Photo Credit:
Mark Rothko’s No. 9 (Dark over Light Earth), 1954.

Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah said: Where there is no Torah, there is no right conduct; where there is no right conduct, there is no Torah. Where there is no wisdom, there is no fear of G-d; where there is no fear of G-d, there is no wisdom. Where there is no understanding, there is no knowledge; where there is no knowledge, there is no understanding. Where there is no bread, there is no Torah; where there is no Torah, there is no bread. (Avot 3:17)

In the end of the third chapter of Pirkei Avot, Rebbi Elazar ben Azariah introduces us to four pairs of interdependent concepts. The first and the fourth refer to Torah’s interdependency with kemach and derech eretz. The pairs teach us of the support (kemach) and breadth (derech eretz) needed to be involved in Torah, and how Torah learning gives meaning to the support and broadening ideas.


The middle two pairs relate to chochmah. While the second of the middle pair links between the internal chochmah concepts of binah and da’at, the first speaks of chochmah’s relationship with the seemingly unrelated value of yirah. Chochmah and yirah are two central aspects of human experience that are generally perceived to be disconnected from one another. Rabbi Elazar teaches that they are not only connected, but absolutely interdependent – neither truly exists without the other.


Yirah – What We Are All About

Moshe Rabbeinu emphasized the foundational nature of yirah when he identified it as all that Hashem asks from us (Devarim 10:12). In a world driven and controlled by Hashem, yirah (with the decisions and actions it inspires) is all that is truly in our hands (Berachot 33b). Understandably, our Sages teach us that yirah is the goal for which Hashem created the entire world and, thus, the component of the world that is most precious to Him (Shabbat 31b).

We exist in order to achieve yirat Shamayim (Sefer Haikarim 3:31). It is the goal and purpose of all the mitzvot (Moreh Nevuchim 3:52). Going even further, based on a verse (Kohelet 12:13) that presents yirah (and mitzvah fulfillment) as “kol ha’adam,” Rav Elchonon Wasserman highlights yirah as a condition for maintaining a proper human standard. Without it, people inevitably descend to an animalistic level of existence and behavior (Kovetz Hama’amarim 39).


A Wise Foundation

Our mishnah quotes Rav Elazar ben Azariah, who teaches us that in addition to yirah’s general importance, it is particularly important for chochmah. Based on the conclusion of the verse in Yeshayahu 33:6 (that Chazal associate with Shas Mishnayos), the Gemara (Shabbat 31a) describes yirah as chochmah’s “storehouse.” A person can learn the whole Talmud, but without yirah, he has nowhere to “store” what he has learned.

Many verses in Tehillim (Ch. 111) and Mishlei (1:7, 9:10, 17:16) (one of which we recite upon waking up in the morning) go a step further by describing yirat Hashem as the beginning (techilat and reishit) of chochmah. Yirat Hashem is the first step towards developing knowledge. Mishlei, which is about the importance of chochmah and how to acquire it, opens by emphasizing that yirah is what we need to begin our acquisition. Recognition of Hashem and His place in the world is the first principle of chochmah.

Rebbi Chaninah ben Dosa (Avot 3:9) goes even further by presenting yirah as not only the beginning of chochmah but also as its prerequisite. Yirah is a necessary prerequisite for two reasons. First, yirah ensures that we develop our chochmah properly. The Gemara (Yoma 72b) explains that while Torah can be a life-sustaining or even life-saving drug, if studied by someone lacking yirat Shamayim, it can also be poisonous. How we approach Torah determines how we appreciate it and the impact it has on our lives; we must approach it with an attitude of yirat Shamayim.

Rebbi Chaninah focused on a second dimension: chachmato mitkayemet – the longevity of chochmah. He taught that chachmato mitkayemet hinges on yirat cheto kodemet l’chachmato – the fear of sin precedes chochmah. Only chochmah preceded by yirah has staying power. The Gra (Bi’ur HaGra, Sefer Mishlei 1:7) explains that yirat Shamayim gives our development of wisdom not only direction but also significance. Recognizing Hashem as Creator helps us see the wisdom we acquire (by studying His world) as Hashem’s wisdom that He gives us with the intention that we appreciate, acquire, retain, and live by it.


Reciprocal Relationship

In addition to chochmah’s dependency on yirah, Rebbi Elazar ben Azaria also emphasized yirah’s dependency upon chochmah. In fact, we shall see next week that yirah also needs chochmah as a prerequisite. How can yirah and chochmah both be prerequisites for one another? Which one needs to come first?

I look forward to exploring and answering these questions together, im yirtzeh Hashem, next week.

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Rav Reuven Taragin is the Dean of Overseas Students at Yeshivat Hakotel and Educational Director of World Mizrachi - RZA. He lives with his wife Shani and their six children in Alon Shvut, Israel.