Pirkei Avot 1:15 - First Steps Toward Becoming a Scholar

This post is dedicated in memory of Etya Sarah bat Yitzchak ha-Levi. May it be an aliyah                                                               for her neshama.
By Elisheva Maline

Shammai said, "Make your Torah study a fixed matter; say a little and do a lot; receive every man with a cheerful countenance. 

During the time period post the destruction of our second temple, each generation bore a pair of men who ruled the nation side by side. For instance, Hillel and Shammai ruled in the same lifetime. Subsequently, the reason we know more about Hillel than about Shammai stems from the principle that halachic (lawful) Judaism goes according to the majority vote. Since Hillel's school boasted more students than Shammai's did, the following generations go according to Beth HillelTorah scholars point out that even though we favor the opinion of Beth HillelShammai's school of thought was actually quicker, sharper and smarter than Hillel's.  

One of the mottoes Shammai lived by was: "Make your Torah a fixed matter." This means pick one Rabbi and stick to him like glue. You chose him; now, go according to the da'as Torah (Torah based advice) he offers you. 

Unfortunately, some people aren't good at coping with answers that don't appeal to them. They shop around for other opinions. Shammai reprimands them, saying "Fix your religion to the wisdom of one Rabbi." Once you have tied yourself to a [trustworthy] Rav who "gets you," and you have the guidance that that Rav can provide, go ahead and make Torah YOUR'S. Allow your personal knowledge and the knowledge he gives over to alter you. 

Next, Shammai says, "Say a little, do a lot." Get the job done. Don't sit around talking about it. "Say a little, do a lot" is most famously attributed to Avraham Avinu (Our forefather Abraham). He offered his guests bread and water. Then, he ran off and brought them a feast of three cows (Genesis 18:5). 

What does the quote, "Say a lot, do a little" look like? A motormouth is like an almost empty can with one coin clanging around around inside. The yapper embellishes his stories, blows up his many accomplishments, his depth of knowledge in Torah learning etc. Meanwhile, he gets almost nothing done. The flipside: a person who does a lot is like a jar that is already full of coins. He is stuffed to the gills with information. In fact, he doesn't make a lot of noise because he is usually too busy spending his time becoming more wise and accomplished. 

When Hillel and Shammai were still alive, the two leaders had a total of 316 machloket (controversies). Hillel's scholars were usually the ones to take the more lenient route (and since he got majority vote, we rule according to him). In fact, there were only 55 instances when Shammai ruled more leniently than Hillel

A man once approached Shammai and asked him to teach him the Torah in the space of time that he could stand on one foot. In response, Shammai chased the man away calling, "I will allow no insult to the Torah in my court. You think the Torah so simple that it can be taught so quickly?" 

The man left and sought out Hillel. He repeated his request, "Teach me the whole Torah in the amount of time I can stand on one foot." Hillel answered, "Of course my son. The Torah may be summed up as follows: "Do not do unto your fellow what you would not want done to yourself."

The third phrase in Shammai's mishna, "Greet every man with a cheerful countenance" is significant because it mirrors the life of the Jew who strived to live by it. The third phrase in Shammai's quote shows us the importance of working on the midah of being nice to one's fellow man, no matter how ignorant or coarse minded he is. It's a challenge for all of us to do battle with the parts of ourselves which we have the most difficulty coping with. 

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