Shiur #9: Perek 1, Mishnayot 16-18

  • Rav Gidon Rothstein




Rabban Gamliel used to say: Accept a teacher upon yourself; and remove yourself from uncertainty; and do not give excessive tithes by estimating.


Having finished the zugot, the mishna continues citing the comments of leaders of the Jewish people.  As Maharal notes, however, this list skips some leaders, since after Hillel, the nesi'im were (in order): Hillel's son Shimon, Rabban Gamliel of Mishna 16, his son Shimon (quoted in Mishna 17), another Rabban Gamliel, R. Yochanan b. Zakkai, and R. Shimon b. Gamliel (Mishna 18).  Maharal explains that each of those who were left out were not the sole leaders of their generation:  R. Yohanan b. Zakkai lived at the same time as R. Shimon b. Hillel; and R. Gamliel was in competition with R. Elazar b. Azarya, so he, too, is not quoted here.




Maharal's explanation assumes that the mishnayot are focusing on the sole leaders of the Jewish people, yet he had not been concerned about more than one leader when it came to the zugot - why should they be different?  His reference to R. Yochanan b. Zakkai as precluding R. Shimon b. Hillel suggests that he thinks of the zugot as more than just two people covering the whole tradition.  Rather, it was two people sharing responsibility for the tradition.  This explains, for example, the rigidity of his model that the nasi spoke about ahava (love of God) while the av beit din spoke about yir'a (awe of God).  As a description of how events naturally occurred, it seems odd that for several generations, the man who occupied the position of av beit din was more interested in yir'a, while the man who occupied the position of nasi was more interested in ahava.


With our insight into Maharal's notion of shared leadership in order to qualify as the representative(s) of tradition in any generation, we now understand better.  He was not claiming that the av beit din always WANTED to focus on yir'a; he was claiming that it was the av beit din's JOB to focus on yir'a.  The nasi, the senior partner, could then freely focus on ahava.




Although Maharal does not elaborate upon this notion, my interpretation of his view makes sense as a scheme of religious leadership.  What follows are thoughts of my own that I believe fit what Maharal has said rather than summaries of Maharal's words.  Ahava is generally seen as representing a higher religious level, where a Jew worships God out of a recognition of the Creator's greatness and a wish to become closer to that Being, to the Ultimate End of all existence. 


However, yir'a, a sense of awe before that Creator, is the vital first step.  We may sometimes go to minyan, study Torah, or perform other mitzvot out of a sense of enthusiasm and a desire to foster our relationship with God - and those are certainly religiously important moments.  However, day in and day out, it is a sense of obligation and concern for punishment that keeps us on the path of mitzvot, and that mindset prepares us for those moments of ahava.


The primary leader of the Jewish people, the nasi, took responsibility for articulating the highest possible religious vision, to inspire Jews to the greatest heights possible.  That was reasonable, however, only if there were someone else - the av beit din - to insure that Jews were also being reminded of their fundamental responsibilities.  He instilled the awe and described the path to follow so that the people could have an emotional experience strong enough to guarantee that they would reach not only for the heights, but would also live up to minimum standards.




Rabban Gamliel says that a person should make a master for him or herself (which we have seen before), avoid doubt, and not tend too much to tithe by estimation.  The obvious question in this mishna is why R. Gamliel simply repeated a notion we have seen before; also, what connection is there among these clauses?


Without reviewing other rabbis' solutions (these were issues that just about every commentator on Avot has raised), Maharal focuses on doubt and its avoidance as the concern of this mishna.  One can have doubts intellectually, in one's general actions, or specifically in mitzva contexts, and the mishna comes to encourage Jews to avoid living a life of doubt in each of these three areas.


Thus, the point of "Asei lekha rav" is to find a teacher to help one avoid intellectual doubt by identifying a teacher who will train one how to think clearly and correctly about issues.  The second clause, "ve-histalek min hasafek," teaches one to avoid doubt in life generally (not only in terms of mitzvot or questions of halakha).  The third clause - tithing, tells one that even when it is permissible to use guesses and estimation, one should avoid doing so (NOTE: Maharal here assumes that one is allowed to tithe by estimation, but Rambam and Shulchan Arukh rule that one may not).




Why is Maharal so convinced that doubt is the danger the mishna wishes us to avoid in all of our endeavors?  He says that a person of sekhel, a person who uses the intellect properly, should use it as sekhel barur, or clear intellect.  Doubt, in other words, shows a lack of intellectual clarity.  A person who either does not know how to think through an issue correctly, ponders his choices without a full knowledge or appreciation of their ramifications, and/or does not clarify mitzva actions fully, does not allow himself to develop as fully as possible.  Doubt then becomes the enemy of personal development, in that clarity means one knows one's actions fully and can use them as the springboard for greater personal growth.





Shimon his son says: All my days I have been raised among the Sages, and I found nothing better for a person than silence; study is not the main thing, practice is; and one who engages in excess words brings about sin.




Maharal sees Shimon as continuing his father's concern for the proper development of the intellect - when we speak, we are using a different power of the soul than when we think.  While we are speaking, we are not generally actively thinking.  In terms of developing ourselves, then, silence is the better avenue to such development.


That preference for silence might lead us to think that we should also prefer the life of the ivory tower, where we study all the time, developing our intellect, but not actually performing mitzvot.  The next clause therefore points out that only ma'ase, actions of mitzva, instill roots in our soul - so at some point the development of our intellect needs to be acted upon in order to really take root.  The action, then, is what finishes the lesson (like a slap on the face to "make the lesson go in," as they used to say on "Kung-Fu: The Legend Continues"), insuring that we are changed as a whole, not just in some theoretical portion of our person.


What Maharal said about silence before was an expression of a preference; choosing to ignore that preference (and speaking freely) was not an actual sin.  If one speaks excessively, however, that signifies that the person is emphasizing (or centralizing) speech and the characteristic of one's soul that feeds that faculty.  (For Maharal, different parts of the soul fuel different activities, and speech and thought stem from different areas of the soul).  In focusing on the "speaking soul" as the center, Maharal says, the person is sinning, because at least in emphasis, the "intellectual soul" has to take priority.





Rabban Shimon b. Gamliel says: The world endures because of three things:  truth, justice, and peace, as it is said: "Truth and the verdict of peace are you to judge in your gates."




The fundamental issue in this mishna is that it, too, seems to repeat an earlier statement.  While here R. Shimon b. Gamliel says that the world is kayam (remains established) because of truth, justice, and peace, we earlier learned (Mishna 2) that the world "stands" on Torah, avoda, and gemilut chasadim.


Maharal first states that this mishna is discussing how to keep society functioning well, rather than why the world was created.  Each of the three values in this mishna protects a different area of humanity.  Truth protects our intellects from decay, for Maharal actually says that we cannot have activated intellects in a world where falsehood reigns.  Justice protects people's money, although Maharal takes this one step beyond how we might have superficially read it.  Rather than meaning that courts protect our money from being stolen or cheated, Maharal says that courts are there to insure that everyone gets the financial stake in the world that God wanted. 


He does not elaborate how the courts are supposed to guarantee God's will, but in Maharal's view, there is a distinction between din (justice), and din emet le-amitato (a fully truthful judgement).  In the latter, the court not only adjudicates specific disputes but finds a way to distributive justice.  (I learned that phrase the year R. Lichtenstein was speaking of an honoree at the Gush dinner who was a lawyer, a profession of which he was at one time not particularly fond.  Speaking about a corporate lawyer, he spoke for a few minutes about how the law, at its best, functioned to promote "distributive justice" - a true statement, but irrelevant to the case at hand.) 


The last of the three pillars of human society, shalom, serves to protect people's bodies from each other:  when there is peace, people will not fight with each other and damage their bodies.  Maharal has thus separated the two similar mishnayot:  one describes the theoretical underpinnings of the world, while the other discusses the health of humanity and society.  He proceeds to relate this mishna to a more complex notion, the idea that there are three worlds:  this one, the world of the galgalim, and the Upper Realms.  His various permutations of that, however, do not seem particularly relevant to our concerns, so we will leave this mishna here and pick up with the second chapter next week, be-ezrat Hashem.