Photo Credit: Jewish Press

We learn this week, in the fifth chapter of Pirkei Avot, in the name of Ben He-He, that the reward is commensurate with the difficulty in achieving a task. (Avot 5:26). This is something that we, and the Maharal, examined carefully in the context of determining the value of a mitzvah. The Ben Ish Chai wonders about the name of this tana, Ben He-He, whom we know from the Gemara (Chagiga 9b) was a contemporary of Hillel, but who appears in no other mishna. The Ben Ish Chai points out that the number five is particularly auspicious for the attainment of Torah, five being the numerical value of the Hebrew letter he. Thus, He-He is a doubling of the number five, corresponding to the two tablets given at Har Sinai, each with five utterances recorded upon it. Thus, Ben He-He: the son of five and five.

The Ben Ish Chai explains that there are five senses by which the physical body receives information and these correspond to five spiritual senses. In the giving of the Torah, the higher and the lower are united. Ben He-He was such an individual who had elevated and refined both his physical and spiritual sensibilities, and it caused him distress to see all of the suffering in the world. So he taught this principle about the reward being in accordance with the difficulty of a task as a comfort to himself and to future scholars of the Torah who would also struggle with the trials of the human experience.


As we get ready to receive the Torah on Shavuot, we are also approaching the end of our annual journey through Pirkei Avot (although some observe the less common custom to continue learning it through the summer). Originally, before its modern association with Sefirat HaOmer, Pirkei Avot consisted of only five chapters. This is why, for example, the Rambam’s commentary only addresses the first five. In this spirit there are also, of course, five books of the Torah.

All of these hes (fives) are preparing us for Matan Torah. In order to receive the Torah we count 49 days and on the 50th the Torah is given. This corresponds to the 50 gates of understanding (bina). The Maharal points out that the 50th day is not counted because it is of an entirely different category than the 49 that precede it. The counting of the Omer is initiated with the bringing of the Korban Omer to the Beit HaMikdash, a small portion of barley which is food for an animal. On Shavuot, the 50th day, we bring two challot to the Beit HaMikdash, the only offering on any holiday that is chametz, and along with the two sheep, the only mitzvot that are unique to Shavuot. The challah is baked from wheat; it is food fit for a human. In this way we elevate ourselves from the level of animals to that of humans who are ready to receive the Torah. There are two loaves, corresponding to our higher and lower sensibilities.

When we receive the Torah we span these worlds, the higher and the lower. Our consciousness is able to occupy both simultaneously when we are busy with the learning of Torah.


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Avraham Levitt is a poet and philosopher living in Philadelphia. He writes chiefly about Jewish art and mysticism. His most recent poem is called “Great Floods Cannot Extinguish the Love.” It can be read at He can be reached by email at [email protected].