He used to enumerate their praises. Eliezer ben Horkonus [is like a] cemented well which does not lose [even] a drop [of water]. Yehoshua ben Chanania — praiseworthy is she who gave birth to him. Yossi HaCohen is a “chasid” (a pious one). Shimon ben Nethanel is one who fears sin. Elazar ben Arach is a flowing spring that surges forth.
After having praised the purity of the material dimension of Rebbe Yehoshua, which serves as a carrier for an exalted state of the nefesh, RYB”Z praises Rebbi Yossi HaKohen as a chasid, which is the result of an even higher and more delicate level of the material dimension, the chomer. This more elevated form of chomer serves as a carrier for the sechel (the higher form of “kochot hanefesh”). We have explained in an earlier Mishna how the characteristic of “chasid” is rooted in an elevated dimension of the chomer, which leads one to serve and contribute more than is required. (See our explanation on Mishna 6, particularly part 2. The power of giving requires an altruistic nature, something which is not normally found in pure chomer, which is focused on its own self-preservation.) It is the pure and refined chomer that has the ability to give for something outside of itself, which is the foundation of the true “chasid.” While the praise of Rebbe Yehoshua ben Chanania describes the excellence of his chomer, the level of Rebbi Yossi HaKohen is a more elevated praise, since his characteristic is built on a virtual transcendence of the nature of the chomer itself. We have explained how each of the “kochot hanefesh” is carried by an appropriate “koach haguf,” and how the two levels of “kochot hanefesh” imply two levels of “kochot haguf.” The chomer, the physical medium, of Rebbi Yossi HaKohen, which serves as the carrier of the sechel, the higher form of “kochot hanefesh,” is more elevated than the chomer of Rebbe Yehoshua ben Chanania, which serves as a carrier for the lower form of “kochot hanefesh.” It is particularly appropriate that this virtue (of “chasid”) be found in a Kohen, in line with the verse “Your Tumim and your Urim are given to your pious one” (Devarim 33:8). This connection is known to people of knowledge and understanding. (I have included this concluding line of the Maharal, to indicate that he views the connection as esoteric. A small elaboration follows.) (The verse is speaking about the Urim v’Tumim, part of the uniform of the Kohen Gadol, used by him to receive communication from G-d. “Tumim,” from the root “tam,” perfect, implies moral perfection; “Urim,” from the root “or,” light, implies intellectual perfection. “Your pious one” implies one who is selflessly devoted to G-d. The Kohen is viewed as one completely devoted to the service of G-d and the nation. See the Maharal’s explanation of Ch. 4, Mishna 17 on the Crown of Kehuna. Our explanation of Ch. 1, Mishna 12, which discusses Aharon HaKochen as a lover and pursuer of peace, will also help in understanding the Maharal’s ideas here.)
Then comes the praise of Shimon ben Netanel as one who fears sin. This praise is a function of his pure and refined sechel (intellectual/spiritual dimension) which leads one to fear sin. This was explained earlier, in the Mishna (6) that teaches that an “am ha’aretz” can’t be a chasid, and a boor can’t be one who fears sin. A chasid is one who has a refined and purified physical dimension, while an am ha’aretz has a heavy and coarse material dimension, very much rooted in the earth (the “earthiness” of a material existence in contrast to the lightness, delicacy and abstractness of the intellect). When one is a boor, lacking in wisdom, he can’t be one who has a fear of heaven. One who fears heaven is motivated and propelled by his connection with the Divine. This connection and fear can exist only with one who is close to G-d. One who is distant from a king is not awed by him, and he has little fear of him. Therefore, a boor, who is ignorant of the Divine, can’t be in awe of G-d, and can’t be one who fears sin (having no understanding of the greatness of G-d and the detriment of sin). (See Mishna 6, parts 1 and 2 of this chapter for an elaboration of what has been presented here in brief.) This will also be discussed in Chapter 3, Mishna 21, which teaches that if there is no wisdom there can be no fear (of heaven) and if there is no fear (of heaven) there can be no wisdom, where wisdom and fear are inseparably linked. One cannot exist without the other. So saying that Rebbe Shimon ben Netanel was one who fears sin, is really teaching that his sechel was refined and pure, able to grasp intellectual truths, leading him to be one who fears sin. One with intellectual clarity and refinement resides close to G-d, due to the quality of his understanding (of the Divine reality which permeates the world). This does not imply that Rebbe Shimon ben Netanel was necessarily smarter than Rebbe Eliezer ben Horkonus and Rebbe Elazar ben Arach. Rebbe Shimon ben Netanel’s acclaim is the special characteristic of the sechel, being pure and refined. Rebbe Elazar ben Arach was a flowing spring that surges forth, generating new wisdom and understanding from within himself. Rebbe Eliezer ben Horkonus’s wisdom was a result of the complete retention of the wisdom that he acquired. Each of these is a unique characteristic that relates to wisdom, distinct from Rebbe Shimon ben Netanel’s special characteristic, which describes excellence in the carrier of the sechel.