Shiur #08: Chapter 2, Mishna 2 - Torah and Derekh Eretz

  • Rav Moshe Taragin
The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash

Pirkei Avot - The Wisdom of the Fathers

Shiur #08: Chapter 2, Mishna 2

Torah and Derekh Eretz

By Rav Moshe Taragin

The second mishna of the second chapter records Rabban Gamliel's attitudes regarding the relationship between Torah study and professional occupation. The exact proportion between these two pursuits has always been the crux for heated debate, and these statements of Rabban Gamliel very clearly highlight the importance of professionalism alongside Torah study.

Rabban Gamliel asserted, "Talmud Torah is agreeable (yafeh) when accompanied by derekh eretz, as the efforts toward both deter sin (literally, 'foster the disregarding of sin'). In addition, Torah unaccompanied by industry ultimately ceases transgression." Clearly, Rabban Gamliel asserts the necessity of broader experience (derekh eretz, melakha) to preserve the sanctity of Torah study. Exactly what he requires and how it safeguards Torah study is not apparent or obvious, and prompts considerable debate.

Assuming a basic integrity between his two statements, most believe that the dual terms of derekh eretz and melakha refer to the very same experience of earning a livelihood. As Rabbenu Yona already notes, the term derekh eretz is a flexible phrase which adopts differing meanings based on context. Some dissenting opinions target the phrase as a reference to 'virtuous character traits' necessary for authentic Torah growth. Had it referred to actual industry, one may have questioned Rabban Gamliel's shift in syntax (from derekh eretz to melakha). Though this shift does raise significant questions, most opinions maintain that the term derekh eretz refers to professional activity. As such, Rabban Gamliel's entire statement spotlights the dynamic between Torah study and professional activity.

Interestingly enough, much of the debate about this relationship may be reduced to one phrase: 'im,' which literally means "with" or "accompanied by." By extolling Torah "IM" derekh eretz, was Rabban Gamliel prioritizing one over the other? This grammatical question generates an ideological one, debated by two Tosafists in their comments to the gemara in Berakhot (35b). A well-known gemara cites the time-honored dispute between Rabbi Yishmael and Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai in explaining a verse in the second paragraph of keri'at shema. The Torah describes the favorable consequences of our righteous behavior, that we will "harvest our grains, oil, and wines" ("ve-asafta deganekha ve-tiroshekha ve-yitzharekha"). Does this signify a recommendation, or a promise? Meaning, is the Torah endorsing a lifestyle of healthy professional activity, with the spare time – uncommitted to the harvest – reserved for Torah study? Or, is the Torah insinuating that unqualified commitment to Torah study will assure material provision through alternate, 'supernatural' means? Rabbi Yishmael suggested the former, encouraging Man to behave in a conventional manner ("MINHAG DEREKH ERETZ") - a program which would allow limited time for Torah study. Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai differed, lamenting that if Man planted during the planting season and harvested during the harvest season, "what would become of the fate of Torah excellence?" Instead, he argued, we should fully apply our resources to Torah study, trusting that Hashem will facilitate our physical needs (or, in his words, "they will be attended to by others"). How would these respective Tanaim apply their outlooks to Rabban Gamliel's phrase?

This issue triggered a famous machloket between two well-known Tosafists. Rabbenu Tam, based on Rabban Gamliel's remark, claimed that 'derekh eretz' is primary. He assembles several Talmudic texts which are structured in a similar fashion: two values or factors are delineated, joined by the term/preposition "im" (with, alongside). In all these cases, Rabbenu Tam establishes, the second term is always primary. For example, a gemara in Yevamot lists primary inheritors (the family of the husband of a deceased wife) and secondary inheritors (the family of the father of the deceased woman): "the secondary inheritors inherit along with the primary ones." Evidently, the final phrase is obvious and principal, while the first is non-evident, and must therefore by highlighted ALONG WITH the basic value.

Rabbenu Elchanan (a lesser-known Tosafist) disagreed, disallowing and disapproving of the notion that Torah is not primary. His response to Rabban Gamliel is threefold. First, he cites an alternate source which clearly accentuates Torah study at the cost of professional activity. The fifth mishna of the sixth perek of Avot lists 48 different measures necessary to acquire Torah, one of them being "Torah study with minimal (or limited – 'mi'ut') derekh eretz." Clearly, Chazal here spoke in a voice which centralized Torah at the expense of derekh eretz - even if this is not Rabban Gamliel's intention. Furthermore, Rabban Gamliel's second clause also implies a primacy of Torah: "Torah which is not accompanied by derekh eretz ('Torah she-ein IMA derekh eretz') will dissolve." By reversing the sequence of Torah and derekh eretz and their relation to the term "IM," Rabban Gamliel here seems to pinpoint Torah as the fulcrum and derekh eretz as the adjunct. Finally, Rabbenu Elchanan claims, use of the term "IM" should not dictate priority. Had Rabban Gamliel not separated Torah from derekh eretz by the term "IM," he would have suggested performance of one or the other, rather than assessing their respective values. He was 'compelled' to insert the term "IM" despite its possible misleading connotations, to assure the mandatory nature of Torah (and perhaps also derekh eretz). A person cannot engage solely in professional activity at the cost of complete Torah neglect. The term "IM" highlights the obligation to study Torah.

This debate is, in many ways, a rehashing of the original disagreement between Rabbi Yishmael and Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai. To some degree, Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai asserted a more extreme position than Rabbenu Elchanan advocated; he not only claimed the primacy of Torah, but also encouraged a lifestyle which would ignore practical involvement in areas of derekh eretz. One could imagine Rabbenu Elchanan allowing Torah's primacy but encouraging "moderate" efforts to achieve derekh eretz. Similarly, one could imagine Rabbi Yishmael endorsing 'professional realism' without adopting Rabbenu Tam's 'extreme' assertion that derekh eretz could be seen as 'ikkar.'

What emerges from the various layers of this debate is the presence of two strands within the Jewish tradition. Having fallen into a world of hardship and struggle from a world of perfection, how much effort, if at all, should Man invest in the acquisition of sustenance? How much toil should one contribute towards the pursuit of acquiring bread, in fulfillment of his fallen role? Historically, different approaches have been espoused, and different stages and different cultural settings witnessed the prevalence of one strategy over the other.

Even ignoring Rabban Gamliel's somewhat nebulous phraseology, the issue was clearly addressed early and often. In the fifth mishna of the third perek, Rabbi Nechunya ben Ha-kaneh remarks that whoever applies himself to Torah study is liberated from professional and political burdens – in his words, "the encumbrance of derekh eretz is removed." One can sense Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai's – and, ultimately, Rabbenu Elchanan's – spirit infusing this statement. By contrast, in the seventeenth mishna of that same perek, Rabbi Elazar ben Azarya issued a more moderate statement, implying some degree of equivalence: "Without Torah there can be no derekh eretz, just as without derekh eretz there can be no Torah." To be sure, Rebbi Elazar ben Azarya may not be evaluating the two, and may not even be suggesting actual strategy. Instead, he appears to be merely noting the mutual dependence. Two experiences can be mutually dependent, even while exhibiting great disparity. For example, a car will fail to operate without a motor or without a bolt fastening an axle, and yet no one would assume parity between these two components. Nevertheless, the symmetrical nature of his statements do imply a more balanced relationship than the view expressed by Rabbi Nechunya ben Ha-kaneh.

Avot De-Rabbi Natan cites yet an additional treatment of the tandem (chapter 28): "Rebbi Ilayi stated: Whoever prioritizes Torah and decentralizes derekh eretz becomes a central world figure. Whoever emphasizes derekh eretz and diminishes Torah, becomes, himself, secondary." Rabbi Ilayi's claim is clearly aligned with the Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai camp, while also addressing the broader historical and social import of talmud Torah. Just as Shas concludes by referring to Torah students as "architects of the world" ("do not refer to them as children – bAnayikh - but rather as builders – bOnayikh"), so does Rabbi Ilayi remind us that Torah study should not be cast as peripheral or parochial. Instead, it must be esteemed as primary to the evolution of the human condition.

In light of the documented 'strains' among Chazal, Rabban Gamliel's ambiguity becomes even more intriguing. To which camp did this son of Rabbi Yehuda Ha-nasi – who later served as nasi himself - belong? Why did he choose such inconclusive syntax? Perhaps he intended this issue to remain unresolved, allowing differing applications throughout history? An interesting midrash seems to establish Shlomo Ha-melekh as the original author of this phraseology. In Kohelet (4:12), Shlomo writes, "Chokhma is pleasant when accompanied by/including ("IM") nachalah," and a midrash (Midrash Rabba 7:22) actually cross references this phrase with Rabban Gamliel's. Though the syntax is similar, one has to wonder whether they are addressing similar phenomena. Shlomo speaks of the balance between chokhma and finances (perhaps even more specifically, land), whereas Rabban Gamliel speaks of the dynamic between Torah and derekh eretz. Even allowing and ignoring the differences between chokhma and Torah (the elaboration of which lies well beyond the context of this article), Rabban Gamliel alluded to more than just financial efforts. By coining/employing the phrase derekh eretz, he possibly intended a broader question of involvement in our world. Restating the question: Given the fact that this realm is merely preparatory, and that our true reality awaits us in the next realm, how much effort should we sink into the affairs of this realm? Given that we live in the "corridor," awaiting entry into the "palace," how much effort should we exert in refurbishing and improving the "corridor" for ourselves and for others? Rabban Gamliel's statement serves as the cornerstone for one of the most fundamental questions of religious experience.