Ethics – Now & Then 14 – Avot 1:15

Avot 1:15 Shammai says: Make your Torah [study] a fixed practice;
                 say little and do much;
                 and receive everyone with a cheerful face.

Make your Torah study a fixed practice…

The extended concept of Torah includes all the teachings of God; His Words of revelation to us of Himself and also His commands and directions in accord with His purposes both for our lives as His people and in the wider scope of history. The foundation of His Word is the Torah, or the Pentateuch; the first five books of the Bible. This Torah is the springboard for all that follows. Even Yeshua, who walked this earth as the Torah of God incarnate, was grounded as a child in the study of the Hebrew Scriptures. In his time, of the Second Temple period, young boys began their study of Torah at age five, beginning with the book of Leviticus, as they do to the present day in most Orthodox communities. The aim being that the Scriptures would become “yours,” as this verse literally reads: “Make your Torah a fixed priority…”.

The brilliant commentator Maimonides was a well respected physician and philosopher, yet he emphasized in agreement with Shammai that the study of Torah should be the central priority and the constant preoccupation of one’s life, with all else secondary. In practice, this simply means that one should fix a consistent time for study of the Word and determine that other claims on one’s life will not detract from it.

The Hebrew word ‘Aseh [make] your Torah…’ also means ‘Do’. William Berkson points out that the phrase therefore can be read as, “Do your Torah consistently.” In other words, ensure that you are applying what you learn and that your actions remain consistent with your knowledge of God’s Word. To underscore the importance of maintaining a regular study routine he refers to a later Talmudic sage, Rava, who lists it as the second of six questions he suggests will be asked on the Day of Judgment [1]:

1. Did you deal honestly in business [or in your dealings with others]?
2. Did you fix times for Torah study?
3. Did you engage in [some form of] procreation?
4. Did you hope for salvation [for all]?
5. Did you engage in critical discussion of wisdom [and take life seriously]?
6. Did you understand how to infer one thing from another [and thereby foresee the     consequences of your actions]? [2]

When one places value on God’s Word, which Yeshua enfleshed, lived and demonstrated, and treasures it as ‘a pearl of great price’ (Matt. 13:46), the study of Torah becomes essential to one’s very existence. It is highly important to be a good steward of one’s practical, day-to-day resources and to take care of work and business matters to the best of one’s ability – the doing of which is listed first on Rava’s list! However, when one “orders one’s steps” in accord with and in obedience to the Word of God, it is a person’s devoted study that leads to the transformation of all the areas of his or her life; the moral, intellectual and spiritual, which then are reflected in the physical.

Rabbi Abraham Twerski relates the story of a certain pious Orthodox Jew who owned a shoe factory. He visited his Rabbi to share some business concerns and to ask his advice. After a brief interview the Rabbi said, “I am aware that people put their feet into shoes, but why are you putting your entire head into shoes?” [3] When one’s head is absorbed with the ‘business’ of God and His Kingdom, we can trust Him to guide our feet in the way we should go. We can place our trust in His promise and faithfulness to provide all our needs, including physical and financial. As Yeshua emphasized so beautifully, “For your Father knows that you need all these things. But, seek first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness [i.e. Study His Word, learn of Him and walk in His ways] and all these things shall be added to you” (Matt. 6:25-34; Lk. 12:22-31).

To gain understanding of the Psalmist’s declaration in the very first Psalm: “Ashrei, blessed and joyful, is the one…whose delight is in the Law [Torah] of the Lord, and on His Torah he meditates night and day” (Ps. 1:1-2), ensures that God’s Word will remain the focal concern and the major influence in one’s life.

Say little and do much….

Most commentaries refer to the example of Abraham to illustrate this gem of wisdom. When he invited the three desert travelers to stop for refreshment, Abraham said: “Let a little water be brought, and wash your feet, and rest yourselves under the tree, while I bring a morsel of bread…” (Gen. 18:4-5). In fact, he hurried to have a sumptuous meal prepared and served them a fatted calf as well as cakes of fine flour. He said little but did much. Often we are tempted to do the reverse; we promise much, usually with every good intention, but actually manage to do very little. There is more talk and communication in the world today than ever before in history. People’s lives generally are filled with constant Tweeting, Skyping, cell-phoning, text-messaging and Facebook chatter. We do well to note Shammai’s reminder that the real world is still a world of deeds; and real achievement lies in doing. The wise course of action is to “say little and do much.”

An interesting concept described in Jewish literature is that the Lord allots each person a specific number of words to speak during one’s lifetime. When this allotment is used up, one’s life ends. [4] The conclusion is drawn that the less one speaks, the longer one will live and the more time one will have to serve the Lord in doing good. Given the importance of words, as well as our related activities, we need to ask ourselves: Do my words speak life? Do they edify and build up, or do they break down and “profit nothing”? Are they words of spirit and truth or of the flesh and the world? Yeshua provides us with the yardstick, as it were, with which to measure our words: “It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh profits nothing. The words that I speak to you are spirit, and they are life” (Jn. 6:63).

Yeshua, as the Word of God enfleshed, constantly reinforces the priority of hearing and doing the Word. “If anyone loves me, he will keep my word and my Father will love him, and we will come to live and make our home with him. He who does not love me does not keep my words; and the Word which you hear is not mine but the Father’s who sent me” (Jn.14:23-24).

In his last impassioned prayer to the Father before his arrest, Yeshua spoke these resounding words: “Holy Father… now I come to You, and these things I spoke in the world, that they may have my joy fulfilled in themselves. I have given them Your Word; and the world hates them because they are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. …Sanctify them by Your truth. Your Word is truth” ( Jn.17:11-17).

Further questions worth our consideration: ‘Am I certain that I am hearing His Word of truth in order that I may respond in obedience to Him?’ And, ‘Are my words in harmony with His?’ The challenge we face is that of discernment. God speaks to us all the time and in different ways by His Spirit. In order to hear Him, however, our own chattering thoughts and the relentless cacophony of the world need to be stilled. Our ears then can be attuned to the sound of His voice. Remember the prophet Elijah. He heard God speak not in the storm or the whirlwind, but in the whisper of a still, small voice (1Ki.19;12).

Words spoken in harmony with God’s Spirit of holiness will resonate with our spirits and bring true peace and joyful edification, even when they are difficult or challenging. Words that are influenced by the enemy of our souls, even when they are flattering and may comfort our flesh, will not truly edify or bring life.

…and receive everyone with a cheerful face.

It is interesting that Shammai includes this word of counsel as he had a reputation for having a stern personality and had little patience with foolishness or ignorance. The Talmud records, “One should always be as humble as Hillel rather than overbearing as Shammai” (B.Talmud, Shabbat 30b). We can assume that Shammai was aware of this negative character trait and, to his credit, he may have been speaking to himself here as much as to his students.

The Hebrew term translated ‘everyone’ is kol adam, which also can be translated as ‘the whole man.’ Although one characteristic of a person may be offensive to you, when you take into account the ‘whole’ person and find their good qualities you can greet them with a genuinely cheerful countenance, even when more serious interaction is to follow. If we all could accomplish this, the world would certainly be a more pleasant place in which to live and work.



1. William Berkson, Pirke Avot
2. Shabbat31a
3. Abraham Twerski, Visions of the Fathers, 58
4. Ibid; 59

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