Shiur #3: Perek 1, Mishnayot 3 and 4

  • Rav Gidon Rothstein




Antigonus of Sokho received [the tradition] from Shimon Ha-tzaddik.  He used to say: Be not like servants who minister to their master for the sake of receiving a reward, but be like servants who minister to their master not for the sake of a reward, and let the fear of Heaven be upon you.




Yose ben Yo'ezer of Tzereda and Yose ben Yochnan of Jerusalem received [the tradition] from them.  Yose ben Yo'ezer of Tzereda says: Let your house be a meeting place for sages, cover yourself with the dust of their feet and drink in their words thirstily.


In Mishna 3, Antigonos of Sokho receives the tradition from Shimon Ha-tzaddik.  Maharal notes that we can tell Antigonos' greatness by the scope of his advice, which addresses an issue that affects the entire world, rather than a particular area of life.  Antigonos says not to be like servants who work for a master for the reward, but like ones who work for the master not for the sake of the reward.  Since the Master in question is the Creator, Antigonos' advice, while directed at people, encompasses a central aspect of how the world should work.


Embedded in Maharal's comment is the notion that the broadness of our perspective says something about who we are.  The most profound thinker, if he focuses on minutiae, is in some sense smaller minded than his colleague who casts his net more widely.  Specifically in Avot, later rabbis will give advice that focuses on narrower aspects of life, and this will partially demonstrate for Maharal the continuing yeridat ha-dorot, decline of the quality of thinking in subsequent generations.


Turning to Antigonos' actual statements, Maharal questions its truth: Are we really required to worship God with no thought of reward?  Maharal offers two sources that seem to contradict this notion — in Keriyat Shema we say, "le-ma'an yirbu yemeikhem vimei veneikhem," that we keep the Torah SO THAT our days and the days of our children will be multiplied, clearly indicating that the Torah had no problem with predicating our observance on the reward.


Second, the Talmud says that if one gives charity so that his child will be healthy, the person is a tzaddik gamur, a fully righteous person.  Again, there seems to be no problem with focusing on the reward in the course of performing the action of mitzva.


Maharal answers that Antigonos is speaking of how to worship God me-ahava, out of love.  That level, he notes, is higher than that of a tzaddik gamur, a fully righteous person, since righteousness is understood as doing what is required - no less, but no more, either.  Worship out of love, though, means going a level beyond the required.  While it may be acceptable to give charity looking for a positive personal outcome, that does not qualify as worship me-ahava.


The verse in keriyat shema from the Torah requires a different answer, since the word "le-ma'an" most simply means "in order that."  In this reading, the Torah says to study Torah, wear tefillin, put mezuzot on our doors, and keep mitzvot so that we have length of days.  How could the Torah predicate its encouragement to observance on reward, if that takes us out of the category of worship me-ahava?


Maharal points out that "le-ma'an" does not always mean "so that;" sometimes it simply notes cause and effect.  Here, then, he would read the verse as saying only, "The result of your doing these mitzvot will be that you and your children have length of days, etc."  There is a clear difference between knowing the result of your action and performing that action for the sake of that result.


Casting Antigonos as speaking about how to worship God me-ahava also helps explain the form of the Mishna, in two ways.  First, Antigonos includes both halves of the notion of a slave's worshipping the master - he says both, "Don't be like the slave who works for the reward" and "Be like a slave who works with no thought of the reward."  Maharal says the second half is necessary for one of two reasons.  Possibly, it stresses that worship me-ahava means worship with absolutely no interest in reward, but only in serving the Master (there are some versions of the Mishna that read "al menat she-lo le-qabbel" — with the specific thought not to get reward).  Alternatively, it points out that the "al, don't" in the first clause is not a prohibition, but rather it is a recommendation of a higher path.  Had the clause been written on its own, we might have thought Antigonos was actively prohibiting that kind of Judaism (doing it for the reward); by writing the positive side, it becomes clear that this advice is only for those who wish to worship me-ahava.


Reading Antigonos as focusing on worship me-ahava also explains the odd second part of the Mishna, "vi-yehi mora shamayim aleikhem, and let the fear of Heaven be upon you."  In the previous two Mishnayot their three dicta seemed to form two distinct sets; here, there is no obvious set.  Once Maharal cast the first part of the Mishna as describing worship me-ahava, we understand that this looks toward the other side of worship, me-yir'ah, out of awe of God.


Maharal adds that while Shimon Ha-tzaddik spoke about the existence of the whole world, Antigonos spoke about the perfection of man, the purpose of the world.  I believe Maharal is saying that there was a decline here, from focusing on the world as a whole to focusing on people in particular (admittedly central to the world, but not the whole of it).  That is only true for those readings of the previous Mishna that saw it as actually discussing the health of the world as a whole.  Maharal had entertained the notion that Torah, avoda, and gemilut hassadim help to perfect people, and that this in turn helps the world.  In this comment, though, he assumes that Shimon was more concerned about the world at large than was Antigonos.


Finally for this Mishna, Maharal notes that Antigonos, as one person, addressed both ahava and yir'ah, love and awe.  The coming Mishnayot, which will present the pairs of rabbis who led the Jewish people in Torah knowledge, will split those areas, so that one will discuss ahava and one will discuss yir'ah.  How Maharal will impose this structure on the statements in the Mishna is something we will have to follow carefully.


Mishna 4 introduces the first pair, Yose b. Yo'ezer and Yose b. Yohanan.  Maharal notes that there are two versions of the beginning of this Mishna, one that reads that these two "kibbelu mehem," received the tradition from THEM, and the other says "mimenu," from HIM.  If the Mishna correctly reads mimenu, from him, it means that this pair received the tradition from Antigonos.  In that scheme, Maharal explains that the Anshei Kenesset Ha-gedola were a group where each member had a complete transmission of tradition; in the zugot, we have pairs where each has only a partial reception (a return to the notion of partial reception we had in the first Mishna).  To create some sort of buffer between these two kinds of groups, there was a generation with only a single leader (Antigonos), but he received the entire tradition.  In this reading, Maharal has again focused on the passage of the generations, and the progressive decline that we see.  Of course, he recognizes the other possibility and explains that "them" would refer to Antigonos and Shimon, who would be the people from whom this pair received the Torah.


The Mishna then records Yose b. Yo'ezer's statements, to have one's household be a meeting place for hakhamim, to roll in the dust of their feet (an idiom that obviously needs interpretation), and to drink thirstily of their words.  Maharal notes that while Antigonos focused on people themselves and how they should worship God, Yose focuses on the household, the center of people's activities (in our times, he might have spoken of how to set up a workplace correctly).  His advice is to make a household where chakhamim, Sages, are present often, but not to treat them as friends.  His reading of the words "ve-hevei mit'abeq be-'afar ragleihem," - become dusted with the dust of their feet, - is that a person should try to attach to the Sages' lowest part (meaning, recognizing that Torah sages are greater than we are, and develop as much of a relationship as possible).  We should think of them, he says, as the sekhel (inteleect) to our guf (body).


The sekhel/guf contrast will come up at other times as well, so let us spend a moment on it.  In Maharal's world, the sekhel, or intellect (which probably includes emotions and spirituality, not only pure thinking), is the central human feature.  It is where the real business of being human takes place.  The guf, or body, is vital, since there can be no sekhel without the body.  Nevertheless, the guf itself does not perform central functions of our humanity — it is a necessary but subordinate part of the human experience.  [Let me say here, since it will become important later in Avot, that the subordinate status depends on the role played by the body; if we could conceive of a system in which the body also functions essentially to developing a relationship with God, then Maharal's distinction might be mitigated.]


Maharal uses the terms sekhel and guf generally to refer to a similar split, probably most accurately translated as soul and body in English — where the soul works toward the goal of the endeavor, while the body is the subordinate part necessary for, but not central to, accomplishing that goal.  When he refers to chakhamim as the sekhel to others' guf, he is again betraying his Torah study-centered view of the world.  Since Torah study is central to a fully lived Jewishness, the Sages become like the soul to our body, since we create the Jewish environment for them to flourish.



That picture of our relationship to Sages also explains the command to drink thirstily of their words.  Thirst, Maharal points out, is the experience of lacking water, an essential nutrient.  As we realize our lack of Torah knowledge, we will gravitate to talmidei chakhamim to hear words of Torah from them, not as a fulfillment of a commandment or as a meritorious activity, but because we perceive the lack in ourselves that needs filling.  This week we have seen in Antigonos' words what the Maharal understands to be a decline in focus from his mentor: whereas Shimon Ha-tzaddik gives advice on how to improve the world as a whole, Antigonos focuses his advice on how the individual can serve God out of awe and love.  In the next generation, we learned this week what one half of its leadership recommends for establishing one's household.  Next week we will see how the Maharal construes the other half of this generation's Torah leadership.