Pirkei Avot, 1:16

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מסכת אבות פרק א

א,טו  [טז] רבן גמליאל אומר, עשה לך רב, והסתלק מן הספק; ואל תרבה לעשר אומדות.

16. Rabban Gamliel would say: Assume for yourself a master; stay away from doubt; and do not accustom yourself to tithe by estimation.

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On first appearances, the first part of this mishna – עשה לך רב – seems to mimic an earlier mishna which has the same wording (1:6). We discussed what the possible differences could be. 1:6 discusses the value of building good friendships, the necessity to have positive interactions with people and the ultimate need to follow good guidance from a mentor. The context of this mishna (1:16) is quite different. Here it seems that Raban Gamliel is discussing more legalistic things rather than the basic intricacies involved in interacting with others perhaps on a social level. In fact, the Rambam (Maimonides) says that all three of these statements are concerned with the process of making rulings on the cases and laws that came before Rabbis. Thus, they have a legal subtext which is important to note and which differentiates them from the previous mishna.

  • Choose yourself a Mentor/Master: This does not mean to simply follow the teachings of a qualified individual or to only consult one particular Rabbi whose rulings you respect (which we discussed in 1:6). Rather, here, the implication is to to be an apprentice to someone who is qualified to rule on halachic matters and issues. The specific context relates to Ramban’s observation above. Again it is interesting to note the language – ‘aseh’ actually means ‘make’ … does one have to ‘make for oneself a master or mentor’ — what are the various interpretations that we can lend to this translation?
  • Stay away from doubt: I’ve seen two different translations of the second part of this mishna – stay away from doubt and stay away from the doubtful … I’m not sure yet which I prefer. It might be something worth discussing further. One interpretation is that one should always ensure that one has a clear understanding of any case before a ruling is applied. This relates specifically to earlier mishnayot about the role of lawmakers and judges. In practical terms for lay people it could relate to the fact that we should refrain from judging others because invariably there will be things that we will not know about situations which might lead to specific behaviours etc. Furthermore, an alternate interpretation is that we should try and avoid interacting with people who might be of doubtful character or who might lead us astray.
  • Do not tithe by estimation: This mishna relates to the tithe of crops that farmers were required to give. We tried to apply this mishna to our lives: we related it specifically to the giving of tzedakah and the need to remain modest – do not give in an obvious and excessive way which would shame others. Rather behave in a way that would not embarrass those around you.

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