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Shiur #21: Perek 3, Mishna 2

  • Rav Gidon Rothstein


The mishna reads:


R. Chanina, the Segan Ha-Kohanim says:  Always pray for the welfare of the government, for if not for its fear, people would swallow each other up.  R. Chanina b. Teradyon says, "Two who sit together without words of Torah passing between them constitute a moshav leitzim (a gathering of idlers or mockers); for the verse says: "and in a gathering of idlers he did not sit."  But two who sit together and words of Torah pass among them, the Shekhina (the Divine Presence) is among them; for the verse says, "then fearers of God spoke one to the other, and God attended and listened; and it was written down in the Book of Memory before Him for the fearers of God and those who value His Name."  That only tells us about two, how do we know that even one who sits and studies, the Holy One Blessed be He establishes a reward for him?  For the verse says, "He shall sit alone and be silent, for he shall receive (reward) for it."




There are two distinct parts to this mishna (which are actually separate Mishnayot in some printings), so we will take them separately (within this e-mail).  In the first, we hear from R. Chanina Segan Ha-Kohanim.  The Segan Ha-Kohanim was very much like the vice president in that his primary function was to be there in case the Kohen Gadol became incapacitated - such as by becoming ritually impure.  In one important difference, the Segan was also required to stand near the Kohen Gadol on official occasions, as part of the pomp and circumstance surrounding the Kohen Gadol.  R. Chanina orders us to pray for the welfare of the government, for without it, people would swallow each other alive.




In the simplest reading of the statement, R. Chanina was simply expressing his view of human nature, that people cannot coexist smoothly without some well-established form of government.  That, however, is not enough for Maharal.  He cites an interesting gemara in Tractate Sanhedrin, which questions why God created a single human rather than many, as happened with all the other species of animals.  The gemara says that by creating one human being, God showed the importance of people, that if anyone kills a human being, it as if they have destroyed an entire world.  Second, the gemara suggests, had God created many human beings, people would have used their differing lineage to fuel claims to superiority; since we all came from one person, there is no support for such a claim.  [This reading of R. Chanina has interesting applications to Maharal's time, when lineage was certainly important in determining a person's station in life.]  Third, had God created many people, heretics would have claimed there was more than one God. 


Fourth, the gemara points out that creating humanity through one person effectively contrasts God's creations with people's.  When people want to mint many coins, they make one mold, producing a multitude of objects that look exactly the same.  God made one mold (Adam) and produced a multitude of people, all of whom differ recognizably from the other.  Therefore, the gemara says, every person has to say, "The world was created for me."


Maharal questions several aspects of this text, which will lead him back to the main topic, the mishna about the need for government.  First, he says, the notion that creating one person shows only that at the start of Creation, had anyone killed that person, it would have been like killing an entire world.  If, however, there are millions (or billions and billions, as Carl Sagan was most famous for saying) of people, then what is the relevance of the original creation?  In what sense is a murderer killing an entire world?


Second, the point about lineage again only works in that generation - there are certainly differences of lineage nowadays, so what did God's creation help?  Third, why would God's creating two or more people have led to a belief in more than one God?  Finally, why does God's ability to produce different people from the same mold seem so impressive?




The key to all those questions - and to the question of government - lies in Maharal's view that a single human being (meaning humanity) could have been fully self-sufficient.  That is, while all the other animals were created in multitude because they were there to populate the Earth, man (in theory) could have run the world on his own, much as a single king rules over many subjects.  Maharal cannot (I think) mean this literally, since God gave Adam and Eve the command to be fruitful, etc., before their sinning in Gan Eden, so it seems that procreation was a part of humanity's role even before it was removed from the Gan.


I believe instead that Maharal is making a theoretical statement, although no less true.  While the Earth as a whole was meant to be fully populated and fully conquered, man (and here I assume he means the man-woman unit, since it is fairly clear in the gemara that they were either created together and separated or that man was incomplete until woman was created) is a self-sufficient creation, without any necessary need for others.  (This, by the way, is in sharp contrast to the Rambam, who agrees with Aristotle that people can flourish only in a social context.)


Once we know this view, we can see that the gemara means that it was to make that point clear that God created a single human unit, rather than many.  By doing so, He made clear the value of each human life (although I suppose in my formulation you could claim that only if one killed or saved a man-woman unit would that be considered as saving or destroying an entire world).  So, too, had several such units been created - each theoretically self-sufficient and capable of ruling the world - it would have suggested rival powers, each putting a representative on Earth, etc.  Of course, in this view, "bishvili nivra ha-olam (for me the world was created)" is just an expression of our basic humanity, in which each of us is a world ruler.




That understanding of human self-sufficiency explains why government is necessary to prevent people from destroying each other.  Every person's legitimate ability to view him or herself as a complete whole, without any essential need for others, could lead easily to anarchy, where nobody feels any need to respect the rights of others (we are back to Hobbes, only now Maharal has identified the underlying attitude that would lead to that view - each person's self-reliance and narrow frame of reference).  Government is supposed to remind us that we need to respect others' self-sufficiency as much as our own.


In this reading, Maharal can also explain why R. Chanina came right after Akavya - since both were talking about pride.  You will remember from last week that Akavya gave three ideas to consider and Maharal saw them all as ways to avoid pride.  Now R. Chanina comes along to point out that pride in oneself (and here it might even be somewhat appropriate pride) is the reason for the breakdown of civilization. 




Having created such a nice connection between R. Chanina and Akavya, Maharal concedes that they might be juxtaposed simply because they lived around the same time.  What is interesting about this (to me) is that Maharal has based his whole interpretation of this mishna on the attempt to show that it is pride in themselves and their self-sufficiency that lead people to mistreat others and to need government to rein them in.  The beauty of that structure was that it then connects back to the previous mishna.  When he now concedes that it might simply be an accident of chronology, it suggests that Maharal's whole analytical framework may not be necessary. 


Theoretically, that could have meant that he would give an alternate reading of why people would kill each other unless restrained by government, but Maharal does not.  Also theoretically, he could have combined the two points, conceding that the two rabbis are placed near each other because they lived at the same time, but that their chronological coincidence fueled their thought.  That would have meant that both were concerned with issues of pride precisely because they lived at a time when that was a problem for their community.




The mishna then moves to the saying of another tanna, R. Chanina b. Teradyon, that two who sit together without words of Torah constitute a moshav leitsim, but that the Shekhina (the Divine Presence) joins two who share words of Torah.  Maharal first questions why the mishna starts with the negative - two who do not have Torah between them.  Second, he questions the difference between two and one, in that two merit the Divine Presence, whereas with one the mishna says only that God establishes a reward. 


The crux of Maharal's answer is that Torah is most complete when it is communicated to someone else.  While a single person could speak out loud when studying (and there are texts that indicate that one should study out loud), Maharal does not seem to place too much emphasis on such study.  Ordinarily, or at least often, he says, a single person will not speak out loud when studying.  Even if he does, speaking words of Torah does not simply mean vocalizing them, it means sharing them with someone else.




Therefore, Maharal says, when two sit together, there is the first expectation that there will be the opportunity for complete Torah.  When that is available, neglecting to study that Torah will call down upon oneself the opprobrium of being considered a gathering of idlers.  In reverse as well, when two study together, they complete the Torah, by making sure that it is not just understood, but communicated, and God joins complete Torah.


There are two beautiful aspects to this idea that are worth lingering over.  First, Maharal's idea that Torah is incomplete unless communicated wipes away the possibility that Talmud Torah is an activity engaged in solely for personal growth (I do not mean what the people's motives are, I mean what the Torah's motives are in requiring it).  It is, rather, an activity that is meant to increase the presence of Torah in the world at large - when one person understands some piece of Torah, that is not even half as good as if two share it together.  It is only when it is communicated that the Torah quotient of the world is raised and (therefore? Maharal does not quite say that, but it works) that the Divine Presence attends to what they are doing.


Second, Maharal believes that Torah's unitary and necessary nature connects it to the Divine Presence.  That is, Maharal claims that Torah is necessarily the way it is and could not be any other way.  That unity of Torah (meaning that it all hangs together perfectly and could not be otherwise) is what connects it to God.  I find that claim interesting because it suggests - and this is a long-standing question, but it is always interesting to see another perspective - that there is really only one Torah, and that disputes within Torah are all attempts to discover that original intent of the Divine Will.


Historically, many traditional scholars have had more pluralistic perspectives - beginning with the Ramban and the Ran.  [An interesting, though intellectually challenging discussion of this concept is a book by A. Sagi, called "Elu Va-Elu"; Moshe Koppel's "Meta-Halakha" also deals with many of these issues, suggesting that there is an open element to Torah that was not pre-determined.]  Maharal's assumption that Torah is as it is and could be no other way takes a firm stand the other way.




Since Maharal has made it clear that he does not see the lone student of Torah as reaching the level of having a full Torah study experience, what is that person doing, and how does that relate to his reward?  Maharal notes that the verse that the mishna quotes to support its contention about one person is not about study, it is about kabbalat ol malkhut shamayim (accepting upon oneself the yoke of Heaven).  He suggests, therefore, that in sitting and studying, the person is refraining from negative activity and responding to a Divine command to involve oneself in Torah.  This is akin to accepting the yoke of Heaven upon himself (that person is also making possible a later communication of his Torah to somebody else, but that is not what he is doing right then).  He therefore gets reward in that way.  This again highlights Maharal's view that in studying all alone (without communicating with another), a person is not fundamentally engaged in the study of Torah that God sought.  God sought a Torah that raised the presence of Torah in the world, a feat that can only be accomplished by sharing with another.



The next mishna continues this theme, with the question of Torah's presence at meals.  See you then.