of the Rabbinical Assembly in Israel


Bet Midrash Virtuali


Antigonos of Sokhoh received [the oral tradition] from Simon the Righteous. He was wont to say: Do not be like servants who serve the master in order to receive a reward, but be like servants who serve the master not in order to receive a reward; and let the fear of heaven be upon you.

EXPLANATIONS (continued):

Thus we see that according to Rambam the purpose of observing Torah should be observing Torah! That is to say that we should observe Torah for its own sake. This, as we have seen, is also the position of the talmudic sages. But the sages were also very practical people, and recognized that not everybody is capable of sustaining such an altruistic motivation. So, after presenting such a lofty theme, Rambam does a backtrack: that highest motivation, Torah for Torah's sake, is a very difficult one for the "ordinary man in the street", if not impossible. He who comprehends that the best reason for observing the mitzvot of the Torah is the very fact that they are the mitzvot of the Torah has reached the level of saintliness and spiritual sophistication associated with the Patriarch Abraham who loved God for no ulterior motive. Rambam suggests that lesser mortals must be permitted to do right for the wrong reasons.

However, there is no such accommodation for lesser mortals in the original dictum of Antigonos of Sokhoh to which we must now return our attention. He knew that the new teaching concerning the resurrection of the dead, as taught in the pseudepigraphic book of Daniel, was a very successful motivational instrument: people were now prepared to die for their faith, assured that their constancy would ultimately be rewarded in the "Day of Judgement". But a side effect of this new reassurance was the weakening in people's minds of the exhortation for altruistic Torah observance. There was a perceived danger that people would observe Torah in order to merit being counted among the righteous on the Day of Judgement at the end of time. Therefore, it was necessary to emphasize that the true reason for observing the commandments should be sheer altruism: Torah for Torah's sake.

Hence the teaching for which Antigonos is remembered: Do not be like servants who serve the master in order to receive a reward, but be like servants who serve the master not in order to receive a reward; and let the fear of heaven be upon you. (Perhaps it would not be out of place to note here in passing that when Rambam quotes our mishnah in the passage quoted in the previous shiur there is a minute change of wording. His version reads: Do not be like servants who serve the master in order to receive a reward, but be like servants who serve the master in order not to receive a reward. There is a subtle but meaningful difference between "not in order to receive a reward" and "in order not to receive a reward".)

That the background to the teaching of Antigonos is the new teaching concerning the resurrection of the dead we can appreciate from the account given by Rabbi Natan [Avot de-Rabbi Natan 5:2] on our present mishnah. It is an ahistorical attempt to attach the origins of the Sadducean "schismatics" to the time of Antigonos, whereas we have already seen that the split between the Pharisees and the Sadducees predated Antigonos by several decades.

Thus the sages saw the Boethusians (and the Sadducees) as having misinterpreted the maxim of their teacher, "Be not like servants who serve their master in order to receive a reward" as meaning that there was no reward for good works, and thus they denied the doctrine of resurrection and the world to come. Modern scholars however consider this account to be legendary and they ascribe the origin of the Boethusians to the high priest Shim'on ben-Boethos who, according to Josephus, was appointed high priest by Herod the Great in 24 BCE, in succession to Yehoshu'a ben-Fabi, in order to afford him a suitable status, as he desired to marry Herod's daughter, Miriam. Although in their theological views they closely resembled the Sadducees they did not share their aristocratic background, and whereas the Sadducees supported the Hasmonean dynasty, the Boethusians were loyal to the Herodians. (It is they who are apparently referred to in the New Testament as "Herodians".) The Boethusians were regarded by the Talmud as cynical and materialistic priests. The high priestly "House of Boethos" is criticized in the Talmud [Pesachim 57a] for its oppression, "Woe is me because of the House of Boethos, woe is me because of their staves" (with which they beat the people).


In Avot 022 I wrote: In the case of Techiyyat ha-Metim too the Men of the Great Assembly - the Sanhedrin - introduced a Berakhah into the Amidah whose sole purpose was to emphasize this new teaching. Jacob Chinitz writes:

I am deeply puzzled by your seemingly offhand identification of the Anshe Knesset Hagedolah [Men of the Great Assembly - SR] with the Sanhedrin. I have been puzzled for a long time how the petitions of Reeh Na Bonyenu, Vekabtzenu Yachad, and Vileyerushalaim Irkha Berachamim Tashuv, fit in with the AKH. Were they not in the fifth century BCE, and was not the Sanhedrin during Bayit Sheni and after when these petitions make more sense?

I respond:

My reference to the Great Assembly as being synonymous with the Sanhedrin was based on an identification that I had already made way back in Avot 008. There I quoted one of the truly great scholars which Conservative Judaism has produced, Rabbi Louis Finkelstein, who wrote: the Assembly reached a number of decisions which became of historic importance... But the most important decision was of a constitutional nature: they replaced the ancient Gerousia [Assembly - SR] with a new Sanhedrin, which was to include in its membership plebeian scribes as well as patrician elders." Historically, the Great Assembly is the natural precursor of the Sanhedrin.

The members of the Great Assembly did not write the wording of the blessings of the Amidah to which Jacob refers in his message. There is a common misunderstanding of the term used by the sages matbe'a shel tefillah which is misconstrued as referring to the actual wording of the prayers. Rather it refers to the framework of the prayers, a general indication of what the content of each berakhah should be. In my introduction to the Siddur Va'ani Tefillati I wrote:

Some of those who worship in our congregations wrongly think that the text of the prayers is somehow sacredly immutable, that its words can never be changed - rather like a Sefer Torah. This is far from being the halakhic situation. In the Laws of Reciting the Shema 1:7, Rambam states: "These benedictions, together with all the other benedictions in general use among Jews ... nobody may subtract from them or add to them. Where it has been instituted to end [the benediction] with Barukh or not to do so, we may not do otherwise ... the general rule is that anyone who deviates from the template instituted by the sages as regards benedictions is in error, and must recite the benediction once again according to the template". We should note that Rambam is here forbidding deviation from the template instituted by the sages for prayer, but not from a specific text. The template, it would appear, refers to the structure of the service - that the Evening Recitation of the Shema must be preceded by two benedictions and followed by another two; that the subject of the first one must be bringing on eventide - and so forth... Rambam desired also to prevent any deviation from the accepted wording of the prayers, but he did not succeed in this. The text of the prayers that Rambam himself offers in his magnum opus "Mishneh Torah" [appended to Book Two] is very different from the text that we recognize today (and very similar to the text in use among Jews of Yemenite extraction). It follows that the interdiction of altering the template of the prayers does not affect their literary content. Rashba [Rabbi Shelomo ben-Adret] writes [on Berakhot 11a]: "The statement of the sages that we may not increase or decrease [the benedictions] does not refer to increasing or decreasing their verbal content; if that were the case they should have instituted an exact text for each benediction, and that is something that we do not find anywhere ... As regards the benedictions, the sages set no particular number of words that the worshipper must say, no more and no less".

Thus, it is now recognized that the text of the Amidah that we have now received is the product of a process which was originated by the members of the Great Assembly, but not accomplished by them. Indeed, it is not accomplished to this day if we are true to the principles of Conservative Judaism.