Skip to main content

Perek 2, Mishnayot 2 - 3

Rav Gidon Rothstein



Rabban Gamliel the son of Rabbi Judah the Prince said:  The study of Torah is nice if it is joined to earning a livelihood, for toiling at both makes a person forget sin; and any Torah that does not also have work will end up being nullified and causing sin.  And all those who serve the community should do so for Heaven's sake, for the merits of their forefathers helps them; their righteousness stands forever; and you, I will count it for you as if you have performed actions.


Maharal here mentions that he recognizes that the mishna is really just following a chain of tradition, so that in some sense he does not need to explain why this mishna follows the one preceding.  Nevertheless, he points out that Rebbe had spoken about mitzvot in general (which is a general area of life, justifying Rebbe's starting a new chapter).  His son takes up the question of derekh eretz, involvement in matters of livelihood and making the world work, which is a necessary part of a life of mitzvot.  While Rebbe speaks generally, Rabban Gamliel his son addresses a secondary issue within the same realm.  Derekh eretz here functions as preparation for service of God.




Although Maharal does not address the issue directly, his recognition of a simple reason for the order of this mishna - Rabban Gamliel was Rebbe's son, so his words should follow those of his father - raises the question as to why he also seeks some other explanation for their juxtaposition.  (This actually is a question that could have applied to the entire first chapter).


It strikes me that if we think of these statements in Avot as reflecting central religious concerns of the person involved (and perhaps of each generation as a whole), then it makes sense to see some continuity from one generation to the next.  Barring significant changes ("paradigm changes" is the more common term), the investigation of any area proceeds logically.  So, if Rebbe were concerned with mitzvot generally, it would make sense that his son would continue that investigation, choosing a neglected detail to study in greater depth.


     Once we think of generations of Torah leaders as sequential investigators of topics of Torah, we understand that buried in Maharal's view of the first chapter of Avot (or anybody's, really) is a whole history of the Jewish relationship to religion in the Tannaitic period.  In each tanna's statements, we can see which areas of Torah and Judaism were most alive for comment in his time.  By stringing them together - even if we do not insist on an identifiable connection among them - we can see how those concerns changed and developed from one generation to the next.  Without trying to flesh out that history now, I thought it was interesting enough to note.




That view of Torah study also raises the question as to when and why paradigm changes occur.  For example, Maharal had pointed to Rebbe as speaking very generally, making him a worthwhile place to start a new chapter.  What made Rebbe think so generally (as opposed to others)?  Is this similar to a paradigm change in scientific endeavors, where the traditional modes of thought are overturned (or absorbed into) some other framework?  If so, Rebbe - who converted the study of Torah she-be'al peh (oral law) from a somewhat haphazard endeavor into a systematic corpus to be analyzed - is a prime candidate to have forged such a paradigm change.  His son (our main topic this week) would be expected to flesh out aspects of his legacy that his father did not fully analyze.


     Perhaps a contemporary example may help.  Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik ("The Rav"), Ztllh"h, came out of the Brisker tradition but was clearly a groundbreaking thinker and teacher of Torah.  Many of his students have continued his work, applying his ideas and ways of thinking more rigorously and systematically than perhaps he did himself.  Their contribution lies not in developing a new way of thinking about Torah as in applying the Rav's system to texts and areas where he had not.  The one who creates the revolution is not always the one who sees to all its details, and thus it makes sense to look for continuity from one generation to the next.  At the same time, it is interesting to wonder why the Rav was groundbreaking while other, perhaps equally talented people, were not.




Rabban Gamliel's actual statement had three parts:  1) The study of Torah should be combined with involvement in livelihood and the world, for laboring in both areas causes one to forget sin.  2) Any Torah that does not have work with it will in the end cease and lead to sin.  3) All who work for the community should do so for the sake of Heaven (i.e. with pure motives), since the merit of their (the community's) fathers aids them and their (the fathers') righteousness lasts forever.  Furthermore, I (presumably God, speaking to the communal workers) will credit it to you as if you brought about the community's success.




Maharal points out that it is unreasonable to assume that it is ANY toil that cures sin, since then the mishna should have recommended toiling at either Torah or derekh eretz, since a lot of toil in any one area would be just as effective as toiling at both.  Rather, Maharal says, Torah and derekh eretz address two different aspects of a person, and it is the involvement in both that saves a person from sin.  In keeping with that notion, he asserts that there are two kinds of yetzer hara (evil inclination), one for erva (sexual misconduct) and one for avoda zara (idol worship).  Derekh eretz, Maharal says, combats the yetzer hara for erva, while Torah combats the yetzer hara for idol worship. 


Being involved in these two areas for Maharal actually means being involved in attaining perfection.  If a person is involved only in Torah or Derekh Eretz, he may be very busy, but that person is not working towards perfection in its different realms.  Maharal quotes a Talmudic statement that says that a fetus develops a yetzer hara when it begins to move to leave the womb.  Why then?  Maharal suggests that until then the fetus has been involved in self-formation; only once the process of formation was completed was there room for a yetzer hara.  The same applies to an adult - as long as he is working on self-formation, he is free from a yetzer hara.  Self-formation, however, has to progress along two lines, Torah and derekh eretz.




Not that Maharal explains this, but his presentation raises a couple of interesting points.  First, if derekh eretz is the complement to Torah, it suggests that involvement in the world and Torah are two complementary parts of life, that Torah is not complete without involvement in the world and vice versa.  This is an idea I believe you can also find in the last chapter of the Moreh Nevukhim (Maimonides' "Guide to the Perplexed"), but it is interesting to see Maharal, even by inference, subscribing to that point of view.


A second point is that Maharal's reference to the yetzer hara of erva and of idol worship probably should be taken as types of inclination.  In other words, throwing oneself into derekh eretz is supposed to make us immune to the inclination for sins and lusts of a physical, this-worldly nature.  Torah, on the other hand, protects against sins against God (the archetypal one of which is avoda zara and would constitute an intellectual sin).  Of course, without both, neither is fully effective - we all know people heavily involved in derekh eretz and yet fully capable of conducting scandalous erva relationships. 


The notion of two types of yetzer hara, though, is an interesting idea worth pondering further.  In particular it fits Maharal's idea of people as physical beings whose job is to develop their intellect, and for whom the physical is simply meant as a host to the intellect.  That being true, we can imagine sins of the physical as well as sins of the intellectual.




Maharal points out that there have always been some Torah scholars who were not deeply involved in working for a living, yet their Torah did not become bateil (wasted), nor did it lead to sin.  He suggests either that these scholars were involved in business, which is not quite so time consuming as most derekh eretz, but suffices for protecting against the yetzer hara of erva.  Or, he suggests that these scholars were so involved with their Torah, it ended up taking solid root even without derekh eretz.  Again, he does not discuss the issue thoroughly, but he at least suggests that there are some people who do not need both derekh eretz and Torah to achieve complete self-formation.  Some people are so attuned to Torah that it takes root in their being without the element of the real world in it.  Who those people are, and how they can identify themselves to themselves, are topics Maharal does not address.




What is the connection between the first part of the mishna and the advice for those who work for the community?  Maharal says that for such people, the work itself will lead them to perfection.  While ordinary work is only for the private individual, and therefore needs Torah to produce completion, when working for the community at large, that is less necessary.


It is the aspect of the general community that Maharal stresses, and that is what is meant by zekhut avot, the merit of the Fathers.  It is not the Fathers as individuals that the mishna is referring to, but rather to their standing as the forebears of the kelal, the community at large.  That is also why Rabban Gamliel warns against having personal motives in working for the community; as individuals, there is no reason these workers should succeed, but as workers for the general body of the Jewish people, they will succeed.


That explanation of success - that it is the merit of the larger body of the Jewish people, as personified by Avraham, Yitzhak, and Yaakov - explains the need to promise these communal workers that they nevertheless accrue merit for their efforts.  Since they have been told that it is not their work that creates the success, they could decide to work on other projects.  Rabban Gamliel therefore says that in attaching to the broader community, the workers will still get credit as if it were their efforts that produced the communal salvation.



Be careful with rulers, for they only get close to people for their own need; they seem like friends at times of benefit but do not stand by a person at times of his need.


This mishna continues the statements of Rabban Gamliel the son of Rebbe.  Maharal, of course, wants to connect this to the previous mishna, so he points out that the mishna is contrasting osekim im ha-tzibbur (communal workers), with rashut (those with political power).  The former, if they follow the dictates of the previous mishna, are working for the sake of the community.  The latter, who generally are simply looking to amass personal power and/or wealth, are concerned only with themselves (which Maharal had previously identified as a problem in self-formation).  While we may have gotten the impression that involvement with the broader community will be productive, Maharal sees Rabban Gamliel in this mishna as pointing out that it depends on the agent of the community.  If the agent has positive motives, then it will, but if not, then it will not.



In summary, Maharal sees two main and complementary areas of life, one beset by the inclination for sexual immorality (and similar sins) and one by the inclination for rebellion against God.  For each area, there is a cure:  derekh eretz for the former and Torah for the latter.  Some unidentified scholars can gain that advantage through Torah alone.  In addition, attachment to a broader group helps in this area, so communal workers, with the proper motives, can also achieve the same results.  In contrast, rulers, despite their position within a broad group, are working for their own benefit.  They do not reap those rewards, nor is it productive to attach oneself to them.

This website is constantly being improved. We would appreciate hearing from you. Questions and comments on the classes are welcome, as is help in tagging, categorizing, and creating brief summaries of the classes. Thank you for being part of the Torat Har Etzion community!