Shiur #18: Maharal on Avot - Perek 2, Mishna 14

  • Rav Gidon Rothstein


Learn Torah assiduously (the phrase actually means something like "be ever-prepared and ever-assiduous in learning Torah," but that is not English); know what to answer a heretic; and know before Whom you toil, and your Employer is reliable in repayment of the reward for your labors.




Maharal does two things in this week's mishna.  First, he explains R. Elazar b. Arakh's three statements and then goes back to the other four students and re-explains their views, showing how each one provided advice for the guf (body), nefesh (soul), and the person as a whole.  I do not think it is worth belaboring each of those, so I will just mention the one I find the most interesting. 




An interesting fact I discovered during my doctoral research was that the first major commentator on Avot to introduce each of the rabbis quoted in the mishna - to give their background, who they were, what they did most famously, and so on - was R. Shimon b. Zema Duran in the late 1300's or early 1400's.  I have not, in this shiur, made a general practice of that, since Maharal does not, but I find R. Elazar b. Arakh so interesting a figure that I will allow myself a moment of introduction. 


     As we have seen, the simplest reading of the text is that R. Yochanan b. Zakkai (RYB"Z) thought of R. Elazar as the greatest of his students (at the very least, one version reports that this was his view; for a claim that R. Elazar and R. Eliezer were each greatest in a different aspect of Torah, see R. Yona).  Yet we find very few citations of R. Elazar b. Arakh in halakhic literature (in a CD-ROM check, I found 25 citations in Mishnaic and Talmudic literature, over half of which were from Avot or Avot de-Rabi Natan).


In Avot de-Rabi Natan (and elsewhere), a story is told to explain why:  when RYB"Z passed away, most of his students migrated to Yavneh, a place of Torah.  R. Elazar decided to go instead to a "beautiful" place (the Gemara does not actually say Hawaii, but it is that kind of place that was meant - a place of great physical beauty, but little Torah presence).  After living there a while, R. Elazar forgot his Torah to such an extent that when he was called up to read the Torah (remember that in the time of the mishna, getting called up to the Torah meant you actually had to read that portion for the congregation), he read the words HA-CHODESH HA-ZEH LAKHEM (this month shall be for you) as HA-CHERESH HAYA LIBAM (their hearts were deaf), thus making a mistake in one letter in each of the three words. 


In the Gemara's version, his friends prayed for him, and his wisdom was restored.  He became known as R. Nehorai because his eyes were re-enlightened in Torah.  It is in reaction to that incident, in fact, that the Gemara thinks R. Nehorai said (also in Avot) "hevei goleh limkom Torah," which most simply means "pick a place of Torah in which to live" (for a different view, see Rashi).


I mention the incident because I find it admonitory that this brilliant student - and other stories make it clear that R. Elazar b. Arakh was brilliant in a way that frequently astonished RYB"Z (who was no mean intellect himself) - could lose all of his Torah knowledge (and even if that is an exaggeration, losing his place of pre-eminence among the sages of his generation) simply by choosing to live in a backwater in Torah terms.




In his first run-through, Maharal explains the need for shekida, assiduousness, as a function of the way Torah works:   if you just learn when you happen to have free time, then you will not accomplish greatly in Torah.  This is not to discourage free-time learning - it is still a mitzva to learn whatever chance you get; Keriat Shema still speaks about be-shivtekha be-veitekha, u-velekhtekha va-derekh (sitting at home or walking along the road), whenever there is an opportunity.  Rather, it is saying that in terms of making great strides in Torah study, consistency and quantities of time are vital.  The second clause, responding to heretics, is to stop the spread of falsehoods (in this case, theological falsehoods) in the world, and the third clause (knowing before Whom, etc.) is to help stimulate our efforts in Torah study and performance. 


Maharal notes that by explaining the third clause as intending to provide stimulus to one's personal study, he has resolved a contradiction between this statement and Antigonos of Sokho's from the first chapter.  Antigonos says that we should worship God she-lo al menat le-kabbeil peras (without thought of reward), yet this mishna reminds us of reward.  Maharal, however, points out that he believes this mishna is just to help us psychologically, to strengthen our inclination to worship God and help us overcome our laziness, etc.  In this way, the reward is not the point of our service, but merely an aid to insuring that we actually act on our best intentions.  (Abravanel actually notes that the first mishna in the second perek does too, and it is there that he gives an answer very similar to Maharal's.)




I would make two points about Maharal's presentation thus far.  First, he stresses (and he is done so several times before in this series of mishnayot, from where RYB"Z asked his students to find the good path in life) that there statements are not based on umdena u-sevara (guesses or estimations), but rather established truth.  I point that out because it was important enough to Maharal to repeat several times, so I thought we should spend a moment considering why.  I have no proof, but I suspect that Maharal was bothered by the notion (certainly dominant in our times, and apparently in his as well) that it took guesswork to understand human nature and how to focus that nature on the worship of God.


To use modern analogies, if someone wanted to know about human nature, specifically in the context of how to worship God best, I suspect that many people would assume that rabbis make comments about the topic based on minimal "scientific" knowledge of the essence of humanity.  If I take a psychology course, then I may come to realize that humans do not work at all the way Chazal thought and therefore ignore their advice.  It is in this kind of atmosphere that I envision Maharal's repeating his stress that these are truth.


Whatever we will ever find about the psyche (and a hundred years of psychology has only strengthened this contention, it seems to me), those insights - some quite productive, enlightening, and useful - will not affect the relevance of these tannaim's recommendations about how to conduct a religiously productive life.  We may understand more deeply why those ideas work well in one age than in another - or we may emphasize different aspects of those commands in different ages - but their essential truth means that they are impervious to the vicissitudes of human knowledge.  Whatever we find out about ourselves, these statements will still hold true in some sense.




The other point I would make is how ordinary this reading of R. Elazar is - it takes each of the three clauses at face value and explains them.  Immediately after that, however, Maharal goes back to show how each of the tannaim was providing advice:  one directed at the soul, one at the body, and one at the person as a whole.  I do not wish to review each - I will take up a few interesting points in a moment - but let us notice what Maharal is doing and think about why.


Maharal is assuming that each mishna represents a complete whole, and that whole revolves around the same central themes, the different parts to a persona:  a physical part, a spiritual part, and the person as a whole.  There are two different (questionable) assumptions.  First, it is not necessarily true that every thinker, even one who has digested his worldview into three ideas, has unified those ideas in the way Maharal envisions (just having three good rules of thumb in life, without working them into a unified whole, seems like an accomplishment to me).  Second, if they are unified, then they do not have to share the same system (meaning R. Eliezer could have had his three talk about something different from R. Yosei, etc.), but Maharal is assuming that they all do.


I think the two points might be connected - Maharal's certainty that Chazal are articulating objective human truths is strengthened if those truths are referring to the three parts of a person that he (and Judaism generally) takes for granted. 




A couple of points from his review:  first, he sees R. Yosei's urging that we should care for someone else's money as adding to R. Eliezer's order that we care about others' honor; as Maharal says, R. Yosei is saying we have to care even about their money, which means that their money is less important than their honor.  I notice this because in other contexts, Judaism assumes that money is more important to people than their honor.


Second, Maharal (in discussing R. Yehoshua's rules that an evil eye, evil inclination, and hating others remove a person from the world) suggests that evil eye shows an excessive leaning towards the soul and that an evil inclination (generally in areas of sexuality, according to Maharal) leans too much to the physical.  The problem with these two, he adds, is that balance is what is necessary for life, and extremes lead to death.


All of that is fine, but Maharal mentions that the number six is the paragon of balance, and he quotes Ibn Ezra's explanation, that six is the first sum of all its factors (1+2+3=6 and 2x3=6 and 1x6=6; in mathematics, these are known as perfect numbers).  Maharal then says that it was because of this characteristic of six that the world was created on the Sixth Day.  I love ideas like that (regardless of whether or not I think they are objectively true) because they show such a creative approach to the world - it is all supposed to hang together, so there must be a reason and an explanation for everything.



The only other idea Maharal stresses here, on hatkein atzmekha lilmod Torah (prepare yourself for the study of Torah), is that it is an injunction towards the guf, the body, because it is the body that resists Torah study.  We already have seen Maharal's notions of the body as the limiting factor on religiosity, but this was particularly clearly stated:  we would all be lamdanim (learned people) if we were not physical beings.  Next week, we will leave RYB"Z's students, and discuss R. Tarfon.