be bestowed upon a child of God in this life: the crown of Torah, the Crown of Priesthood and the Crown of Royalty. This verse warns that one who exploits the “crown” of the knowledge of Torah for selfish ambition, and uses it gain personal honor, will not gain any long term satisfaction from his endeavors.
One commentator makes a connection here with Hillel’s teacher Shema’yah’s warning in Avot 1:10, that one should not try to use or exploit the power of the ‘crown’ – the powers that be, at that time the Roman government. Many who did, lost their lives at the hands of the Romans, even preceding the rebellions and wars. The context here, however, is in relation to the heritage of Torah learning and in using it for selfish ends.
The blatant statement, “…he who fails to teach deserves death” is startling, to say the least. The understanding, however, is related to the fact that Torah, the Word of God, is life. “For it is no empty word for you, but your very life” (Deut.32:47). The life indicated is predominantly that of the spirit. Therefore, the implication is that, rather than growing and advancing spiritually, by not sharing the knowledge one has gained of God and His Word one would stand to suffer spiritual death.
The inherent purpose of acquiring knowledge of God’s Word, as with all benefits acquired in life, is not to hoard and store it up for oneself but to freely and generously pass it on for the benefit of others. As Yeshua emphasized, “In your going [as you go forward spiritually, learning and growing], raise up many talmidim [students]” (Matt. 28:19). Each one can trust the Lord for unique opportunities and creative ways to share one’s knowledge of the good news of God’s Word with others and so to extend His Kingdom on the earth.
1. The Pirkei Avos Treasury, Artscholl Mesorah Series; 40
2. S.R. Hirsch, Chapters of the Fathers; 15
3. William Berkson, Pirke Avot; 40