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December 21, 2014 / 29 Kislev, 5775
 
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Posts Tagged ‘Pirkei Avot’

Pirkei Avot: Midat Sedom

Tuesday, June 17th, 2014

By Rav Moshe Taragin

The fifth perek begins by noting that “ten declarations accompanied the creation of the world”; based on this introduction much of the remainder of the perek provides other enumerations and listings of this nature. Mishna 10 enumerates four attitudes governing human beings and the manner in which they interact with one another. As the mishna announces, “There are four postures which characterize Man… ” As always, clarity resides at the extremes; the extreme positions at either end – the pious (“what is mine is yours, and what is yours is yours”) and the wicked (“what is mine is mine, and what is yours is yours”) – require little elaboration. The intermediate positions, however, require more attention.

(1) “Sheli sheli ve-shelkha shelkha” (“What is mine is mine, and what is yours is yours”)

This is perhaps the most intriguing of the four categories, especially in light of a perceived disagreement among the Tana’im. Unlike the soon-to-be-mentioned chassid (pious individual), who freely shares his resources with others, this individual protects the rights of others while preserving his own estate. What is so problematic about this disposition that it is described as midat Sedom – an attribute of the corrupt city of Sedom? Indeed, one opinion in the mishna describes him accurately as a ‘beinoni‘ – one who adopts a moderately admirable position which doesn’t aspire to great virtue, but also does not descend to degeneracy. In fact, as Rashi himself comments, the willingness to abstain from the resources of others and achieve financial independence is, itself, noteworthy and reminiscent of the career of Shemuel Ha-navi. As the gemara in Berakhot (10b) describes, Shemuel would always travel with a portable, tent-like abode, as well as a full range of domestic utensils, to avoid material dependence on others. That same gemara allows a different posture – the one adopted by Elisha, who DID embrace the gracious generosity of others. However, one senses a subtle and implicit preference for the stance of Shemuel – a stance highlighted by the attitude of this portrait – “What is mine is mine, and what is yours is yours.” The first opinion in the mishnah does not view this attitude as unpardonable.

As mentioned, however, the mishna quotes an opinion which likens this behavior to the populace of Sedom. Even acknowledging certain concerns which this attitude may evoke, it seems astonishing that this fairly innocuous position should be equated with the complete moral corruption of Sedom. After all, this person vows to uphold the law and carries the banner of the protection of basic human rights. In what manner can this be compared to Sedom??

In his work Netivot Olam, the Maharal portrays the swift deterioration of the culture of Sedom. This polis witnessed a rapid economic boom creating an environment of universal affluence. Able to service their own respective needs and breaking free of dependence upon others, this culture abolished the notion of chesed.

Sacrifice for others presumes the presence of need; people without their own dependencies lose the ability to locate need in others and completely sever themselves from the world of chesed. Once disengaged from that world, the population of Sedom experienced an inevitable descent into the world of selfishness, ruthlessness, and both moral vice and religious breakdown. According to the Maharal, their inability to perform chesed catalyzed their fall into a pit of immorality and precipitated their eradication from history.

Confirmation of the Maharal’s position and of the second recorded opinion of the mishna stems from the legal institution known as lifnim mi-shurat ha-din. Based on a pasuk in Vaetchanan – “You shall perform what is noble and moral in the eyes of Hashem” (Devarim 6:18) – halakha recognizes the ideal of lifnim mi-shurat ha-din – the moral calling to behave beyond the letter of the law. Both Rashi and the Ramban, in their respective commentaries to Devarim, acknowledge this value, and several gemarot describe situations in which Sages opted to pay even when they were innocent, or to waive monetary obligations (see Bava Metzia 30b and 83a). Though this behavior seems optional and is recorded as the voluntary choice of a pious elite, the gemara does recognize certain minimum ‘options’ which halakha is willing to enforce universally. This minimum level of lifnim mi-shurat ha-din is known as ‘kofin al midat sedom” (literally, “we block attempts to behave as in Sedom”). For example, the gemara in Bava Metzia (108a) awards first right of land purchase to an adjacent neighbor. The original owner cannot freely sell his land parcel on the open market, since it is more valuable to an adjacent neighbor who can potentially combine the contiguous lands and create one larger, more economically fertile tract. Insistence on selling to another would constitute midat Sedom and is actively prevented. A second example (see, among other gemarot, Bava Kama 20b) concerns a homeless person who has squatted in an empty apartment which was not available for rent. Compelling retroactive payment for residence would constitute Sedom-like behavior and is disallowed. “After all,” we challenge the owner, “zeh neheneh ve-zeh lo chaser” – “this one (the squatter) has profited, and the other (the homeowner) has not incurred a loss).” The gemara applies these restraints in a universal fashion, asserting an extra-legal minimum expected of everyone. It also spotlights Sedom as the antithesis of this attitude.

Instinctively, extralegal moral behavior may be justified for three different reasons – and the Maharal targets one of them. Firstly and perhaps most importantly, morality should be pursued on its own merits and as a self-sufficient goal. As the Ramban, in his commentary to that pasuk, already notes, this summons echoes the directive of ‘Kedoshim tihyu‘ (Vayikra 19:2), which itself expects extralegal behavior in the realm of bein adam la-Makom.

Legally, a hedonistic and self-indulgent lifestyle may be pursued in complete violation of the spirit of the law. Cautioning against this, the Torah demands that we act not just halakhic, but also holy, and avoid the danger of ‘naval bi-rshut ha-Torah‘ – acting in a dissolute fashion while maintaining strict halakhic fidelity. The Ramban – who amplified this concept of kedoshim tihyu - does not advocate a lifestyle of kedusha simply to avoid greater religious failure. He endorses this approach because it represents the highest religious ideal and a behavior which most accurately reflects Ha-kadosh Barukh Hu, as the pasuk itself concludes: “You shall be holy BECAUSE I, THE LORD YOUR GOD, AM HOLY.” Similarly, extralegal moral behavior is desirable on its own merits. This is especially correct in light of the fact that morality to a Jew is Divinely inspired. In addition to the typical sources for chesed (Ve-ahavta le-reiakha kamokha, tzelem Elokim), the gemara in Sota (14a) adds the ethic of Imitatio Dei – imitating our Creator. Just as He clothes the bare, so should we; just as He visits the ill, so should we; just as He buries the dead, so should we, and so on. Ha-kadosh Barukh Hu, by His very nature, acts ‘beyond the letter of the law,” and our ambitions of lifnim mi-shurat ha-din assure that our moral quest be Divinely inspired.

A second basis for lifnim mi-shurat ha-din may stem from a gemara in Bava Metzia (30b) which initially asserts that Jerusalem was destroyed during the Second Temple era because they zealously applied Torah law. The gemara ponders, “Should they have implemented pagan law [that they were punished for exercising Torah law]?” The gemara responds that, in fact, Jerusalem’s destruction was caused by STRICT application of Torah law without allowances of lifnim mi-shurat ha-din. Quite possibly, this legal obsession was not the reason that they punished as much as the origin of their social collapse. A society cannot function solely upon justice or solely upon strict application of the law. Without readiness to sacrifice personal interest or resource for the ‘other,’ and especially for a needy, impoverished ‘other,’ society is doomed to failure. Many readers will recall the political platform of the elder George Bush, who sought to downsize a ‘bloated’ government which he believed was exclusively bearing the weight of social welfare. Instead of looking to government to deliver benefits and aid, he encouraged ’1000 points of light’ in the form of religious institutions, communal organizations, family environments and the like, to rebuild a ‘decayed’ society. Jerusalem wasn’t punished for its behavior, but it simply collapsed under the weight of attempting to carry a society solely upon the shoulders of justice.

Any society is only as strong as its combined ability to respond to, and protect the needs of it weakest members. The thirtieth chapter of Avot De-Rabbi Natan begins with Rabbi Yonatan’s declaration that various forms of chesed provide benefit and prosperity to society, again affirming the need for chesed within any society. In fact, the very pasuk in Vaetchanan which serves as the source of lifnim mi-shurat ha-din implies this result, when it concludes, “so that you will prosper and inherit the good land which Hashem promised your fathers.” By appending to this command the promise of reward, the Torah is, in effect, underscoring the pivotal nature of extralegal ethics in building a just and sustainable society. Typically, the Torah does not record rewards for mitzva observance or avoidance of aveirot. In this instance, though, as the promise is not a reward as much as a natural consequence, social stability is highlighted. As King David himself avows, “Olam chesed yibaneh” – the world is built through chesed (Tehilim 99:3).

The Maharal’s profile of Sedom hints at yet a third motive for lifnim mi-shurat ha-din. Independent of a higher theological calling, and quite apart from its role in assuring social stability, an extralegal ethic prevents slippage into an unrecoverable state of complete moral decomposition. Sedom descended into the infamous state of ‘ra’im ve-chata’im le-Hashem me’od‘ (‘extremely evil and sinful to Hashem)’ because it institutionalized a strictly legal attitude. It is precisely for this reason that the second opinion in the mishna identified ‘sheli sheli, shelakh shelakh‘ as the defining trait of Sedom – because it was this attitude that was responsible for the city’s moral deterioration.

(2) Sheli shelakh ve-shelakh sheli

A person who offers a complete reversal of resources, and perhaps a total relaxation of property rights, is deemed an ignoramus, an ‘am ha-aretz.’ Of all monikers, why is this freethinker considered an ignoramus? Rabbenu Yona already notices this incongruity and suggests that this person has erred in his readiness to accept the donations of others. Rabbenu Yona claims that the term am ha-aretz, though typically reserved for the ignorant, may also describe those who, in sincere pursuit of social prosperity, are not able to distinguish between appropriate and inappropriate policies. Though this person’s attitude may seem progressive, it ignores Chazal‘s aversion towards accepting the gifts of others and is therefore morally deficient. In a broader sense, by ‘redistributing’ resources, he is mandating broader financial dependence, which may constitute an even greater moral offense.

Rashi takes a slightly different strategy in explaining the policies of the am ha-aretz. He claims that such behavior is lacking ‘tarbut‘ (which may be explained as civil application of basic concepts). Though the attitude may seem altruistic – encouraging the relinquishing of property and the free sharing of resources – it may also degenerate into anarchic chaos, with the disappearance of the concept of property or privacy. Chazal evidently supported the notion of property, while warning against allowing either privacy or property to seal our hearts from the needs of the destitute or the daily needs of the average citizen. Property is the primary bulwark of freedom and forms the basic grounds of human experience. Noting not just the moral suitability of this policy, but also the personal viability, the mishna labels the approach of sheli shelakh ve-shelakh sheli as the attitude of the ignorant.
This originally appeared at the Virtual Bet Midrash, which is maintained by the Yeshivat Har Etzion.

Parshat Behar-Bechukotai

Thursday, May 17th, 2012

In a famous photo, President John F. Kennedy is seen facing the windows of the Oval Office with his back to the camera. Slightly bent over, with his hands spread out on a credenza, he appears in deep and painful thought. The caption of the picture says it all: “The Loneliest Job.” Only the relatively few people who have been President of the United States truly understand the enormity of the job’s burden. It is for this reason presidents, despite their party affiliation, and often after leaving office, develop close bonds with one another, give the current office holder the benefit of the doubt and make themselves available to whoever may be president at the moment to help and advise.

Nancy Gibbs and Michael Duffy, in their fascinating new book, The Presidents Club: Inside the World’s Most Exclusive Fraternity (2012), describe this phenomenon. Perhaps the most poignant example of such relationships is the very warm friendship that exists between former presidents Bill Clinton and George H. W. Bush. In recognition of this, the younger Bush, when president, once joked that “when Clinton woke up from surgery he was surrounded by members of his family—Hillary, Chelsea and ‘my father.’”

Candidates running for office may be somewhat clueless as to what the real pressures of the job are. Eisenhower, who knew his fair share of pressure while serving as commander of Allied forces in Europe during World War II explained: “The problems a president faces are soul-racking…. The nakedness of the battlefield, when the soldier is all alone in the smoke and the clamor and the terror of war, is comparable to the loneliness—at times—of the presidency, when one man must conscientiously, deliberately, prayerfully scrutinize every argument, every proposal, every prediction, every alternative, every probable outcome of his action, and then—all alone—make his decision” (p.8). Kennedy, who more than thought himself ready for the job during his campaign and post-election preparations stated a mere ten days into his tenure, during his first State of the Union address: “No man entering upon this office could fail to be staggered upon learning—even in this brief 10 day period—the harsh enormity of the trials through which we must pass in the next four years. Each day the crises multiply. Each day their solutions grow more difficult” (p.128).

The book is full of examples of presidents turning to their predecessors for advice, guidance and support. After the fiasco of the Bay of Pigs, Kennedy invited Eisenhower to Camp David to advise him in dealing with the military and to garner his support to forestall a national crisis. LBJ called upon Truman and Eisenhower in the aftermath of Kennedy’s assassination for support and often called on Eisenhower for guidance during the Vietnam War, their different party affiliations notwithstanding. In an almost bizarre interaction, Clinton often discussed foreign policy with Nixon and mourned the loss of his advice upon his death.

Current presidents come to realize that they cannot do it alone. While they have staff who are more than willing to offer advice, they find the need to talk with people who understand them and can guide them from a common vantage point. As their terms progress, presidents begin to view their predecessors as necessary friends instead of political opponents.

All leaders will benefit by engaging colleagues who share their challenges. We see the importance of this idea from an elaboration on a comment by Chazal, quoted by Rashi, at the beginning of this week’s parsha. The Torah states (26:3): “If you walk in [the path] of My statutes and you observe My commandments and perform them,” then you will be the recipients of wonderful blessings. Rashi explains that this verse exhorts us to immerse and exert ourselves in the study of Torah. Torah does not come easily. Mastering Torah requires intense and sustained effort. In fact, Pirkei Avot (chapter 6) describes the set of 48 strategies it is necessary to employ in order to successfully acquire it.

The tenth strategy instructs us to learn from and be apprenticed to rabbis. This requirement is self-evident. The twelfth strategy instructs us to teach students Torah and get involved with the passionate give and take that characterizes such endeavors. As any person who has taught a class is aware, the level of learning and preparation needed to teach without a doubt sharpens one’s skills. However, the eleventh strategy that underscores the importance of learning Torah with peers seems at first blush somewhat puzzling. While certainly a nice idea—why should learning with peers be so necessary as to be counted among the 48 strategies?

‘All Your Deeds Are Written In A Book’

Wednesday, February 8th, 2012

Recently, I discovered a frum website, www.jewish-e-books.com, that allows one to download hundreds of Jewish books – both in English and Hebrew. Having written a sefer myself, I was able to get it put on their website. The front cover of the sefer, however, was grainy and very unclear. I remembered that I had tried selling my sefer on amazon.com approximately seven years ago and had uploaded a picture of the front cover there. Perhaps that picture was better. When I typed the name of my sefer in their search engine, a message popped up that my book was no longer available. I knew it was a long shot, but I then typed my last name. I was immediately directed to information about a 736-page book with the title, “Jew in Jail.” I had no idea what brought that up and thought it must be some mistake.

Scrolling down, my name did not appear anywhere. The book is the autobiography of a Brooklyn Jew who spent six years in the New York State Penitentiary system. Wanting to get to the bottom of this mystery, I wrote to the author whose email address appeared on the page. He wrote back that he remembered that I was his chaplain in one of the prisons he attended in upstate New York. He wasn’t sure at first, but when he looked at his manuscript online and typed my name in the search box, voila – there it was! He even wrote that he remembered that I brought a guitar into the facility on Chanukah, and that he had mentioned it in his book. That incident brought back wonderful memories to him.

The author sent me a free, signed copy of his book as a token of appreciation. You never know when a small thing on your part will influence someone’s life. For me, this story really drove home Chazal’s message to us in Pirkei Avot 2:1: “All your deeds are written in a book.”

Sometimes, we see excerpts from “the Book” in our own lifetimes!

Hating Immorality

Saturday, November 12th, 2011

Question: Is a pious Jew allowed to desire the forbidden (as long, of course, as he doesn’t act on the desire)?

Response: The Talmud states that “no one should say: My soul cannot tolerate the meat of a pig; rather, one should say: I would eat it, but what can I do, it has been forbidden to me.” In other words, desiring forbidden foods is not a negative Jewish trait.

But what about desires for other forbidden items or deeds?

HaRav Shlomo Kluger contends that there is a distinction between different types of sins. There are logical mitzvot based on morality and ethics, and then there mitzvot beyond human comprehension (chukim).

Concerning the first kind of sin, one’s own rational mind should be powerful enough to eliminate even a scintilla of desire to sin. Accordingly, a truly observant and religious Jew should find lying, stealing, cheating, etc. morally repugnant.

Chukim, however, are laws whose reasons we don’t understand, and, therefore, there is nothing wrong with desiring to violate them as long as one doesn’t act on this desire.

Another distinction between logical mitzvot and chukim relates to how we should fulfill them. We fulfill logical mitzvot with great enthusiasm since they are obviously moral and of value. Regarding chukim, however, we fulfill them with the attitude expressed in Rabban Gamliel’s statement in Pirkei Avot: “Nullify your will before His will so that He will nullify the will of others before yours.” In other words, even though we may desire to violate chukim, we refrain from doing so and hope Hashem will reward us by nullifying the evil will of others toward us.

 

 

Rabbi Cohen is the recipient of the Jerusalem Prize and author of several sefarim on Jewish Law. His latest, “Shabbat the Right Way” (Urim Publications), is available in Judaica stores and at Amazon.com.

 

A Father’s Shining Life

Wednesday, May 26th, 2010

The 14th of Sivan (May 27) marks the tenth yahrzeit of my father, Zechariah Schwarzberg, z”l, a man who experienced the worst humanity had to offer and responded with the best the human spirit could muster.

The only member of his large family not to have been murdered by the Nazis, he survived the Warsaw Ghetto uprising only to be imprisoned in Maidenak, Skarzysko and Buchenwald.

After the war he served as a cantor in several European countries – Switzerland, France and Italy, among others – before emigrating to the United States in 1954.

From the furnace that was Europe he built a shining life in America. Within a few years of his arrival he had learned a new language, become a husband and father, embarked on a career in real estate and established himself as a familiar and respected presence in the Orthodox community of Essex County, New Jersey. Advertisement

He epitomized the term Family Man. Robbed so cruelly and at such a tender age of everyone he held dear – parents, siblings, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins – he doted on his wife and two children, concentrating exclusively on their needs, their comfort, their well-being.

He would rearrange his business appointments at a moment’s notice to accommodate the schedules – and often the whims – of family members. Rarely did anyone in the family have to walk to a store or wait for a bus or a train; he insisted on driving everyone himself – otherwise, he said, he would worry.

The family lived just a few blocks from the local yeshiva, but when his children were younger he took time off from work to drive them to school every morning and back home every afternoon.

Though he was intimately acquainted with mankind’s darkest side, he never lost his faith in God or his love for other people. In his daily life and in his business dealings he refused to distinguish between Orthodox and non-Orthodox Jew or between Jew and non-Jew.

Always he had a good word to all and about all. He was incapable of believing the worst about anyone, even when he had reason to suspect it might be true.

Scrupulously honest, he never hesitated to dissuade clients from deals he felt would not be beneficial to them – even when doing so meant a financial loss for him.

The pursuit of money as the focus of one’s life was a concept foreign to his very nature. His favorite aphorism was the verse from Pirkei Avot by which he lived every day of his life: Eizeh hu ashir? Hasameach b’chelko – Who is rich? He who is satisfied with his lot.

He saw no conflict between love of Judaism and love of the State of Israel, and had little patience with Orthodox Jews who did. He knew all too well what happens to defenseless Jews.

His pride in young Jewish soldiers defending a strong Jewish state was deeply felt, as was his gratitude for having been privileged to witness the birth of the first sovereign Jewish commonwealth in two millennia.

When Israel stunned the world in 1967 with its lightning victory in the Six-Day War, my father – then just 22 years removed from the concentration camps – was glued to the radio and the television, following the news as though he himself were riding in a tank or toting an Uzi.

And in a sense he was. This, he told his very young son, was God’s answer to a world that mockingly asked why He had abandoned His people. This was His response to Jews whose faith had vanished in the smoke of Auschwitz. From the ashes of the worst catastrophe in Jewish history, a people who for endless centuries were scattered and scorned and slain, homeless and powerless and friendless, had returned to Israel and now strode the land of their patrimony as battle-tested warriors, blowing the ram’s horn and raising the Star of David at their holiest places.

When Israeli commandos staged the electrifying Entebbe rescue in 1976, my father reacted with unrestrained emotion. “Never in my wildest dreams,” he said, “when the Poles and the Ukrainians and the Germans were spitting and cursing at us, beating us and killing us, could I have imagined that one day – in my lifetime – the world would watch with awe as Jewish soldiers and Jewish pilots flew 2,500 miles, undetected, to rescue Jewish citizens of a Jewish state.”

Appreciate Life By Saying ‘Thank You’

Wednesday, February 20th, 2008

          One of the subjects  I was taught as a young child in the excellent day school I attended in Toronto (at the time called Associated Hebrew Day Schools) was Tefillah. Since we spoke only Hebrew during our Limudei Kodesh and secular Hebrew studies, such as Hebrew literature, creative writing and Jewish history, we understood quite well what the words we were davening actually meant.


 

         I thus became aware at an early age that a great majority of our prayers involved thanking Hashem, and praising Him for the multitude of kindnesses and benefits that we experienced on a daily basis.

 

         It seemed that we were thanking Him constantly, all the time, nonstop. Every action, like eating or even hearing thunder – came connected to a “Baruch Ata Hashem.” And if, without thought, we popped a raisin in our mouth without saying a brachah or ran out of the bathroom forgetting to say “Asher Yatzar” in our eagerness to get to recess, we felt so mortified, guilty and blemished – and afraid of Divine retribution.

 

         Now human nature is such that nobody likes to feel guilty or scared or ashamed about something they did or did not do, and as I got older I began to wonder why G-d needed so much praise and thanks in the first place. After all, I thought to myself, He isn’t human – why does he seemingly need to have His “ego stroked”- so to speak – why the constant “pats on the back” and verbal affirmation about how great and kind He is – especially from non-entities like us.

 

        Hashem is the Master of the Universe and the Creator of everything. We however are mortal, finite, limited creatures whose lives come and go like a blink of an eye in time. Why this requirement to bless and thank Him every minute?

 

         Wouldn’t it be enough to say one brachah in the morning to the effect of “Thank you for everything” and be covered for the rest of the day? Why a brachah every time we eat a fruit or vegetable or sandwich? (I’ve actually heard of busy young mothers who wash in the morning and constantly nibble so they end up benching once – after they eat their last evening snack.)

 

         Why the seemingly endless buffet of required praise and tributes and expresses of appreciation and not just one daily, all-encompassing Baruch Hashem?

 

         I came to realize that Hashem truly does not need our adulation. But we need to express it. It is to our great benefit that demonstrating hakarat ha’tov becomes second nature to us. Because awareness and gratitude to someone or something that enriches our lives is the calcium that build and fortifies and maintains our relationships, whether in the personal, professional, social, communal – even international realms.

 

         Most people are willing to go the extra mile and do something that benefits someone, be it a woman making meals for her family, or an employee staying past quitting time to do work that needs to be completed. But it is crucial that there is an acknowledgment from the recipient of the effort. Often, a simple “thank you” is enough for it does what really matters – recognizes and validates.

 

      Hakarat ha’tov makes the “giver” feel valuable and gives him/her self-esteem. These are the nutrients that nourish a relationship through the best of times and the worst of times. A lack of hakarat ha’tov causes acidic resentment, anger, hurt and bitterness that gradually eats away at the relationship and rots it.

 

         By having us constantly thank Hashem, we get into the habit of thanking the people in our lives -family members, friends and even strangers – and that is the key ingredient for shalom bayis – at home, in the workplace, and everywhere else.

 

         But there is yet another component to hakarat ha’tov – one that is internal, rather than external.  By thanking Hashemfor such habitual everyday occurrences like going to the bathroom, eating, walking, seeing – we learn to appreciate all the good in our lives – and in doing so we realize that our chelek - our “lot” in life is actually pretty good.

 

         So many people are excessively wrapped up in what they are lacking – or even worse, they are so consumed by what others have, they cannot enjoy what they do have. Pirkei Avot states, “Who is rich? – the one who is happy with his lot.”

 

         If you reverse that thought, one who is not satisfied with his lot – is poor. Being poor is likened in the Torah as being dead. So the inevitable conclusion – those who are unhappy with their lot can be viewed as being dead.

 

         By constantly thanking and blessing Hashem with our tefillot, we constantly remind ourselves of all that we do have – which leads to being “satisfied”  - and feeling very much alive. 

Q & A: Avot Between Pesach And Shavuot

Wednesday, June 16th, 2004
QUESTION: I have numerous questions regarding Pirkei Avot. First, is there a specific reason that the last chapter is read on the Sabbath before Shavuot, or is this just a quirk of the calendar? Second, in that last chapter we find a listing of qualities that enable one to acquire Torah knowledge, including anava (humility). I find this difficult to believe in light of the Gemara in Gittin that chastises one of the scholars for his anava, which ultimately caused the destruction of the Beit Hamikdash.
Zvi Kirschner
(Via E-Mail)
ANSWER: The study of Pirkei Avot is specified in Halacha (Rema, Orach Chayyim 292:2): “We are accustomed not to organize a study session [on Shabbat afternoon] between Mincha and Maariv, but we do recite Pirkei Avot in the summer and Shir Hama’alot [a collection of chapters of Tehillim that includes Borchi Nafshi (Psalm 104) and the series of Shir Hama'alot (Psalms 120-134)] in the winter.”The Magen Avraham (ad loc.), citing the Mordechai, explains our reluctance to organize a study session in the synagogue or Beit Hamidrash at that time, as we fear that the study session will continue until chashecha (dusk) and we will have no opportunity to partake of the Seuda Shelishit (the third Sabbath meal).”

The Gaon of Vilna (Biur HaGra) gives us a reason why Shir Hama’alot are recited in the winter and Pirkei Avot in the summer. As the winter days are shorter and Mincha is closer to nightfall, this leaves little time for Torah study without pausing for the Seuda Shelishit. In the summer months, however, when the days are longer, Pirkei Avot replaces the study of Aggada.

The Mishna Berura in his Sha’ar HaTziyyun commentary (ad loc.) explains it otherwise. As we note from the text of the Rema, the study of Pirkei Avot differs from in-depth study – which we avoid even in the summer months at that time because it may interfere with the Seuda Shelishit – as it is rather just an utterance, amira.

However, in his Mishna Berura commentary (ad loc.) the Chafetz Chaim notes that since many people come to shul on Shabbat afternoon and engage in sicha beteila, idle conversation, it is better to listen to words of mussar (words of reproof) which will cause them to refrain from such idle conversations.

[Obviously, when we refer to summer and winter in this discussion, we refer to the times when the applicable prayers for these seasons are begun. The "summer" begins on Pesach, when we start saying Veten beracha and Morid haTal (for Nusach Sefarad and all nusachim in Eretz Yisrael), which are our summer prayers for dew; that is also the time when the days are longer. The "winter" begins at the conclusion of Sukkot, when we start the prayers for rain - Mashiv HaRuach and subsequently Tal u'matar li'veracha.]

Since there are six Sabbaths between Pesach and Shavuot and there are six chapters in this tractate, we devote an entire Sabbath to the study of each chapter. After Shavuot, specifically in Elul, there are weeks when we “double up” and learn two chapters on one Sabbath. We always read the last chapter on the Sabbath before Shavuot, as you note.

Furthermore, this last chapter, which is referred to as Kinyan HaTorah (lit. the method of acquiring Torah), as you indicate in your question, is not part of the original Mishnayot compiled by R. Yehuda Hanasi, but is rather a compilation of Tannaitic Beraitot that were added subsequently and appear in the Vilna Shas as a sixth chapter of the tractate. The term Kinyan HaTorah is based on two Mishnayot (6:5-6). [In most siddurim, the list of the 48 qualities through which one acquires Torah knowledge is included in Mishna 6:6; however, in the Vilna Shas it is split into Mishnayot 6:5 and 6:6.]

The newly published Matnot Chayyim, authored by HaRav Matisyahu Salomon, shelita, Mashgiach Ruchani of Beth Medrash Govoha in Lakewood, New Jersey, and formerly of Yeshiva Beth Yosef in Gateshead, England, contains a compilation of essays about Kinyan HaTorah, as specified in this Mishna. [The book is available through Israel Book Shop, Inc., Lakewood, NJ, (732) 901-3009, or in England at Lehmann's, 191-430-0333.]

In his preface, the author explains why this tractate is studied during the weeks prior to Shavuot, and we shall see that our Sages deliberately set this course of study at that specific time of the year.

R. Salomon explains that the preparations for Mattan Torah, receiving the Torah at Mt. Sinai on Shavuot, are accomplished through the 48 methods of acquisition listed in the last chapter of Avot, which is thus referred to as Kinyan HaTorah. Although there are numerous reasons given for the study of Avot, it is proper to bring the words of the Hasid Ya’vez, as found in Midrash Shemuel: “The Torah can only dwell in one whose being is devoid of negative traits, and who is full of important [and admirable] traits.” This is what Hashem meant when He states in Parashat Yitro (Exodus 19:15), “… Heyu nechonim li’sheloshet yamim, al tigshu el isha – Be ready after a three-day period, come not near a woman.” [Rashi ad loc. explains that this refers specifically to the purification of the women of Bnei Yisrael so that they would be ritually pure at the time of the giving of the Torah. It is understood that the men would be ritually pure as well.]

He adds that similarly, the cleansing of one’s clothes (ibid. 19:10) suggests that one must purify oneself from the ritual impurities and uncleanliness which restrain the soul from reaching its highest level of attainment, and all the chapters preceding this last one are replete with
important matters that enable the soul to come closer to its Creator and thus awaken a person to service to Hashem.

However, he points out, this last chapter of Avot is completely focused on the attainment of Torah, and, as such, Kinyan HaTorah is the appropriate chapter for us to study before Shavuot.

(To be continued)

Printed from: http://www.jewishpress.com/judaism/ask-the-rabbi/q-a-avot-between-pesach-and-shavuot/2004/06/16/

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