Ethics Now & Then 83 – Avot 5:9

Seven thingsmark the crude, and seven the wise.
[1] the wise man does not speak before one who is greater than he in wisdom;
[2] he does not break into the speech of his fellowman;  [3] he is not in a rush to reply;
[4] he questions to the point and responds properly; [5] he speaks of first things first and last things last;
[6] about something that he has not learned he says, “I have not learned it.”
[7] and he acknowledges the truth. The opposite of these mark the crude.

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Avot 5:9 

Seven things mark the crude, and seven the wise.

The previous lists of ten now shift to seven. In this verse the Sages list seven attributes that would distinguish a wise person from what is termed a golem. This is close in meaning to the English word ‘clod.’ As Irving Bunim explains: “The Hebrew word golem generally denotes something shapeless and unformed, like a piece of clay before the potter has turned it into a vessel.”* The Midrash compares this to the body of Adam before God shaped and breathed life into him.** A person has great potential but if it never is utilised or developed he remains but a ‘clod.’ His character remains crude, unfinished and unpolished.

As well as golem, the great scholar Maimonides notes two further descriptions of the ignorant or unwise: the boor [Heb., bur] and am ha’aretz  [lit., people of the earth]. Each is quite distinct. from the other in that, as Irving Bunim again describes, “…the boor has no mental or moral qualities to speak of, either good or bad; he is simply empty; literally uncultivated – s’deh bur is the Talmudic term for a field in which nothing grows. The am ha’aretz is not particularly learned, but he has good moral qualities.”*** A ‘salt of the earth’ type. Bunim continues, “The golem has qualities of intellect, learning, and morality, but..he is in an unfinished state… he is an implement that has begin to form in a craftsman’s hands but is yet incomplete, unfinished.”  In contrast, the wise man “…has the good qualities of learning and moral behavior developed to perfection. Learned in Torah, he also participates valuably in the the life of his community.”****

Perhaps many of us understand that we are like clay in the hands of the Potter and need to go through many stages of formation as we grow in wisdom and understanding . We can reach higher levels of maturity and perfection of character when we determine and trust that the Potter is in the process of doing His transforming work in us. It is a process, however, and often we do indeed feel like clods! Happily, in this verse, we can focus on the positive attributes of one who is wise, which we can learn and emulate. These attributes are very important in constructive communication and in enabling discussion, which is a foundation of learning. It is revealing that Hillel, the most revered of the Sages and the one who is echoed in Yeshua’s teaching, “…systemized the principles of talmudic argument and was a model of good manners in discussion” *****[as we will see in Avot 5:20].

[1] the wise man does not speak before one who is greater than he in wisdom…

This guideline indicates that we should always wait to speak until someone more knowledgeable has finished speaking. We will see that all seven guidelines emphasize showing respect for the other person; which helps check pride in ourselves and contributes towards establishing truth and enables one to learn and grow. In this light the following two speak for themselves.

 [2] he does not break into the speech of his fellowman…

[3] he is not in a rush ro reply…

The advice given here obviously was formulated in the world of teachers, students and scholars, where learning is achieved through discussion, debate and interpretation of the topic being studied. This debate can become heated and people can be hurt in the process. This also applies in many areas of life, including marriage, between friends and in the workplace. When the truth of an issue affects both parties, things can become emotionally charged. The following points are crucial in healthy discussion. Also key, as psychologists and informed marriage counsellors point out, is the art of compassionate listening – to listen with compassion to the other person’s point of view. This enables important information to come to light that may be critical in arriving at a good and positive solution.

[4] he questions to the point and responds properly…

[5] he speaks of first things first and last things last…

William Benson describes that, in following Jewish values, “… the final steps in a discussion are to brainstorm kind and fair solutions, to assess the possible solutions, choose one, and develop a plan to implement it.” All this is possible when those involved are respectful of the other and are compassionate in their listening and speaking.

[6] about something that he has not learned he says, “I have not learned it.” 

This principle highlights the qualities of humility and honesty. One who is looked to as a leader or teacher may be expected to know everything but no human can claim to be infallible. Even Moses, on whom the multiple thousands of Israelites depended for advice in the wilderness, often replied, in effect: “Stand, and I will hear what the Lord will command about you.” In other words, “Be patient and wait while I check on that with HaShem!”

[7] and he acknowledges the truth. The opposite of these mark the crude.

Like Moses, the wise person recoginizes the the ultimate source of truth is the Almighty, our Father in Heaven. As the Sages teach, “the seal of the Holy, Blessed One is truth” (Talmud Bavli, Shabbat 55a; Yoma 60b; Sanhedrin 64a).  Yeshua, who was sent of the Father to enflesh and live and demonstrate the truth of His Word, said; “If you abide in my word… “you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (Jn. 8:32). Whenever we recognize the stamp of truth, that remains constant and in harmony with the Hebrew Scriptures, Yeshua’s Bible, we can accept it as God’s Word and instruction and aim to live accordingly. Highly valuing truth, a wise person is grateful even when it is, at times, hard and unpleasant to receive. One who is not wise will likely resent criticism and not be willing to listen compassionately or hear the truth. As the wise King Solomon advises: “Do not correct a scorner [of truth], or he will hate you; reprove a wise man and he will bear you affection” (Proverbs 9:8).

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* Irving M. Bunim, Ethics from Sinai, Vol 3, 99
** Midrash Rabbah, Genesis 8;1; 14:8
*** Irving M. Bunim, Ethics from Sinai, Vol 3, 100
**** Ibid., 100
*****William Berkson, Pirke Avot, 164

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