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Pirkei Avot 1:3 – Serve Free


Pirkei Avot 1:3

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

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.

A quick reading of the text suggests we are dealing with a contradiction. We are to serve G-d as those servants who expect no reward. But we should serve Him well with fear of Heaven. Does this mean we should serve Him because we are afraid of receiving punishment?

First, let’s look at the first part. We are to serve Him without expecting any reward.

Bartenura[1] points out that the word  פְּרָס“peras” indicates that whatever we do for G-d He is never obliged to give us anything for it.

It is like parents asking their children to do certain chores around the house. Make your bed, empty the dishwasher, etc. Normally, you are not going to reward the child extra for that. The child should do it because you ask. And when it grows up, you hope you won’t have to ask it anymore and that the child will just do it because you are its parent, or out of love to help you.

This is also how we should serve G-d. Not because we expect something in return, but because He asks us to. Perhaps in a sense of gratitude for everything we have already received. Or simply because we love Him for Who He is, not necessarily for what He does.

The above examples of “making the bed” and “emptying the dishwasher” are examples of positive commandments – the commandments that say what to do – given by G-d. Now you may say there is only 1 positive commandment for Noahide, namely the obligation to set up courts. But it is important to note that every Noahide prohibition also has its positive counterpart.

The other 6 positive Noahide Commandments are[2]:

  • One should honor the Name of G-d
  • One should believe in and reinforce the unity and singularity of G-d
  • One should sustain and preserve life
  • One should be modest and live sexually pure
  • One should respect and safeguard the property of others
  • One should only eat of a properly deceased animal (one should not inflict unnecessary suffering on an animal, so one should take good care of it)

Fear of Heaven is linked to the negative commandments, i.e., the commandments that say what not to do. The 6 negative Noahide Commandments are:

  • The prohibition of blasphemy
  • The prohibition of Idolatry
  • The prohibition of murder
  • The prohibition of incest and sexual immorality
  • The prohibition of theft
  • The prohibition of eating a lamb torn from a living animal.

We all know that when we forbid our children something, they regularly do just the opposite. I used to laugh internally at my eldest all the time. For instance, if I said the cupboard could not be opened, the cupboard had to be opened at least 1 more time. Or if I said the tap could really be turned off now, then the tap had to be opened 1 more time.

We are sometimes like children. When G-d tells us not to do something, sometimes it’s so hard to quit an old habit, one more time, tomorrow I won’t do it.

Fear of Heaven, knowing that there is an “All-Seeing Eye and an All-Hearing Ear” can make it easier not to do the things we shouldn’t do.

It is a tool, a starting point.

תְּחִלַּ֣ת חׇ֭כְמָה יִרְאַ֣ת ה’ וְדַ֖עַת קְדֹשִׁ֣ים בִּינָֽה׃

The beginning of wisdom is fear of the L-rd

Proverbs 9:10

Because ultimately our fear of heaven must not be fear, but awe, and from that awe we must come to love G-d and from that love we must come to a mindset that we do not want to transgress the negative commandments.

That we will all be willing to observe the 7 Noahide Commandments, its positive and negative detials. Not because we expect a reward but because it is the right way to act.

By Angelique Sijbolts


[1] Bartenura on Pirkei Avot 1:3:1
[2] The Noahide Laws. A project of Yeshiva Pirchei Shoshanim p. 10

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