Some months ago, pastor-blogger Trevin Wax posted an article called “Urban Legends: The Preacher’s Edition.” There he lists several “urban legends” that he’s heard floating around lately in sermons. Like Internet rumors that people forward on ad infinitum, these preaching illustrations don’t have much grounding in fact.
One potential fallacy on his list caught my eye. It’s the saying, “be covered in your rabbi’s dust.” Trevin writes:
“This is one of the most pervasive and fast-spreading stories to flood the church in recent years. The idea is that as you walked behind your rabbi, he would kick up dust and you would become caked in it and so following your rabbi closely came to symbolize your commitment and zeal.”
I heartily agree with Trevin’s much-needed reminder to double-check your facts. But I’ve written about this idea myself. If you haven’t heard it from me, you may have heard a sermon about “getting dusty” from preachers like John Ortberg, Ed Dobson or Rob Bell, or watched Ray Vander Laan’s DVD, “In the Dust of the Rabbi.” (1)
It seems reasonable, then, to explore the historical background of being “covered in dust.” Is it just a faddish fairytale? Let’s take a closer look.
Powdering Yourself in Dust
The source of this saying is the Mishnah, Avot 1:4. (The Mishnah is a collection of rabbinic thought from 200 BC to 200 AD that still forms the core of Jewish belief today.) The quotation is from Yose ben Yoezer (yo-EHZ-er). He was one of the earliest members of the rabbinic movement, who lived about two centuries before Jesus:
Let thy house be a meeting-house for the wise;
and powder thyself in the dust of their feet;
and drink their words with thirstiness. (2)
The overall idea here is to encourage people to make their homes places of Bible study, and to welcome itinerant teachers and eagerly learn from them. These teachers were called “sages” before 70 AD (hakamim, or “the wise”). After that the title “rabbi” began to be used. (3)
The middle line is sometimes translated as “sit amid the dust of their feet,” and understood as being about humbly sitting at the feet of one’s teacher to learn from him. This is because it was customary to honor a teacher by sitting on the floor while he taught seated in a chair.
From this arose a widely-used idiom for studying with a rabbinic teacher, that you “sat at his feet.” Paul even says that he was educated “at the feet of Gamaliel” (Acts 22:3). The fact that Mary “sat at Jesus’ feet” in Luke 10:39 suggests that she was learning from him as a disciple, too. (4)
If you look more closely at the Hebrew text of Avot 1:4, however, it does not explicitly describe a person as sitting. It reads, hevei mitabek b’afar raglehem—literally, “and be powdering yourself with the dust of their feet.” The verb mitabek is the hitpael form of avak, and it means “to powder yourself,” like a woman powdering her face. It comes from the noun avak, which is very fine powder, often that which is kicked up by feet on a dusty road. (See Ezekiel 26:10, Nahum 1:3; Mishnah Shabbat 3:3, 12:15).
Read literally, Yoezer’s saying sounds more like it’s describing the idea of “powdering yourself” by walking through clouds of dust billowing up along a dirt roadway. Because of this, some highly respected scholars believe that “walking in your teacher’s dust” was the original intent of Avot 1:4. (5)
Supporting this conclusion, rabbinic literature records numerous discussions between rabbis and disciples as they traveled from town to town. The teacher always walked in front, and his students behind. Here’s how one scene begins (~120 AD):
“Once Rabbi Ishmael, Rabbi Eleazar and Rabbi Akiva were walking along the road followed by Levi the net-maker and Ishmael the son of Rabbi Eleazar. The following question was discussed by them: ‘Whence do we know that the duty of saving a life supersedes the Sabbath laws?’”(6)
Apparently, three scholars decided to confer on an issue as they journeyed together, while two of their disciples followed closely behind, taking mental notes.
In earlier periods, discussions between sages and their disciples are often set within daily life—while sitting under a tree, in a marketplace, sharing a meal, or walking along a road. It was about a century after Christ that rabbinic study became confined to study halls and synagogues. (7) The Gospel accounts firmly fit Jesus into the earlier tradition of training disciples through living and traveling together.
Walking or Sitting?
So, how should we read Yoezer’s adage? Is it about sitting or about walking? Both readings are possible. The first line of Avot 1:4, about “making your home a meeting place” suggests that it’s about inviting him in and sitting at his feet. The second two lines suggest traveling behind him—not only does a disciple get dusty journeying behind his teacher, he gets thirsty too.
Modern commentaries realize that Avot 1:4 has more than one possible interpretation, so many mention both. The well-known Soncino Talmud, for instance, states:
Either: let the dust of the feet of the Sages, as they walk, cover you (i.e., follow them closely), or, sit in the dust (on the ground) at their feet whilst they teach. (8)
In The Moral Maxims of the Sages of Israel: Pirkei Avot, Martin Sicker writes,
What is the sage attempting to convey by his urging that one “become covered with the dust of their feet”? Some consider this to reflect the imagery of a group of disciples sitting on the earth at the feet of their master, who is seated on a stool before them. … Others, however, see it as urging the disciple to follow in the footsteps of his master wherever he goes, figuratively as well as literally. In either case, the teaching may be understood to convey the idea that the disciple should always remain within the ambit of his master’s “dust” or influence. (9)
That’s why I usually quote this line as about “being covered” in the dust of your rabbi, which can suggest either walking or sitting. The point of course, is to humbly follow in Christ’s footsteps, staying close beside him and drinking in his words.
(1) Ray Vander Laan is the author of the Faith Lessons DVD series, which is based on his years of leading study trips to Israel, Greece and Turkey. Ray was actually the first to preach widely about the idea of “becoming dusty” as a disciple of Jesus. When I spoke with him about it, he said that he first heard this saying being used in conversation when he was enrolled at an Orthodox Jewish university. It was not uncommon, he said, to hear fellow students and professors quote Avot 1:4 to stress the importance of studying intensively from a teacher.
(2) Pirqe Aboth 1:4 (Charles Taylor, trans.)
(3) For more on the use of the term “rabbi,” see the article, Can We Call Jesus “Rabbi”?
(5) See Shmuel Safrai, The Jewish People in the First Century (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1976) 958-69. Safrai was an acclaimed Jewish scholar who won the national Israel Prize for his research on early Judaism in 2002. David Bivin explains more fully in New Light on the Difficult Words of Jesus (Holland, MI: En-Gedi Resource Center, 2005), 14.
(6) Mekhilta, Shabbeta 1, on Exodus 31:13. Interestingly, Jesus has this same debate with some Pharisees (about putting aside Sabbath laws) when he’s walking with his disciples and they pluck some grain to eat (Luke 6:1-5).
(7) The Cambridge Companion to the Talmud and Rabbinic Literature (C. E. Fonrobert, M. S. Jaffee, eds), 58-74. The author, Jeffrey Rubenstein looks at the social context of rabbinic sayings. He also discusses the difficulty of using later rabbinic sources to determine earlier historical reality.
(8) Comment on Avoth 1:4, the Soncino Talmud, Soncino Press.
(9) Martin Sicker, The Moral Maxims of the Sages of Israel: Pirkei Avot (iUniverse, 2004), 29.