Pirkei Avot
About JIYF
The Men of the Great Assembly had three sayings:
Be deliberate in judging;
Educate many students;
Make a fence around the Torah.

Commentary [1:1a]
These three sayings are particularly relevant to the activities of the Scribes who first developed the Oral Torah, and to later Rabbis. They have acted as judges, educated the next generation, and interpreted the laws in the written and oral Torah.

Be deliberate in judging. This saying warns against the dogmatism which holds that the truth concerning the facts and principles is obvious, and judgments can be made in a quick and sure way.

This saying is equally in opposed to the moral relativism currently fashionable in America—the view that we shouldn’t make moral judgments about other people, and that there is really no way to judge between competing principles. In reality, we continually make judgments in personal life. Moral judgments about people's actions are necessary to carry out the commandments in the Torah to pursue justice and to rebuke wrongdoing. Therefore the sages give guidance for making good judgments: be careful to weigh the facts and evidence before judging, put yourself in the other person’s place, and give the other person the benefit of the doubt.

Whatever the ultimate divine authority for ethical principles, the fact is that some principles promote social harmony and prosperity, and others lead to strife, violence and poverty. This Book of Principles contains the principles which the sages believed best promote a good life for the individual and a peaceful and just society.

Educate many students. The sages believed that education is vital to making moral individuals and a good society. They were the first in history (1st century) to establish a system of universal education for boys. [Education for girls is a modern advancement.] Widespread education is necessary for a for a society ruled by law, and for people to make informed and thoughtful judgments.

Make a fence around the Torah. This means to create cautionary rules which avoid even the temptation to violate the commandments of the Torah. For example, on the Sabbath not only is work forbidden, but also the handling of work tools. This characteristic activity of the sages has been praised as preserving Judaism, and has been criticized for creating excessive burdens.