Lazar Weiner’s Akavyo ben Mahalal’el Omer (Akavya, the Son of Mahalal’el, Said) is one of his lesser-known pieces and one of his rare männerchor settings.
The text is the opening verse of Chapter III of Pirkei Avot (Sayings of the Fathers), the most widely known and quoted of the sixty-three tractates of the Mishna. The Mishna is concerned primarily with explicating, expounding, clarifying, and elaborating for practical observance the legal provisions and teachings of the received written Torah (Torah al yad). As such, it is the foundation for the next stage of rabbinic deliberations, the Gemara; and together with the continuum of canonized commentary, they form the Talmud. Pirkei Avot, however, is unique in that its principal focus is on moral and ethical behavior and values—as human but nonetheless Divine and divinely conceived priorities. Most of Pirkei Avot consists of maxims and aphorisms quoted from sixty rabbis, spanning a period of approximately half a millennium—from about 300 B.C.E. to 200 C.E. These pithy but timeless words of counsel are a blend of wisdom, keen insight, human experience, understanding of human nature, and sharp common sense. There are also anonymous sayings as well as historical and folkloric references and allusions. Both the anonymous and the attributed words of wisdom are at once humanistic and biblical, worldly and religious. Yet later sages and rabbis, including the Vilna Gaon, have demonstrated that all of them have a basis in Scripture.
Pirkei Avot is not a formal philosophical treatise devoted to ethics. The current English rendering of its title as Sayings of the Fathers has therefore long been accepted as preferable to the earlier Ethics of the Fathers, since the latter risks implying a formal, logically unfolding discourse or thesis in the mold of Greek or subsequent Western philosophy. But in the Middle Ages the tract was also sometimes known among pious sects and circles as Mishnat Hassidim (The Mishna of the Pious), understood as a guide to righteous life.
By the 8th century it was apparently common to read a chapter from Pirkei Avot in the Babylonian academies on Sabbath afternoons. In Ashkenazi custom a chapter (sometimes more) is read weekly from the Sabbath following Pesah until the Sabbath preceding Rosh Hashana.
Akavya, a contemporary of the better-known sage Hillel, is said to have been offered the position of av bet din (chief of the court of law, or legal tribunal) upon the death of Shammai—but only on condition that he abandon and renounce certain of his previously expressed views. He refused to do so, adding that he would not in any case want to be perceived as having changed his views in order to obtain public office. In the admonition in Pirkei Avot he urges the continuous reminder of three things in order to avoid pride and the lure of the power of sin: knowledge of one’s humble origins, the sureness of one’s earthly end, and the awareness that we will one day be required to give account for our lives and deeds.
Weiner’s setting of these words, published in 1961, employs shifting tonality and interesting rhythmic turns to emphasize Akavya’s message.
Sung in Hebrew
Akavyah ben Mahalalel (son of Mahalalel) said: “Reflect upon three things, and you will not come into the power of sin: Know [from] whence you came; wither you are going; and before Whom you will in the future have to give account and reckoning. [From] whence you came: - from a fetid drop; whither you are going: - to a place of dust, worms, and maggots; and before Whom you are destined to give account and reckoning: - before the Supreme King of kings, the Holy One, blessed be He.”
Performers: Chorus Viennensis; Raoul Gehringer, Conductor; Joseph Malovany, Cantor
Translation: Rabbi Dr. Joseph H. Hertz
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