Shiur #24: Perek 3, Mishna 6

  • Rav Gidon Rothstein




R. Chalafta b. Dosa of the town of Chananya says: Ten who are sitting and discussing Torah, the Divine Presence rests among them, as the verse says: "The Lord stands in a gathering of God."  And how do we know even five?  As the verse says, "And His bunch established it on the Earth."  And how do we know even three?  As the verse says, "In the midst of judges, He will Judge."  And how do we know even two?  As the verse says, "Then those who fear God spoke to each other, and God attended and listened, etc."  And how do we know even one?  As the verse says, "In every place where I cause my Name to be mentioned, I will come to you and bless you."




This mishna deals with groupings of people by number and offers us a first chance to get a concentrated impression of Maharal's thoughts about numbers.  First, to get a basic understanding of some confusing parts of the mishna, we should note that there are two versions of how we prove that the Divine Presence joins a group of five and a group of three.  In our version, the verse for five reads ve-agudato al eretz yesadah (and his bunch established it on Earth), presumably with an aguda (bunch) referring to five because there are five fingers bunched in a hand.  Interestingly, though, in the other version, the proof-text for five is the verse we have for three (with commentators explaining that there are five judges in some cases, and an aguda can refer to three, the minimum number for a bunch).  The proof-text for two, I would note, is the same as we saw in the earlier mishna in this chapter.  For the lone student, however, the mishna does not use the verse in the earlier mishna, a fact that deserves explanation.




Maharal raises numerous questions about this mishna, most of them obvious to any attentive reader.  He wonders, if one person merits a visitation of the Divine Presence, then why does the mishna starts with ten and works its way down?  Granted that the mishna was going to do that, what is the significance of the stages it chose (what about groups of four, six, etc.)?  Maharal also does not immediately understand how the verse of va'agudato refers to five.  While other commentators had suggested that an aguda is the five fingers of the hand, which can be joined into one unit, Maharal does not mention this.  Finally, since the mishna uses the same proof-text for two here as earlier, why does it change proof-texts when it comes to one?




Although I recognize that our main goal in this shiur is to study Maharal's construction of these texts, I have an interpretation of the last part of this mishna of which I am perhaps inordinately proud; regardless, I would like to share it with you.


Note that in the previous mishna, the mishna did not start with ten.  More importantly, the mishna did not start with the positive qualities of Torah study.  Rather, that mishna started by saying that two who sit together without words of Torah create a moshav leitzim (gathering of idlers).  It occurred to me that the previous mishna and the current one are concerned with different aspects of the social gathering problem. 


In the other mishna, the concern was largely defensive:  people should avoid an instance where a gathering could be considered a negative event.  To avoid that label, the people at that gathering had to involve themselves with Torah.  The mishna mentions that when they do involve themselves in Torah, they will merit a visitation of the Divine Presence.  In that context, the single person who sits and learns is also simply avoiding the negative consequences of sitting and idling - for which he gets reward - a situation perfectly summarized by the verse, "yeisheiv badad ve-yidom, ki natal alav (he shall sit alone silently, for he shall garner reward for so doing)."


In our mishna, however, the focus seems to be on producing a visitation by the Divine.  The mishna starts with ten - the quorum for a minyan, as we will discuss in a moment - and goes down to one.  In that context, the single person is not sitting silently, but is attempting to create a presence of God.  The verse "yeisheiv badad ve-yidom" is not relevant, then, because a silent person does not create the presence of God; he (she) just avoids sitting idly.  The verse "be-kol hamakom asher azkir et shemi (in any place I cause My Name to be mentioned)," is therefore more appropriate.




When Maharal confronts these questions, he takes an approach different from mine.  First, he asserts (as others did as well) that each of the levels here indicates a different level of Divine involvement with the group.  What makes his approach so interesting is the way he defends those different levels.  First, though, let us pause to mention that it is not clear, in any of the sources I know, what is meant by different "levels" of the Divine Presence.  In one sense, it seems obvious that there would be greater and lesser closeness or presence of God, but it is an ill-defined concept that is worthy of more thought.




Maharal starts with ten, noting that it is the highest significant number in Jewish communal terms - ten Jews represent the entire Jewish people, and the Presence that joins such a group is the essential Divine Presence, the "hashra'at ha-shekhina."  Maharal does not mention this, but I think it is worth pointing out that this characterization of ten ignores indications that higher groups may also have meaning.  In the discussion of zimmun (the formal invitation by a group to say Grace After Meals) in the Talmud (Berakhot 49b), for example, R. Yosei Ha-gelili believed that we should adjust the text based on the number in the group.  In practice, we follow R. Akiva's opinion, which mandates that the text is the same, whether the group has ten or ten thousand members.  Our current mishna, according to Maharal, must follow the opinion of R. Akiva.


More importantly, we have a general principle that the larger the grouping giving praise to God, the greater the honor to Him created ("be-rov am hadrat melekh").  This means that if there are two shuls of equal quality (an impossibility, but it helps make the point), it is preferable to daven with the larger group.  In our case, apparently, the mishna does not see that principle as affecting the level of Divine Presence that joins the group.  That means that the Divine Presence does not come as a function of the honor to Him created (since a group of a million Jews that learns and praises to God creates a greater presence than one of ten), but simply as a response to a group's being representative of the Jewish people.


Below ten is five, three, two, and one.  Maharal deals with these numbers by claiming that each represents a significant level of unity over those that came before.  The numbers between one and ten that were left out did not add to the unity created (a group of six is in no meaningful way different from a group of five), and the numbers over ten are just add-ons to ten.




In what sense does five create a unity that four (or three) does not?  Maharal here mentions two aspects of the number five.  First, he points out that two is the first group (because one is just a single person, not a group) and that three is the first odd number (he calls it a number that is "nifrad;" I believe he means that you cannot match all the numbers to each other).  Five is the first number that combines an even and an odd (2 + 3 = 5), so that it embodies both aspects of numbers.  In this part of his discussion, then, Maharal is suggesting that the qualities of the number five give it a certain importance.  Since that number (or a group with that number of people) incorporates the two kinds of numbers, it has a quality significantly different from the previous numbers and therefore deserves a qualitatively different visitation by the Divine.


The second explanation adds a little bit to why the nature of the number should affect the nature of the Presence merited.  In the second explanation, Maharal notes that two is the first group, apparently giving it an advantage over one.  Three has a unity that two does not have - two can be at opposite ends, but with three there has to be a middle created (in two dimensions, three points cannot all be at opposite ends from each other).  Five, he says, has an added unity over three, in that five brings together the four points of a square, whereas three only brought together the two points of a line.  Thus, while four points can all be at their own space, the fifth one will unify them. 


It is not clear why Maharal configures three as two points unified by a third, rather than as a triangle.  Even if we grant that a triangle has a unity that a line does not, Maharal still seems to envision five as four with a point in the middle, rather than a pentagon, where there is seemingly an equal lack of unity as a square.  Further, in his reasoning, it is not clear why seven is not even more of a unifier in bringing together the separate points of a hexagon.



Regardless of all that, Maharal's assumptions are clear: the mishna's criterion for Divine Presence is the level of unity in the group.  At each significantly new level of unity, there is a corresponding jump in the level of Divine Presence.  The point of the mishna, then, is to make us aware of our need to join in a group to become closer to the Divine.  In fact, while the mishna seems to equate one person with the rest of the groups, Maharal assumes it only means what the previous mishna said, that one person gets reward for his personal study.  Joining a group in Torah study, in Maharal's world, is the way to get to enjoy hashra'at ha-shekhina, the essential Divine Presence.