Pirkei Avot Ch. 1 - with Bios

A word about Pirkei Avot: Pirkei Avot is a collection of quotes from the rabbis of the Mishnah. They lived from the years 300 BCE to 200 CE, and their sayings form a tractate of the Talmud. Pirkei Avot is at the end of Seder Nezikin, not because it's about damages (like the rest of the tractate), but because during the time of Rabbi Judah HaNasi (who organized the Mishnah), the last 2 orders (Kodashim and Taharot) weren't studied (Ta'anit 24a-b). Therefore, this was a way to sum up the Mishnah as it was studied. Pirkei Avot is one of the few tractates of the Mishnah which has no Gemara commenting on it, and it’s the only tractate of the Talmud which is about ethical/moral ways of living but not about Jewish law. Pirkei Avot is traditionally studied after Shabbat Mincha in the summer months (Passover to Rosh Hashanah), so it’s printed in its entirety at that spot in most siddurim.

(א) משֶׁה קִבֵּל תּוֹרָה מִסִּינַי, וּמְסָרָהּ לִיהוֹשֻׁעַ, וִיהוֹשֻׁעַ לִזְקֵנִים, וּזְקֵנִים לִנְבִיאִים, וּנְבִיאִים מְסָרוּהָ לְאַנְשֵׁי כְנֶסֶת הַגְּדוֹלָה. הֵם אָמְרוּ שְׁלשָׁה דְבָרִים, הֱווּ מְתוּנִים בַּדִּין, וְהַעֲמִידוּ תַלְמִידִים הַרְבֵּה, וַעֲשׂוּ סְיָג לַתּוֹרָה:

(1) Moses received the Torah at Sinai and transmitted it to Joshua, Joshua to the elders, and the elders to the prophets, and the prophets to the Men of the Great Assembly. They said three things: Be patient in [the administration of] justice (alternative translation: Be cautious in rendering a decision), raise many disciples, and make a fence round the Torah.

Biographies: Moses was the leader of the Jewish people during the Biblical Books of Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. At the end of Numbers and again in Deuteronomy, Moses transmits leadership to Joshua. Moses also appoints elders to help him (Numbers 11:16), and apparently this institution continues because the elders alive at that point take on leadership after Joshua dies (Joshua 24:31). It’s not entirely clear when the “Prophets” begin; Moses is considered a prophet (Deut. 34), but the first post-Moses prophets are “Gad” (Samuel 1 22:5) and then Nathan (Samuel 2 7:2), both of whom are advisors of King David. The Prophets go all the way to Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi, who are the last 3 prophets after the Jews return from Babylonia. They, along with Ezra the Scribe, are among the founders of the “Men of the Great Assembly”. Ezra is the one who closes the Bible (in 444 BCE) and says that nothing else is getting in. While there is no historical information about when this Assembly started or finished, according to the Talmud this is the group that put together the Amidah (Megillah 17b, 18a). It seems that this group was the religious leadership for the Jewish community in the Land of Israel.

How are these sayings relevant to us today?

(ב) שִׁמְעוֹן הַצַּדִּיק הָיָה מִשְּׁיָרֵי כְנֶסֶת הַגְּדוֹלָה. הוּא הָיָה אוֹמֵר, עַל שְׁלשָׁה דְבָרִים הָעוֹלָם עוֹמֵד, עַל הַתּוֹרָה וְעַל הָעֲבוֹדָה וְעַל גְּמִילוּת חֲסָדִים:

(2) Shimon the Righteous was one of the last of the men of The Great Assembly. He used to say: The world stands upon three things: the Torah, worship, and deeds of loving-kindness.

Biography: The Babylonian Talmud tells 3 stories about Shimon the Righteous. The first (Yoma 69a) is that he greeted Alexander the Great, perhaps thus causing Jerusalem to not be destroyed. This would put Shimon at 332 BCE. The second is that he heard a Divine Voice saying that the Emperor Caligula was dead and thus the Temple was spared. This would put Shimon at 41 CE. The third is this text from Pirkei Avot 1:2, which says that he lived a few generations before Shimon ben Shetach. Shimon ben Shetach was the brother of Queen Salome Alexander, who lived 139-67 BCE, so this would put Shimon the Righteous around 165 BCE.

There’s another version of the priest greeting Alexander the Great, this one told by Josephus (Antiquities of the Jews 11.302-347). In this version, it’s a priest named Yaddua. Yaddua is in the Bible (Nehemiah 12:22) where he is listed as living at the time of Darius, so that makes him more likely to be the one who actually greeted Alexander the Great.

In the Book of First Maccabees (2:1-3), Mattathias is introduced as having 5 sons, each of whom has a nickname. One of them is Judah “The Maccabee”, and one of them is Simon “the Thassi”. “Thassi” is means “The Righteous” in Greek. Moreover, this “Simon the Righteous” survives the wars with the Syrian-Greeks, and is said to have been confirmed by “a great assembly” to be the high priest and leader of the community (1 Maccabees 14:41-50). If this is the “Shimon the Righteous” that is referred to in Pirkei Avot, then that would make the genealogy of the rest of the chapter make much more sense.

How is this saying relevant to our lives today?

(ג) אַנְטִיגְנוֹס אִישׁ סוֹכוֹ קִבֵּל מִשִּׁמְעוֹן הַצַּדִּיק. הוּא הָיָה אוֹמֵר, אַל תִּהְיוּ כַעֲבָדִים הַמְשַׁמְּשִׁין אֶת הָרַב עַל מְנָת לְקַבֵּל פְּרָס, אֶלָּא הֱווּ כַעֲבָדִים הַמְשַׁמְּשִׁין אֶת הָרַב שֶׁלֹּא עַל מְנָת לְקַבֵּל פְּרָס, וִיהִי מוֹרָא שָׁמַיִם עֲלֵיכֶם:

(3) Antigonus, a man of Socho, received [the oral tradition] from Shimon the Righteous. He used to say: Do not be like servants who serve the master in the expectation of receiving a reward, but be like servants who serve the master without the expectation of receiving a reward, and let the fear of Heaven be upon you.

Biography: Antigonus, from Socho, has a Greek name, indicating that he lived during the time of Hellenism. If he was a student of Shimon the Righteous, then he can be placed around 170-150ish BCE. It is said that some of his students misunderstood his teachings and started the Sadducee branch of Judaism. We don’t know much about him beyond that, and this is the only saying of his that had been preserved.

How is this saying relevant to our lives today?

(ד) יוֹסֵי בֶן יוֹעֶזֶר אִישׁ צְרֵדָה וְיוֹסֵי בֶן יוֹחָנָן אִישׁ יְרוּשָׁלַיִם קִבְּלוּ מֵהֶם. יוֹסֵי בֶן יוֹעֶזֶר אִישׁ צְרֵדָה אוֹמֵר, יְהִי בֵיתְךָ בֵית וַעַד לַחֲכָמִים, וֶהֱוֵי מִתְאַבֵּק בַּעֲפַר רַגְלֵיהֶם, וֶהֱוֵי שׁוֹתֶה בְצָמָא אֶת דִּבְרֵיהֶם:

(4) Yosei ben Yoezer (a man) of Zeredah and Yosei ben Yochanan [a man] of Jerusalem received [the oral tradition] from them [i.e. Shimon the Righteous and Antigonus]. Yosei ben Yoezer used to say: Let thy house be a house of meeting for the Sages and sit in the very dust of their feet, and drink in their words with thirst.

Biography: Yosei ben Yoezer and Yosei ben Yochanan were the first “Zug”, meaning "pair" - Yosei ben Yoezer was the President (Nasi) of the Sanhedrin, while Yosei ben Yochanan was the Vice-President (Av Bet Din) (Hagigah 2:2). They were active around 150-140 BCE. It is said that they announced several leniencies to make it easier to keep Judaism during the period of Hellenization. Yosei ben Yoezer was martyred (Genesis Rabba 65:22), presumably by the Syrian-Greeks (perhaps this is referred to in 1 Maccabees 7:12-15).

How is this saying relevant to our lives today?

(ה) יוֹסֵי בֶן יוֹחָנָן אִישׁ יְרוּשָׁלַיִם אוֹמֵר, יְהִי בֵיתְךָ פָתוּחַ לִרְוָחָה, וְיִהְיוּ עֲנִיִּים בְּנֵי בֵיתֶךָ, וְאַל תַּרְבֶּה שִׂיחָה עִם הָאִשָּׁה. בְּאִשְׁתּוֹ אָמְרוּ, קַל וָחֹמֶר בְּאֵשֶׁת חֲבֵרוֹ. מִכָּאן אָמְרוּ חֲכָמִים, כָּל זְמַן שֶׁאָדָם מַרְבֶּה שִׂיחָה עִם הָאִשָּׁה, גּוֹרֵם רָעָה לְעַצְמוֹ, וּבוֹטֵל מִדִּבְרֵי תוֹרָה, וְסוֹפוֹ יוֹרֵשׁ גֵּיהִנֹּם:

(5) Yosei ben Yochanan (a man) of Jerusalem used to say: Let thy house be wide open, and let the poor be members of thy household. Engage not in too much conversation with women. They said this with regard to one’s own wife, how much more [does the rule apply] with regard to another man’s wife. From here the Sages said: as long as a man engages in too much conversation with women, he causes evil to himself, he neglects the study of the Torah, and in the end he will inherit Gehinnom.

Biography: Yosei ben Yochanan does not have much of a record about him. Since he was a contemporary of Yose ben Yoezer he was also active around 150-140 BCE.

How are these sayings relevant to our lives today?

(ו) יְהוֹשֻׁעַ בֶּן פְּרַחְיָה וְנִתַּאי הָאַרְבֵּלִי קִבְּלוּ מֵהֶם. יְהוֹשֻׁעַ בֶּן פְּרַחְיָה אוֹמֵר, עֲשֵׂה לְךָ רַב, וּקְנֵה לְךָ חָבֵר, וֶהֱוֵי דָן אֶת כָּל הָאָדָם לְכַף זְכוּת:

(6) Joshua ben Perahiah and Nittai the Arbelite received [the oral tradition] from them. Joshua ben Perahiah used to say: Appoint for thyself a teacher, and acquire for thyself a companion (OR “acquire for thyself a colleague for study”) and judge all people with the scale weighted in their favor.

Biography: Joshua ben Perachiah was the Nasi (President of the Sanhedrin) (Hagigah 2:2) during the time of the Hasmonean king John Hyrcanus (also the same guy as "Yochanan the High Priest"), around 140-100 BCE. This descendent of the Maccabees didn’t like the Pharisees (rabbis), so Joshua ben Perachiah had to flee to Alexandria, Egypt.

How are these sayings relevant to our lives today?

(ז) נִתַּאי הָאַרְבֵּלִי אוֹמֵר, הַרְחֵק מִשָּׁכֵן רָע, וְאַל תִּתְחַבֵּר לָרָשָׁע, וְאַל תִּתְיָאֵשׁ מִן הַפֻּרְעָנוּת:

(7) Nittai the Arbelite used to say: Keep a distance from an evil neighbor, do not become attached to the wicked, and do not abandon faith in [divine] retribution.

Biography: We don’t know very much about Nittai, other than he was from Arbel (north of Tiberius) and was the Vice-President of the Sanhedrin under Rabbi Joshua ben Perachiah (Hagigah 2:2). This also puts him around 140-100 BCE.

How are these sayings relevant to our lives today?

(ח) יְהוּדָה בֶן טַבַּאי וְשִׁמְעוֹן בֶּן שָׁטָח קִבְּלוּ מֵהֶם. יְהוּדָה בֶן טַבַּאי אוֹמֵר, אַל תַּעַשׂ עַצְמְךָ כְעוֹרְכֵי הַדַּיָּנִין. וּכְשֶׁיִּהְיוּ בַעֲלֵי דִינִין עוֹמְדִים לְפָנֶיךָ, יִהְיוּ בְעֵינֶיךָ כִרְשָׁעִים. וּכְשֶׁנִּפְטָרִים מִלְּפָנֶיךָ, יִהְיוּ בְעֵינֶיךָ כְזַכָּאִין, כְּשֶׁקִּבְּלוּ עֲלֵיהֶם אֶת הַדִּין:

(8) Judah ben Tabbai and Shimon ben Shetach received [the oral tradition] from them. Judah ben Tabbai said: Do not [as a judge] play the part of an advocate; and when the litigants are standing before you, look upon them as if they were [both] guilty; and when they leave your presence, look upon them as if they were [both] innocent, when they have accepted the judgement.

Biography: Judah ben Tabbai was a rabbi in the Land of Israel around the years 100-60 BCE. One Sukkot King Alexander Yannai (also the High Priest) chose to pour the water on his feet instead of on the alter like he was supposed to (Sukkah 48b); the people pelted him with etrogs and so the king tried to kill the rabbis. Judah ben Tabbai had to flee to Alexandria, Egypt; later, when the king died, he was called back to be the Nasi (president) of the Sanhedrin (Hagigah 2:2)* . Judah ben Tabbai was noted for his modesty (Avot d’Rabbi Natan 10:3). He also once sentenced a false witness to death, and after Shimon ben Shetach rebuked him because there was only one witness against the false witness he felt remorseful for the rest of his life (Chagigah 16a).

*Possibly he was the Av Bet Din (vice-president) - the Babylonian Talmud is unclear about this in Chagigah 16a, though usually the Nasi is the one mentioned first.

How are these sayings relevant to our lives today?

(ט) שִׁמְעוֹן בֶּן שָׁטָח אוֹמֵר, הֱוֵי מַרְבֶּה לַחְקֹר אֶת הָעֵדִים, וֶהֱוֵי זָהִיר בִּדְבָרֶיךָ, שֶׁמָּא מִתּוֹכָם יִלְמְדוּ לְשַׁקֵּר:

(9) Shimon ben Shetach used to say: Be thorough in the interrogation of witnesses, and be careful with your words, lest from them they learn to lie (i.e.: Lest something you say lead them to testify falsely).

Biography: Shimon ben Shetach was the brother of King Yannai’s wife, Salome Alexander. When King Yannai tried to kill all the rabbis on the Sanhedrin, only Shimon ben Shetach (and Judah ben Tabbai, who fled) were spared. When King Yannai died in 78 BCE, Salome Alexander ruled alone and life was much better for the rabbis. Shimon ben Shetach, who was a judge in civil and criminal matters (Sanhedrin 6:4) instituted compulsory education in every Jewish community. He also reformed the practice of the ketubah (marriage contract). Before Shimon ben Shetach, if a man got divorced and he felt like giving his wife some money, he could; if a man died, and his sons felt like giving their mom some money, they could. Shimon ben Shetach changed things so that when people got married they had to sign a contract (ketubah, from the Hebrew root for “written”) which said that no matter what the man had to make sure his wife got money to live on in case of divorce or his death. Shimon ben Shetach’s son was killed because of false witnesses. It is said that as Vice-President of the Sanhedrin (Hagigah 2:2) Shimon ben Shetach was able to get back control from the Sadducees.

How are these sayings relevant to our lives today?

(י) שְׁמַעְיָה וְאַבְטַלְיוֹן קִבְּלוּ מֵהֶם. שְׁמַעְיָה אוֹמֵר, אֱהֹב אֶת הַמְּלָאכָה, וּשְׂנָא אֶת הָרַבָּנוּת, וְאַל תִּתְוַדַּע לָרָשׁוּת:

(10) Shemaiah and Avtalyon received [the oral tradition] from them. Shemaiah used to say: Love work, hate domination, and do not attempt to draw near to the ruling authority (alternative translation: do not become known to the authorities).

Biography: Shemaiah lived during the first century BCE (around 60-30 BCE). He was the descendant of converts (Yoma 71b). Before Herod was the king in Israel, he was a general who was hauled before the Sanhedrin on grounds of murdering innocent people. Herod came with the army; this intimidated all of the Sanhedrin except for Shemaiah, who urged his peers to treat Herod like anybody else. When Herod became the king of Israel, he killed most of the Sanhedrin, but spared Shemaiah. Shemaiah was the Nasi, the leader of the community (Hagigah 2:2).

How are these sayings relevant to our lives today?

(יא) אַבְטַלְיוֹן אוֹמֵר, חֲכָמִים, הִזָּהֲרוּ בְדִבְרֵיכֶם, שֶׁמָּא תָחוּבוּ חוֹבַת גָּלוּת וְתִגְלוּ לִמְקוֹם מַיִם הָרָעִים, וְיִשְׁתּוּ הַתַּלְמִידִים הַבָּאִים אַחֲרֵיכֶם וְיָמוּתוּ, וְנִמְצָא שֵׁם שָׁמַיִם מִתְחַלֵּל:

(11) Avtalyon used to say: Sages, be careful with your words, lest you incur the penalty of exile, and be carried off to a place of evil waters (i.e. heretical ideas), and the disciples who follow you drink (i.e. imbibe them) and die, and thus the name of Heaven becomes profaned.

Biography: Avtalyon, a descendent of converts, lived at the same time as King Yannai Alexander, who reigned from 76-50 BCE. There was persecution against the rabbis during this time, so he fled to Alexandria, Egypt. At this time, Alexandria was very Hellenized, so the Torah was viewed as mostly allegory. Avtalyon was the head of the Sanhedrin (Hagigah 2:2).

How are these sayings relevant to our lives today?

(יב) הִלֵּל וְשַׁמַּאי קִבְּלוּ מֵהֶם. הִלֵּל אוֹמֵר, הֱוֵי מִתַּלְמִידָיו שֶׁל אַהֲרֹן - אוֹהֵב שָׁלוֹם וְרוֹדֵף שָׁלוֹם, אוֹהֵב אֶת הַבְּרִיּוֹת וּמְקָרְבָן לַתּוֹרָה:

(12) Hillel and Shammai received [the oral tradition] from them. Hillel used to say: Be of the disciples of Aaron - loving peace and pursuing peace, loving your fellow creatures and drawing them close to the Torah.

Biography: Hillel lived from 75 BCE to 20 CE, during the time of the murderous Herod the Great. He was born in Babylonia and turned down his brother’s offer to go into business together (Sotah 21a). Instead, he went to the Land of Israel to study Torah. Every day he would work, and he would use half of his earnings to support his family, and half of his daily earnings to pay the daily fee for learning. One winter Friday he couldn’t find any work. Since he couldn’t pay the fee for learning, he climbed on top of the skylight to listen to Shemaiah and Avtalyon’s lesson for free. He fell asleep up there and was covered with snow. The next morning, the rabbis noticed that there wasn’t as much light as usual, and they looked up and saw Hillel. They took him down and heated water to warm him up, even though that broke Shabbat (Yoma 35b). Eventually, Hillel became the Nasi (Hagigah 2:2) (from 30 BCE-20 CE), as did his son (Shimon), grandson (Gamliel), and great-grandson (Shimon ben Gamliel). It helped that Hillel was a descendant of King David.

Hillel was well-known for his patience and love of other people, as evidenced by the “standing on one foot” story (Shabbat 31a). He also was willing to innovate to help people. For instance, people wouldn’t give loans when it got close to the Shemitah/Sabbatical year (when all loans were forgiven), so Hillel instituted the “prozbul” as a legal fiction ensure that loans would be repaid and thus issued (Shevi’it 10:3).

Hillel and Shammai had many debates recorded in the Mishnah. Usually the practice ended up following Hillel; it is said that this is partly because Hillel and his students respected Shammai and his students and let them speak first (Eruvin 13b).

Jewish college centers are named for Rabbi Hillel.

How are these sayings relevant to our lives today?

(יג) הוּא הָיָה אוֹמֵר, נָגֵד שְׁמָא, אָבֵד שְׁמֵהּ. וּדְלֹא מוֹסִיף, יָסֵף. וּדְלֹא יָלֵיף, קְטָלָא חַיָּב. וּדְאִשְׁתַּמֵּשׁ בְּתָגָא, חָלֵף:

(13) He [also] used to say: One who makes their name great (I.e. seeks fame) causes their name to be destroyed; one who does not add [to their knowledge] causes [it] to cease; one who does not study deserves death; one who makes [unworthy] use of the crown [of learning] shall pass away.

Biography: Also said by Hillel.

How are these sayings relevant to our lives today?

(יד) הוּא הָיָה אוֹמֵר, אִם אֵין אֲנִי לִי, מִי לִי. וּכְשֶׁאֲנִי לְעַצְמִי, מָה אֲנִי. וְאִם לֹא עַכְשָׁיו, אֵימָתָי:

(14) He [also] used to say: If I am not for myself, who is for me? But if I am [only] for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?

Biography: Also said by Hillel.

How are these sayings relevant to our lives today?

(טו) שַׁמַּאי אוֹמֵר, עֲשֵׂה תוֹרָתְךָ קֶבַע. אֱמֹר מְעַט וַעֲשֵׂה הַרְבֵּה, וֶהֱוֵי מְקַבֵּל אֶת כָּל הָאָדָם בְּסֵבֶר פָּנִים יָפוֹת:

(15) Shammai used to say: Make your [study of the] Torah a fixed practice; speak little, but do much; and receive all people with a pleasant countenance.

Biography: Shammai was the foil to Hillel. They lived at the same time, were both students of Shemaiah and Avtalyon, and while Hillel tried to make things easier for people to observe Jewish practice (while still making sure they did it), Shammai was a strict constructionist. He was much more interested in upholding the literal letter of the law. On the other hand, that meant that his students were much more interested in fighting against the Romans in order to preserve Jewish practice as it existed. Shammai was the head of the courts (Hagigah 2:2).

How are these sayings relevant to our lives today?

(טז) רַבָּן גַּמְלִיאֵל הָיָה אוֹמֵר, עֲשֵׂה לְךָ רַב, וְהִסְתַּלֵּק מִן הַסָּפֵק, וְאַל תַּרְבֶּה לְעַשֵּׂר אֹמָדוֹת:

(16) Rabban Gamliel used to say: Appoint for thyself a teacher, (so that you) avoid doubt, and do not make a habit of tithing by guesswork.

Biography: Rabban Gamliel was Hillel’s grandson. Hillel’s son, Shimon, was actually the next Nasi (President of the Sanhedrin), but he has no teachings recorded in the Talmud, so it is assumed that he died fairly young, whereupon Gamliel was elected as the Nasi (around 20-40 CE). Rabban Gamliel was the first of the community leaders to not be in a “zug” (pair), so he gets the first title (in this case, “Rabban”). Moreover, because in his time the arguments between the School of Shammai and the School of Hillel became sharper, that might explain why the text does not say that Rabban Gamliel “got the tradition from them”.

Rabban Gamliel was interested in creating peace between the early Christians and the Jewish community. One of the ways that he did that was to say that the poor of the non-Jews (i.e. Christians) could also gather crops from the corners of the fields, something was originally intended just for Jewish poor (Gittin 5:8). For his efforts, he was noted in the New Testament as “one who was equally honored by everybody” (Acts 5:34).

Rabban Gamliel was also interested in making it possible for more Jews to observe Jewish law. For example, generally two witnesses were needed to prove anything, in case the first one was lying. That was fine, but it was a problem when you needed to prove that a woman’s husband was dead (thus allowing her to remarry). Rabban Gamliel instituted a rule that one witness was enough in those cases (Yevamot 16:7).

Another example of this is that there was a rule that you can’t go more than 2000 paces outside of the city in which you began Shabbat. If you do, then you can only go 4 more paces. The problem was that people needed to come to Jerusalem to testify that they saw a new moon, and sometimes that happened on Shabbat. It was OK to do this, but then the witnesses would be stuck in their lodgings once they had testified, so they didn’t want to come. Rabban Gamliel made a rule that said that they would be considered as if they had started Shabbat in Jerusalem that week, so they could go freely about the city. He then extended the rule to midwives or firefighters or anybody else who left the city on Shabbat in order to save a life (Rosh Hashanah 2:5).

Rabban Gamliel was particularly concerned about declaring the new month (one of the jobs of the Sanhedrin before they fixed the calendar in 838 CE). He made pictures of the ways that the moon could possibly look, so that if a witness couldn’t describe it clearly he could just point to a picture (Rosh Hashanah 2:8). Additionally, he would check the conditions of the crops and animals and decide if that year they needed to add an extra month (Sanhedrin 11b).

Even at his death, Rabban Gamliel still wanted to help people. There was a custom to bury the dead in expensive shrouds. This meant that the poor were embarrassed and would sometimes abandon their dead rather than be humiliated. Rabban Gamliel said that he wanted to be buried in an inexpensive linen shroud, and thereafter everybody followed that custom (Moed Katan 27b).

How are these sayings relevant to our lives today?

(יז) שִׁמְעוֹן בְּנוֹ אוֹמֵר, כָּל יָמַי גָּדַלְתִּי בֵין הַחֲכָמִים, וְלֹא מָצָאתִי לַגּוּף טוֹב אֶלָּא שְׁתִיקָה. וְלֹא הַמִּדְרָשׁ הוּא הָעִקָּר, אֶלָּא הַמַּעֲשֶׂה. וְכָל הַמַּרְבֶּה דְבָרִים, מֵבִיא חֵטְא:

(17) Shimon, his son, used to say: All my days I grew up among the sages, and I have found nothing better for a person than silence. Study is not the most important thing, but actions; whoever says too many words brings about sin.

Biography: Shimon ben Gamliel was the Nasi from 40-70 CE, including during the rebellion against Rome (which broke out in 66 CE). This was a time of many spies reporting back to the Romans. He was killed during the destruction of the Second Temple, and leadership passed to Yochanan ben Zakkai.

How are these sayings relevant to our lives today?

(יח) רַבָּן שִׁמְעוֹן בֶּן גַּמְלִיאֵל אוֹמֵר, עַל שְׁלשָׁה דְבָרִים הָעוֹלָם עוֹמֵד, עַל הַדִּין וְעַל הָאֱמֶת וְעַל הַשָּׁלוֹם, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר (זכריה ח) אֱמֶת וּמִשְׁפַּט שָׁלוֹם שִׁפְטוּ בְּשַׁעֲרֵיכֶם:

(18) Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel used to say: on three things does the world stand: On justice, on truth and on peace, as it is said: “with truth, justice, and peace shall you judge in your gates” (Zechariah 8:16).

Biography: This isn’t the same Shimon ben Gamliel from the last saying, but rather his grandson (as a review: Hillel>Shimon>Rabban Gamliel (the Elder)>Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel>Rabban Gamliel II (of Yavneh)>Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel II>Rabbi Judah HaNasi). Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel fled to Babylonia during the Bar-Kochba Revolt and Hadrianic Persecutions in 135 CE; while he was gone the center of Jewish learning moved from Yavneh to Usha (still in the Galilee), and so Rabban Shimon Ben Gamliel moved to Usha once things settled down and he returned, becoming the Nasi (135-170 CE).

Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel II was respectful to even his servants, and was willing to learn things from them. Once he asked his servant Tavi to buy the best thing in the market, and Tavi bought a (cow) tongue. Then, perhaps to see what would happen, he asked Tavi to buy the worst thing in the market, and Tavi bought another (cow) tongue. When he asked Tavi to explain this, Tavi said, “Tongues are both the best and the worst thing. When they are good, there is nothing better, and when they are bad, there is nothing worse!” (Leviticus Rabba 33).

How is this saying relevant to our lives today?

Biographies from Pirke Aboth, edited by Isaac Unterman, 1964, with a little from Pirkei Avot, edited by Leonard Kravitz and Kerry Olitzky, 1993, and some from the biographies on Sefaria.org. The information about Shimon the Righteous is from https://www.mayimachronim.com/tag/shimon-ben-shetach/.