Ethics of the Fathers – The Mesora IV


Rabbi Israel Chait

Written by student



We last left off with questions on the Gemara that describes how the Men of the Great Assembly received that title. The Gemara relates that Moshe had praised God with the terms ‘Gibor’, meaning Strong, and ‘Nora’, meaning Awesome but Yirmiyahu and Daniel, living in times where these qualities were not manifest (being enslaved by enemies who controlled the Temple), did not recite them. Later, the Assembly reinstated these terms, explaining, that these qualities were seen in how God was tolerable of, and patient with wicked people, and in the astounding fact that His nation survived amidst all the other nations. The Gemara concludes that Yirmiyahu and Daniel were justified in their omission of these terms because ‘God is truthful’ so they did not want to be deceitful. Our basic goal is to understand the apparent disagreement between these prophets and the men of the Assembly; what was the reasoning for each position?

To appreciate the core issue of this argument, we must review a fundamental idea about the use of adjectives in reference to God. When we describe God, none of the terms we use are truly accurate. For example, when we use the term Gibor (strong), we generally refer to one who performs heroic acts to force another party to surrender. In connection with God however, such an idea is impossible: there is no contest between God and anything or anyone else. Therefore, when we use the term Gibor to refer to God, we are using it metaphorically, bringing to mind the idea that God’s actions reflect the perfection, which in our terms can only be described as strong, as Gibor. The Rambam expresses this idea when he says that “God is ‘called’ Merciful”. Meaning, God does not actually possess mercy, this is limited to animated creations. Rather, Gibor is ‘our’ term applied to God, for His acts that – to our minds – reflect the same quality of “strength” which we witness in mortals.

With this framework, the disagreement between the Prophets and the Assembly can be understood- since the praise given to God is solely an idea that is perceived by us from His Actions, the question arises as to what exact idea or perception we are expressing. According to Yirmiyahu, the term ‘Nora’ was no longer applicable because it was not seen in a clear and manifest manner. At the time the non-Jews had control of the Temple, we did not receive an impression of an Awesome God, since God’s enemies were in control of the place designated to His Name. The Assembly, however, argued that although it was not manifest, the quality of ‘Awesome’ was still extant and perceivable in the fact that the Jewish nation still existed amongst all the other nations. So too by ‘Gibor’: the issue was of a similar nature. Whereas the prophet Daniel said that the term reflects a manifest strength over the enemy, the Assembly held that the term may refer to the internal quality of strength as well, and although the Jews were subdued to their external enemy, the term could still be accurately used to refer to an idea of internal strength reflected in God’s tolerance for the wicked. Thus, the debate centers on which idea is referenced in our praise of God: God’s manifestation through these actions, or that He demonstrates these qualities, though they not need be manifest.

After this analysis of the Gemara, we may yet ask what greatness this debate reveals regarding both parties, warranting the appellation “Men of the Great Assembly”? What did the Gemara consider “returning the crown to its place”? The praise that we give God is essential to our relationship to Him, for it is through these ideas that we may relate to Him and have some concept of Him. As such, when the Prophets removed those terms from our prayer, though they were justified in doing so because, as the Gemara says, ‘God is Truthful’, our prayer still lacked this element. When these men found a reason for bringing it back they removed this problem.

The Mishna continues with ethics taught by the Men of the Great Assembly, the first of which is “Be patient in issuing a verdict”. Rabbeinu Yonah gives a lengthy commentary on this statement, saying that anyone who is in a position to issue a decision, whether in a court verdict or a halachic question, must be sure to have patience in coming to a conclusion, for everyone is subject to error so that very step must be thought through carefully and discussed until the truth is reached. He describes how when one thinks over an issue, initially, he may not be able to see things that he can, when he thinks it through a second time. He goes so far as to say that one who decides to quickly may even be called a Rasha, a wicked person.

            At this point, clarification is needed: what does Rabbeinu Yonah mean that one who does not wait is considered a wicked person? Why should this hasty decision render someone wicked? And what is the meaning of ‘be patient’? Is there a certain amount of time that one needs to wait?

            Let us begin by understanding why a person would hurry to issue a verdict in general. When one rushes to a decision, they have a sense of self-assurance as to the outcome they have reached. This sense, though, stems from a certain belief that the knowledge comes from within himself, residing somewhere in his personality, so that he can be sure that whatever comes to mind will be correct. It is this ‘haste’ that the Mishna describes: one must appreciate that in the pursuit of knowledge; he must be tied only to the process of thought. It is this process that is responsible for gains made in the realm of knowledge and therefore everyone must go through it to the full extent in order to perceive the correct idea. Thus, ‘be patient’ isn’t a question of time – it refers to a characteristic and an attitude in man that he must strive to perfect.

            With this idea in mind we may ask another question on the Mishna: if the idea concerns how one relates to the process of knowledge and the pursuit of wisdom in general, why does the Mishna specifically refer to patience in the process of ‘din’, issuing a court verdict? Why not make this remark with regards to all knowledge? (To be continued)