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In the cycle of learning Pirkei Avot between Pesach and Shavuot, this Shabbat, G-d-willing, we will learn the second chapter. In the first Mishna we learn several teachings from Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi, and in the second we learn from Rabban Gamliel who is introduced as his son.

Rabban Gamliel warns of the moral peril inherent in attempting to learn Torah without derech eretz, that is, without attending to natural and material needs such as earning a living. In his commentary on this Mishna, Rav Chaim Volozhin emphasizes that one should integrate these aspects of his life – when he studies Torah he should benefit from the foundation a good livelihood provides him and he shouldn’t be distracted by concerns about how he will provide for himself and his family. At the same time, when one is working, he should occupy his mind with thoughts of Torah so he doesn’t fall into temptation and perform corrupt acts.


The Maharal in his commentary, Derech Chaim, speaks at length about this Mishna. He first emphasizes the reference to Rabban Gamliel’s lineage, which tell us that he is following the teachings of his father Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi, known as Rebbe. Maharal teaches that Rebbe’s lessons emphasized the spiritual growth and transcendence of the wise individual, so it’s only natural that Rabban Gamliel should pivot to focus on the matter of material welfare. It is truly necessary and important, as noted above, to integrate these aspects of one’s conduct. Indeed, learning Torah is what develops and enhances our consciousness so we can draw closer to godliness and elevate our spirituality. However, none of this is possible and we cannot reach a level conducive to even beginning these efforts if we are not cognizant of our practical, material needs and resolve these first.

The sages teach that derech eretz precedes the study of Torah (see Vayikra Rabba 9:3, among others); this follows from human nature wherein the physical needs must be met before the intellect can be developed. Maharal further explains that the transgression Rabban Gamliel cautions against as a consequence of not uniting derech eretz and Torah study is a natural byproduct of failing to develop the whole human being. Someone without derech eretz is more likely to commit crimes of corruption or decadence. Not only does he fail to provide for himself and his dependents, but he never fully develops himself as a productive member of society. But somebody without diligence in Torah study remains vulnerable to spiritual decadence, even heresy or apostasy. The truly righteous and scholarly individual will develop both of these capacities together because they complement one another and each guards against wantonness in neglecting the other.

Thus, as the Mishna teaches, it is through striving for both that transgression is avoided. That is to say, it is the effort in and of itself that helps to guard us against wrongdoing, especially and specifically when the effort is complementary and we struggle to achieve both.

Finally, Rabban Gamliel teaches that if one studies Torah but doesn’t labor in gainful employment, the Torah itself is fruitless (literally nullified). Maharal elaborates on this point that such a person is not a complete person – he is lacking something in himself, so it’s only natural that the Torah he studies will be lacking. In fact, in such a state, it is highly probable that this incomplete individual will be drawn into worse and worse behavior because he is without the practical considerations and responsibilities that impart dignity on a person and make him a productive member of society.

Interestingly, Maharal cites the Gemara in Sanhedrin (106a) teaching that every instance of the word yeshiva in scripture is a pejorative statement or foreshadows misfortune. It is clear from this that any time someone simply sits – the literal translation of the word yeshiva, meaning they aren’t working and they aren’t striving to achieve a positive impact on the world – then they are bound to fall into the sorts of errors that come from laziness and lack of accountability.

When a person is active – when they are struggling, working to achieve positive results – then they are also, as a rule, too busy to become truly decadent and corrupted. Such a person is very actively involved in trying to be effective and is going to distance himself from error and transgression. But when someone isn’t sensible to these imperatives and doesn’t feel this pressure to be impactful, then even if they study Torah all day, their Torah is that of a decadent impractical person – a flawed and incomplete individual – and so the Torah itself remains incomplete and the person becomes susceptible to grave errors in spite of their ostensible involvement in the study 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].