Pirke Avot 1:16

Rabbi Gamliel used to say:

Appoint a teacher for yourself,

and remove yourself from uncertainty;

and do not give excess tithes by estimating (instead of measuring).

Rabbi Gamliel lived and taught between the time of Jesus and the destruction of the Temple in 70 C.E.  In the Christian “Acts of the Apostles” Gamliel counsels the Sanhedrin not to persecute those ho believed in Jesus – for if this new way was from God it would persevere despite whatever they might do, and if it was not from God it would fade away on its own.

A leader / teacher guides us on the right path toward greater heights, removing doubts and worries – Is this the right way?  Can I make it to the top?  How am I doing?

Appoint a teacher for yourself.   This is at first glance a repeat of the advice offered in 1:6 (Everyone should have a teacher and a friend for study) and another which advises everyone to have a teacher, a friend, and a student.  The rabbis of subsequent generations therefore sought a different meaning in the text.

The general drift is that the previous (1:6) referred to general study of the scriptures while this verse has in mind specific legal questions related to one’s life.  Therefore we need someone to whom we can turn for a firm and definitive and correct ruling on what the law in question requires.

If we have such a person that we can trust we remove ourselves from uncertainty.

Do not give excess tithes by estimating (instead of measuring).    This can be read as intimately connected to the above – perhaps this is an example of the law in question (What do I need to do with regard to this field?)   If I am uncertain about how to give the correct tenth I need to get good advice and then I can follow it precisely.  I now would no longer worry nor would I take the law so casually as if I were to say “close enough” with whatever appeared to be about right.  It might even be helpful to me by conserving my resources and avoiding an over-estimation.

Another, and I think more significant, reading would be to see this as connected a bit more remotely.  Firstly as specific advice related to the serious and significant commandment to give a tenth of one’s goods to the poor.  The Law says to do this.  Good Jews and Christians do this.  But Gamliel says – do not give more than that and do not do your giving without careful thought.  Why the heck not?????  Doesn’t that seem wrong somehow????

Because.  Because you have a family to take care of.  Because you have responsibilities to take care of.  Because you need to save and prepare for the future.  All good practical reasons.  All important reasons.

But also – because to do so would be to go beyond the law.   And who are you to decide that you know what is best!?!  Respect the word from the LORD – don’t take anything away from it and don’t be adding to it either!  And, by the way, a good teacher would give you guidance that you could rely on and remove any doubts.

So, is this important for us today?

Seems to me that it is.  We live in a world where we are surrounded by folks who are doing their own thing all the time.  Making up the rules as they go (if they want any rules at all).

If we can admit that we have a certain confusion over what we should be doing, how we should be doing it, etc.  then finding a teacher who could give us guidance is in order.

Generally our problem with tithing is not that we estimate it or that we give too much – generally we tend to give too little.  The advice remains though – give the tithe, take it seriously, calculate it carefully.  And don’t go beyond it.   Might help us sleep easier at night.  Might make us less defensive about our blessings.  Might keep us from being selfish.

So, some questions to ponder:

  1. Who do you turn to when you have real life questions?
  2. What aspects of your life generate questions for you?  Finances, relationships, …?
  3. Are you generous with your possessions?