30. Rabbinic Literature: A Spiritual Treasure

David Bivin

The sages were the creators of the Oral Torah. This literature, still unwritten in Jesus’ day is of great value in understanding Jesus sayings. It is also a rich treasure of spiritual wisdom.

As used in Jerusalem Perspective, “rabbinic literature” refers to the various collections of Oral Torah. As the name implies, the Oral Torah was transmitted orally and, in the time of Jesus, was still unwritten. It was only after Jewish life in the land of Israel had been nearly extinguished that the weakened community felt the necessity of recording this literature in writing.

The first attempt to commit the Oral Torah to writing is called the Mishnah. This work was compiled by Rabbi Yehudah ha-Nasi around 200 A.D.1 The Mishnah records the sayings of sages who lived and taught during the previous several hundred years and, except for isolated words or sentences, it is written entirely in Hebrew.

Sayings of the Fathers

The best-known of the Mishnah’s sixty-three tractates is entitled “Avot” (Fathers) or “Pirke Avot” (Chapters of the Fathers), but often referred to in English as the “Sayings of the Fathers” or “Ethics of the Fathers.”2 Avot is a collection of the cherished sayings of more than sixty illustrious sages, beginning with sayings of the earliest known sages (third century B.C.). According to Avot, there had been an unbroken chain of transmitters of Oral Torah since Moses’ time. In its first chapter, Avot traces the Oral Torah’s transmission from its reception at Mount Sinai until the days of Hillel (beginning of first century A.D.):

“Moses received the (Oral) Torah at Sinai and handed it down to Joshua, Joshua to the elders, the elders to the Prophets, and the Prophets to the men of the Great Synagogue … Shim’on the Righteous (c. 300 B.C.) was one of the survivors of the Great Synagogue … Antigonus of Socho received (the Oral Torah) from Shim’on the Righteous … Yose ben Yoezer of Tseredah and Yose ben Yohanan of Jerusalem received (the Oral Torah) from him … Yehoshua ben Perahyah and Mattai3 of Arbel received (the oral Torah) from them Yehudah ben Tabbai and Shim’on ben Shetah received (the Oral Torah) from them … Shemayah and Avtalyon received (the Oral Torah) from them … Hillel and Shammai received (the Oral Torah) from them …”

Although the subject matter of the Mishnah is primarily halachic (legal), Avot is devotional in nature, dealing almost wholly with moral behaviour. Only six chapters in length (the last of which is a later addition), this tractate has some of the closest parallels to the sayings of Jesus known from rabbinic literature. Avot is so popular that it has become a custom to study a chapter of it in the synagogue following afternoon prayers each Saturday between Passover and the Jewish New Year (a five-month period). Consequently, the entire tractate is included in editions of the Prayer Book,4 a distinction that not even the Book of Psalms can claim.

Jesus and the Fathers

The saying of Yose ben Yoezer (first half of the second century B.C.), found in Avot, calls upon the people to show hospitality to sages, “Let your home be a meeting place for the sages, and cover yourself with the dust of their feet, and drink in their words thirstily” (Avot 1:4). Mary and Martha heeded Yose ben Yoezer’s injunction and opened their home to Jesus and his disciples (Luke 1 0:38-42).5

The saying of Rabbi Tarfon (born c.50-55 A.D.), “The day is short and the work is great, but the workers are lazy; however the wages are high since the owner is in a hurry” (Avot 2:15), is very similar to Jesus’ saying in Matthew 9:37-38, “The (work of) harvesting is great and the workers are few. Ask the owner of the harvest to bring (more) workers for his harvest.”6

Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 7:24-27 that good deeds are necessary along with knowledge (“Everyone who hears these words of mine and does them is like… Everyone who hears these words of mine and does not do them is like …”) finds two striking parallels in Avot – the saying of Rabbi Hanina ben Dosa (Mid-first century A.D.): “He who has more deeds than knowledge, his knowledge endures, but he who has more knowledge than deeds, his knowledge does not endure” (Avot 3:10)); and the parable of Rabbi Eleazer ben Azariah (end of first century A.D.): “A person whose knowledge is greater than his deeds, what is he like? A tree whose branches are many but whose roots are few; the wind comes and uproots and overturns it. However, a person whose deeds are greater than his knowledge, what is he like? A tree whose branches are few but Whose roots are many; even if all the winds were to come and blow against it, they could not move it” (Avot 3:18).7

Other sayings found in Avot that have their counterparts in Jesus’ teaching are: “Do his will as if it were your will that he may do your will as if it were his will. Conform your will to his will that he may conform the will of others to your will.” (Avot 2:4)

There is a striking similarity between this saying and the sayings of Jesus in Matthew 6:10 (“Let your will be done in heaven and on earth”)8 and 7:21 (“Not everyone who says to me ‘Lord, Lord,’ enters the Kingdom of Heaven, but only the person who does the will of my father who is in heaven”).9

Note the similarity between the following saying and the Golden Rule (Matthew 7:12): Rabbi Eliezer said: “Let the honour of your fellowman be as dear to you as your own.” (Avot 2:10)

The saying of Rabbi Yose is similar: “Let the possessions (Mammon) of your fellowman be as dear to you as your own.” (Avot 2:12)

Spiritual Depth

A number of sayings in Avot, although not directly parallel to sayings of Jesus, strongly remind us of the spiritual depth found in Jesus’ teaching.

Rabbi Ya’akov said, “This world is like an entry hall before the world to come. Prepare yourself in the entry hall that you may enter into the banqueting hall.” (Avot 4:16)

Yehudah ben Tema said, “Be as strong as the leopard, swift as the eagle, fleet as the gazelle and brave as the lion to do the will of your father in heaven.” (Avot 5:20)

“Do not be like slaves who serve their master in order to receive a reward; rather, be like slaves who do not serve their master in order to receive a reward.” (Avot 1:3)10

“Any love that depends on some passing thing, when the thing disappears, the love vanishes too; but a love that does not depend on some passing thing will last forever. Which love was it that depended on some passing thing? -the love of Amnon for Tamar (2 Samuel 13:1 ff.). And which love was it that did not depend on some passing thing? – the love of David and Jonathan (2 Samuel 1:26).” (Avot 5:16)

Many Christian scholars still read rabbinic literature only when searching for parallels to New Testament passages. This approach is sometimes referred to derisively as parallelomania. Surely, however, the sayings of the sages are a treasure that should be read first of all for their own sake.11


1. Herbert Danby’s The Mishnah (London: Oxford University Press, 1933), 876 pages, is still the only complete English translation of the Mishnah in one volume. Philip Blackman’s seven-volume Mishnayoth (New York: The Judaica Press, 1964), 4050 pages, a commentary on the Mishnah, includes the Hebrew text of the Mishnah with English translation. The standard edition of the Mishnah text in Hebrew is Hanoch Albeck’s six-volume Shishah Sidre Mishnah (The Six Orders of the Mishnah) (Jerusalem: Bialik Institute and Tel Aviv: Dvir Co., 1957-1959).

2. Helpful translations of Avot with. commentary are: Travers Herford Pirke Aboth, The Ethics of the Talmud: Sayings of the Fathers, 3rd edition (1925; reprinted New York: Schocken Press, 1962); Philip Blackman, Tractate Avoth: Ethics of the Fathers (Gateshead, U.K.: Judaica Press, 1979); Samson Raphael Hirsch, Chapters of the Fathers, 2nd edition (New York: Philipp Feldheim, Inc., 1979). A more extensive commentary on Avot is Charles Taylor’s two volume Sayings of the Fathers (1877; reprinted New York: Gordon Press, 1969).

3. Printed editions of the Mishnah, such as Albeck’s Shishah Sidre Mishnah (see note 1 above), preserve the corruption, “Nittai.” However, the best manuscripts of the Mishnah (Kaufmann, Cambridge, Parma and the Genizah fragments) read “Mattai” (“Matthew,” in English). It is interesting that a century and a half before the time of Jesus and his disciples we come across a Galilean sage whose name was Mattai. The village of Arbel was only about eleven kilometres from Capemaum where, according to the Gospel of Matthew, the disciple Matthew had his tax colector’s booth.

4. Daily Prayer Book, ed. Joseph H. Hertz (New York: Bloch Publishing Co., 1948), p.611. In this edition of the Prayer Book, the late Chief Rabbi of the British Empire has also provided an excellent translation and commentary to Avot (pp.612-721).

5. David Biven, “At the Feet of a Rabbi,” Jerusalem Perspective 11 (Aug.1988), 1-2.

6. See idem, “The Harvest: Matthew 9:37-38,” Jerusalem Perspective 1 (Oct.1987), 1-2, where these two sayings are compared.

7. Idem, “The Harvest: Matthew 9:37-38,” Jerusalem Perspective 28 (Sept/Oct. 1990), 14. 8. For a discussion of the rabbinic background to the entreaty, “Let your will be done in heaven and on earth,” see Bradford Young, The Jewish Background to the Lord’s Prayer (Dayton, OH: Center for Judaic-Christian Studies, 1984), pp.18-22; idem, “Thy Will Be Done,” Jerusalem Perspective 14 (Nov.1988), 1-2.

9. Also compare the parallel to Avot 2:4 found in 1 Peter 5:6, “Humble yourselves under God’s mighty hand, that in due time he may lift you up.”

10. See “Readers’ Perspective,” Jerusalem Perspective 31 (Mar./Apr. 1991), 12.

11. For other treasures of rabbinic literature, see the following anthologies of rabbinic quotations: Abraham Cohen, Everyman’s Talmud, 2nd edition (1949; reprinted New York: Schocken Books, 1975); Claude Montefiore and Herbert Loewe, A Rabbinic Anthology (1938; reprinted New York: Schocken Books, 1974); Louis Newman and Samuel Spitz, ed., The Talmudic Anthology (New York: Behrman House, 1945).

This article is Copyright Jerusalem Perspective and reprinted with permission. Jerusalem Perspective is a bimonthly magazine exploring the Jewish background to the life and words of Jesus. For information write to Jerusalem Perspective, P0 Box 31820, Jerusalem 91317, Israel.

(Reprinted from Tishrei, Vol 2 No 2, Rabbinic Judaism as a Background to Scripture, Winter 1993/1994)



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