“Moses received the Torah from Sinai and transmitted it to Joshua; Joshua to the elders; the elders to the prophets; and the prophets handed it down to the men of the Great Assembly. They said three things: Be deliberate in judgment, raise up many disciples, and make a fence around the Torah.” (Pirkei Avot/Ethics of the Fathers 1:1).
These statements were not the only things that the Men of the Great Assembly said. They are, however, of particular significance since they are recorded in the first Mishna of Pirkei Avot/Ethics of the Fathers. What is the connection of these seemingly separate ideas, and why were they selected for inclusion in Pirkei Avot?
The first Mishna is all about protecting the Torah. It begins by listing the history of the transmission of the Torah and its Oral Code from Moses down through the Men of the Great Assembly. With the increasing size and spread of the Jewish community at that time, these three statements provided (and still provide) important guidelines for Torah leaders on how to protect Jewish life. Being deliberate in judgment is a rule that can apply in many situations: taking one’s time in ruling on a law, hearing each legal case carefully and individually, or simply making certain not to be hasty in one’s judgment of others. Being cautious and conscientious protects the Torah from being distorted by rash judgments and, at the same time, uphold the Torah value of treating all people with respect.
Similarly, as community leaders must be deliberate in judgment, they should not hold the Torah so close to themselves that its transmission is lost. Thus, the Men of the Great Assembly stressed the importance of sharing the Torah by educating many disciples. While encouraging Jewish leaders to teach many students, the Men of the Great Assembly cautioned the leaders of the importance of making a fence, setting rules to help people to not accidentally violate the laws of the Torah so that even as the community spread to different lands the holy laws would not become diluted.