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Love work;
Hate domination;
And do not become familiar with the authorities.
—Shemaiah


Commentary [1:10]
Love work. This is the first of several sayings in Avot praising the value of worldly work. The sages valued work as honorable and fulfilling, and the prosperity coming from it as good. But they did not sanctify work, as did the much later ‘Protestant Ethic’, which saw material success in work an indication of being favored by God. The pinnacle of the week is the Sabbath, on which no work is done.

In America, the Protestant Ethic became what I call the Success Ethic—the equating of competitive success, self worth and happiness. Einstein beautifully contrasted this modern idol—which American philosopher William James called the “bitch goddess Success”—with the Jewish view of work:
A successful man is he who receives a great deal from his fellow men, usually incomparably more than corresponds to his service.

The value of a man, however, should be seen in what he gives and not in what he is able to receive.

The most important motive for work in the school and in life is pleasure in work, pleasure in its result, and the knowledge of the value of the result to the community.


Hate domination. The Hebrew word here for ‘domination’ comes from the word, rav, ‘master’. Abraham Lincoln captured a related idea when he said, “As I would not be a slave, so I would not be a master.” Chaim Stern points out that this mishnah can be read as rejecting both sides of domination: we should hate dominating others, and we should also not let ourselves be dominated.

Do not become familiar with the authorities. All three of Shemaiah’s sayings relate to career: Love the work itself, not just the result, do not take pleasure in dominating others at work, and do not cozy up to the government authorities in order to try to get ahead. Beginning in the time of Shemaiah, the Romans dominated the Judean state, and the sages viewed the governments as suspect, unreliable, and dangerous.


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