Blogging Avot: Hating Rabbis (or Authority)

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Pirkei Avot 1:10 has some translation issues. Though I’ve been using a different translation until, now, here I’ll start with the one from

1:10 – Shmaayah and Avtalyon received from them. Shmaayah would say: Love work, loath mastery over others, and avoid intimacy with the government.

The word that is here translated as “mastery over others” is rabbanut. Today, this is the word used for “the rabbinate,” and while the populist in me would be just a little giddy about interpreting this mishnah as an anti-rabbinic maxim, it would be misleading. (Chachmim, sages, was the word used to denote the rabbis as a group.)

Rather, it probably makes the most sense to see the last two clauses in the mishnah as a pair, something along the lines of “avoid seeking a position of power and avoid those who are in power.”

How is the first clause — “Love work” — related to this?

Perhaps Shmaayah is advising his contemporaries, who may not have been on such good terms with the authorities, to keep a low profile — i.e. do your work and keep your nose clean; don’t try to change the status quo by acquiring power or by cozying up to the government.

Interestingly, of the few things we know about Shmaayah, one of them has to do with his government dealings. According to the Jewish Encyclopedia:

When Herod on his own responsibility had put to death the leader of the national party in Galilee, Hyrcanus permitted the Sanhedrin to cite him before the tribunal. Herod appeared, but in royal purple robes, whereat the members of the Sanhedrin lost courage. Only Shemaiah was brave enough to say: “He who is summoned here on a capital charge appears like one who would order us to execution straightway if we should pronounce him guilty. Yet I can blame him less than you and the king, since ye permit such a travesty of justice. Know then that he before whom ye now tremble will some day deliver you to the executioner.”

Posted on May 7, 2008

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