He (Hillel) would say: A reputation of power is the cause for its demise; one who does not continue (to add to his Torah knowledge) dies before his time; one who does not learn (at all) deserves death; and one who uses the crown (of Torah for his own benefit) will perish.
On the lesson “He who uses the Crown of Torah, will perish (pass away)” Reish Lakish (Megilah 28b) interprets it to refer to one who makes use (for his own benefit) of a person who studies Halachoth. (This is not the simple understanding of our Mishna, and further on the Maharal will address this departure from the straightforward understanding of the Mishnah. Meanwhile, his explanations are relevant to both the simple understanding, as well to Reish Lakish’s.)
Torah is a transcendent, Divine reality, and as such it is considered an object sanctified with G-d’s name. Just as one who takes an object of the Holy Temple for personal use is liable for death due to his misappropriation (m’eilah), one who uses the Torah for personal benefit is guilty of a similar crime.
Why does the misappropriation of holy objects carry with it such a serious punishment? Man is a physical being, composed of the material. It is not appropriate for him to physically unite with a holy object which is fundamentally above him, something connected to the Divine. This is shown by man’s inability to remain alive if he views G-d. (See Shemoth 33:20, 19:12,13,22,24; and Shoftim 13:22.) Physical man cannot exist in the transcendent, non-physical world, so one who misappropriates transcendent, holy objects (of which the intellectual/spiritual Torah is considered one) is liable to death, leaving his physical habitat.
It is the crown of the King which rests on his head that concretizes his elevation above the rest of the members of the community. Similarly, the “Crown” of Torah resides in the seat of his intellectuality, on — or in — his head, because of its fundamentally transcendent nature. This is why the Torah accords the title of “King” to Torah scholars, as we are taught (Gittin 62a) “Who are the true kings? The Rabbinical leaders, as is written “Through Me kings rule” (Mishlei 8:15). Just as taking the crown of the King for ones own uses would be considered a serious act of rebellion, and would immediately bring execution to the perpetrator, so, too, is the response to one takes the Crown of Torah for his personal use.
We are taught (Masecheth Nedarim 62a): An orchard owner encountered Rebbi Tarfon, who was eating the remnants of this person’s dates at the end of the season. (Rebbi Tarfon allowed himself to eat them under the presumption that these remnants had been abandoned by their owners, and may be taken by anyone.) The owner (not recognizing that it was Rebbi Tarfon, and being upset by the fact that someone was eating his dates) wrapped Rebbi Tarfon in a sack, and carried him off to dump him in the river. Rebbi Tarfon (realizing what was about to happen to him) wailed “Woe to Tarfon who has been killed by that man (the orchard owner).” When the orchard owner heard this (realizing that it was Rebbi Tarfon in the sack, and not a simple wayfarer) he dropped the sack and ran away. Rebbi Abahu said in the name of Rebbi Chananiah ben Gamliel that for his entire life, Rebbi Tarfon was pained by this occurrence, saying “Woe to me for using the Crown of Torah.” (Rebbi Tarfon understood that the orchard owner let him go only out of respect for his Torah. So he had personal benefit from that Torah.) Furthermore, Rabbah bar bar Chanah said in the name of Rebbi Yochanan “One who uses the Crown of Torah (for his own benefit) is uprooted from the world. If Belshatzar who used holy vessels from the Temple after they had been profaned (secularized; see Yechezkel 7:22) was uprooted from the world (see Daniel 5:30), how much more so for one who uses the Crown of Torah, which is eternally holy.” (There is a further discussion in the Gemara and the commentaries about why Rebbi Tarfon was pained by what happened, since he was in the right. This discussion helps establish the practical parameters of what is a gray area of Halacha — what constitutes benefitting from the Crown of Torah. The Maharal is presenting us with a conceptual understanding of this issue.)
This can be better understood by realizing that when two objects which have no form of connection attempt to unite, the stronger object overcomes and repels the weaker one, which lacks the ability to exist. When a human being uses a holy object, which is an attempt to form a bond with something that is fundamentally transcendent, he is repelled and overcome by it, uprooting his physical existence.
Why did Reish Lakish (Megilah 28b) interpret our Mishna as referring to one who uses a person who studies Halachoth, rather than the literal way that Rebbi Yochanan (Nedarim 62a) interprets it? Reish Lakish is of the opinion that one who benefits from the actual “Crown of Torah” is subject to being uprooted from the world with immediate death in an immediate and powerful way, as happened to Belshatzar, rather than simply “perishing,” passing away, which is what our Mishna implies. Therefore, he understands that it is referring to a less serious misappropriation of the Torah.
There is a progression from the previous lessons of the Mishna to this final one. A reputation of power is cause for its own demise. Torah, however, is the opposite, where ones failure to involve in it is the reason for demise. Furthermore, true power is not the control over others, but rather the Crown of Torah, which truly towers over everything else. This true power and domination is demonstrated by the fact that one who uses the Crown of Torah for his personal benefit perishes from the world. Another common denominator connecting the lessons of the Mishna is that one who depreciates the Torah in any of a variety of ways is liable to death.
(This section of the Maharal provides much food for thought on whether we relate to Torah, both its study as well as its practice, in the properly elevated way. While the serious consequences of our Mishnah are reserved for one who uses the “Crown of Torah” (referring to the true greatness attained through Torah study) for personal benefit, conceptually, any use of Torah to accomplish egocentric goals has a negative connotation. Torah is a transcendent, Divine reality, reflecting the will of G-d in this world, and should be studied and practiced with that perspective.)
I read this article an appreciated it very much. I found it very difficult, however, to focus on the point. I found the concept of punishment by death for using an article from the Holy Temple or for stealing dates to be a very powerful distration. If the Temple were to be rebuilt, do you think this law should be enforced?
Rabbi Karlinsky’s Clarification:
I think this requires some clarification, in case others were also misled by what I wrote.
Rebbe Tarfon was Not liable for death for eating the orchard-owners dates. It was in a fit of anger that the person wrapped Rebbe Tarfon in the sack, and it was certainly not proper of him. He only abandoned his plan after realizing that he was carrying one of the Torah sages to the river.
As far as using articles of the Holy Temple: There is no court administered punishment. The person’s punishment is death from heaven, which in practical terms means that G-d takes this person from the world before his time. We don’t really know how that “plays out” in practice. But here is no “enforcement,” even when the Temple is standing.
Hope this makes things clearer.