Shiur #14: Maharal on Avot - Perek 2, Mishna 7

  • Rav Gidon Rothstein


Maharal's count of mishnayot differs from ours, so he is actually one mishna behind our enumeration  - for him, what ArtScroll (Mesorah Publications, Ltd.) for example, considers Mishna 2:7 is actually Mishna 2:6.  That mishna, which I do not intend to review in depth, records Hillel's conversation with a corpse.  He sees the corpse (in the mishna, the word used is gulgolet, which literally means head) floating on the face of the water and says to it, "Because you 'ateift,' others 'atefukh;' and in the end, those who did that to you will have the same happen to them."  Most simply, the words in quotation mean "to drown," so that Hillel was saying, "Because you drowned others, you were drowned by others, etc.," enunciating the view that actions produce their own consequences.  Indeed, the Rambam takes this mishna as an expression of that principal generally, that our evil deeds contain in them the seeds of our punishment.


Maharal points out, though, that if that were all the mishna wanted to say, it could have used any example of murder.  The focus on ateift, atefukh, metayefayekh, etc. suggests something else.  In addition, the mishna says that Hillel saw a gulgolet floating, which literally means a head  - why not the whole body? 


As sometimes happens, the answer is not as satisfying or as clear as the questions.  Maharal interprets shetifah (which he sees as related to ateift, etc.) as complete washing away; so that what is being discussed here is the phenomenon of being completely washed away, and the assumption is that someone did it to the victim - that it is a chain of washings away.  I believe, although I cannot prove, that Maharal means apostasy, leaving Judaism, God-forbid, for another religion.


In any case, I found the whole piece unclear, nor did I notice particularly stimulating ideas, so I am going to move on to Mishna 2:8, which Maharal numbers of as mishna 2:7.




Mishna 2:7 records Hillel's reaction to ten types of excess, the first five of which he views negatively, and the next five positively.  Specifically,


He used to say, one who develops excess meat (that is, flesh or weight), increases rima (worms, after death); one who develops excess possessions, increases worry; many wives means much witchcraft; many maidservants, much sexual impropriety; many slaves, much theft.  [On the other hand], one who increases Torah knowledge increases life; excessive sitting [in study] leads to great wisdom; seeking advice excessively leads to great insight; excessive charity leads to great peace.  One who acquires a good name acquires for himself, and one who acquires Torah, acquires life in the World to Come.


Maharal counts ten clauses in this mishna - while we may think there are eleven, he counts the Torah clause at the end as a repetition of the clause number six, for reasons we will see when we get up to it.  He believes five of the clauses have to do with a man's physical self and five with the spiritual/intellectual.  While we will still have to explain how such people as wives, maids, and slaves (not to equate them in any way) are part of a man's physical self, Maharal's explanation of this split deserves a moment of attention.




Maharal notes several other contexts where we see a split between the physical and nonphysical and relates that to the balance within people of the guf (body) and the neshama (soul).  Before we get to his examples, we need to know that he connects this symbolism to the number ten.  According to the Gemara in Sukka, ten tefachim (fist-length measurements) was the irreducible distance between Heaven and Earth.  That is, at Mount Sinai, God lowered Himself (as it were) to the extent possible, and Moshe ascended to the extent possible.  Even so, the Gemara says, ten tefachim separated them.


Maharal notes that people as a whole combine elements of the lower and upper worlds; since the gap between them is expressed in tens, he assumes that all the reflections of that split within humans will also be in tens, with five for the spiritual and five for the physical.  Before he explains our mishna, Maharal gives two interesting examples of tens in balance of fives.




First, Maharal notes that at Sinai, there were five commandments addressed to the neshama and five addressed to the guf.  Of course, in asserting that, he is assuming that the commandment to honor our parents is a heavenly (neshama) commandment when it seems more involved in this world.  Maharal cites a gemara that, in several different ways, draws parallels between the obligation to honor parents and the relationship we are supposed to have with God.  Maharal therefore says that the mitzva of honoring parents is clearly more God-related than earth-related.


Second, Maharal notes a gemara that refers to ten principal parts of the body.  Of those ten, five - the eyes, ears, and tongue - are nonphysical, in that seeing, hearing, and speaking do not involve a direct physical impact on the world.  The other five - arms, legs, and head - are the physical ones  (it is not clear to me in what way the head is physical, but that is what Maharal says).




Although Maharal's whole presentation focused on the balance between the two, his interpretation of the mishna shows that it is not quite a balance.  Since he sees each of the first five statements of the mishna as the physical ones, where excess is inherently problematic, and the last five as nonphysical, where more is better, Maharal is inherently saying that we are created in balance and should be striving to render an imbalance.  While we must always maintain the physical at necessary levels, excess is a problem.  The spiritual, on the other hand, is open and available for multiplication.




For Maharal's explanation to work, he has to show how the first five are directly connected to the body, and he does so by claiming that the mishna is moving ever-outward in the things to which the body is connected.  Therefore, marbeh basar means someone who devotes himself excessively to his physical needs (this is not the same as the simple sense of having too much flesh on one's body).  In that case, rima can no longer mean worms, which could have been the outcome of too much literal flesh; Maharal explains that it means a lower personal level of excellence in general.  This clause then means that excessive involvement in one's physical person lowers one's level of excellence.


Having interpreted that clause so broadly, Maharal needs to explain what the next clauses add, and here, in each case, he claims that these parts of life, which might seem to be external to a person, are in fact connected to him.  Of the objects that are external to a person, one's possessions are most connected to him, so that marbeh nekhasim is saying that even though these objects are external, having too many still affects you as well.


A wife is the next closest (I will not repeat here my discussion of Maharal on women, but suffice it to say that his belief in women's more physical natures plays well here with his view of the mishna), and the mishna says that many wives leads to witchcraft.  Maharal says that the mishna does not mean actual witchcraft, since a person can marry several wives who are like David's wife Avigayil, meaning that they would not engage in witchcraft or any such practice.


Maharal says, however, that the point of the mishna is that the qualities that make women good candidates for witchcraft (and he includes the imagination here, although that would not seem to be primarily physical) are inherent in all women.  Having too many wives necessarily creates an atmosphere that has in it the seeds of the flaws of witchcraft.


He similarly views the question of maids and sexuality.  While Maharal recognizes that not all maids will draw a person into excessive focus on that area of life, he notes that maids generally come from those communities that tend towards lewdness and immorality.  Again, even if the specific maids are not involved in that, they create an atmosphere and come from cultures where that is the rule.


Finally, male slaves tend toward theft.  In each case, Maharal sees the group discussed as connected to the person and lead him either directly or atmospherically to an excessive focus on the physical.




Maharal then turns to the last five statements of the mishna - the nonphysical ones - and sees the first three as describing an ascending order of understanding of Torah.  First, there is a marbeh Torah (one who studies much Torah), in the sense of acquiring knowledge.  Such a person is marbeh chayim (increases life), both in this world and the next.  By sitting with friends (Maharal's view of the sitting that increases wisdom), Maharal thinks that a person will come to understand the reasons underlying the system.  Then, by delving deeply into Torah, the person will come to understand the reasons and logic of the system (his translation of eitza, which could have meant just advice or counsel).  Finally, with further consideration building upon his eitza, the person will learn to draw correct inferences from Torah, which is the highest level, called tevuna (for a similar view, that drawing creative inferences is the highest level of Torah study, see the Rambam's Hilkhot Talmud Torah, 1:10-11). 


These three levels - knowledge, understanding and insight (da'at, chakhma, and tevuna) - are, according to Maharal, the meaning of the phrase in the Hagada of Pesach:  "ve-afilu kulanu chakhamim, kulanu nevonim, etc, (that we all would have to tell the story of the Exodus even if we were wise, insightful, and knowledgeable)."  It refers to the three distinct levels of Torah knowledge.  Of course, to explain that piece of the Hagada fully, we would have to consider why the three levels would be recorded that way rather than in ascending (or descending) level of excellence.



An aside - the terms chakhma, bina, and da'at that appear here are perhaps most famously connected to the Lubavitch Chasidim, whose founder stressed that in creating Chabad (the acronym for those three features) Chasidism.  The terms, however, were not his invention - there are several references to them just in Avot.  In addition, there is no consistent agreement as to what those terms mean - while some commentators see bina as a higher level than da'at, others see the reverse.  These are always important terms, but their exact definitions depend on the commentator being read.  I believe my space here is up.  Be-ezrat Hashem, we will complete this mishna next week.