Shiur #6: Perek 1, Mishnayot 10-11

  • Rav Gidon Rothstein




Shemayah and Avtalyon received from them.  Shemaya says: Love labor and abhor positions of power; and do not become well known to the government.




If the previous mishnayot had discussed judges, who as Maharal sees it have an established connection to people, Shemaya and Avtalyon take up the topic of power and the rabbinate:  the dangers inherent in having a position of power and the ways to avoid those dangers. 


The first step is to know that Maharal cites the gemara in Yoma that requires sages (or Torah scholars) to produce ahavat Hashem (the exact phrase is "the Name of Heaven should become beloved by your actions").  Maharal reads Shemaya as saying that the main element of a Torah scholar's being able to create love of God among one's contemporaries (as a Torah scholar) is by being self-sufficient.  He quotes a statement in the Talmud Yerushalmi that the Jews denied the legitimacy of Moshe's monetary wealth, assuming that he had gotten it from public monies.  Maharal points out that Moshe had become prosperous from pesolatan shel luchot, the leftover stone from when he hewed the Second Tablets which according to tradition made him wealthy.


In modern terms, we could add that aside from worrying about inappropriate expropriations, people also might worry about the undue influence created by accepting money from specific donors.  A self-sufficient leader could avoid those problems because he would not need any money. 




Maharal points out that had Torah scholars been self-sufficient, the people would not have been able to complain, and their respect for Torah would have increased.  Maharal adds, with no real connection to the Mishna, that the rabbinate's ability to give proper admonition similarly would have increased.  These comments, I would note, seem clearly directed at the rabbinate in Maharal's time.  From Maharal's perspective, their accepting a communal salary hampers the community's ability to hear their rabbis' messages and reduces the level of respect for Torah and of love of God.


Self-sufficiency in Maharal's view is not only a way to avoid the public's scorn, for it contributes positively to a person's life, as we will see.  First, Maharal notes that Shemaya does not say, "Make sure to work."  Instead, Shemaya says, "Love work."  Maharal takes that to mean that Shemaya sees a value in work, so we should appreciate the work we do and its value in our lives.




That value, self-sufficiency, explains another Talmudic statement.  The gemara in Berakhot notes that, according to Scripture, labor seems to produce better results for a person than fear of God - a surprising claim to say the least.  The Talmud notes that one verse says, "Ashrei ish yer'ei Hashem (Happy is a man who fears God)," but a different verse teaches, "Yegi'a kapekha ki tokhal, ashrekha ve-tov lakh (when you eat the labor of your hands, you will be happy and it will be good for you)."  Thus, one who fears God is described only as being happy, whereas labor is understood to bring both happiness AND benefit.


The Talmud there defines ashrekha, which we have translated as happiness, as being a characteristic of Olam Ha-zeh (this world), while tov lakh (good for you), refers to Olam Ha-ba (the next world).  That would mean, though, that the verse guarantees one who fears God only the status of ashrei, of having achieved a this-world quality.  Since no additional benefit is described for one fears God, his ability to gain a share in the Next World is still uncertain.


Maharal explains this apparent lack of appropriate reward to the God-fearer in two ways, the first being the self-sufficiency we already have discussed.  One who is self-sufficient develops a whole world of his own, so that person becomes an independent entity.  As such, the person achieves a higher reality than one who is not self-sufficient.  This higher reality includes a share in this world and the next.  This belief suggests that according to Maharal, all entities with true reality will survive into the next world; those who are self-sufficient, then, have attained that reality.  While the yer'ei Hashem, has not necessarily achieved a full share in the World to Come, he has learned important lessons about how to act and achieve the higher level.




Maharal's second explanation of the value of work is that one who lives off the work of his own hands also is ready to enjoy the Divine Presence.  At some level, this is a play on the word neheneh (benefits from or enjoys), since the terms for self-sufficient (enjoys the labor of his hands) and for the experience of the World to Come (enjoys the Glow of the Divine Presence) both use the same word.  At another level, I suspect he means that one who can appreciate the true values, as shown by his recognition of the importance of work and self-sufficiency, is more prepared for recognizing the ultimate value of the Creator in a way that others may not.


As a third value of work, Maharal says that one who is self-supporting comes to realize his dependence on God for his livelihood. That recognition leads to ahavat Hashem (love of God).




After describing the value of work, Maharal next explains Shemaya's warning against power.  First, he says without elaborating that power easily leads to sin.  He also cites Talmudic statements that say that power ends up limiting (or shortening) a person's time in this world, "Rabbanut koveret be'aleha (a position of power kills the one who holds it)."  Further, the powerful person is, by virtue of that power, cut off from the community and therefore misses out on communal blessings.  This separation also is the reason not to befriend the reigning powers.  Maharal sees them as completely self-absorbed, meaning they have no concern for the populace, and therefore they are even more removed from the communal relationship with God. 


As an avenue to ahavat Hashem, love of God, Shemaya has told us that work is a primary road to take.  Positions of power, and all the more so befriending people in such positions, are errors that will not take one to the proper goal.



Avtalyon says: Sages, be careful with your words, lest you become liable for exile, and the students who follow you will drink of the evil waters and die; and the Name of Heaven will be desecrated.




Continuing his theme that the first member of a pair teaches a positive message while the second teaches a protective one, Maharal sees Avtalyon as warning teachers of extra dangers that exist in exile.  In such a place - which Maharal defines as a strange and bad place - there is a greater likelihood of encountering improper students.


In Israel, those students would have been outweighed and nullified by the proper ones, but in exile, inappropriate student may rise to positions of leadership.  In such a scenario, the next generation will learn from those improper students and be taught improper lessons.  Note that Maharal does not worry about the first generation, since the teacher can correct any misimpression his words create.  The problem arises when improper students find the room to twist the teacher's words and then teach unsophisticated students who have no basis for distinguishing truth from falsehood. 


Maharal's reading explains two aspects of the Mishna differently from usual.  First, for Maharal, the hazard of exile is that it creates the possibility that improper students will end up as the conveyers of a teacher's legacy.  Second, the students who follow are those who learn from the original teacher's students.  In contrast, the standard understanding holds that exile is where the bad waters are, and students drink from it separately from their learning from the teacher.  In Maharal's reading, it is somewhat more unified a picture.



To connect Shemaya and Avtalyon even further, Maharal points out that Shemaya spoke of the problems in positions of power, while Avtalyon addressed those who hold power, warning them of the right way to wield it.  See you next week.