Choose yourself a mentor;
Remove yourself from the doubtful;
And do not tithe in excess by estimation.
At first reading, this saying of Rabban Gamliel seems to be advocating a stringent
adherence to tradition, and a quest for certainty. But a closer reading reveals that he may be
advocating a more complex view.
Because of the final clause about tithing, it is fair to conclude, as Maimonides does, that all
three of these statements are concerned with the process of making rulings on the cases and laws
that came before Rabbis.
Choose yourself a mentor. This first statement does not necessarily mean simply to
follow the teacher's rulings. Being an apprentice to a master teacher who has long experience in making
rulings is in any case essential to understanding the difficult process of applying law to real cases.
Remove yourself from the doubtful. This saying probably means to remove as much doubt as you
can about the facts and law before ruling on a case (following Avot 1:1), but it can also mean to remove
yourself from doubtful cases-where the issue the cannot be settled clearly, make no ruling, set no punishments.
When we look at the way the Talmud later evolved, this is arguably a correct reading. The Talmud reports
conflicting views, and only goes on to report rulings when particular cases demand it. Clearly, Rabban Gamliel
is an advocate of careful and accurate understanding of issues before ruling-but where this cannot be achieved,
he may well be advocating to leave it to the future and others to sort out the issue.
Do not tithe in excess by estimate. According to the Torah, farmers were required to give a tenth
of their crop. Less and their own portion would not be proper for his own use. But roughly estimating, making
sure to err on the side of excess is according to Rabban Gamliel wrong. Depriving oneself more than the law requires
is not right. Rabbi Israel Libschutz, in the 19th Century, pointed out that an excess tithe would also create
problems for the Levites who received the tithe, since they would not know what of it is fit for them. He concludes
that Rabban Gamliel was arguing that excess stringency creates serious problems. Gamiliel was known for rulings
that lessened the burden of people, such as the ruling that only one witness to the death of a woman's husband was
necessary, freeing her to remarry under Jewish law.