Pirke Avot 3:21

Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah says:

If there is no Torah, there is no worldly occupation;

if there is no worldly occupation, there is no Torah.

If there is no wisdom, there is no fear of God;

if there is no fear of God, there is no wisdom.

If there is no knowledge, there is no understanding;

if there is  no understanding, there is no knowledge.

If there is no flour, there is no Torah;

if there is no Torah, there is no flour.

Rabi Elazar ben Azariah was famous for his breadth of knowledge.  He came from a well known and wealthy family and remained prosperous throughout his life.   At one point he shared the leadership of the rabbinic community with Rabbi Gamliel.

If we had to summarize this long saying it might be to say “everything is connected to everything”.  Let’s see how that works out.


Torah – occupation, occupation – Torah.

Torah / scripture regulates our behavior with one another – particularly our business with one another.  Without it we would have chaos.  The basics of our civil life together, even today in our rather secular world, are rooted in our Bible and our history of trying to live this way.  When we have “overthrown” the tyranny of religion for extreme capitalism or communism – we find that things degenerate quickly.

But without work and business, there is no Torah.  As ideal as the life of study along might sound – we need to work and provide for ourselves in order to study (and to provide the opportunity to study full-time for a select few).  As a working student myself since I left college – work informs my study and gives it meaning; my study informs my work and gives it meaning as well.

Wisdom – fear of God; fear of God – wisdom.

True wisdom, which comes from God, is gained by the study of Torah / Scripture and the accumulated tradition of our ancestors’ encounters with the divine.  Such study brings us to stand before God and be awe-struck (what “fear of the Lord” means) by God’s love for us, God’s greatness and majesty.

And without recognition of the greatness and majesty of God we cannot absorb God’s wisdom for us.  Even today, in our secular world, the great threat to our faith traditions is not a-theism or anti-theism – the great threat is indifference.

Knowledge – understanding; understanding – knowledge.

If we were to talk about this idea at length we could explore the three levels of knowledge in Jewish tradition: wisdom (hochma in Hebrew); understanding (biyna in Hebrew); and knowledge (da’at in Hebrew).  But, that’s a subject for books – not a blog entry.

The short story is this – without the basics of knowledge we cannot grasp the coherent theories that bring those basic units together.  And without the theory that brings them together we cannot grasp the basic units of knowledge.

Flour – Torah; Torah – flour.

Without flour (food, bread) we cannot survive.  Without Torah / Scripture our survival has no meaning, no order, no purpose and we fail to survive.