The Role of the Ruling Powers

The Sages included in the Pirkei Avot cover a period beginning with the era following the exiles’ return from Babylon through the second century of the Common Era. This period covers a wide variety of individuals, including the last member of the Great Assembly, proto-rabbinic sages who experienced the independence of the Hasmonean rule and the loss of Judean independence due to Roman intervention, Pharisees who witnessed the destruction of the Temple by Titus, and rabbis who experienced the brutal end to Bar Cochba’s short-lived independent rule and beyond. Having collectively experienced such a wide variety of political turmoil and change, the Pirkei Avot reveals the Sages’ complex approach and concerns in dealing with the government and Jewish offices interacting with it. The first chapter of Pirkei Avot states the following:

“Shemayah and Avtalion received the [Oral Tradition] from them. Shemayah said: Love work; abhor taking office; and do not seek intimacy with the ruling power.”[1]

In light of this Mishnah, Maimonides states that a person seeking an esteemed position will face difficult challenges. Maimonides argues that such an individual will become jealous of others, most likely competing with him for the same position in question. Maimonides also contends that a leader will be forced to confront his enemies, causing him to lose his faith.[2] From a historical perspective, Shemayah and Avtalion lived in the nexus of the waning years of Hasmonean rule, the Roman intervention that followed, and the rise of Herod the Great. Regarding their saying, the political turmoil proves quite apt then since the changing political conditions and infighting even among the Hasmonean dynasty turned previous political alliances and relationships into rather tenuous ones. Maimonides provides an example of his principle contention in the following passage:

“…Familiarity with a king [creates dangers] that are difficult to evade and harms one’s faith, for the person seeks only those things that will endear him to the ruler. The case of Doe’g [the Edomite] serves as an example of this. And in that instance, the king to whom he drew close was referred to as “G-d’s anointed” and “G-d’s chosen”; and he served as a prophet.”[3]

The translation by Rabbi Shai Gluskin consulting the dictionary of Marcus Jastrow and the translations of Soncino, Artscroll, and Joseph Hertz renders essential differences with the text above: “Shemaiah and Avtalion received the tradition from them. Shemaiah used to say: love work, hate power, and do not testify before the ruling authority.”[4] The critical difference here is the idea of testifying before the ruling authority. The implication may that of an individual that unnecessarily sought an audience with the ruling power for the sake of personal gain at the expense of his fellow Jews. At its extreme, this translation leaves little leeway for any cooperation with the ruling power- a rather unlikely scenario in the case of Roman domination or the vassal rule of Herod the Great.

Positions of power, as Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch’s comments, are also tantamount to slavery. A person is bound to protect his position and often falls into the trap of doing things contrary to his religious convictions. Intimacy with the ruling power only heightens this tendency since the government will only show favor towards a person only as longs as the individual serves its needs. The Bible reflects this view in Mishlei, which states:

“When you sit down to dine with a ruler, consider well who is before you. Thrust a knife into your gullet if you have a large appetite. Do not crave for his dainties, for they are counterfeit food.”[5]

Rashi comments that once the person’s usefulness has ended, so does the person’s favored status. Maimonides was so convinced as to the resulting malady of joining the ruling hierarchy that he further stated the following:

“Most who follow our religion lose their fear of Heaven upon attaining government’s office.”[6]

The challenge of serving two masters is simply a fight most individuals are not apt to win. The ruling authority ultimately challenges the views of the Torah.[7] Rabbi Avraham Prizul added that the word titvada implies that a person should strive not to become known to the ruling authorities; in other words, a person should maintain a low profile.[8]

The Self Serving Nature of Power

The second chapter of Pirkei Avot provides another Mishnayot that further reveals rabbinic attitudes toward ruling powers and reinforces Rashi’s views on the dangers of interacting to closely with the government.[9]

“Be wary of those in power, for they befriend a person only for their own benefit; they seem to be friends when it is to their advantage, but the do not stand by a man in his hour of need.”[10]

Of particular note is that collective interests represented by the priesthood or community leaders often required the interaction with ruling powers. This Mishnah reminds the reader that the government’s promises are subject to change. Any benefit is only extended as part of its self-interests. Confidences cannot be easily given on the assumption that rulers have the best interest of the people at heart. The lack of discernment in sharing beliefs could prove disastrous. This Mishnah also reminds the reader that the government is not the final guarantor of success or aid. Instead, ultimate reliance must be placed on G-d.[11]

While the concern is most naturally placed on the relationship of secular authorities (e.g., Saul, Herod the Great, the Romans, etc.), the cautionary words of Shemayah and Avtalion may hold true regarding too much intimacy with even religious authorities. The Gemara (Yoma 71b) provides one such example when it relates that on one Yom Kippur, people were accompanying the High Priest home after he officiated at the Temple. When they saw the two great sages of the era, Shemayah, and Avtalyon, they left the High Priest. They went to accompany Shemayah and Avtalyon to give honor to the Torah.

The High Priest was deeply offended, and when Shemayah and Avtalyon turned to the High Priest to take leave of him, the High Priest responded:

“Let the descendants of the [gentile] nations go to peace,” insulting them as being converts. They responded to him, “Let the descendants of the [gentile] nations go to peace, who do the acts of Aaron, and let not the descendant of Aaron go to peace, who does not do the act of Aaron!”

The Kozhnitzer Magid suggested that the High Priest had grown arrogant after performing the service of Yom Kippur, viewing himself as all-important for having achieved corporate atonement on Israel’s behalf by entering the Holy of Holies. This story reveals two things. The first is that the positions of authority, even religious ones, can expose an individual to others’ attention and jealousy, even the High Priest. Connected with this is the reality that pride and arrogance are flaws that even individuals in needed religious authority positions are dangerously exposed too. The second chapter provides another Mishnah supporting this view:

Introduction to Jewish Theology

Rabban Gamliel, the son of Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi, says: Torah study is good together with an occupation, for the exertion of them both makes sin forgotten. All the Torah study that is not joined with work will cease in the end, and lead to sin. All who exert themselves for the community should exert themselves for the sake of Heaven, for then the merit of the community’s forefathers aids them, and their righteousness will endure forever. Nevertheless, as for you, I [G-d] will bestow great reward upon you, as if you had accomplished it on your own.[12]

The Government’s Positive Role

Despite the various Mishnayot reflecting a somewhat wary view of involvement or fraternization with the governing authorities, a Mishnah of chapter 3 provides a more positive view of the function and, in fact, the necessity of government.

“Rabbi Chanina, the deputy High Priest, would say: Pray for the welfare of the [ruling] kingdom, for were it not for the fear of it, men would swallow one another alive.”[13]

This Mishnah follows the principle laid down in the book of Jeremiah regarding the exiles to Babylon in 586 B.C.E. Jeremiah instructed those exiled Jews to, “Seek the welfare of the city where I have caused you to be exiled, and pray to God on its behalf, for in its prosperity you shall prosper.”[14] By praying for Babylon, Jeremiah instilled the view that Jews were physically, economically, and politically reliant upon Babylonia and its sovereigns’ goodwill despite the exile’s tragic costs. As a consequence of their powerlessness, they how had to implore G-d to direct the leaders of their new country of residence to rule the Jewish population in a just and compassionate way. Praying for the government’s welfare was also akin to daily sacrifices made in honor of Caesar at the end of the Second Temple period over 2,000 years ago as means of exhibiting Jewish loyalty to the empire. Yet, a cynicism regarding the positive role of government remains. Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk argued sardonically that one should pray for the government when there is peace since times of war and calamities often directed the government’s attention away from Jews, in contrast to times of relative calm when instead their attention could be focused on Jews.[15]

Despite the arguably well-founded concern, the previous Mishnah affirms the ruling power’s necessary existence and function in maintaining an ordered society. In contrast, the Mishnah of Rabbi Eleazar Ben Azaryah reflects the perspective that the government, even non-Jewish ones, is insufficient to support proper social order. Rabbi Eleazar Ben Azaryah states:

“If there is not Torah, there is no proper social conduct; if there is no proper social conduct, there is no Torah. If there is no wisdom, there is no fear of G-d; if there is no fear of G-d, 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.”[16]

True social order and prosperity are guaranteed by the intricate balance of proper faith and observance in the mitzvoth. No matter how powerful, no governing power can maintain a nation’s security without adherence to the Torah’s moral dictums. Nevertheless, the Mishnah recognizes the delicate balance of service and trust in G-d with the practical and everyday considerations of a functioning society.

[1] Pirkei Avot 1:10. Maimonides: Pirkei Avot with the Rambam’s Commentary, Trans. Rabbi Eliyahu Touger, (New York: Moznaim Publishing, 1994), 68.

[2] Ibid. 68-69.

[3] Ibid. 69.

[4] Translation provided by Jewish Reconstructionist Federation’s Omer Pirke Avot’s Online Study Guide.

[5] Mishlei 23:1-3.

[6] Maimonides, Letters p. 32. Rabbi Moshe Lieber, The Pirkei Avot: Ethics of the Fathers: Avot Treasury, (Brooklyn: Mesorah Publications, 1995), 35.

[7] Rabbi Moshe Lieber, The Pirkei Avot: Ethics of the Fathers: Avot Treasury, (Brooklyn: Mesorah Publications, 1995), 34.

[8] Ibid. 34.

[9] Rashi was convinced that one should their utmost to avoid positions of power since they shorten a man’s lifespan. Rabbi Meir Zolowitz, Pirkei Avot, (Brooklyn: Mesorah Publications, 1984), 11.

[10] Pirkei Avot 2:3. Maimonides: Pirkei Avot with the Rambam’s Commentary, Trans. Rabbi Eliyahu Touger, (New York: Moznaim Publishing, 1994), 80.

[11] Rabbi Moshe Lieber, The Pirkei Avot: Ethics of the Fathers: Avot Treasury, (Brooklyn: Mesorah Publications, 1995), 70. According to Machzor Vitry, Rabban Gamliel was reflective of his own political situation. As the leader of the Jewish community, he even managed to gain access to and the friendship of the Roman Emperor, Marcus Aurelius Antoninus. As a confident of the emperor, he served the Roman government beneficially. Despite his service, whatever assistance was offered was quickly forgotten and Rabban Gamliel endorsed a position that maintained a delicate relationship with the ruling powers.

[12] Pirkei Avot 2:2 Rabbi Meir Zolowitz, Pirkei Avot, (Brooklyn: Mesorah Publications, 1984), 17.

[13] Pirkei Avot 3:2. Maimonides: Pirkei Avot with the Rambam’s Commentary, Trans. Rabbi Eliyahu Touger, (New York: Moznaim Publishing, 1994), 90.

[14] Jeremiah 29:7. Rabbeinu Yonah stated: “A man should pray for the welfare for the whole world and share in the grief of others…For no man out to offer up supplications and prayers for his own needs only. He out to pray in behalf of all men, that they enjoy well-being. An in the peace of the government there is peace for the world.” Rabbi Saul Weiss, Insights: A Talmudic Treasury, (New York: Feldheim, 1990), 108.

[15] Rabbi Saul Weiss, Insights: A Talmudic Treasury, (New York: Feldheim, 1990), 108.

[16] Pirkei Avot3:20. Maimonides: Pirkei Avot with the Rambam’s Commentary, Trans. Rabbi Eliyahu Touger, (New York: Moznaim Publishing, 1994), 20.

Posted by Rabbi Dr. Juan Marcos Bejarano Gutierrez the director of Yeshivat Meor Enaim. He is the author of The Creation of Jewish Identity: From the Biblical Era to the Second Temple Period and 19 additional books on various Jewish topics. If you purchase through our link, Yeshivat Meor Enaim gets a commission to help continue our mission.