Shiur #5: Perek 1, Mishnayot 6-9

  • Rav Gidon Rothstein




Yehoshua the son of Perachya and Nitai Ha-arbeli received from them.  Yehoshua b. Perachya was wont to say: Make for yourself a teacher, acquire for yourself a friend, and judge all people meritoriously.


These mishnayot are fairly brief, so I thought we could cover more ground than usual this week.  Yehoshua b. Perachya and Nitai Ha-arbeli are the next pair of leaders cited, and remember that Maharal has decided that the first of each pair will discuss issues of ahavat Hashem (love of God), while the second focuses on yir'at Hashem (awe of God).  I say "Maharal has decided" because the text of Avot does not in any way force that conclusion.  As we watch Maharal develop his analytic framework for Avot, we have to keep track of the choices he makes and the consequences of those choices.  One such consequence will arise by the end of this week's lesson.


Maharal questions the change in the mishna's verb for finding a teacher and a friend.  One must asei (make) a teacher, but one must kenei (acquire) a friend.  Maharal also is bothered by how the three parts of the mishna connect - what does judging others have to do with teachers and friends?  As usual, Maharal finds an overall construct for this mishna, and uses it to explain the specifics.  He suggests that this mishna focuses on people's relationships to society at large (as opposed to the household discussion we saw in previous weeks).  In those terms, Yehoshua b. Perachya was suggesting that how a person relates both to those closest and those more distant plays a role in developing one's ahavat Hashem.




Focusing on the word asei, Maharal says that it means that even if the only available teacher is not fully qualified, one should make him his rav anyway.  Why would Yehoshua b. Perachya tell us to appoint someone who is not fully worthy?  The Maharal says the reason is that it is so important to have a designated leader to consult for continuing advice on one's spiritual development.


The same principle applies to friendship:  it is so important to have friends that one should not insist on their having absolutely perfect qualifications.  Here, however, since the relationship will be much closer to that of peers, the verb "acquire" is more appropriate.  Maharal notes that the mishna does not say "make for yourself a student," because it did not wish to imply that people should set themselves up as rabbis if they were not worthy.  Maharal adds that in his day, this problem actually occurs - a comment on his view of the rabbinate of the sixteenth century (as a rabbi, I suppose I am precluded from commenting on whether that situation still exists today).




Now that one has learned how important it is to establish a close relationship with the rav and the chaver, the mishna teaches one not to be aloof from other people either:  the way to keep from separating from other is to judge them benevolently.  In addition, Maharal says, learning to judge others with a nice eye makes it easier to maintain relationships with rebbeim and friends.


How does all of this relate to ahavat Hashem, the topic Maharal claimed that Yehoshua b. Perachya was addressing?  Developing relationships with true ahava teaches us how to develop such an experience with God as well.  Maharal does not elaborate, and I assume that this works differently for each of us.  I would just stress that he means that our relationships with others are not only inherently important, but they also teach us traits of character that we can apply in our relationship with God.


A Torah-u-madda moment.  Jon Kabat-Zinn is an author and a practitioner of Zen meditation.  I would say Buddhism, but I do not think it is quite true.  I think there are many people in America today who meditate with Zen notions in mind, but who have separated the meditation and the personal lessons they teach from the religion from which it grew.  It would be akin to those who - and I know of such people - perform mitzvot because of their personal value, but with no attachment to the religion as a whole.  Anyway, Dr. Kabat-Zinn says that child-raising can be a Zen teacher, as our reactions to our children can teach us about ourselves in the most profound way.  Here, Maharal would be saying a similar thing about relationships in general.  Of course with the difference that for Maharal, it is not just a question of self-knowledge - it is a question of developing ahavat Hashem.



Nitai of Arbel says: Distance yourself from a bad neighbor; and do not befriend an evildoer; and do not despair of punishment.


Noting another difference in verbs - we have to actually harcheik (distance) ourselves from a bad neighbor, but al titchabeir (do not befriend) an evildoer - Maharal says that with a neighbor, it is our physical proximity that creates a connection, so we have to avoid that situation.  With other people, however, simply knowing an evil person does not affect us negatively - it is only befriending such a person, developing a relationship with him/her, that will damage us spiritually.


Aside from the social connections we choose to cultivate, we also need to keep in mind the existence of punishment for our negative actions, or sins, which is what al titya'eish (do not despair) of punishment means.  Even in the best social circumstances, there will be temptations to sin, and remembering future punishment will help stave off that sin.  Maharal stresses that the mishna does not mean that we have to constantly fear punishment; it only means that we need to carry the knowledge of future punishment with us, so that we do not neglect our religious duties. 


Reading Maharal's explanation of Nitai shows how this complements what came before.  While Yehoshua taught people how to set up a social circle that supported and promoted ahavat Hashem, Nitai tells us of the pitfalls that will hurt our yir'at Hashem within our social interactions and suggests ways to avoid them.




Yehuda b. Tabbai and Shimon b. Shetach received from them. Yehuda b. Tabbai says: Do not make yourself like one of those who arrange the judgement; and when the litigants are standing before you, consider them evil; and when they are leaving your presence, consider them innocent, when they have accepted the judgement of the court.


This pair, Yehuda b. Tabbai and Shimon b. Shetach focus on insuring the proper functioning of the courts, which for Maharal's scheme is one step further removed from the household (the last pair covered social relationships, this one covers more distant relationships, since it is about court cases).  Yehuda b. Tabbai warns judges not to help people prepare their court cases.  That is, judges should not act as orekhei ha-dayanim (lawyers), because people have to make their own claims and not have someone else build the case for them. 


[An aside - in the Jewish version of justice each litigant tells the judges his claim, which they then evaluate.  The judges, conversant with the Halacha, ask the necessary questions to get at the truth, and the litigants and witnesses simply answer as truthfully as possible.  The worry the mishna has about someone helping them prepare is that that person will teach the litigant how to tailor his assertions to the requirements of halakha.  In this system, in other words, the ignorance of the participants is a good thing, since it prevents them from attempting to misuse the Law for their own purposes.  This contrasts markedly with the adversarial American system, where lawyers are essential to eliciting all the relevant information.]


The second piece of Yehuda b. Tabbai's instruction is to view the litigants as evildoers to prevent judges from having the same benevolent attitude towards the litigants during a case that they would ordinarily have towards people at large.  A reason for this approach, Maharal says, is that being a litigant in a court case indicates a certain lacking in a person.  Presumably, one should try to avoid carrying a litigation through to its bitter conclusion and instead find a peshara (compromise).  The status of a litigant is reversed, though, when he accepts a judgment, because of the great challenge presented by this act of subjecting his will to the court.  When the litigant demonstrates this high quality of character, the judge is then permitted to think well of him.



Shimon b. Shetach says: Engage in extensive examination of the witnesses, but be careful with your words, lest from them they [the witnesses] learn to lie.


Shimon b. Shetach demands a full investigation of the witnesses to make sure that all relevant facts are covered.  He also worries that in the course of examining the witnesses, the judge will end up revealing to them what he wants to hear.  Therefore, the judge is warned to ask many questions, but to be careful that those questions do not reveal to the parties and/or witnesses the direction in which he wants the answer to go.




The focus of the recommendations by Yehuda b. Tabbai and Shimon b. Shetach are not so clearly different from each other, which they should be if Maharal is correct that one member of each pair is talking about actions that create ahavat Hashem and the other about injunctions to avoid violating yir'at Hashem.  Here, that would mean that one of these two is talking about how to create accurate, valid judgement, while the other is finding ways for us to avoid creating avel ba-mishpat, miscarriages of justice.  Instead, Yehuda is not offering positive steps, with Shimon offering injunctions.  For example, Yehuda warns against being among the orekhei ha-dayanim(lawyers), which sounds like an injunction, and Shimon demands that judges be marbe lachkor (ask many questions) of the witnesses, which sounds like an order.


Maharal offers two answers to the problem.  First, he notes a debate in the gemara as to whether Yehuda was the Nasi or the Av Bet Din.  Possibly, Avot follows the opinion that Yehuda b. Tabbai was the Av Bet Din, which would mean that he was offering injunctions to help avoid miscarriages of justice, and Shimon was providing the reverse, ways to insure achieving the highest and most perfect justice.  Although simple, the answer is weak, for Yehuda clearly is listed first, indicating that he was the Nasi.  We see how the Maharal's confining himself to a rigid, yet elegant analytic framework has its drawbacks.  Without judging Maharal's claim that the Nasi addressed ways to achieve ahavat Hashem and the Av Bet Din ways of avoiding violating yir'at Hashem, we can see how Maharal had to ignore the simplest indication of the order of the text.


Maharal's second solution is to follow the other opinion in the Talmud, that Yehuda b. Tabbai was the Nasi, but in fact he does address questions of ahavat Hashem.  How so?  Acting in the ways he suggests (e.g. not acting as a lawyer) will contribute to producing a more valid judgement.  In this version, then, Maharal concedes that it is not always positive actions that promote ahava and injunctions that protect yir'a; sometimes it is an avoidance (of being lawyer) that helps achieve a state of ahava (good justice) and a positive act (careful questioning of witnesses) that protects one's yir'a.  In this situation, Maharal concedes one fact of his analytical framework, although he has kept his larger assumption that one of the pair would focus on ahava and the other on yir'a.


See you next week.