Shiur #07: Chapter 1, Mishna 13

  • Rav Moshe Taragin
The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash

Pirkei Avot - The Wisdom of the Fathers

Shiur #07: Chapter 1, Mishna 13

Hillel's Statement Regarding Fame and Sustained Torah Study

By Rav Moshe Taragin

The 13th mishna of the first perek provides several aphorisms of Hillel. Having just outlined Hillel's pursuit of peace and harmony, the mishna records Hillel's somewhat 'caustic' statements about Torah study. Hillel begins by warning against improperly motivated Torah study, particularly study motivated by ambition for fame and renown. Hillel proclaimed, "N'gad shema avad shemei," which may be loosely translated as 'those drawn by reputation will fail to achieve that end,' or, more harshly, "those drawn by the pursuit of honor will be destroyed." This warning seems to apply equally to the pursuit of honor in general, as well as to the study of Torah for the purpose of earning fame.

The mishna in the fourth perek of Avot (mishna 21) lists the pursuit of honor as one of the three vices which "eradicate a person from this world" (along with desire and jealousy). Interestingly, Hillel employed a more specific term, shemei - a term taken by many commentators to refer not just to fame, but also to the pursuit of reputation or even authority. Rashi, for example, references an earlier mishna (1:10) in which Hillel's teachers Shemaya and Avtalyon encourage us to revile positions of authority (rabbanut). Rashi explains this phrase to refer to the perils of authority, as best evidenced in the life of Yosef ha-tzadik who, according to Chazal, died prematurely because he wielded authority. Avot de-Rabbi Natan cites an amplified version of Hillel's statement, in which he describes the cause for this premature demise: once a person reaches celebrity status, he engenders the jealousy and envy of others who subsequently contend with, and defeat his interests. This expanded version has Hillel addressing the acquisition of wealth and renown, and not necessarily the empowerment of authority. Such attainment awakens human foes who endeavor to subvert the gains of their subject.

Even in the absence of 'acquired enemies,' Hillel's statement additionally speaks to both the moral and psychological effects of authority. "Power corrupts" through the insensitivity to personal predicaments which it undoubtedly allows, as well as the displacement of values which it often engenders. Its intoxicating influence may, and often does, deflect a person's interest from substantive growth and virtue to the endless efforts necessary to maintain and increase authority. Hillel's statement, then, serves to some as a cautionary warning discouraging entry into this realm, and to others, as an vital corrective ensuring that their involvement in positions of authority will be ennobling and selfless, rather than abusive and megalomaniacal.

Hillel's remark places particular emphasis on the danger of Torah learning for the purpose of acquiring honor. Chazal speak extensively about the poisonous effect of Torah studied to achieve fame, and given its enormous 'authority' and immense 'glory,' the field of Torah study classically posed the greatest danger in this area. The fact that we are enjoined to honor and revere Torah personalities only aggravates the danger which the Torah personality may face. Relevant to this theme, Tosafot in Chagiga relate the Yerushalmi's account of Elisha ben Avuyah's berit. Witnessing two Tanaim immersed in Torah study and surrounded by an audience of euphoric angels, Elisha's father wished that his son would study Torah to merit such recognition. Evidently, this incident, early in life, established the conditions for Elisha's – commonly referred to as Acher (the other) – ultimate apostasy. This episode highlights the grave dangers of Torah study motivated by any type of personal gain, and certainly by achievement of honor.

The Gemara in Sukka (49b) comments upon a pasuk in Shir Hashirim which likens Torah study to a concealed part of the female body (chamukei yereikhayikh). Just as this part is normally concealed, the Gemara comments, so should pure Torah study be concealed. The mishna in Avot (3:6) establishes the presence of Hashem during various experiences of Torah study. The mishna locates pesukim to assure that He is present when ten people study Torah together, when five study, etc. Finally, the mishna queries, "And how do we know that Hashem is present when one person studies Torah? The pasuk guarantees, 'Be-khol ha-makom asher azkir et Shemi avo eilekha u-veirakhtikha" ('anywhere that you mention My Name, I will come to you and bless you')." The mishna spotlights individual learning (witnessed by no one) as a unique learning experience which invites Hashem's presence. The Yerushalmi in Berakhot (chapter 5) announces, "Whoever studies Torah in private becomes wiser," alluding to the religious supremacy of this private study as well as its intellectual superiority. Presumably, Torah studied without personal interest provides both moral and cerebral advantages.

The Maharshal (16th-century halakhist and contemporary of Rav Yosef Karo) once encountered difficulty solving a Talmudic enigma. Leaving the Beit Midrash he passed the store of "Reb Avraham the fruit-store owner." Known as a simple man who slept in his store, Reb Avraham actually studied Torah assiduously, but privately. Incidentally, Reb Avraham was studying the very same Talmudic topic and the Maharshal eavesdropped upon his study. Astonished to discover this simple man's Torah erudition, the Maharshal summoned him the following day. Initially, the shopkeeper pleaded ignorance, but was ultimately ordered by the Maharshal to reveal his true scholarship. He pleaded with the Maharshal not to disclose his secret achievement, and the latter acceded. The two would regularly discuss their learning together, and when the Maharshal ultimately passed on, he left a will instructing the community to appoint Reb Avraham as his successor. Though Reb Avraham initially resisted, he was beseeched by many suitors and ultimately was convinced to assume the position.

The continuation of the mishna cites two related statements issued by Hillel regarding Torah study: "If one does not sustain [his] Torah study – he should pass on, and if he has never studied, he deserves to be put to death." Hillel here employs harsh terms to describe lethargic Torah study – or absolute neglect – to convey the severity of the crime. More specifically, Hillel relates to two very different phenomena - one who has studied and abandons, and secondly, one who doesn't ever begin to study. The danger of the second condition is self-evident (even given the harshness of Hillel's statement). Rashi, perhaps in recognition of the self-evident nature of this idea, reinterprets the second part of Hillel's phrase as referring to those who refuse to teach the Torah they have learnt. This crime – clearly more morally and religiously troubling than the crime of ignorance – would certainly justify a harsher penalty (although death still seems hyperbolic). The Gemara in Sanhedrin (99a) applies a disdainful term – "ki devar Hashem baza" ("he has scorned Hashem's word") to someone who withholds his Torah knowledge from those who sincerely seek it. An interesting Gemara in Berakhot (55a) lists three acts which abbreviate a person's life: rejecting an offer to recite a berakha upon a cup of wine, denying an opportunity to publicly read from the Torah, and attaining positions of authority. Symbolically, refusing an opportunity to publicly read the Torah may represent an unwillingness to freely share acquired Torah. That this conduct is aligned with achieving positions of authority establishes a certain symmetry between our mishna and this gemara in Berakhot.

The first part of Hillel's observation, though, warrants more studied analysis. Hillel refers to someone who has been exposed to Torah learning but has discarded that pursuit for alternative interests. Chazal viewed this behavior quite severely, expressing extreme disappointment towards someone who has been exposed to both the brilliance and majesty of Torah but has preferred other pursuits in its stead. Rashi (perhaps again responding to the severity of the penalty) claims that one who discontinues his learning will witness his Torah knowledge slip out of consciousness. By reading the mishna in this fashion, Rashi converts the warning from a penalty into a consequence. By discontinuing Torah study, a person will squander the Torah he has already learned. The retention of Torah (as, le-havdil, any knowledge) is not merely a cerebral challenge. Our memory retains facts and knowledge which we deem important, while it jettisons ideas deemed less significant. By sustaining Torah study, a person reinforces its importance and retains it more successfully. By contrast, abandoning the study of Torah constitutes an unfortunate belittling of Torah, which in turn makes Torah more forgettable.

Beyond the psychological effects of ceasing Torah study, there is an additional - purely logical – aspect. Any integrated system possesses a structural logic which lends the system its consistency and integrity. For example, the study of one ecological system will revolve around certain rules and patterns which will characterize other systems, as well. In a broader sense, systems display 'meta-rules' which can be described as general guidelines and conventions which underlie all systems. Hence, continued study in one field invigorates the inherent logic which characterizes that field, and, in a general sense, the organized study of any system allows us to organize and understand unrelated systems. Le-havdil, the same rules apply – with even greater cogency - to the field of Torah. The basic patterns underlying any province of Torah bear strong resemblance to the patterns which dictate seemingly unrelated fields. Though it is true vis-a-vis Torah just as with any logical system, it is even more accurate in the case of a Divine system. If Torah reflects Hashem's will, then its logic must be integrated, consistent, and ultimately reducible to unifying themes. If Hashem is unified as is His name, then so should His Torah bear this quality. The well-known pasuk, "Torat Hashem temima…" speaks to the integrated nature of Torah. Any attempt to uncover the logic behind the halakhic system assumes a fundamental integrity and unity. By extension, the study of any area of Torah will "logically reinforce" the understanding of all other areas of Torah. Hillel therefore warns (according to Rashi's understanding) that the cessation of Torah study will produce detrimental effects upon the retention of already acquired Torah.

This initial phrase of Hillel – one who discontinues Torah will pass/see his Torah pass - is cited by an interesting Gemara (Ta'anit 31) in a very specific context. The 15th of Av was recognized as the apex of summer, the point at which the intensity of the sun's heat begins to recede. At this stage, no new wood was cut for fuel for the mizbei'ach (altar), since the dryness of the wood could not be assured in the cooler weather. This day was referred to as 'the day of storing away the saws,' since no new wood was cut. The Gemara notes that yet another natural process begins on this day, as well: the daylight hours begin to diminish, while evening begins to lengthen. The 15th of Av marked the most lopsided date of the year, when the daylight dominated the evening. As the evening began to lengthen, Hillel's proverb – "u-de-lo yosif, yesuf" – was declared to encourage people to renewed commitment to nighttime Torah study. Perhaps the shortened evening of summer had not enabled sufficient Torah study, and people were summoned on this date to renew their Torah energies: if one doesn't not add (not only more texts, but more hours) yesuf – he will see this Torah opportunity pass!!