Pirkei Avot
About JIYF
The world is sustained by three things:
By justice, by truth, and by peace.
—Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel

Commentary [1:18]
Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel was the grandson of his namesake, author of the previous mishnah, and father of Judah HaNasi, who compiled this book and the whole Mishnah. The traditional way to reconcile this saying and that of Shimon the Righteous (1:2) is to say that the first one speaks of the purposes for which God created the world, whereas this one speaks of the principles which sustain it, and prevent it from collapsing.The three values can be seen to promote the welfare of mankind on two levels: the interpersonal and the social.

Justice. On the social level, a fair government (as Maimonides points out) and courts that actually administer justice promote peace and harmony in society. On a personal level, a major mistake of 20th century psychology has been to neglect the importance of justice in the sense of fairness in relationships. It is the glue that sustains good relationships.

Truth. In the Biblical context, ‘truth’ refers not simply to the accuracy of statements, but also to the moral dimension of truth-telling: honesty, keeping promises and avoiding deceit. On the interpersonal level, truth is essential for trust and effective cooperation, and lies destroy relationships from within. For example, experts who have studied the damage that infidelity does to marriages say that the lying does as much or more damage as the sexual betrayal. On the level of a whole society the ability of citizens to know the actual social consequences of governmental policies, and for the citizen's views to feed back and change policy greatly help to promote peace and prosperity, as philosopher Karl Popper pointed out. Democratic governments, which allow a free press, debate, and voting to change leaders, all increase the power of truth to change society for the better.

Peace. Strife and war are obviously destructive of society. We have just seen also that justice and truth are important to sustaining peace. However, sometimes these values come into conflict with sustaining peace, and there are very interesting discussions of these conflicts in the Talmud.

Justice vs Peace. When parties are in dispute, peace between them may be served by a settlement that both sides can agree on, rather than strict justice, which even though correct, leaves one party feeling injured and angry. In Sanhedrin 6b the Rabbis debate when mediation and compromise is appropriate, and when a legal judgment is called for. Rabbi Eliezer, son of Rabbi Josse the Galilean argues that mediation should be forbidden, because justice should always rule. In a memorable phrase he said, “Let justice pierce through the mountain”—meaning strict justice whatever the obstacle or cost. Rabbi Judah ben Korba takes the opposite side. Refering to the same proof text as Rabban Shimon ben Gamiliel here, he argues that where people turn to law courts there is no peace, and where there is peace people don’t turn to law courts. “What is that kind of justice in which peace abides? We must say: mediation.” The report of the debate identifies the ‘pierce the mountain’ view with Moses, and the priority on peace with his brother Aaron. The decision is that offering mediation as an alternative to court is always meritorious. But there is unresolved disagreement over at what point to stop offering mediation.

Truth and Peace. Sometimes the truth can offend and set people against each other. The Talmud identifies particularly two areas in which truth can be compromised. One of these is the shading of the truth for the sake of good manners. The question is asked, “How does one dance [and sing] before the bride? The school of Shammai says: the bride as she is. The school of Hillel says: ‘Beautiful and graceful bride.’” The school of Hillel maintained against the arguments of the school of Shammai that this is proper even if the bride is lame or blind, and inspite of the Torah passage that says “Keep far from false words” (Ex. 23:7). Thus the sages concluded “One should always try to get along well with people.”(Ket. 17a). A second area is for the sake of peace in the Home. When God tells Sarah that she will bear a child with Abraham, she laughs, saying “And my lord is old.” But God then reports Sarah’s words to Abraham as “Now that I am old”(Gen. 18:12-13), which will not offend Abraham. Thus the sages conclude that the truth can also be shaded for the sake of family peace.


{To Previous Mishnah | To Next Mishnah}