Avot 1:16

Avot 1:16 Rabban Gamliel used to say: Accept a teacher upon yourself  and remove yourself from uncertainty; and do not give excess tithes by estimating [instead of measuring].

Rabban Gamliel used to say…

This is the first verse that does not link the sage with a predecessor but simply begins with ‘Rabban Gamliel used to say’. What occurs now is a detour from the traditional chain and a record of the sons and grandsons of Hillel who succeeded him as Nasi, or President, of the Sanhedrin. Their identities become somewhat confusing as they alternately were named Gamliel (meaning: ‘God is also for me’) and Shimon, possibly in honor of the past beloved and righteous High PriestShimon Ha’Tzaddik (Avot 1:1). Some confusion also is likely due to the enormous upheaval of the Roman Revolt at the time and the ensuing destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple. This resulted in the dissolution of the center of worship and the Sadducean priesthood and also raised the vital need to establish a new location for spiritual leadership. Following an ingenious escape from the burning Jerusalem, and strategic negotiations with the Roman consul, the elderly sage Yochanan ben Zakkai succeeded in acquiring a new center for the seat of the Sanhedrin in the town of Yavneh.

The regular listing resumes in Chapter 2:9, which records, “Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai received the tradition from Hillel.” It seems, ipso facto, that while Hillel’s progeny were honored and recognized as Nasi, the role of Av Beit Din, with its corresponding authority to make the critical halakhic decisions needed at the time, was reinstated and assumed by Yochanan ben Zakkai.

The following list may be helpful:

(1:16) Rabban Gamliel I, the Elder – grandson of Hillel

(1:17) Shimon ben Gamliel I – great-grandson of Hillel (d.50 CE)

(-) Gamliel II – after 70 CE become Nasi of the Yavneh Academy, with
Yehoshua ben Chananiah as Av Beit Din.

(1:18) Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel II (d.170 CE) – grandson of Shimon
ben Gamliel I – Nasi during the Ben Kochba Revolt.

(2:1) Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi (135 – 220 CE) – son of Rabban Shimon ben
Gamliel II – compiled the Mishnah, including Pirkei Avot.

(2:2) Rabban Gamliel 111 – elder son of Rabbi Yehudah (Early 3rd Cen.)

The Gamliel quoted in Avot 1:16, was the first to receive the title of Rabban(Aramaic – our Rabbi; Rabbeinu in Hebrew). He was Nasi of the Sanhedrin in Jerusalem during the first decades of the Common Era (CE, or AD in the Gregorian calendar) at the time of Yeshua.

Gamliel followed faithfully in the steps of Hillel and he was noted for being compassionate and lenient in matters of halakha. The Talmud records that his decisions were regarded as mipneh tikkun ha’olam – for the improvement of the welfare of the world (Gittin 6:6), and mipneh darkei shalom – for the sake of the way of peace, friendship and harmony (Sotah 9:15).

When Peter and the apostles were brought before the Sanhedrin council, he spoke against harming them and warned: “Keep away from these men and let them alone, for if this plan or this undertaking is of man, it will fail; but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them. You might even be found opposing God!” So they took his advice (Acts 5:34). Notably, too, he was the apostle Paul’s teacher. Paul recalls him with pride in Acts 22:3.

His son, Shimon ben Gamliel, quoted in Avot 1:17, was a noted sage and head of a large yeshivah, or academy for Torah study, with many loyal students and fellow teachers. He faced much opposition from the rival group of Sadducees who still were contending for power and claiming authority in their albeit corrupted priestly roles in the Temple. As the authority and credibility of the Pharisaic Sages was based on their study and knowledge of the Written Torah (Torah she’b’Khtav) along with its interpretation and practical application via the Oral Torah (Torah she’b’alPei) they would attempt to discredit a leading Sage by proving his lack of knowledge in areas of the Torah.

The story is told of Ya’akov, a teacher at the yeshivah, who discovered a plot to oust Shimon from his position as Rosh ha’Yeshivah, Head of the Torah Academy, by publicly quizzing him on an obscure Talmudic tracate, Uktzin, with which he was unfamiliar – thereby shaming him. In the study hall, Ya’akov stood near Rabbi Shimon and proceeded to study the tractate continuously and loudly. Eventually Rabbi Shimon caught on and studied it himself. As a result he was able to face the challenge and retained his post. Sadly, it is believed that the rivals eventually betrayed him to the Romans, who, perceiving Shimon as a threat, had him arrested and beheaded in 50 CE.

Accept a teacher upon yourself and remove yourself from uncertainty;

While previous verses focussed on the importance of finding a teacher in spiritual matters of the Torah, Rabban Gamliel here undoubtedly is referring to a teacher who is knowledgeable in halakha – the practical aspects of implementing the Torah one is learning; someone whom one can consult if there is any doubt regarding, for example, how to carry out a biblical command or if one has a question in connection with the Oral Law. As the saying goes today in Jewish communities, “Ask the Rabbi!”

The ‘teacher,’ however, does not necessarily need to be one and the same person. Indirectly, Gamliel is highlighting the roles of the Nasi, who is regarded as a spiritual leader and the Av Beit Din, who establishes legal decisions. The central challenge is to not remain unclear or doubtful in any action one takes in ‘walking out’ the ways of God one is studying in His Word, but rather to seek advice and counsel from respected and trusted sources.

We can see the need for this practice beginning with Moses. The people heard the Ten Words spoken by God, including, for example, “Honor your father and mother” and “You shall not steal.” They seem straightforward, but, life being what it is, a flood of questions arose. “My father died and my mother remarried a man who mistreats me. Do I have to honor him?”
“How exactly do I honor my parents?” “My brother has laid claim to a camel that I believe is rightfully mine. If I take it back is that stealing?” Etc., etc., etc.!

We indeed are very grateful for our Father’s gift of His Son and Messiah, who came to dwell among us as the very Torah Incarnate, to Whom we can look as our Shepherd along the path of truth and righteousness, the way of God’s Torah. We also rejoice that soon after Jesus’, Yeshua’s, Resurrection, and fifty days after His sacrificial death at Passover, the gift of the Ruach HaKodesh, the Holy Spirit, was poured out upon the disciples as they worshipped in the Temple at Shavuot, Pentecost; just as Yeshua had promised: “When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth…” (Jn. 16:13).

It is a comfort and assurance that we can, and must, look first and always to the Lord for guidance and trust that, by His Spirit of holiness, He will direct our steps and give us the wisdom we need in making decisions. However, we are created in God’s image as beings who are interdependent. We are meant to be in relationship and in communication with others, to learn from and to teach one another. God always speaks to us, and very often He chooses to do so through other people.

…and do not give excess tithes by estimating [instead of measuring].

The second part of the verse again emphasizes a ‘legal’ matter; that of tithing. We can recall Yeshua’s ringing confrontation with those leaders who were splitting hairs legalistically and ignoring the true issues that were pleasing to God. “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the Torah: justice (tzedek) and mercy (rachamim) and faithfulness (emunah). These (tithes) you ought to have done, without neglecting the others” (Matt. 23:23). Yeshua is not critiquing them for tithing their herbs but calls into question their hearts and attitudes in the doing of it.

Gamliel here stresses the importance of performing our mitzvot, our acts of obedience to God’s Word, with care. Even in tithing, one should not simply “guesstimate” but should pay careful attention to one’s giving in order, interestingly, not to give an “excess”! A central tenet of the Bible is that we should have open hearts and hands constantly ready to give to others. God Himself is our example as the Giver of all good things. If one is careless in giving, however, the risk arises that one could in turn become needy and dependent on others, causing a loss of self esteem.

Cornelius, a Roman centurion, is a perfect example of giving that pleases God. The book of Acts records: He was “…a devout man who feared God with all his household, gave alms generously to the people, and prayed continually to God” (10:2).

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