The following exegesis of Pirkei Avot was presented by Rabbi Raymond Apple at the annual Standing Conference of Jews, Christians and Muslims in Europe, London, 17 February, 1972 (and subsequently appeared in the booklet published of the Proceedings)
1. Rabbi Meir said: Whoever labours in the Torah for its own sake merits many things; not only this, but the whole world is indebted to him: he is called friend, beloved, a lover of God, a lover of mankind; it clothes him in meekness and reverence; it fits him to become just, pious, upright and faithful; it keeps him far from sin, and brings him near to virtue; through him the world enjoys counsel and sound knowledge, understanding and strength; it gives him sovereignty, dominion and discerning judgment; to him the secrets of the Torah are revealed; he becomes like a never-failing fountain, and like a river that flows on with ever-sustained vigour; he becomes modest, patient and forgiving of insults; and it magnifies and exalts him above all things.
2. Rabbi Joshua ben Levi said: Every day a heavenly voice goes forth from Mount Sinai proclaiming these words: Woe to mankind for contempt of Torah, for whoever does not labour in the Torah is said to be under the divine censure. It is said “And the tablets were the work of God, and the writing was the writing of God engraved upon the tablets” (Ex.32: 16). Read not charut (engraved) but cherut (freedom), for no man is free but he who labours in the Torah.
3. He who learns from his fellow one chapter, one rule, one verse, one expression, or even one letter, ought to pay him honour, for if David, the king of Israel, who merely conversed with Ahitophel, regarded him as his master, guide and familiar friend (Psalm 55:14), how much more ought one who learns from his fellow a chapter, a rule, a verse, an expression, or even a letter, to pay him honour?
4. This is the way of studying Torah: a morsel of bread with salt do you eat, and water by measure do you drink; you sleep upon the ground, and live a life of trouble while you toil in the Torah. If you do thus, “Happy shall you be, and it shall be well with you” (Ps.128:2): happy shall you be – in this world; and it shall be well with you in the World to Come.
6. Torah is greater than priesthood and royalty, seeing that royalty has thirty criteria, priesthood twenty-four, and Torah forty-eight. These are they: audible study; distinct pronunciation; understanding and mental discernment; awe, reverence, meekness, cheerfulness; ministering to the sages, attaching oneself to colleagues discussion with pupils; calmness; knowledge of Scripture and Mishnah; moderation in business, in intercourse with the world, in pleasure, in sleep, in conversation, in laughter; patience; a good heart; faith in the wise; resignation under affliction; recognising one’s place rejoicing in one’s portion, putting a fence to one’s words, claiming no merit for oneself; being beloved, loving God and mankind, loving justice, uprightness and reproof; keeping oneself far from honour, not boasting of one’s learning, nor delighting in giving decisions; bearing the yoke with one’s fellow, judging him charitably and leading him to truth and peace; being calm in study, asking and answering, hearing and adding to one’s knowledge; learning with the object of teaching, and learning with the object of practising; making one’s master wiser, paying attention to his discourse, and reporting a thing in the name of him who said it.
9. Rabbi Jose ben Kisma said: I was once walking along the way, when a man met me and greeted me, and I returned the greeting. He said to me, “Rabbi, from what place do you come?” I said, “I come from a great city of sages and scribes”. He said to me, “If you were willing to dwell with us in our place, I would give you a thousand thousand golden dinars and precious stones and pearls”. I said to him, “Were you to give me all the silver and gold and precious stones and pearls in the world, I would not dwell anywhere but in a home of Torah; and thus it is written in the Psalms by the hands of David King of Israel. “The Torah of Your mouth is better to me than thousands of gold and silver.” (Psalm 119:72)
The passage I have chosen for my exposition in the context of this Conference is properly called “Chapter of the Acquisition of Torah”. The technical term Torah may be familiar to you in its correct interpretation. For the sake of the record however let me say that the Hebrew word Torah is so widely, so often, and so wrongly construed as “law”. The correct idea is expressed by a Jewish scholar, Louis Ginsberg who says: “Torah is not law. It is an expression for the aggregate of Jewish teachings.” And by a non-Jewish scholar, Travers Herford, who wrote: “Torah meant divine teaching upon all and everything which concerned religion.” When we speak today of the acquisition of Torah we mean the acquisition of religious knowledge, the acquisition of wisdom, the acquisition of the art of living.
The passage before you is the sixth chapter of the brief work Pirkei Avot, “Sayings of the Fathers”, which is a fascinating “Collection of ethical and religio-philosophical dicta”, reflecting the teaching of some sixty Rabbis who lived over a period of five hundred years from 300 BCE to 200 CE. “Sayings of the Fathers” forms part of the Mishnah; The Mishnah is the earliest standard code of Jewish Law and together with the elaboration of it known as Gemarah comprises the Talmud, a term which is familiar to anyone who has heard anything of Judaism.
Paragraph One: The theme of Rabbi Meir’s saying is that Torah is the supreme value concept of Judaism. Elsewhere we are told in the “Sayings of the Fathers” that “an ignorant person cannot be pious” and this is a fundamental principle of Jewish life. If one wishes to be pious one has to know: without knowledge it is impossible even to attempt piety because piety without understanding is inadequate. Now the author of this paragraph, Rabbi Meir, sums up something else which I think is typical of Judaism: the idea that in the historical Jewish picture of life the folk-hero was always the scholar. In fact among the lullabies which Jewish mothers would sing to rock their children to sleep would be all sorts of little ditties, mostly in Yiddish, which express the mother’s hope that the child will one day grow up to be, not just a healthy man, not just a good man, but a scholar, and that the merchandise with which he would deal would be the merchandise of scholarship and Torah. Rabbi Meir is particularly fortunate because not only was he a famous and often-quoted scholar, but he had a wife, Beruriah, who was a scholar in her own right and on occasion she was able to teach her husband a thing or two and to indicate to him the correct attitude which a scholar ought to adopt.
Rabbi Meir’s statement here stresses “Whoever labours in the Torah”. I think the word labour is significant. It does not say, “Whoever achieves great knowledge”. What is important is the effort, and that matters more than the achievement. The Talmud says that six questions are asked of a human being when he seeks to enter heaven and one of these questions is: “Did you set aside times for learning?” It does not say, “Did you become a great intellectual?” but “Did you make the effort? Did you set aside time? Did you labour in the Torah?”
“For its own sake.” This concept, known in Hebrew as lishmah, means doing something with no ulterior motive. The Jew is told: “You should not learn Torah for any practical benefit it might bring you. You should not learn in order that people should praise you, in order that you gain a title or a degree. Learn Torah for its own sake, because you love it and you love learning. If any benefit or any title of honour comes to you as a result, let this be just a by-product.”
The rest of the paragraph demonstrates that the learning of Torah produces perfection of mind and soul, here described in exaggerated, albeit moving, terms. Rabbi Meir is trying to show that the person who labours in the Torah will find, almost without realising it, that his character is being moulded and that he is turning into the best kind of human being, though he is not suggesting that this is the motive for learning Torah.
In Paragraph Two we discover what might be called the negative aspect of the teaching set out in paragraph one. The first question is what is meant by “a heavenly voice”? The Hebrew has a very strange phrase – bat kol. It means “daughter of a voice” and it probably means some kind of reverberation. (It is a fascinating subject and a philosophical problem. How did God reveal himself to mankind? How did He speak? With a voice – a reverberation? ) Now why does this voice go forth from Mount Sinai? Because it is the mountain on which God revealed himself and gave the Commandments. If mankind rejects the Torah, of which the Commanddments are a fundamental part, the mountain itself feels slighted and so from that mountain goes forth the voice of rebuke and it says, “Woe to mankind for contempt of Torah.”
“Whoever does not labour in the Torah is said to be under the Divine censure.” One of the modern Hebrew poets, Chaim Nachman Bialik, writes somewhere that once God was indignant with the people of Israel and he demanded that they give back the Torah because they were neglecting it and he had decided they did not deserve this great spiritual gift any longer. But so many waggon-loads of books and manuscripts began wending their way back to heaven that God discovered that he had been a little hasty. You must not take this too seriously, of course, but it indicates the importance with which Judaism always invested learning and how seriously we always, at least in the past, regarded a person who has books, but does not study.
The paragraph ends with an explanation of a difficult verse concerning the tablets of the Ten Commandments. The Hebrew says charut which means “engraved” – the writing was engraved upon tablets. But we are told, “Don’t read charut but cherut (“freedom”). This result comes from altering one letter. (Now what right has anyone got to take a Biblical verse and radically alter its meaning? One has to note that this is not a serious suggestion as to a variant reading; this is a homiletical device which is used from time to time in rabbinic literature – a play on words used in order to teach an interesting moral lesson. In no sense are the authors of these plays on words trying to read back into the Bible something which is not there.) So by a play on words one changes the idea of “engraved” to the idea of “freedom”. What is significant is the reason: “For no man is free but he who labours in the Torah.” Discipline is vital if one is to ensure, and assure oneself of, spiritual and moral freedom to think and act. The discipline which a religious way of life imposes is not intended just to restrict negatively, but to liberate the potential and the inner abilities of the human being. This idea that freedom is assisted rather than hindered by a discipline, by a law, is well summed up by the author who writes: “I have on my desk a violin string. I can move it in any direction I desire. If I twist it, it responds. It is free. But it is not free to sing. Then I take it and I bind it in my violin. It is no longer free to move. But it is free for the first time to sing.” And that beautifully sums up what is meant by: “No man is free but he who labours in the Torah.”
Let us proceed to Paragraph Three. Again the theme is the importance of learning. Because learning is so important, one must show reverence for one’s teacher. In order to illustrate this we are told: “If David, who merely conversed with Ahitophel, regarded him as his master, guide and familiar friend, how much more ought one who learns from his fellow a chapter, a rule, a verse, an expression, or even a letter, to pay him honour?” Even if all one learns from a person is the smallest thing, that person deserves your respect. Indeed there is a rabbinic statement to the effect that when you consider the respect which a son must pay to his parents and the respect which he must pay to his teacher, if there is a conflict between the two duties then respect for the teacher prevails. Why? Because the parent brings him into this world and the teacher, in a very obvious sense, brings him into the World to Come.
The illustration about David, king of Israel, deserves explanation. The standard text says: “David the king of Israel learnt from Ahitophel only two things…” The trouble is that this is inconsistent with the rest of the paragraph because the paragraph is using an argument from minor to major – that if David learnt so little from this person and respected him then all the more so if you really learn something from a teacher have respect for him. But the only way it can be an argument from minor to major would be that David did not learn anything from him, and the only thing he did was converse with him (the Hebrew can be read shenidbarim) yet he called him his master, his guide and familiar friend. If a single conversation led David to respect Ahitophel, all the more should the fact that you learn something from another oblige you to show respect. 
Paragraph Four: This is perhaps a factual description of the sort of life one leads as a student when life is frequently difficult both materially and economically. Anyone who has ever lived the life of a student (and most of us have) knows this sort of experience. What is being stressed here is not that the scholar must seek to be an ascetic. The Jewish approach to life is to appreciate the good things of the world; though it also discourages over-indulgence and advocates a middle path of moderation in which you have just the right amount, not too much and not too little of the pleasures of the world. As is said by a modern writer, Judaism does not deny desire, it does not deify desire: it tries to direct it. What is being said here is not that one is obliged to deny oneself what is necessary but it is another way of saying that study is vital. If when you study the Torah you find life is difficult, you must still go on studying Torah.
Paragraph Six: The question is, What is important? Is it important to be a member of the hereditary royal house? Is it important to be a member of the priesthood in the ancient hereditary sense? (One should add that it is not the modern concept of the religious ministry which is conveyed by the ancient idea of the Israelite priesthood. There are still Jews who can trace their ancestry back to Aaron but such people do not necessarily practise as ministers of religion nor are most Jewish ministers of religion descended from the ancient priests.) This paragraph is dealing with an ancient situation and we would suggest the teaching is this: If you are descended from the priesthood, it is purely fortuitious, a matter of whom your father happend to be. To be a scholar, to seek wisdom and knowledge, does not involve heredity. If you want to be a scholar it does not matter whom your father and mother were: it is up to you. (There is a remarkable rabbinic saying  to the effect that a scholar who happens to be of illegitimate birth is greater than an ignorant high priest.) The way in which this is illustrated here is to say that there are a number of criteria evident in these three differing aspects of life. This doesn’t seem to be the best choice of word. Thirty criteria characterise a good king, twenty-four a good priest. As far as the study of Torah is concerned there are forty-eight, therefore it is a greater and more desirable activity. To study Torah is more important than to be a priest or a king.
I would suggest that there is a historical reason for this paragraph. In ancient Israel leadership was in the hands of priests. Then importance of the priesthood became less and the scholar assumed his position of leadership. Those who know the history of the Pharisees and Sadducees are familiar with the factors in their conflict, and will know that it was the scholar who triumphed.
In Paragraph Nine it is again a question of the order of priorities in one’s life. This happens to be the only personal anecdote related in the “Sayings of the Fathers”. There are times when every human being is faced with this kind of dilemma. Do I seek spiritual satisfaction even at the cost of material well-being, or do I seek material well-being at the cost of spiritual satisfaction? The answer of Rabbi Jose ben Kisma is, “Rather let me be a poor man and live in a home of Torah, an environment of faith and knowledge”. Others may well have had the moral courage to venture out and share their Torah with those who lived in the place of affluence but no culture. Rabbi Jose lived at the time of the Hadrianic persecution of the Jews when this dilemma must have been real. One of his contemporaries referred to on the same page of the Talmud, Rabbi Chaninah ben Teradion, said, “One should continue to teach Torah to disciples despite all the threats of the outside world”. He is said to have been caught teaching Torah, he was wrapped in the scroll from which he had been teaching and the whole thing was set on fire. His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, what do you see?” – and he replied, “The parchments of the scroll are being burnt, but the letters are soaring up on high”. Is not the moral obvious?
1. “Students, Scholars and Saints,” 1928, p.65.
2. “Pharisaism,” 1912, p.74.
3. Introduction to Soncino ed., p.vi.
5. Shabbat 31a.
6. Nedarim 62a.
7. See “Jewish Encyclopaedia”, vol.2, s.v. Bat Kol.
8. Rabindranath Tagore.
9. Keritot 28a; Bava Metzia 33a.
10. See the explanation given by JH Hertz in his ed. of Pirkei Avot.
11. Max Brod.
12. Horayot 13a.
13. Sanhedrin 18a; Tanchuma Bemidbar 29.
14. Avodah Zarah 18a.