Pirke Avot 4:8

Rabbi Yose says:

Whoever honors the Torah is himself honored by people;

Whoever disgraces the Torah is himself disgraced by people.

Rabbi Yose bar Chalafta was a student of Rabbi Akiva, writing and teaching in the 75 to 100 CE time period.  His ordination took place in secret since the Romans had outlawed them in the wake of the Jewish rebellion in 70.

How do we honor the Torah / Bible / Tradition?

On the simplest terms we take care with the physical representation that we have in front of us – treating it with care, handling it gently and with respect.   Hence, in the synagogue, the Torah scroll is covered and crowned, is presented with solemnity and is not even directly handled when possible.  A Torah scroll is handwritten and costly – but the care with which it is handled is more due to its very nature as a sacred object.  In Catholic tradition the Book of the Gospels (used at mass) is handled only by deacons and priests, is kissed when read from, and given a place of honor when resting.  It is an expensive book though not anywhere nearly as expensive as the Torah scroll.

Those who honor the physical representations are conscious of the religious traditions which surround them and respect those traditions – something that would keep them in good standing in the larger community and (we believe) with the LORD.  Likewise, those who would NOT respect those traditions or deliberately flaunt them would be in poor standing amongst those people who value them.

But this is purely at the simplistic level.

We honor the Torah / Bible / Tradition when we value the study of it, the learning of it, the teaching and sharing of it, and the living of the teachings found in it and through it.

We honor Torah / Bible / Tradition when we take it seriously.  When we resist any temptation to simply bypass what is difficult or to ignore those things which go against our own will and opinion.

Those who honor the Torah / Bible / Tradition by living by its precepts and values will be honored – they are serious about their faith and about the struggle to be a good and loving person.  Those who don’t – aren’t.

psalm 119 a

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Pirke Avot 4:7

Rabbi Tzadok says:

Do not separate yourself from the community;

when serving as a judge do not act as a lawyer;

do not make the Torah a crown for self-glorification, nor a spade to dig with.

Hillel used to say: 

He who exploits the crown of Torah for personal profit shall fade away.

From this you derive that whoever seeks personal benefit from the words of Torah removes his life from the world.

This is a long and complicated mishnah!  Rabbi Tzadok is thought to have lived most of his life before 70 CE (destruction of the Temple).  This would make him, roughly, a contemporary of Jesus of Nazareth.  Rabbi Tzadok was well known for his holiness and knowledge.

Do not separate yourself from the community.   One of the “ordinary people’s” criticisms of university scholars is that they are “the elite”, they are out of touch with the common citizen and look down on them.  I don’t think this is true – but it is often said.  Scholars certainly CAN lose the ability to communicate with non-scholars and if this should happen to Torah / bible / religious teachers, what a shame!  In addition – religious scholars in particular must be in communion with others to know their pain and sorrows as well as their joys!  To be separated from the community is to slowly spiritually starve to death!

When serving as a judge, do not act as a lawyer.  Most judges, on both religious and secular courts, are former lawyers.  They can be tempted to “improve” the cases as the lawyers present them, asking leading questions, being critical, and more.  This shows a lack of trust in the lawyers who, perhaps, have a larger strategy in mind.


The Torah is not a crown for self-glorification, nor a spade to dig with.  Our study of the LORD’s wisdom and law are not ever to be a “means to an end” or simple tools.  They are an end in them selves.  We might approach our study with the long range intent of being wiser, being more patient, and even of becoming a teacher.  In these cases the goal is consistent with the study.  What is NOT consistent with study is the motivation of eventual self glory (“you are SO smart!”, “you are the greatest scholar on the East Coast!”…).  It is blasphemous to use God’s Word as a tool for something so human and profane.

Christians may recall Jesus’ words about some scholars in his day – Luke 23:6 “They love places of honor at banquets, seats of honor in synagogues, greetings in marketplaces, and the salutation ‘Rabbi’.”

Seeking personal benefit from the words of Torah removes ones life from the world.  Those who, like televangelists who get rich from the offerings of their viewers, gain excessively from their preaching and teaching are selling their soul to the devil.  They almost can’t help but be perverting the Bible (prosperity gospel in Christian terms) in order to be so popular.  Their motivations lead them to do and to say things not consistent with the Word of God.  This is not at all to say that people in ministry or teaching do not deserve to be reasonably well compensated.  They do.  It is a matter of degree and of perversion of the message in order to profit.

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Pirke Avot 4:6

Rabbi Yishmael bar Rabbi Yose said:

One who studies Torah in order to teach is given the means to study and to teach; 

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

bible study


At the simplest level this wisdom may be saying that, along with Steven Covey, we ought to begin with the end in mind.  What we intend to do with the knowledge we acquire when we study will shape what we actually learn.  What we actually learn will clearly affect what we will do with our knowledge.

studying in order to teach: There are certain branches of Torah study in which one might become a particular expert even though one is not called to be practically active in that branch of knowledge.  One example might be the study of Temple sacrificial regulations and practices – even though there is no Temple today.  All are expected to apply all applicable Torah knowledge to one’s own life!

A thought: if we cannot explain something in simple terms such that almost anyone can understand it – then we don’t understand it well enough!

studying in order to practice – resulting in the means to study and to teach, to observe and to practice.   At the easiest to understand level we teach others best through our practice!  If we have studied, especially the most practical branches of Torah, in order to practice them well – we will always be in a position to teach others – even if we are not formally teaching.  Beyond that idea: constant practice of our religious knowledge gives us a wealth of examples to use in the classroom setting if we end up there, as well as a broad understanding of “where real people are coming from”!

How do we apply this today?  And in Christian / Catholic settings as well?  Since I teach in a parish setting and no longer in a university I am continually thinking about why people come to my “classes”.  To study the Bible only for intellectual  knowledge?  Or to study in order to answer some deep life questions?  Or to study in order to be more fully shaped in faith?  What they want from me shapes what I offer and how I offer it.  We can’t / shouldn’t make assumptions as to what people are seeking!

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Life is somewhat paradoxical isn’t it?  On the one hand – each one of us has a particular journey or road to travel in life.  On the other hand – none of us is truly alone!

In the most obvious sense, we are not truly alone because we have our friends and families.  There are people we can talk with and share our stories, our fears, our triumphs.

In a less obvious way, we are not truly alone because we carry within us, way down deep inside, at the level of our DNA – all of our ancestors.  Their passions, their strengths and weaknesses, their loves and hates are an important part of who we are.  Wherever we go, we take them with us.

This blog is an invitation for you to reflect on the wisdom that we have inherited from our ancestors.  That wisdom can be found in many sources – the Jewish and Christian scriptures, other ancient writings like Pirke Avot and that of the Fathers of the Church, the writings of saints and sages over the centuries.

Every week I will post some short saying that I believe deserves some reflection.  I will add some comments and stories and I invite you to add some as well.   Check back often to follow the discussion.

The great thing about a blog is that you can access it anywhere, at any time.   Waiting in an airport, in the middle of a sleepless night, who knows?  Add this blog to your favorites / bookmarks now.   I promise to regularly update this site so that on each visit you make there will be new things to think about and new ideas to share.

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Thanks for visiting!  Please come back soon!

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Pirke Avot 4:5

Pirke Avot 4:5

Rabbi Yochanan ben Beroka says:

Whoever desecrates the Name of Heaven in secret, they will exact punishment from him in public;

unintentional and intentional,

both are alike regarding desecration of the Name.

What are we doing (or trying to do) behind closed doors???  These days any notion of “privacy” is fast disappearing.  The omnipresent cameras in public spaces and electronic tracking everywhere has certainly led to an awareness that “hidden” or “secret” is only a relative term.

But our wisdom today was written in a very different time – though one in which people lived in VERY close quarters.  There was not much “privacy” then either!

The rabbi says: Any sin – done publicly or secretly desecrates the  Name (of God).  Any sin – done intentionally or not, desecrates the Name (of God).  How so????

Sin, even unintentional sin, may cause others to do the same.  What we do is observed by others and they may infer from what we choose to do that certain actions are acceptable – which in reality are NOT acceptable.  Sin “ripples outward” in ways we may be unaware of.  It gets multiplied.

Sin, even “secret” sin, changes our hearts and deadens us inside.  Pornography might be thought of as a good example.  Rarely is it viewed in full view of others.  But it can become addictive, can affect relationships with one’s spouse or significant other (now or in the future).  This desecrates the Name – insults God who gave us the commandments.  Additionally – our doing something in secret may indicate a belief that God doesn’t see it or care about it – and this insults God who is all-knowing and all-seeing.

Roman Catholic Christians do not generally accept the idea of “unintentional sin” – for us the requirements of sin are deliberate intent, knowledge that the act is considered sinful, and that the matter or action involved be of serious nature.

Unintentional sin in the Jewish tradition is still sin – but the punishment is much less severe than for intentional transgression.  Still, one is liable to a degree for one’s carelessness or lack of knowledge.

Punishment will be public?  The Christian gospels talk about things done in darkness that will be shouted from the rooftops.  Both traditions talk about a resurrection of the dead and a judgment day – presumed to be public.


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