Rabbi Reuven Taragin On Pirkei Avot: What We Need To Survive

By BJLife/Rabbi Reuven Taragin
Posted on 06/26/22

רַבָּן שִׁמְעוֹן בֶּן גַּמְלִיאֵל אוֹמֵר, עַל שְׁלשָׁה דְבָרִים הָעוֹלָם עוֹמֵד, עַל הַדִּין וְעַל הָאֱמֶת וְעַל הַשָּׁלוֹם, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר (זכריה ח) אֱמֶת וּמִשְׁפַּט שָׁלוֹם שִׁפְטוּ בְּשַׁעֲרֵיכֶם: (אבות א:יח)

A Second Three

The first perek of Avot ends Rashbag’s (Rabban Shimon Ben Gamliel) teaching that the world “stands” on three pillars: din, emet and shalom.[1] This recalls the beginning of the perek, which quoted a similar statement regarding Torah, avodah, and gemilut chasadim in the name of an earlier Shimon — Shimon Hatzaddik.[2]

What is the relationship between the teachings of the two Shimon’s? Clearly, the later Rashbag built off the idea formulated by the earlier Shimon Hatzaddik. Is he disagreeing with that idea, or further developing it?

The Meiri’s[3] girsa (version) of Rashbag’s statement highlights a significant difference between his teaching and that of Shimon Hatzaddik’s. As opposed to the latter, who listed three things the world stands upon, Rashbag described the three things that are “mekayeim” (sustain) the world. In other words, while Shimon Hatzaddik identified the purpose(s) of existence, Rashbag related to what the world needs in order to exist, what sustains and maintains a functional, healthy society.


We begin our study of Rashbag’s three pillars with emet — truth. Emet is more than just one of Hashem’s thirteen attributes;[4] it is what He uses as His seal.[5]

This has significance for humanity as well. Rabbeinu Yonah[6] explains that valuing emet should inspire us towards constant teshuvah and reflection. We should strive to live in the way Hashem (described as “true”) teaches us in His Torah — His true word.

Rabbeinu Yonah emphasizes the importance of emet to inter-personal relationships as well. The Torah prohibits lying to others[7] and Dovid Hamelech includes “truth (even) of the heart” as one of his eleven basic Jewish (behavioral) principles.[8] If we cannot rely on each other, personal relationships and broader society unravel.


Understandably, judges responsible to maintain a healthy, fair, functional society need to be “men of truth.”[9] This attribute gives them the best chance to achieve the first goal listed by Rashbag — din (law/justice). Though they are not always able to determine truth and they often recommend compromise in order to maintain shalom (the third value in the mishnah), judges should never allow either of these factors to blur their vision of the truth. A society lacking the moral compass of truth inevitably becomes rife with cynicism and competition generated by competing personal interests.

The commitment to justice is the basis of Hashem’s contrast of Avraham with Sedom. The people of Sedom acted cruelly towards others and generated ze’aka (cries) and tze’aka (shouts).[10] On the other hand, the Torah tells us that Hashem felt compelled to tell Avraham about the destruction of Sedom  because Avraham intended to teach his family “the way of Hashem, which is tzedakah u’mishpat — justice.”[11]

Hashem chose Avraham because he appreciated what the world needs for its survival. Hashem created our world and entrusted it to us with the expectation that we will maintain it properly.  Understandably, the Gemara[12] teaches that one who judges justly is considered Hashem’s partner in creation. This partnership is the basis of our eternal closeness to Hashem. Hoshei’a HaNavi quotes Hashem as declaring that he betroths us eternally to Him through the medium of our pursuit of justice — “V'erastich li l’olam, v’eirastich li b’tzedek u’v’mishpat.[13]

The Torah continues (beyond Avraham) to emphasize the pursuit of justice. Sefer Shemot[14] tells us that leading up to Matan Torah, Moshe spent his entire day judging cases. Sefer Vayikra[15] mandates just weights and measures, and Sefer Devarim includes Parshat Shoftim — a parsha named after the judges it requires us to appoint and charge with the mission of tzedek tzedek tirdof, the pursuit of justice.[16] Parshat Shoftim also links our survival and thriving in Eretz Yisrael to this pursuit.[17] One can understand this linkage as rooted in more than just heavenly reward and punishment: an unjust society inevitably disintegrates.

Yerushalayim is the foil of Sedom. The kings of Yerushalayim always included the word tzedek in their names: Malki-tzedek was king of Yerushalayim in the days of Avraham,[18] and Adoni-tzedek was king in the time of Yehoshua.[19] This was because Yerushalayim was a place naturally associated with tzedek — justice.[20]

Naturally, Dovid and Shlomo founded their dynasty in Yerushalayim upon this principle. When Dovid Hamelech first ascended the throne in Yerushalayim, we are told that he was “oseh mishpat u’tzedakah.”[21] In Sefer Tehillim,[22] Dovid linked Yerushalayim’s achdut, peace and security to the courts that ensured justice. Shlomo continued to emphasize this important tradition to the degree that it was the salient point the visiting Queen of Sheba most appreciated about his empire.[23]

Sadly, the Jews of Yerushalayim and Eretz Yisrael veered from this path. In response, Yeshayahu HaNavi addressed them as officers of Sedom.[24] A people and city meant to contrast the Sedomic ways had come to emulate them. Yeshayahu quoted Hashem as bemoaning the fact that the city He invested with a natural proclivity for justice had become filled with murderers and cheats.[25] This brought about the exile predicted by Parshat Shoftim.

Yeshayahu prophesized that the geulah will come when the Jewish people return to the path of justice. At that point, Hashem will restore the righteous judges and Yerushalayim will once again be associated with justice. Yirmiyahu HaNavi[26] adds that, at that time, Hashem will regenerate the Davidic dynasty in its original form of mishpat u’tzedakah.

I, We, All of Us

May we live by the light of true values and be honest with one another so we can build communities, cities, and countries that embody the justice Hashem expects from our world.

[1] Avot 1:18.

[2] Avot 1:2.

[3] Meiri, Avot 1:2. See also Tur (Choshen Mishpat 1) in the name of Rav Hai Gaon and Maharal, Avot 1:2.

[4] Shemot 34:6.

[5] Talmud Bavli, Mesechet Yoma 69b.

[6] Avot 1:18.

[7] Vayikra 19:11. See Bartenura (Avot 1:18) who references this pasuk.

[8] Tehillim 15:2 and Talmud Bavli, Mesechet Makkot 24a.

[9] Shemot 18:21.

[10] Bereishit 18:20–21.

[11] Bereishit 18:19.

[12] Shabbat 10.

[13] Hoshei’a 2:21.

[14] Shemot 18:13–16.

[15] Vayikra 19:36. See also Devarim 25:13-16.

[16] Devarim 16:20–21.

[17] Devarim 16:21. See Rashi on Pasuk 21.

[18] Bereishit 14:18 with Onkelos and Ibn Ezra. Interestingly, we are introduced to Malki-tzedek together with the king of Sedom at the end of Perek 14. Understandably Avraham gives a tenth of the spoils of war to the righteous Malki-tzedek but refused to partner with the king of Sedom.

[19] Yehoshua 10:1.

[20] See Medrash Rabba 43:6 and Ibn Ezra Bereishit 14:18. Understandably, Zecharyah HaNavi (8:3) called Yerushalayim “the city of truth.”

[21] Shmuel II 8:15.

[22] Tehillim, Perek 122.

[23] Melachim I 10:9.

[24] Yeshaya 1:10.

[25] Ibid 1:21.

[26] Yirmiyahu 33:14–16.