He (Hillel) used to say: A surplus of meat causes an increase in worms. A surplus of possessions causes an increase in worry. A surplus of wives causes an increase in “keshafim” (witchcraft). A surplus of maidservants causes an increase in promiscuity. A surplus of slaves causes an increase in thievery. A surplus of Torah causes an increase in life. A surplus of “yeshiva” (sitting together with peers studying Torah) increases wisdom. A surplus of “eitzah” (seeking advice and insights from more experienced people) increases understanding. A surplus of charity increases peace. One who acquires a good name acquires it for himself; one who acquires words of Torah for himself has acquired the World to Come for himself.
(We left off discussing a person’s excess involvement in the physical dimension of the world which will be contrasted with “excess” involvement in the spiritual dimensions of the world.)
The proper order for a person’s relationship with the physical world is to first acquire possessions and then to build a home. (See Rambam Ch. 5, Deioth, Halacha 11) For this reason the lesson on possessions is followed with a lesson about the foundation of the home, his wife. We are taught that a surplus of wives causes an increase in “keshafim” (witchcraft). The power of “kishuf” is more developed and prevalent among women due to their greater connection to the tangible and physical dimensions of world, as well as to their more developed sense of imagination, both of which are needed to activate the power of “kishuf.”
(It is difficult for us today to know exactly what the power of “kishuf” is, but it was clearly a real force. There is a prohibition in the Torah of being involved in it, in Shemoth 22:17; and there is discussion about it in Sanhedrin 67a-b. From the Gemara and commentaries, it seems that kishuf relates to the interference with the desired relationship between the forces of the upper world and their proper influence on the physical world, enabling the material world to function with a dimension of independence from the upper world. It is for this reason that for “kishuf” to work, the person doing it must be rooted on the earth, as is implied in Rashi in Sanhedrin (44b, “d’bayah”).
(Just as the Maharal made clear in the previous lessons, a “surplus of wives” is not referring to a literal count of a person’s actual wives, but rather a representative lesson about a man’s relationship to his wife (or in the time of the Torah and Talmud, to his wives). A person who shows a predilection for many women (“marbeh”) seems to be responding to the collective “mystique” of Womankind, rather than to the unique individuality of a woman with whom he can create a true partnership of accomplishment. The nature of womankind is to be more connected to and rooted in nature and the physical world. Some manifestations of this would be their tendency towards the practical rather than the theoretical; their connection of their bodies to the rhythms of time and forces of life.
(The woman’s nature and role, reflecting the ideal state of “chomer,” is directed towards being the “implementer” of the potential ideal in the “real” world. It is the male role to provide the theoretical framework represented by the “tzurah,” for that ideal. Please refer to our extended discussions on this in Ch. 1, Mishna 5.
(“Kishuf” is the strengthening of the power of “chomer,” the material dimension of creation, to resist the implementation of the ideal dimension of creation. Even though a person’s wives may be far removed from performing any kind of “kishuf,” pursuing a surplus of wives is departing from and weakening the role with which he is charged, being drawn to the very different female role. This upsets the very delicate balance necessary to ensure the proper connection between the upper and lower worlds in order that the desired ideals are implemented in the material world.
(Concepts in Chazal that relate to gender differences have become difficult to discuss in these “politically correct” times. Yet there is much in the writings and research of contemporary secular educators, psychologists and psychiatrists which validates the Torah view. (Some of the work of Dr. John Gray in his “Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus” series is an example.) Unfortunately, discussions of this topic on its merits are usually difficult these days. The problem frequently is not an educated refutation of the principles, but resistance due to the potential for abuse that are implied in many of these principles. If the principles are misused or abused in a chauvinistic way, that should not lead us to deny the principles, which are rooted in our Divine Torah. Rather we must fight the specific instances of abuse or misuse, without compromising on a correct understanding of how G-d made the male and the female, and the different roles they play in bringing the world to its desired perfection.)
After discussing the foundation of a man’s home, the Tanna discusses the excess in other dimensions of the home. The maidservant represents one works in the home, while the slave represents one who works outside the home, in the fields. Maidservants are descendants of Cham (the son of Noach who was cursed for his improper behavior towards his father), and are considered steeped in promiscuity as a continuation of their ancestor. Even if the specific maidservants owned by the person are themselves of the highest moral standards, the tendency of the person to an excess of maidservants is indicative of his own disposition and lack of sensitivity towards promiscuity.
Slaves are associated with thievery due to a presumed lack of honesty and integrity. (While this sounds a little “politically incorrect,” the explanation provided by the Maharal may be relevant to many of us in our professional lives.) The possible difficulty of properly performing the tasks assigned to him leads a slave to compromise on the honesty of how he discharges those responsibilities, resulting in his indirect stealing (from his owner, through a less than thorough performance of his tasks) or more directly stealing from others in order to make his work easier. This was the behavior of the shepherds of Lot, who allowed the sheep to graze in other people’s fields, in contrast to the shepherd’s of Avraham, who took the sheep to the desert where they would graze on ownerless land. (See Breishith 13:7 and Rashi ibid, as well as Shemoth 3:1 where it is taught that Moshe behaved in a similar fashion.)
Due to their natural dispositions, maidservants who deviate from proper behavior are led to promiscuity, while slaves who deviate from proper behavior are led to thievery. Grasping this requires a very deep understanding of the workings of the world. (As we have written before, this language of the Maharal indicates a deeper insight that borders on the Kabbalistic.)
In summary, the five things mentioned in the first part of the Mishna relate to the physical dimensions of existence, and any excess in this dimension results in increased need and deficiency, and ultimate deterioration.