Elchanan Poupko

Pirkei Avot: How Antignos Outdid Tzadok

Illustrative: A fourteenth-century miniature Greek manuscript depicting Alexander the Great meeting with the rabbis. (public domain)

The beauty of rabbinic literature is often its timelessness. No matter where you are or the year might be, the message is timeless and relevant. Yet when it comes to the lesson of Antignos in Ethics of the Father, knowing the historical context matters a great deal.

After learning the teachings of the men of the Great Assembly–Knesset Hagdola–and then lessons of Shimon HaTzadik–the remnant of the great Assembly, we go on to learn a lesson from Antignos of Sokho.

Antigonus a man of Sokho 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.

While it is easy to focus on the powerful lesson of this Mishna and glance across the identity of its author, the pivotal role Antignos plays in Jewish history is of huge magnitude Antignos played in Jewish history. Being a student of Shimon HaTzadik, Antignos lived between Alexander the Great’s conquest of Israel and the Hasmonian rebellion against Greek oppression. At this time, Greek or Roman influence in Israel had been short-standing, and yet his name was such a distinguished Greek name–Antignos. Interestingly, another Antignos was a general of Alexander the Great who died in the battle of Ipsus (382-301 BC). The meaning of the name Antignos means in Greek someone who is similar or worthy of his father.  

It is during this time that the Jewish people, for the first time in our history, run into the challenge of Hellenization and the overwhelmingly assimilating impact of Greek culture. It is possible that Antignos came from one of these assimilated families or that his family named him to honor one of Alexander’s Generals. Either way, it is noteworthy that Shimon Hatzadik, who met with Alexander the Great and successfully persuaded him to grant Jews autonomy and independence, had a close student–perhaps his closest one–named for one of Alexander’s generals. 

Knowing what the historical background of this Mishna is, can help us understand the generational role and seismic impact this Mishna has had on our people. In Avot De’Rabi Natan, this Mishna is taught in the following revealing way:

“Antigonus, a man of Sokho, received from Shimon the Righteous. He would say: Do not be like servants who attend upon their master only on the condition that they receive a reward. Rather, be like servants who attend to their master, not because they receive a reward. And let the awe of the heavens be upon you so that your compensation will be doubled in the future.

Antigonus, a man of Sokho, had two students who were studying his words. They would then teach them to other students, who would then teach them to yet other students. Those students then questioned what they had learned and said: Why did our fathers say [such a thing]? Is it possible that a worker should labor all day and not receive his compensation in the evening? If our fathers had known that there was [another] world, and that the dead would be revived, they would not have said this. So they decided to separate from the way of the Torah. Two factions emerged from them: the Sadducees and the Baitusees. The Sadducees (Tzadukim) were called that because of Tzadok, and the Baitusees because of Baitus. And they would make a point of always using gold and silver things, not because they were so enamored of them, but because they said: The Pharisees have a tradition that they will deny themselves in this world. Yet in the next world they will have nothing!”

In other words, our Mishna describes what has–inadvertently–become one of the greatest turning points in Jewish history. The division between Tzedukim, Baitusim, and Perushim will go on to ravage our people in the decades and two centuries following the life of Antignos. It will then resurface on several occasions throughout Jewish history in ways that will inflict immeasurable division and chaos on Jewish communities even more than one thousand years later. And how does this all begin? With one simple inspirational lesson understood by every Jewish Day School student today:

“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.”

While the lesson seems to be obvious: do something because it is the right thing to do, not because you are afraid of something. If so, why did Tzadok and Baitus find this lesson to be so difficult, to the extent that they have abandoned traditional Judaism? Furthermore, if this lesson of Antignos has caused so much harm to the Jewish people that it led to divisions as great as the divisions we have seen between the Tzedukim and the Perushim (Pharisees) as well as the Baitusim, Karaites, and more, why is it that we keep teaching this lesson? 

The key to understanding the conundrum in the words of Antignos is the word “Avadim” which some translate at servants, yet whose actual meaning is slaves. Sure, it is easy to be told to keep God’s commandments because they are good for you; it is easy to be told to do those commandments for their own sake, and it is easy to obey commandments for higher motives. Yet being asked to do so while keeping in mind that you are God’s servant–or even salve, is something that was just too difficult for Tzadok and Baitus to accept. Accepting God’s will as both compelling with no need for explanation and at the same time doing so with no expectation of reward was too powerful a paradox for Tzadok and Baitus and so many in the generations that followed. It is no secret that this very divide between the Prushim–traditional Judaism–and the Tzedukim is what ultimately gave birth to Christianity. 

The high bar set by the demand to both fully submit to God in action, as well as the aspiration to do so with no constant incentive for doing so, was a bar too high for many to live with. Furthermore, had Antignos just taught that one should keep God’s commandments for one’s own sake, it might not have set the same kind of frustration into the hearts of his two students. Yet his statement began with the words “do not”–” do not be like servants who serve the master in the expectation of receiving a reward.” It is easier to aspire to selflessly keep God’s commandments as an aspiration; it is harder to be asked to do so as a slave of God, and it is even harder to be told not to do it any other way.  

Yet, at the same time, this is exactly what Judaism has asked its followers to do. As Rabbi Jonathan Sacks famously said: “I am a Jew because our nation, though at times it suffered the deepest poverty, never gave up on its commitment to helping the poor, or rescuing Jews from other lands, or fighting for justice for the oppressed, and did so without self-congratulation, because it was a Mitzvah because a Jew could do no less.” 

While slavery in the human context is horrible, immoral, and dehumanizing, the highest praise on the entire 24 books of Tanach– reserved to Moses only– is being referred to as God’s slave. “So Moses the servant of Hashem died there, in the land of Moab, at the command of Hashem.” (Dvarim 34) After the death of Moses, the servant of Hashem, Hashem said to Joshua, son of Nun, Moses’ attendant: “My servant Moses is dead. Prepare to cross the Jordan, together with all these people, into the land that I am giving to the Israelites.” (Joshua 1) as well as: “Be mindful of the Teaching of My servant Moses, whom I charged at Horeb with laws and rules for all Israel.”

Yet Tzadok and Baitus and their followers could not internalize this lesson. They could not feel motivated to follow a path that holds the paradoxical belief that, on the one hand, this world is not our ultimate place of reward and punishment or that our condition and suffering in this world are temporary while at the same time keeping God’s commandments exclusively for the sake of doing what is right without expectation of reward in the world to come. And so, those who could not reconcile these two teachings split into two groups: one was the Tzedukim, who did not believe in the survival of the soul and reward in the world to come. The Tzedukim, who often belonged to the class of priests and aristocrats in Jerusalem, were often materialistic and even hedonistic. The other groups that eventually emerged from this split were Christians and members of cults that left Jerusalem to live in caves and seclusion–people who shifted their focus exclusively on the rewards of the world to come at the expense of their engagement in this world. 

Yet rabbinic and traditional Judaism kept on defining itself by this lesson of Antignos, the lesson of doing what we do because it is the right thing to do, not as a favor to God, not as if it is our prerogative–but out of a sense of obligation. I think of my own family, Fruma Liba Levinson, who was murdered with her children in the forests on the outskirts of the town of Radun during the Holocaust, and their commitment to keeping God’s commandments until their very last breath. I think of our cousin Ahuva Liba Schlossberg who survived by hiding in those same forests and keeping Passover and other Mitzvot while in the forests of Radun. There is no reward or incentive someone could have offered them to earn the kind of devotion they had for Judaism. They did it out of a sense of duty and belonging. Like Moses, they were God’s servants and were going to keep God’s word, whether it was easy or not. 

I once heard that this is why our Mishna even mentions the teaching of Antignos. Although one would think that the great deal of damage, division, and destruction resulted in the misunderstanding of the teaching of Antignos–who was not denying the existence of reward and punishment in the world to come but rather telling us with what mindset we must do Mitzvot–perhaps we should no longer teach this lesson, we continue to teach it. The reason we continue to teach this lesson despite its potential of being misunderstood, the importance it has to who we are as Jews is too great for us to let it disappear. We must always remember that we do not keep God’s commands out of the kindness of our hearts. We do it because we feel obliged and committed to doing what God tells us. I remember the late great Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein speaking to me about his childhood:

“I was born in France before World War II, and I, too, could have perished in the Holocaust.” He continued to tell me about his family members who had perished in the Holocaust and how he went on to build a new life for himself in America. He went on to tell me the heartbreaking story of a relative of his who lost all of her children in the Holocaust but who then went on to start a new life in America. She got married and had just one child. 

One day, he continued, that child became seriously ill. He was rushed to the hospital and was dying there. This unusually resilient woman would say, despite the unthinkable suffering she had been through: “We cannot ask questions; we just know it is all for good,” and that is how she carried on. 

The story of the Jewish people has been marked by the lesson of this Mishna–keeping God’s commandments regardless of how rewarding they may be. This is not to exclude our belief in the world to come, nor does it diminish our faith in the survival of our soul. 

About the Author
Rabbi Elchanan Poupko is a New England based eleventh-generation rabbi, teacher, and author. He has written Sacred Days on the Jewish Holidays, Poupko on the Parsha, and hundreds of articles published in five languages. He is the president of EITAN--The American Israeli Jewish Network.
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