Shiur #24: A Talmudic Joke and the Nature of Humility

  • Rav Yitzchak Blau
The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash

Understanding Aggada
Yeshivat Har Etzion

Shiur #24: A Talmudic Joke and the Nature of Humility


By Rav Yitzchak Blau


When Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai died, the splendor of wisdom ceased.  When Rabban Gamli'el the Elder died, the honor of Torah ceased, as did purity and abstinence.  When Rabbi Yishma'el ben Pavi died, the splendor of the priesthood ceased.  When Rabbi [Yehuda Ha-nasi] died, humility and fear of sin ceased. 

(Mishna, Sota 9:15)


Rav Yosef said to the tanna (the person who recites Mishnaic sources): "Do not include [the line about] humility, because there is [still] me."

(Sota 49b)


The compilers of the Talmud certainly understood the humor in Rav Yosef's statement when they placed it at the very end of the tractate; indeed, the vast corpus of the Talmud incorporates more than a few jokes.  At the same time, some jokes contain real wisdom along with the humor.  Perhaps Rav Yosef means to teach us something important, in addition to helping us chuckle. 


It is common that religion prizes humility as a significant character trait, but the precise definition of humility proves more elusive.  One view might identify humility with total self-abnegation.  Such feelings might come from a strong sense of human sinfulness or from a contrast between limited man and infinite God; from this perspective, the truly humble person concludes that he or she has no traits worthy of admiration. 


The famed Rosh Yeshiva of Volozhin, Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Yehuda Berlin (known as the Netziv), rejects this view in his Ha'amek Davar (Bamidbar 12:3, note 2).  He argues that humility and a healthy awareness of personal accomplishments are not mutually exclusive.  According to the Netziv, a person expresses humility when he or she does not focus on receiving public honors or recognition.  People aware of their achievements, who do not demand to be honored at the shul dinner and do not care about when they are called up to the Torah, reflect the humble paradigm.


The Netziv cites the statement of Rav Yosef as support.  According to the Netziv, Rav Yosef's comment indicates that a humble person can exhibit real cognizance of his or her own fine qualities.  In addition to intending to voice a humorous comment, Rav Yosef also wants to say that humble people might still sometimes point out their own abilities.  Their humility finds expression in a general disinterest in honors and communal recognition.   


This reading of Rav Yosef's comment finds support from another Talmudic story about this illustrious sage.  Rav Yosef and Rabba were once both candidates to become rosh yeshiva in Pumbedita (Horayot 14a).  Even though the sages select Rav Yosef, he relinquishes the title to Rabba.  During the more than two decades of Rabba's tenure, Rav Yosef refuses to let the blood-letter make house-calls for him, as he did not want to receive any special honors that might detract from Rabba's authority.  This works beautifully with the Netziv's vision of humility as the eschewing of honors.


Rav Yosef recognizes his positive traits and employs humor to indicate that such recognition is not a problem.  However, he does not demand acclaim and shows great humility when it comes to the public honors of Pumbedita. 


It is worth pointing out that the Netziv cites Mesillat Yesharim (he presumably refers to chapters 21 and 22) as the foil to his own view.  In that work, Rabbi Moshe Chayim Luzzatto identifies "anivut," humility, with a "shefal berekh" (see Sanhedrin 88b), one who is lowly.  Rabbi Berlin forcefully argues that we should not identify with these traits.  As Mesillat Yesharim has become the most prominent work of musar, Jewish ethics, it is uncommon to see recent authorities explicitly taking issue with it; nevertheless, the Netziv thinks that this mistaken perspective on humility must be contested.      


The linguistic distinction between "anav" and "shefal ruach" appears in other sources as well.  Rabbi Levitas, Head of Yavneh, teaches (Avot 4:4) that a person should be "very lowly of spirit."  The Tiferet Yisra'el (Rabbi Yisra'el Lipshutz), in his explanatory comment there, echoes the Netziv's idea.  He explains that the humble person recognizes his or her value but does not act in an aggrandizing fashion.  The person lowly of spirit, on the other hand, constantly focuses on his or her shortcomings.


Moshe Rabbeinu and King David represent these two approaches.  In the Torah, Moshe understands his own significance and worth quite well.  As the Tiferet Yisra'el points out, "Can we imagine that Moshe Rabbeinu was unaware that he was the chosen one of mankind whom God spoke to face-to-face?"  Yet Moshe does not demand acclaim or honor; therefore, the Torah (Bamidbar 12:3) employs the term "anav" about Moshe.  David describes himself as "shafel" (Tehillim 138:6) and several chapters of Tehillim illustrate a "broken spirit."  Clearly, these Psalms may reflect David's feelings following the sin of Bat-Sheva (see Chapter 51). 


The Tiferet Yisra'el does not state a preference for either of these two models, and he seems to deem them both legitimate approaches.  In contrast, the Netziv's analysis seems to prefer the "anav" to the "shefal ruach."  Perhaps he has excellent educational reasons to do so.                


As an educator, I find the Netziv's idea quite powerful.  Without denying the negative impact arrogance has on the religious personality, we should understand that a lack of confidence and the loss of a feeling of self-worth can undermine a personality as well: the quickest way to fail in any endeavor is to decide from the outset that one cannot possibly succeed.  Many aspects of religious life, such as beseeching God in prayer and asking solid questions on a commentary, depend upon a certain sense of self-worth.  The Netziv reminds us to not identify humility with self-abnegation. 


Perhaps Rav Yosef intends one additional lesson.  The following line of this gemara has Rav Nachman telling the tanna not to include fear of sin in the list of lost traits because he is still around.  I submit that Rav Nachman and Rav Yosef are not bragging; rather, they are concerned that a reader of the list found towards the end of Sota might conclude that greatness in all respects came to a close with the conclusion of the Mishnaic period.  It is true that Judaism includes a concept of earlier generations having greater authority; however, if that concept leads us to conclude that we cannot aspire to more than benign ineptitude, we will find ourselves unable to meet the challenges of our day.  As Alfred Tennyson wrote in "Ulysses": 


Tho' much is taken, much abides; and tho'
We are not now that strength which in the old days
Moved earth and heaven; that which we are, we are;
One equal-temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.


May we appreciate our strengths as well as our shortcomings, yet not demand honor due to those strengths.