Trust in the Sages - Middah Emunat Chachamim

Marlene Myerson

About Mussar and Middot
The Hebrew word "mussar" means moral conduct, instruction, or discipline. The Mussar Movement arose in the 1800’s in Lithuania and encompasses a range of spiritual practices, focusing on the individual’s personal characteristics, traits, or virtues, which are called middot (in Hebrew, singular: a "middahMiddahמִדָּהcharacteristics, values, or virtues of Jewish life that focus on becoming a better and more fulfilled person; plural: middot ").

Emunat Chachamim translates as "Trust (faith) in the sages." The word emunat comes from the Hebrew root aleph-mem-nun, meaning "to believe in," "to trust," "to have confidence." The word chachamim comes from the Hebrew root chet-kaf-mem and means "to be wise." The rabbis from the period of the Mishnah and Talmud are usually referred to as "chachamim."

"Faith is the essence of Torah." (Mivhar Hapeninim)

According to our Text, faith (emunah) is the most important element in Torah. This idea is developed even further in the commentary on this middah found in the Pirkei Avos Treasury. There it is suggested that faith in the authenticity of the teachings of the Sages is the foundation of Torah study. (p.417)

In Jewish tradition, the Sages (chachamim) are held in very high esteem. We can find evidence of this in the Talmud where we learn that a sage has precedence over a king of Israel. "For when a sage dies, we have none like him; but when a king of Israel dies; all Jews are worthy of kingship." (B. Hor 13a) (Sefer HaAggadah, p.471)

R. Avraham of Slonim suggests one need not believe that his or her teacher has achieved great spiritual heights; nothing is gained by such a belief and one may even experience great disappointment if through age and personal experience it becomes clear that these expectations were unreasonably high. Rather one must trust a teacher's instruction as if the teacher had received it from Moses or even as if it had been learned from God. This is not because teachers or rabbis are of that level, but because these Sages are links in the chain of tradition that began at Sinai. (Pirkei Avos Treasury, p.411)

According to Meshivas Nefesh, one will succeed in understanding the words of the Sages only if he or she trusts that they were infinitely greater than he. Then, even if a particular statement of the Sages seems unclear and incomprehensible, one will realize that one's failure is due to one's own deficiency, and will exert oneself to understand. Only if we trust the Sages, can we, as humans, perceive their wisdom.

There is another interpretation of this particular middah (virtue) that translates emunat chachamim to mean "the faith of the Sages." It explains that although the wise are skeptical of what they hear and read, they accept the Torah's teachings with unquestioning faith. Thus, one must have the type of faith that the Sages themselves had. (Pirkei Avos Treasury, p. 417)

To Talk About

  1. In Sefer HaAggadah, we read the words of Rava: The one who loves sages will have children who are sages. The one who honors sages will have children-in-law who are sages. The one who stands in awe of sages will become a disciple of the wise.(B. Shab 23b) What three things does Rava suggest will happen to one who loves, honors and stands in awe of sages? Add your own words to complete this statement: "The one who trusts in the sages will _____________."
  2. The Talmud asks the following question: A prophet and a sage—by what parable may their functions be illustrated? By the parable of a king who sent two of his emissaries to a province. About one, he wrote [to its inhabitants]: If he does not show you my ring and seal, do not believe him. About the second, he wrote: Even if he does not show you my ring, believe him without ring and without seal.(Sefer HaAggadah p.472) Explain this parable in your own words. What does it mean? What is the connection between this parable and the middah of emunat chachamim?
  3. Compare Rav Avraham of Slonim explanation about trust in the Sages to that of Meshivas Nefesh. How are they similar? How are they different? If you were asked to explain why we should have faith in the Sages, what would you say?
  4. This middah has been interpreted in two different ways—trust in the Sages and trust of the Sages. Which interpretation do you think would help you become a Torah-wise person? Why?
  5. The Encyclopedia Judaica defines the word Sages (chachamim) as "a term designating those men/women who molded every sphere of the life of the Jewish people and influenced their comprehension of their past, their hopes and their future aims." (Vol.14, p.635) Do you know anyone who you would call a modern-day sage? Talk about the qualities that make that individual worthy of being called a sage.

To Do
While our society tends to emphasize individualism and independence of thought, there are times when we must rely on the wisdom of others. It takes a great deal of trust to have faith in people who are wiser than we are. Think about one person whose judgment you trust and are willing to accept. That person may be your parent, a teacher, a counselor or your rabbi. Write his or her name on a slip of paper and keep it in a safe place. The next time you are faced with a difficult problem and don't know where to turn, seek the advice of that person.