Pirkei Avos: The Mesora III


Rabbi Israel Chait

Written by student



We last explained how Joshua was selected to be responsible for transmission of the Torah due to his unique qualities of perfection. The idea that our ‘Mesora’ is only entrusted to these types of individuals can also be seen in the type of people to whom Joshua selected to transmit the Torah. The Mishna states that Joshua passed it over to the ‘Zekanim’, the Elders of the nation. Rashi comments here that Joshua did not give it to all the Elders but rather only a select few, those who policed and ruled over the society. The question again presents itself: why only these elders? What is it about being ‘policemen’ that qualified them as fit to be charged with responsibility for transmission of the Torah?

The simple fact that these elders acted as policemen, supervising and ensuring that the Jewish society be structured and run in according to the Torah, shows that they were involved and concerned with the community. They were not just great individuals who had reached tremendous levels of Torah knowledge - they were ‘Osek B’Tzarchei Tzibbur’, involved in the needs of the Jewish community, to a great degree. As such, they had reached a different level of perfection and therefore warranted being entrusted with transmission of the system as a whole.

We are now in a position to take up a basic question with regards to our Mishna: Why would Pirkei Avos, a tractate designated to ideas of perfection, begin with a historical account of our Mesora? How does this history fit as an introduction? It would seem that a more appropriate place would be at the beginning of the entire Gemara as an introduction to the entire system of laws!

From our analysis of the Mishna, we see that the history of the Mesora is not just a factual recounting of what occurred. From the process of transmission we see that those who were charged with the Mesora were great Torah giants, people who reached the heights of perfection. When we study ideas about how to perfect ourselves and how to make internal, psychological changes to live in line with God’s Will, it is these great individuals that we turn to in order to learn from and model our lives. Learning about perfection means turning to these ‘baalei Mesora’, great people who were geniuses in the realm of ethical perfection.


The Mishna continues that the Elders passed on the Mesora to the Prophets who then passed it on to ‘Anshei Knesset Hagedola’, the Men of the Great Assembly. Rashi asks how the Great Assembly got this name and answers with an interesting Gemara from Tractate Yoma (69b) that says they brought back ‘the crown to its place’. The Gemara states that Moshe described God in the Torah with the terms ‘Hakel Hagadol Hagibor Vehanora’, meaning the Almighty God Who is Great, Strong and Awesome. The prophet Yirmiyahu, while living at a time when non-Jews were defiling the Temple, said “where is His Awesome Power?” and therefore left out the term ‘Nora’, which means Awesome. The prophet Daniel, while living in a time when Jews were enslaved to non-Jews, asked “Where is His Strength?” and therefore left out term ‘Gibor’ which means strength. Then came the assembly of men and said “Just the opposite! His Strength – Gibor – is seen in how He controls His Will, tolerating and giving time to wicked people. His Awesomeness - Nora - is seen, for without it how could one nation survive amongst all the other nations?” So, the Gemara asks, how could these rabbis (referring to the prophets Yirmiyahu and Daniel) originally uproot the terms that Moshe had previously established? Rabbi Eliezer explains that it was because they knew that God is Truthful so they didn’t deceive him. Rashi on this Gemara elucidates this answer, saying that God agrees to that which is true and hates that which is false.

When we read this Gemara a number of questions arise. First, what bothered the Gemara that it asked why those prophets took out the words? Is the Gemara suggesting that they still should have used these adjectives when they weren’t applicable and then be involved in a lie? At first glance, we can simply answer that all these terms describe our relationship with God so that even if we don’t see these aspects of the relationship manifest, the terms are still applicable and would not be considered a lie or deception.

But then we are left to understand the Gemara’s conclusion - if in fact these statements are always true, why did the prophets not use them? How does saying that “God is Truthful” answer the question if in fact the terms are truthful?

Apparently, the Gemara is saying that in order to be able to express these descriptions of God, one must be able to see the ideas clearly. Since these prophets lived in a time when the terms could not be appreciated as manifest in a clear manner, they did not use those terms.

At this point, however, the issue doesn’t seem to be fully resolved. Were these terms manifest or not? If not, how could the Men of the Great Assembly reinstate them? The apparent disagreement between the prophets Daniel and Yirmiyahu and the Assembly needs to be clarified - what exactly is the reasoning behind each side? (To be continued)