Pirkei Avot, Chapter 2:6


ב,ו הוא היה אומר, אין בור ירא חטא, ולא עם הארץ חסיד.  ולא הביישן למד, ולא הקפדן מלמד.  ולא כל המרבה בסחורה, מחכים.  ובמקום שאין אנשים, השתדל להיות איש.

He used to say: an empty-headed person (bur) cannot be sin-fearing, nor can an ignorant person (am ha-aretz) be pious; the bashful one cannot learn, nor can the quick-tempered one teach; neither will anyone deeply involved in business become wise. And in a place where there are no men, strive to be a man.


Rabbi Bogomilsky clarifies the differences between a ‘bur’ (boor) and an ‘am ha-aretz‘:

“A boor is a person who possesses neither intellectual nor moral virtues, that is, neither learning nor moral conduct. He does not even acquire evil vices; he is void, so to speak, of all good and evil … can produce nothing. A person of this type cannot be sin-fearing because he is unable to know what constitutes a wrongful act.

The ‘am ha’aretz’ is a person who possesses moral, but not intellectual virtues, that is, moral conduct but no learning. He is called an ‘am ha’aretz’ (of the people of the land – a worldly person) since he is valuable for social and civic purposes and he possesses those qualities which benefit the social order.

Such a person can be sin-fearing because he is able to differentiate between good and evil, right an wrong. … Since (he) possesses no learning and does not know the law, he does not know how to rise above the average behaviour and to act in a manner that transcends strict justice.”

All of this is very interesting; however, we have to wonder about the connection between these six different messages and Hillel? rabbi Bogomilsky continues to explain that in order to be neither a ‘boor’ nor a ‘worldly person’, it is necessary to study Torah. These ideas come from Hillel’s own experiences. Hillel was never bashful: According to the Gemara (Yoma 35b), every day he used to work and earn one coin. He would give half to the guard at the Beit Midrash and the other half he would spend on food for his family. One day he earned nothing and the guard would not allow him to enter into the Beit Midrash. Unperturbed, Hillel climbed to the roof and lay near a window to hear the words of Torah delivered by Shemayah and Avtalyon.

Furthermore, Hillel was a great teacher, never denying his students the opportunity to ask questions, even if they seemed stupid or irrational (see Gemara Shabbat 31a). Hillel also preferred studying Torah to earning a living (Gemara Sotah 21a).

The teaching ‘In a place where there are no men strive to be a man’ is shown by the story of how Hillel assumed the position of Nasi: when there was no one qualified to deal with the halachic questions regarding the Pesach offering, Hillel accepted the role because it was clear to him that he was more qualified than anyone else there.

I wonder what our women’s group will make on the emphasis on men in this mishna? How do we strive to ‘be a man’ when we are clearly women??

Perhaps the universal message is that we should be aware of our weaknesses but always strive to overcome them…


3 responses »

  1. Pingback: סופ"ש עם פוליטיקה, ושוב יאיר לפיד אולמרט ודנידין « אני נגד. ככה. הבלוג של זיו.

  2. Rav Hirsch comments: …ignorance is never the mother of virtue. Boor: A man who is totally ignorant has no idea of the conditions that prevail around him and of the duties which he must fulfill; he will sin without even being aware that he is doing wrong. Am HaAretz: It is true that one who, through his upbringing and personal experience, has come to know the conditions in which he moves and the duties he must discharge will take care not to do wrong. But if he has received no instruction in the Teaching of the Law, he cannot be a chassid. If, as the Sages are careful to point out, he has not had the benefit of personal association with, and the personal example of true sages to teach him how properly to fulfil life’s duties in actual practice …, he cannot know genuine chasiduth, true Jewish virtuousness. He may attach significance to things which are actually without value; on the other hand, he may regard as unimportant matters which, in fact, should be viewed as most significant, and, more often than not, he will fail to put his pious intentions into proper practice… (When there is no leadership) … it is your duty to strive to become … qualified to act as a leader and spokesman, and once you have acquired these skills, endeavour to take part in affairs where articulate leadership is needed, for under such conditions reticence would not be modest but downright criminal.

  3. I think the translation is a bit too absolute. For example, I would translate ולא כל המרבה בסחורה, מחכים as “Not everyone who engages a lot in business will become wise.”

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