מסכת אבות פרק ב
ב,ב רבן גמליאל בנו של רבי יהודה הנשיא אומר, יפה תלמוד תורה עם דרך ארץ, שיגיעת שניהם משכחת עוון; וכל תורה שאין עימה מלאכה, סופה בטילה וגוררת עוון. וכל העמלים עם הציבור, יהיו עמלים עימם לשם שמיים, שזכות אבותן מסייעתן, וצדקתם עומדת לעד. ואתם, מעלה אני עליכם כאילו עשיתם
Rabban Gamliel, the son of Rabbi Yehuda ha-Nasi, said: It is good to combine the study of Torah with an occupation, for the exertion of both keeps sin forgotten. All Torah study that is not accompanied by work will come to nothing and bring sin in its wake. Everyone who works on behalf of the community should do so for the sake of Heaven; the merit of their forefathers will sustain them, and their righteousness endure forever. And as for you, I [The Almighty] will account you worthy of great reward, as if you had done [everything].
In this mishna we learn about the connection between Torah learning and derech eretz. In the context of the mishna, the Rabbis define derech eretz as an occupation or trade (Rabbenu Yona argues that the phrase derech eretz means different things in different contexts). They also relate it to one’s behaviour: humility, decency, manners. The message here is that behaviour and one’s general conduct in the world at large should clearly reflect Torah values. What one learns through Torah should permeate every aspect of one’s life.
Rabban Gamliel does not say that to a life of work one must add Torah; a life devoid of Torah study is unthinkable to him. Rather, he is reminding us that we must live through the Torah, with the Torah always in our minds and hearts.
Where the mishna becomes unclear is in how much one should involve oneself in the world outside of Torah. It seems that Rabban Gamliel is telling us that we must have a foot in two opposite worlds – the world of Torah study and the world of work, the world of the land. The preposition ‘im’ is important – ‘with’… does the study of Torah seem more beautiful when we are exposed to some of the challenges of the outside world? (The role of this preposition is debated in Berachot 35b). The crux of the debate is over which term is primary – the one that precedes the im or the one after it, that is, is work or derech eretz more important than Torah? In many ways it seems that this debate is central to two divergent ways of Jewish living as personified by the Modern Orthodox movement in contrast to the Hareidi movement.
Regardless, it is clear that there is a connection between these two worlds that should be nurtured and that the study of Torah should influence our conduct in the wider community. It is perhaps this message which ties the two parts of this mishna together: part 1 which seems to be debating the value of Torah Study and derech eretz and part 2 which discusses those who are involved in the community.
In Pirkei Avot, the only activity which we are told to do ‘for the sake of heaven’ is work on behalf of the community. The mishna is reminding us that our motivation in this type of work must not be dictated by a desire for glory or recognition, rather it must be pure and idealistic in the way that the Torah teaches us to behave.
Interestingly, the word in hebrew for community is ציבור – ‘Tzibur’ – , the root of which is:
As we know, the Hebrew language functions on both a literal and metaphorical level so when studying texts we should always be looking for alternate meanings hidden in words. Here there is a subtext:
צ – stands for tzaddikim (righteous people)
ב – stands for beinonim (middle of the road people)
ר – stands for rasha’im (wicked people)
The implication is that the community is made up of all these types of people and it is our duty to behave as the forefathers Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaacov. The mishna teaches us that not occupying ourself fully (both in terms of Torah learning and work) will lead us to sin, to gossip, to idleness. It is not our position in the world to judge others. We are expected to behave ‘betzelem elokim’ (in Hashem’s image) and a central part of Pirkei Avot teaches us what is involved in this pursuit.
Finally, it is interesting to note that this mishna uses two different terms to refer to work or occupation – derech eretz and melocha. The latter is a word that rings with familiarity because of its connection with the 39 prohibited activities relating to Shabbat observance. Melocha clearly refers to work which involves creation and the mishna seems to be leading us to the conclusion that we should ‘make’ something with our Torah learning, that Torah learning should be applied to life. One cannot exist without the other. Thus we are reminded na’ase ve’nishma – we will do and we will listen/heed. This is the essence of Judaism: learning and action and it is this that runs at the heart of the mishna.