Category Archives: Hillel

Pirkei Avot, Chapter 1:12

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א,יב  הלל ושמאי קיבלו מהם.  הלל אומר, הוי כתלמידיו של אהרון–אוהב שלום ורודף שלום, אוהב את הברייות ומקרבן לתורה

Hillel and Shamai received it from them. Hillel said: Be of the students/disciples of Aaron – Love peace and chase peace, Love the creatures and bring them close to Torah.

Who were Hillel and Shammai?

That which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow. That is the whole Torah; the rest is the explanation. (Babylonian Talmud, tractate Shabbat 31a). — Hillel

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Aharon loved peace and he actively chased after it. According to the midrash, if Aharon HaCohen saw a sinner he would be extra nice to the sinner so that the sinner felt guilty and sought to change his actions. Aharon loved others and sought to bring them close  to Hashem.

Examine the punctuation of the verse: it seems to indicate that there are three separate sections or statements. 1. Be like the students of Aharon, 2. Love peace and chase peace, 3. Love the creatures and bring them close to Torah.

2. and 3. are clearly similar in structure and syntax, there is clear balance in these two statements implied by the use of the word ‘love’ and by the ‘vav’ which links them. (Both have two verbs and two nouns). But the first part of the mishna does not seem to fit with the style of its latter part.

In exploring this notion, Rabbi Bailey refers us to the shoresh of the words and the grammatical structure of the mishna: What is ‘ohev‘, ‘ahava‘ or ‘love’? What is the shoresh of ‘ahava‘? ‘heh’ ‘vet’ – ‘hav’ = give. This is not just a regular giving like ‘natan‘, rather it is a full giving or full dedication – ahavat Hashem means to fully give oneself to Hashem.

The mishna tells us to fully dedicate ourselves to peace (ohev Shalom). This should be our goal, our life philosophy. It then tells us that we should also actively pursue peace (rodef Shalom). We shouldn’t just be dedicated, we should also actively pursue. You need more than just the philosophy, you have to actualise it. Both parts of the equation are necessary. Chasing peace without the philosophy is hollow.

The last part of the mishna tells us to dedicate ourselves fully to people. Again, this should be our life philosophy. If you are truly dedicated to people and their well-being then you want to bring them closer to Torah. This does not just mean bringing them to do things like lay tefillin; rather Torah means instruction about how we get closer to Hashem. Bringing people to the understanding of what Hashem wants us to understand. Bringing them to a state of Godliness. [‘mikarvan‘ = connected to ‘kurban‘ (sacrifice) the process of sacrificing – coming closer to Hashem.]

Why is it be like the students of Aharon rather than be like Aharon? Why is the first part of the mishna not structured in the same way as the second and third parts?

Why Aharon? What do we know from the Torah about him? The most profound piece of information that we glean from the Torah is that Aharon was the Cohen Hagadol, the High priest. Implicit in the role of the High Priest is dedication to Hashem or ‘ahavat Hashem‘. Aharon loved Hashem, this was his philosophy, and he had students which was where he put his philosophy into action …The syntax is this way because we are supposed to appreciate the way that Aharon’s students tried to emulate him.

Unlike the second two categories, loving and serving Hashem are not an action and a philosophy which are connected. In the context of Hashem one cannot do one first and then the other, it is simultaneous – we have to have the philosophy and do the action at the same time. This is why the first part of the mishna is written in this way. Aharon represents the duality and the constancy of Ahavat Hashem and Avodat Hashem. Each is essential to strengthen the other. This is the reason that the first part of is structured differently.

Rabbi Bailey goes on to explore a deeper meaning of this mishna:

“What does Shalom really mean? Peace — completeness — when you reach completeness you are at peace … The first step to a true relationship with Hashem is to understand Hashem and to act upon that understanding. Then, one has to dedicate oneself to completeness and chase after it. Then one has to work on one’s own completeness – on yourself to reach inner peace. Then you can dedicate yourself to others and bring them to Torah which will in turn bring them to do their own chasing after peace and completeness (cycle).”

In considering Rabbi Bailey’s interpretation is seems that the various parts of this mishna are clearly connected. Aharon was dedicated to the service of Hashem, he developed himself to the point where he could put that in practise by bringing his students closer to Torah. His students (us), once they had found their inner peace and actively developed themselves to the point where they could appreciate it, were then able to appreciate, value and commit themselves to the people around them and to help them come closer to Torah and in turn, to Hashem.

According to Hillel, we are charged with this mission: to find our inner peace, come closer to Torah, commit ourselves to others and help them on their journeys toward Hashem and Torah.

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Pirkei Avot, Chapter 1:17

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מסכת אבות פרק א

א,טז  [יז] שמעון בנו אומר, כל ימיי גדלתי בין החכמים, ולא מצאתי לגוף טוב אלא שתיקה; ולא המדרש הוא העיקר, אלא המעשה; וכל המרבה דברים, מביא חטא.

17. His son, Shimon, would say: All my life I have been raised among the wise, and I have found nothing better for the body than silence. The essential thing is not study, but deed. And one who speaks excessively brings on sin.

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Shimon was the son of Raban Gamliel and Hillel’s great grandson. He grew up surrounded by great Torah scholars and was privileged to learn from them. Shimon’s wisdom here is a warning to those who immersed themselves too much in Torah study to the point that they never have the time to actually perform any of the mitzvot about which they have been learning.

Mentsch.com states that “There is a famous subsequent debate on the issue of which is greater: study or deeds. At the beginning of the debate Rabbi Tarfon held that deeds are greater and Rabbi Akiva that study is greater. In the end all concluded that “Study is greater, for it leads to deeds.” This conclusion resolves the conflict by saying the two are always in harmony. However, Shimon’s saying is contradicts this conclusion: it clearly implies that there are learned people, including in Torah, who don’t act properly. Shimon ben Gamliel’s observation is unfortunately often corroborated today.”

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We are always learning from speech and it is almost impossible to close one’s ears to the idle and sometimes destructive banter which surrounds us. The Western maxim – “Sticks and stones can break my bones, but words can never harm me” – is not a concept that finds its home in Judaism. On the contrary, the laws of lashon hara teach us to always be extremely careful with our speech as once the words are said they cannot be retrieved nor their impact contained.

Here we learn the value of balancing one’s speech with listening. If we are constantly talking then we will surely miss some of the wisdom which those around us can impart, furthermore, we may seen to be foolish if our speech is not properly weighed.

If we have a choice between speech and action we should choose action as often deeds speak louder than words. Clearly, having read some of the laws of lashon hara in a previous shiur, we can appreciate the way that excessive and thoughtless speech can lead to sin.

Rambam divides speech into 5 categories:

(1) Obligatory: speech which the Torah requires us to utter. The primary example of this is Torah study – although not tefillah.

(2) Praiseworthy: speech which is not commanded by the Torah, but which fulfills a positive purpose. This would include complimenting others, praising good people and qualities, and denigrating bad qualities. Also words — as well as song — which inspire, which touch the soul of the listeners and goad them to become greater people would fall under this category.

(3) Permissible: speech which relates to our businesses and our basic needs — food, clothing etc. One is considered praiseworthy if he minimizes his speech in this category.

(4) Undesirable: empty talk, that which the listener gains little from. This would include much of what we hear in the news (if it’s not the juicy stuff which probably belongs in an even lower category). The commentators give such examples as discussing how a person became rich or died (or both), or how a wall was constructed. (It’s almost amusing that scholars such as Maimonides had difficulty even coming up with examples of such talk. One imagines that they could not easily conceive of wasteful talk that would hold anyone’s interest in the first place. Guess they lived in the days before pro ball… 🙂

(5) Forbidden: that which the Torah explicitly forbids — cursing, false testimony, gossip (whether true or false), vulgar language, etc.

Maimonides writes that needless to say, the first two categories should form the bulk of our speech. Even regarding this, however, he adds two qualifying conditions:

(1) We practice what we preach. Learning but not doing, or praising good deeds which we ourselves do not fulfill may very well be worse than not speaking or learning in the first place. In this vein, our mishna stated: “Study is not the primary thing but action.”

(2) Our speech should be concise and to the point. We should always be wary that our words are proper and carefully chosen. Too much speech is counterproductive in almost every area. Even regarding Torah study the Talmud writes that one should teach his students in as concise a manner as possible (Pesachim 3b). And likewise, our mishna concludes: “Whoever talks excessively brings about sin.”