“It is not your duty to finish the work”

“It is not your duty to finish the work, but neither are you at liberty to neglect it.”

This saying does the rounds regularly on Facebook. It is a helpful thought for me as I try to plot my future as a theologian. But it peeves me when sources are not cited. So I dug it out.

It is a saying of Rabbi Tarfon, from Pirkei Avot, 2:16. Many Jews would know this, I discover, as Pirkei Avot is much used. it was composed in Talmudic Israel (c.190-230 CE) and its first two chapters trace the transmission of the Torah from Sinai down through history. Thus the rabbis of the Mishnah define themselves as the possessors of the authentic tradition. The aphorisms of Pirkei Avot include everyday ethics, advice to the wise, and sayings about the relationship between God and humanity.

רַבִּי טַרְפוֹן אוֹמֵר, הַיּוֹם קָצָר וְהַמְּלָאכָה מְרֻבָּה, וְהַפּוֹעֲלִים עֲצֵלִים, וְהַשָּׂכָר הַרְבֵּה, וּבַעַל הַבַּיִת דּוֹחֵק:

Rabbi Tarfon said: the day is short, and the work is plentiful, and the laborers are indolent, and the reward is great, and the master of the house is insistent.

הוּא הָיָה אוֹמֵר, לֹא עָלֶיךָ הַמְּלָאכָה לִגְמֹר, וְלֹא אַתָּה בֶן חוֹרִין לִבָּטֵל מִמֶּנָּה. אִם לָמַדְתָּ תוֹרָה הַרְבֵּה, נוֹתְנִים לְךָ שָׂכָר הַרְבֵּה. וְנֶאֱמָן הוּא בַעַל מְלַאכְתְּךָ שֶׁיְּשַׁלֵּם לְךָ שְׂכַר פְּעֻלָּתֶךָ. וְדַע מַתַּן שְׂכָרָן שֶׁל צַדִּיקִים לֶעָתִיד לָבֹא:

He [Rabbi Tarfon] used to say: It is not your duty to finish the work, but neither are you at liberty to neglect it; If you have studied much Torah, you shall be given much reward. Faithful is your employer to pay you the reward of your labour; And know that the grant of reward unto the righteous is in the age to come.