Rabbi Akiva says: Mocking and frivolity lead to immorality; tradition is a fence for Torah; tithes are a fence for protecting wealth; vows are a fence for protecting abstinence; the fence for protecting wisdom in silence.
The collection of statements in the third chapter of Pirkei Avot, according to Abarbanel, all revolve around the theme of avoiding sin. In earlier Mishnayot, we have seen sin-avoidance strategies that include contemplating the consequences of sin, employing law and order, studying Torah, cultivating fear of sin, and staying productive. In this Mishna (Avot 3:13), Rabbi Akiva focuses on building fences—i.e., exercising self-control.
Finding interventions that support self-control is also a fundamental task of psychologists. Self-control, or the lack thereof, is one important factor impacting many behavioral health challenges including obesity, smoking, alcohol and drug use, as well as other addictions. While there are many potential self-control strategies to help alleviate these issues, one effective but underused strategy is to change our environment, putting up barriers so that we avoid the battle with temptation in the first place. These “situational strategies” (the term used for these tactics by Dr. Angela Duckworth) echo Rabbi Akiva’s advice to build fences around sin and other important values that we strive to protect from corruption.
First, Rabbi Akiva says that “merriment and frivolity lead to immorality.” While Rabbi Yishmael in the previous Mishna encouraged positive social emotions, Rabbi Akiva cautions that there is a potential moral and spiritual danger lurking if those emotions are not held in check. Merriment and frivolity can desensitize our moral sense, potentially leading to rash or impetuous decisions. The seriousness and clear-mindedness needed to contemplate the long-term consequences of our actions dissipate in an environment that is too lighthearted. Rabbi Akiva encourages us to avoid such situations, or at the very least, to put clear reminders and barriers to prevent good-hearted laughter from devolving into decadence.
Rabbi Akiva’s second message is that “tradition is a fence for Torah.” Midrash Shmuel understands “tradition” as referring to the Oral Torah, which serves to protect the Written Torah. Without the Oral Torah, people may misinterpret the text and laws of the Torah incorrectly. The Oral Torah ensures that we follow the proper rabbinic traditions. Rabbeinu Yonah assumes that Rabbi Akiva is referring to the scribal traditions passed down through the generations as to how to write the Torah scroll properly, with the correct spelling, reading, and cantillation.
Rabbi Akiva’s third statement, “Tithes are a fence for protecting wealth,” teaches about the value of money and how to properly utilize such blessings. Rabbi Akiva and his wife, Rachel—who according to the Talmud were at one point destitute—eventually merited vast amounts of wealth. One way of understanding his message is to juxtapose it to another rabbinic teaching, that one who donates to charity can merit to be repaid in more wealth (“aser bishvil she-titasher”). Alternatively, Sefat Emet suggests that by tithing and donating to charity one is protected from the spiritual and psychological damages that often result from affluence.
The fourth aspect of Rabbi Akiva’s teaching is that “vows are a fence for protecting abstinence.” Complete abstinence from physicality is not a rabbinic value. However, in response to the danger of the evil inclination, the rabbis sometimes leaned toward moderate asceticism, particularly to avoid the lure of sin. Here, Rabbi Akiva advises that if we want to increase our levels of self-control, taking a vow can act as an added barrier to avoid falling to temptation. Midrash Shmuel importantly notes that vows should not be taken if there is a danger that one will still succumb to temptation even after taking the vow.
Lastly, Rabbi Akiva closes the Mishna by stating that “the fence for protecting wisdom is silence.” Silence has a role both in the learning process that leads to wisdom, and also serves as a signal that one has obtained wisdom. While asking questions has a place in the learning process, active listening and quiet reflection are essential components to deep understanding both of intellectual content, as well as to better understand another person’s perspective. As Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch writes, the silence referenced here reflects the intellectual humility of someone “who listens quietly to the views of others, in order to learn from them, and it does not have the urge to shine forth with his own opinions, and to refuse to let others get award in edgewise.”
In all, Rabbi Akiva’s five messages, while distinct, revolve around the main theme of building barriers to help avoid self-control failures, and constructing fences to help protect our cherished ideals and values.