Ethics of the Fathers - Perkei Avot

    July 2011          
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What is the Difference between G-d fearing and Pious?

By Larry Fine

Ethics of the Fathers

We often think that a pious person is G-d fearing and that a person who is G-d fearing is pious. We make that equation because the terminology is similar. A slight, but highly important, difference is made in the famed book, Ethics of the Fathers (or as it is known in Hebrew: Pirkei Avot) a interesting comparison is made:

He (Hillel) would also say: A boor cannot be G-d fearing, an am ha-aretz (ignoramus) cannot be a chassid (pious), a bashful person cannot learn, a short-tempered person cannot teach, nor does anyone who does much business grow wise. In a place where there are no men, strive to be a man. (Chapter Two, Mishna Five)

What is the relationship with a boor to an ignoramus that it states that a boor can not be G-d fearing and not an ignoramus (am ha-aretz); implying that an ignoramus possibly could be G-d fearing. And why does it say that an am ha-aretz can not be pious? We see many pious people who know little about or at least are not experts in the Torah and its laws.

To understand this, we must first explain the difference between a boor and an am ha-aretz. The word boor in English is also called a boor in Hebrew. However the meaning in Hebrew of the word boor derives from and means an open and empty pit. An empty person meaning a person devoid of knowledge, is called a boor, his head is empty like the pit dug in a ground.

Why is it that a boor can not possess fear of heaven? Imagine a country where the king set down strict rules of business and those who transgress will be punished severely. A normal person who desires to do business in this country would certainly have the fear of punishment inside himself to such a degree that he would at least ask about the king's rules in order to protect himself from possible punishment. If a normal person went into business in such a country he would learn more about the rules so that he does not transgress and bring a punishment upon himself. This person would thereby exhibit a fear of the punishment and thereby also of the king.

So too here, a person who had fear of G-d would at least find out what it is that if that G-d will punish him for if he transgresses. A boor is a person who is empty of any knowledge of G-d's desires and rules. By his ignorance he is in effect saying that I am not afraid of divine punishment. If he were truly G-d fearing, he would see to it to gain some insight into which actions he should refrain from in order to that he not cause a transgression of G-d's will and there by bring down G-d's wrath (punishment) upon him. If the person is a boor that means he has no knowledge of G-d's desires.

An am ha-aretz is a completely different type of person. He is the type of person who does learn a bit, but his learning is really superficial. He, for what ever reason, does not go into great depth in his learning. Perhaps he has no time or perhaps he does not possess the necessary Talmudic learning skills or maybe he just does not have the head for learning. Yet he does learn; he knows what the mitzvoth and sins are. He is careful to fulfill the mitzvot as properly as he can and to distance himself from all transgressions. We see that the am ha-aretz can be G-d fearing.

If the am ha-aretz can be G-d fearing, why is it that the he can not be a chassid (pious) person especially since we ourselves have seen so many people who are not experts in learning Torah doing pious acts?

The answer is this:

In order to be a chasid (as the term was used before the modern re-invention of the word to mean a follower of a Chassidic rebbe) it meant a person who went beyond the requirements of the law to help others. The word chasid comes from the word chesid which means to do kindness or acts of kindness. In order to do such act of kindness a person has to be able to see beyond the external appearances of another person and into the inner being of the person. In this manner he can understand what this other person needs. An am ha-aretz is a person who lacks training in learning deeply to understand the root of the halacha, or the principle upon which it is based. He can understand to do the halacha as it is written in simple language, but to see the deeper meanings in them, he is lost. If he can not see beyond the external manifestations of the halacha, then how can he be pious, meaning to do more for G-d than the average Jew? He lacks depth of vision and thought.

He may be able to help his fellow man, and in deed there are many praise worthy people who are not great scholars who engage in helping the fellow man because they can understand their plight. The Mishna however was not referring to helping their fellow man as much as going beyond the requirements in serving G-d.

Perhaps the thing that hampers learning, especially in Hillel's day, was not asking questions. Books were unknown in that time and learning was memorized, given down from word of mouth from rabbi to student. A bashful person cannot learn. If he is too embarrassed to ask for an explanation because he in doing so reveals his ignorance, obviously he will not learn and so a vicious cycle has begun of not asking and not knowing.

The Ethics of the Fathers is studied by most Jews during the long days of the summer. Each statement is deep and requires reflection to extract the deeper meaning from it. May you be from those who learn it in depth and not those who mumble their way through it as they bumble their way through life.

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For more articles on Ethical Jewish Thought, see our Ethics Archives


from the July 2011 Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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