Pirkei Avot
About JIYF
Make your Torah a set priority;
Say little, and do much;
And receive every person
with a pleasant face.

Commentary [1:15]
Make your Torah a set priority. This partly means that we should consistently make a time for study in planning our week, and not let the pressures of daily life push it aside. ‘Make’, aseh, can also be read as ‘do’, so that this can also be interpreted as ‘Do your Torah regularly’, meaning that we should carry out the ethical and ritual commandments consistently, not sporadically.

Say little and do much. This is traditionally and probably rightly interpreted as referring not to being a person of few words, but rather as being careful to promise little, but do a great deal more for others than you promise. This includes charitable giving. The opposite is the person who boasts about what he will do but doesn’t deliver.

Receive every person with a pleasant face. It is particularly interesting that Shammai, who is portrayed as more strict and stern than his colleague Hillel, emphasized the importance of beginning every interaction in an agreeable, affable manner.

The importance to good relationships of starting off an interaction well has been confirmed in research observing the interaction of successful and unsuccessful couples. Those who maintain a good relationship tend to begin with a ‘soft start’, as researcher John Mordechai Gottman has put it. And when the other person reacts negatively, the ability to reframe the issue in a more soothing or less threatening way helps to maintain the relationship. Here the Proverb ‘a soft answer turns away wrath’ applies. Those who start off harshly or escalate a dispute tend to do poorly in the relationship and end up divorced.

The second saying also relates to a crucial factor in relationships: what we promise, and then deliver to one another in a relationship. These often largely implicit promises make up the compact or agreement underlying a relationship, and how it is fulfilled. Being careful not to over-promise sets reasonable expectations, and more than fulfilling them leaves the other person content. Over-promising is likely to lead to discontent, even where the same thing is delivered. Setting the right expectations is one of the secrets to good relationships, like starting off agreeably. These sayings are thus deceptively simple: they in fact contain deep insight into human relationships.

Finally, the first saying, if we interpret it as ‘do your Torah consistently’ also refers to a crucial issue in relationships: carrying out our ethical obligations in relationship to others. When the other person in the relationship, or we ourselves, feel unfairly treated, it is extremely destructive in a relationship.

Thus, taken together, Shammai’s sayings, like Hillel’s, give deep insight into good human relations.