Covered in the Dust of Your Rabbi: An Urban Legend?

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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.

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:

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  • [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.

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  1. Catherine

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  • Lois Tverberg

    Lois Tverberg

    Lois Tverberg, Ph.D., has been teaching and writing about the Jewish background of Christianity for the past fifteen years. With Ann Spangler she co-authored the best-seller, Sitting at the Feet of Rabbi Jesus (Zondervan, 2009). The book explores the first-century world of rabbis and disciples, festivals,…
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