Shiur #03: Chapter Three

  • Rav Moshe Taragin

Pirkei Avot - The Wisdom of the Fathers

Shiur #03: Chapter Three

By Rav Moshe Taragin

A. Rabbi Chanina ben Dosa's Evaluation of Piety and Wisdom

The 11th mishna of the 3rd perek evaluates the relationship between wisdom and piety. Rabbi Chanina ben Dosa asserts, "Khol she-yir'at chet'o kodemet le-chokhmato chokhmato mitkayemet; ve-khol she-chokhmato kodemet le-yir'at cheto ein chokhmato mitkayemet." If a person prioritizes fear to wisdom, his wisdom will be sustained; however, if his wisdom is more central, then it will fade. The relationship between piety and wisdom and the sequencing of piety prior to wisdom is well documented. Perhaps the most famous instance appears in Masekhet Shabbat (31a), where the gemara records the comments of several Amoraim highlighting the indispensability of yirat shamayim. Reish Lakish targets a pasuk in Yeshaya (33:6) which iterates various qualities – faith, strength, wisdom, knowledge – and he reads each feature as a hieroglyph to a different section of shas. Arriving at the pasuk's conclusion – "yirat Hashem hi otzaro" ("the fear of the Lord – that is his treasure") – Reish Lakish remarks that if a person excels at yirat shamayim, Torah will be properly shielded (a play on the term otzar, which literally means a silo). The gemara then proceeds to cite Rava as listing the questions a person must answer when called to heaven. Even if a person scores well on the various questions, only if he succeeds at yirat shamayim does he 'pass' the examination. Rabba bar Rav Huna compares an impious individual with Torah knowledge to a person who possesses the keys to an outer gate of a mansion but not the keys to the inner chamber. Parallel gemarot (see especially Berakhot 17) address those who study Torah without intention of adhering to its commandments. The gemara views this behavior as a grave perversion of genuine religious ideals, even likening it to a miscarriage (Yerushalmi Berakhot 1:2).

This mishna is avowing similar sentiments, but with several additional, interesting nuances. Firstly, the mishna highlights a particular brand of yirat shamayim - yirat chet. In general, yirat shamayim is composed of two very different experiences - typically referred to as yirat ha-romemut and yirat ha-onesh. The latter - visceral fear of punishment – is generally regarded as inferior to the former - a more exalted sense of Hashem's transcendence, the disparity between Him and our experience, and the consequent awe which this acknowledgement should engender. The Rambam, for example, in Hilkhot Teshuva (10), portrays yirat ha-onesh as a substandard religious quality found primarily in children and the undereducated. Prophets and wise men aspire to serve God through love and recognition of the redemptive nature of the Divine system. By contrast, in Hilkhot Yesodei Ha-Torah (2), the very same Rambam describes yirat ha-romemut as comparable in value to ahavat Hashem - coexisting side-by side as the twin pillars of our emotional relationship with Ha-kadosh Barukh Hu. Clearly, this mishna extols a fear more basic than awe or dread. Perhaps it commends yirat ha-onesh, or perhaps a third form of yira - fear of sin itself. Recognition of the heavy moral toll of disobedience, and of the alienation from God which sin affects, can and should instill a repulsion and apprehension about the experience of sin, even before consideration of the penal consequences.

In a broader sense, though, having speculated about the type of yira spoken of in the mishna, a more general question emerges. It is certainly evident that religious success is hinged upon piety more than intelligence. Why, however, should pure 'knowledge' or wisdom be a function of pious behavior? Generally, the gemara indicts wisdom without piety on moral or religious grounds; it is seen as a religious failure and worse, a perversion of intellectual activity. But Rabbi Chanina ben Dosa goes even further, warning about its deleterious effect upon the actual acquisition of knowledge. If this pursuit is not pivoted upon fear of sin, the quest for knowledge and wisdom itself will fail.

This intriguing view led the Rambam to take a generally philosophical view of this mishna. In his commentary to the mishna, he explains that if wisdom reinforces previously acquired virtues, the acquisition of wisdom will seem natural and will be sustained. If, however, the pursuit is preceded by unethical values, the very pursuit will seem foreign and will be suspended. This attitude presumes a moral foundation to knowledge. Inasmuch as the knowledge will yield moral insights already familiar to an individual, the intellectual experience will be more appealing. The Rambam thus interpreted this mishna as articulating the correlation between morality and intelligence. If the quest for the latter is driven by the former, the process will be sustained.

The Vilna Gaon, in his commentary to Avot, adopts a more 'experiential' approach. Invested with moral values, a person will be driven to learn to acquire the knowledge necessary to properly perform mitzvot and avoid aveirot. Without this prior moral character, little sentiment will exist to acquire knowledge or to maintain the knowledge already obtained. Presumably, the Gaon's interpretation addresses 'practical knowledge' - the details of halakha necessary to facilitate normative halakhic behavior. Surely, the acquisition of this knowledge will be motivated by the desire for necessary information. One might question the applicability of the Gaon's strategy to general knowledge – beyond halakhic know-how. Presumably, this knowledge is not necessary to enable halakhic behavior or to express already acquired yirat chet. Clearly, the Rambam envisioned a correspondence between general knowledge and yirat chet and developed the aforementioned model to help explain that correspondence.

Seemingly unwilling to adopt either interpretation, Rashi offers yet a third sense to Rabbi Chanina's unique assertion. He transforms the term chokhmato mitkayemet – which literally means, "his knowledge will be sustained" – into a phrase which addresses general religious performance. Perhaps 'knowledge' itself will be unaffected by piety or the fear of sin, but the proper expression and implementation of knowledge - halakhic and religious excellence - will certainly be impacted. If the knowledge is not presupposed by piety, then even though it will be unaffected, in the broader sense, it will be vacuous since 'yirat Hashem hi otzaro' – true meaning in life is a product of yirat shamayim and not intellectual acumen. Rashi then produces a more narrow and conventional reading to this mishna. Basically, Rabbi Chanina ben Dosa echoes various gemarot which assail intellectual development in the absence of moral and religious sensibility. In many respects, Rabbi Chanina articulates this message in more blatant terms when he discards the meaning of wisdom acquired without yirat chet. "Ein chokhmato mitkayemet" means that the chokhma has no larger meaning or value; it may very well be sustained, but it will lack any substantive worth or significance.

B. Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai's Metaphor

Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai also addressed the dynamic between wisdom and piety, though his comments were not recorded in Pirkei Avot, and appear instead in Avot De-Rabbi Natan. He was asked to describe a wise and pious person, and he responded, "He is an artist with a full repertoire of instruments." By contrast, he likens a wise but impious person to an artist without proper tools, while a dull but pious individual is compared to a person without artistic talent but in possession of artistic instruments. This is a very different and provocative description of the dynamic between wisdom and piety. The chief difference is that Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai attributes wisdom as the substance of 'art' (that is, of religious life), while yirat chet facilitate the expressio, much as tools are not the substance of art, but enable its expression. In a famous section of his celebrated work, Nefesh Ha-chayim, Rabbi Chayim Volozhiner addresses the gemara in Shabbat which infers the supremacy of yirat shamayim from the verse, 'yirat Hashem hi otzaro.' Though the religious experience cannot thrive absent of religious fear, the substance of religious experience is not yirat shamayim, but rather talmud Torah. Much as a silo contains and preserves grain, yirat shamayim preserves the integrity and purity of talmud Torah, not allowing it to become perverted. However, the silo is not the essence, but merely an accessory to the intended result. Rav Chayim's comments certainly have a polemical edge, responding to the practice of certain Chassidic sects to indulge in meditative exercises of yirat shamayim at the expense of classic talmud Torah. However, the basic argument stems from the gemara's imagery and is squarely parallel to Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai's metaphor.

Interestingly, Rabbi Yochanan describes yirat shamayim as an artistic instrument, and not just a preservative silo. Firstly, a silo shelters and preserves, while an instrument allows expression of art – or, in this case, wisdom. A second difference pertains to the relationship between the person who studied and acquired Torah, and knowledge and yirat shamayim. A silo has very little personal element – it is merely a structure which houses acquired items. By contrast, an artist's brush becomes an extension of the artist and a channel through which artistic imagination flows.

Based on these differences, I believe, the Meiri adopted an interesting (modern sounding) interpretation of this mishna one which incorporates both Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai's image, and of Rabbi Chanina ben Dosa's admonition. In his comments to Pirkei Avot, the Meiri does not see any DIRECT correspondence between yirat chet and wisdom. Instead, yirat chet leads to general, personal and religious health (which he refers to as 'shleimat ha-nefesh'), and this overall health positively influences intellectual enterprise. As he summarizes, 'If the foundation is faulty, the building will be flimsy,' casting yirat chet as the foundation of human character, and knowledge as the building proper (introducing yet a third metaphor to describe the relationship between wisdom and piety). The mishna, then, is existential, rather than moral; meaning, it does not castigate disobedient behavior on religious grounds (as the mishna does according to Rashi), but rather encourages piety as the foundation of healthy human development. It does not intuit any direct relationship between wisdom and piety, but rather between overall developmental success and yirat chet.