Ethics Now & Then 57 – Avot 4:6

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Avot 4:6   Rabbi Yishmael bar Rabbi Yosei said: One who studies Torah in
                 order to teach, is given the means to study and to teach; and
                one who studies in order to practice, is given the means to study
                and to teach, to observe and to practice.

4:6 Rabbi Yishmael bar Rabbi Yosei said:

Rabbi Yishmael son of Rabbi Yosei lived in the latter part of the 2nd century. He had such a depth of knowledge of the Scriptures that it was believed he could write it all by memory. He was a teacher of the renowned sage Rabbi Yehudah haNasi, who once praised him for his great humility. Not one’s usual picture of a serious sage, Rabbi Yishmael was stocky and muscular and also, at one time, served as an official for the Roman government together with Rabbi Eliezer ben Simeon. They would apprehend thieves and bandits who would prey on travelers until, as it is said, the prophet Elijah spoke to them and advised them to resign and to let the Romans do their own “dirty work.” With his excellent memory and depths of understanding he entered many successful debates with those who challenged the truth or authority of the Scriptures.

One who studies Torah in order to teach, is given the means to study and to teach; and one who studies in order to practice, is given the means to study and to teach, to observe and to practice.

Rabbi Yishmael highlights the understanding that, ideally, study and learning are not meant to be an end in themselves, rather they are the means by which one, in turn, can teach others. This encourages both the teacher and the student to apply and carry out the precepts being shared. The value of the Torah, or teachings of God, does not lie only in the stimulation and development of the intellect. This can be achieved through the study of any subject, from Algebra through Zoology. Its worth lies in the wisdom and guidance given by our Creator God as to how to live a relevant, meaningful and sanctified life. The life He intends and desires for all His children.

Rabbi Yishmael emphasizes that learning only for one’s personal growth and benefit is not the goal. The underlying objective should be to pass on one’s knowledge in some way. Study of God’s Word and ways is not meant to isolate students in an ivory tower of purity; rather it is meant to impact one’s daily life in relation with the people in one’s environment. We should be implementing the biblical values in all we do, from the most menial of tasks to the most important work we may engage in. The desire of our hearts should be to infuse our lives with His holiness.

Thus, the highest aim for the study of Torah, Rabbi Yishmael observes, is to study in order to “do.” When we are determined to apply and to practice what we are learning – to strengthen ourselves in doing His will – then God Himself will enable us “to learn and to teach, to observe and to practice.” Those eager to study will learn more from a teacher who sincerely is practicing what he is teaching; when the studies are not only from the head but also from the heart. As the wise and true saying goes, “Words that come from the heart go to the heart.”

Growing in knowledge of God’s Word then becomes a vital part of one’s life and is poured into one’s relationships with others, rather than an amassing of information. As a more modern sage once said, in effect: “Knowledge of God is more da’at [Hebrew – intimate spiritual knowledge of] than data [a store of information].”[1] 

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Irving Bunim makes an interesting observation that Rabbi Yishmael’s words suggest three different levels, attitudes and approaches to Torah study. Each has a particular emphasis and one can find examples of these in almost every generation.[2]

One person will study Torah lish’mah: with a love of learning Scripture for its own sake. He immerses himself in the Word of God and plumbs its depths in search of personal understanding and meaning. Another will learn in order to teach. He strives for intelligibility and clarity, as he wants to transmit his knowledge and understanding to others. A focus, then, will be on analogies, examples and illustrative material that convey the values and truth he is learning. The third is the person who will be neither scholar nor teacher, but who studies only for practical application – to know how to obey the commandments; to find out how the mitzvoth found in the Scriptures should be performed.

All three are worthy and commendable. The important factor is to study the Word of God in the way that is meaningful to and in harmony with one’s personality and calling. The Sages also advise: “Ever should a person learn the Torah at the place in which his heart desires.”[3] Study that is inspired by a heart of love for the Author of the Word is a pathway of life that is pleasant and leads to the blessings of faithful obedience, harmony and shalom. As we are assured in Proverbs 3:17-18; the ways of wisdom and understanding found in the Word of God, “…are ways of pleasantness, and all her paths are peace. She is a tree of life to those who lay hold of her; those who hold her fast are called blessed.” 

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1. In Jewish understanding, learning (study of Scriptures) is for a lifetime, for every man and every woman, beginning in childhood. Remembering that Yeshua was a Jewish sage, how does this bring clarity to his words in John 8:31-32, “If you continue in My word, then you are truly disciples of Mine; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.”

2. What is the relationship between study and practice? How does this help you to understand study as a form of worship?



1. Quote: Dr Dwight A. Pryor (obm)
2. Rabbi Irving M. Bunim, Ethics from Sinai, Vol. 2, 48
3. Talmud Bavli, Avodah Zarah, 19a

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