Ethics – Now & Then 25 – Avot 2:9-10

Avot 2:9  Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai received the tradition from Hillel
                and Shammai. He used to say: if you have studied much
                Torah, do not take credit for yourself, because that is what
                you were created to do.

Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai received the tradition from Hillel and Shammai.

After focussing on a selection of Hillel’s more significant teachings, Pirkei Avot now resumes its ordered list of Rabbis and talmidim, teachers and students/disciples. Yochanan ben Zakkai was Hillel’s youngest student. By 70 CE/AD, however, and the time of the razing of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Second Temple, he was well advanced in years. in the way of Hillel, and of Yeshua, he wisely had opposed the Zealot-instigated rebellion and war against Rome.

It is recorded that while Jerusalem was under heavy siege by the Roman army, Yochanan ben Zakkai, aware of its imminent fall, succeeded in escaping and reaching the Roman general Vespasian. The Zealots were not allowing fellow Jews to flee the city but were insisting that they remain and fight. In a daring ruse, the old Rabbi pretended to be dead and, in accord with Jewish law to bury a body outside the city within 24 hours of death, two of his closest students, Eliezer ben Hyrkanos and Yehoshua ben Chanania, carried him in a coffin past the Zealots guarding the city gates.

When Yochanan ben Zakkai reached Vespasian he greeted him with, “Peace to you, O King!” Shortly after, a messenger arrived from Rome who announced the death of the Emperor. The Senate had elected Vespasian as the new ruler and he needed to return to Rome immediately. Realizing that Ben Zakkai had prophesied accurately and knowing of his opposition to the rebellion, he promised to grant him any favor he requested. The Sage replied, “Give me the city of Yavneh and its scholars.” [1] Jerusalem would be in ruins but, until its restoration and at least for the foreseeable future, a guaranteed place of safety was ensured in the nearby town of Yavneh, where the study and preservation of the Hebrew Scriptures could continue unhindered.

He used to say: if you have studied much Torah, do not take credit for yourself, because that is what you were created to do.

Yochanan ben Zakkai risked his life for the Torah, for the Word of God, and he had dedicated his life to study and to teach it. He, therefore, is well qualified to give the exhortation to not “take credit for yourself” if you are a great Bible scholar, “because that is what you were created to do.” The commentary Mesilat Yesharim likewise enjoins, “Intelligence was given you only for the purpose of acquiring knowledge [specifically of God and His Word], and you may not become arrogant for having utilized this knowledge any more than a bird may for utilizing his wings to fly.” [2]

Star of David ENT

Avot 2:10  Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai had five disciples.
                 They were: Rabbi Eliezer ben Hyrkanos, Rabbi Yehoshua ben
                 Chanania, Rabbi Yose the Kohen, Rabbi Shimon ben Netanel,
                 and Rabbi Elazar ben Arach.

Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai had five disciples.

Mishnah, or verse, 10 introduces us to Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai’s top five students. Ben Zakkai was the outstanding teacher of his time and he highly appreciated the value and role of his students. Whenever possible he would praise them, often publicly. He is a true model of a teacher who regards his or her students in the manner caring and devoted parents regard their children. The Sage poured his knowledge and wisdom into the lives of his students by example. He also encouraged them to not limit their learning to the texts, the written word, but to go out among the people and to learn in ways that would enrich their understanding and application of the Word.

We will see in the verses following that, in his interaction with students, Yochanan ben Zakkai exhibits the exemplary traits of a good teacher. When he judges a student’s answers, his assessment is always marked with perfect tact, respect and appreciation. William Berkson makes an astute observation,
“In the modern world, these qualities still hold as markers of excellence in teachers: an attitude of service to students, warm appreciation and praise, engagement of students with the real world, and tactful judgment of the student’s efforts.” [3] We may consider that these traits also apply in parent-child relationships, where the first vital level of education occurs.

If we literally translate the opening phrase of this verse it reads: “There were five disciples loh – to him, to Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai.” It is known that he had many, many students but the extra word loh denotes that these five had a special relationship “to him”. A well known, more recent Rabbi, Moshe Schreiber, who also taught many students, once remarked that he had 13 talmidim, because, as he explained, “A true talmid is one who is not detached from his master from the moment he wakes up until he goes to sleep. Everything he does, even his thoughts, follow the model of his master. I have only 13 students such as this.” [4]

As Yeshua taught: “A disciple is not above his teacher, but everyone when he is fully trained will be like his teacher. …Everyone who comes to me and hears my words and does them. I will show you what he is like: he is like a man building a house, who dug deep and laid the foundation on the rock. And when a flood arose, the stream broke against that house and could not shake it, because it had been well built” (Lk. 6:40; 47-48).

Twelve primary disciples are listed in the account of the life on earth of the Master, Yeshua. Talmidim who physically walked with him on a daily basis and learned from him by example and attuned their every thought to his. As his present talmidim, may we also daily be looking to the Master, Messiah Yeshua – Risen Lord, and be learning and growing in the Word and Truth he came to enflesh; to the ever increasing glory of the Father of all.



1. Talmud Bavli, Gittin 56 a-b
2. Artscroll Mesorah Series, Pirkei Avos; 19
3. William Berkson, Pirke Avot; 79
4. Rabbi Abraham J. Twerski, Vision of the Fathers; 109

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