Avot 3:9

By :  Daniel Nevins Former Pearl Resnick Dean of The Rabbinical School and the Division of Religious Leadership Posted On Jan 1, 2008 | Mishnat Hashavua

What should be prioritized: wisdom or compassion?

רבי חנינא בן דוסא אומר, כל שיראת חטאו קודמת לחכמתו, חכמתו מתקימת. וכל שחכמתו קודמת ליראת חטאו, אין חכמתו מתקימת. הוא היה אומר, כל שמעשיו מרבין מחכמתו, חכמתו מתקימת. וכל שחכמתו מרבה ממעשיו, אין חכמתו מתקימת.

Rabbi Chanina ben Dosa says, whoever’s fear of sin comes before his wisdom, his wisdom will last. Whoever’s wisdom comes before his fear of sin, his wisdom will not last. He also would say, whoever’s [good] deeds are greater than his wisdom, his wisdom will last. Whoever’s wisdom is greater than his [good] deeds, his wisdom will not last.


Rabbinic society gave great priority to wisdom. Elsewhere, the rabbis taught that “Torah study equals all the other commandments.” And yet, the Sages realized that wisdom also contained a double threat. The pursuit of wisdom could easily lead to arrogance and to isolation from other people. This mishnah serves as a corrective. Wisdom is lasting only when built upon a foundation of reverence and of association with others.


We raise our children with high expectations for academic accomplishment, which is often measured by high grades, test scores, and completion of prestigious academic programs. How can we ensure that such accomplishments are kept within a framework of humility and service?