Chapter 2: Mishna 20
Rebbe Tarfon says: The day is short, and task is
immense, the workers are lazy, the reward is great,
and the Proprietor is demanding.
(The Maharal understands that the subject of this Mishna
deals with the task of studying Torah, which is also the subject
of the next Mishna, which teaches us that "It is not incumbent
upon you to complete the task." With all the difficulties that
exist in understanding that statement -- which we will deal with
when we study it -- the Maharal uses what we are taught there as
the basis for the first problem that he raises in this Mishna.)
Why should it bother us that the day is short and the Torah
(the study of which is being referred to as the "task") is vast?
Rebbe Tarfon is about to teach us in the next Mishna that it is
not incumbent upon you to FINISH the work! (Who cares if the day
is short? Whatever we accomplish seems to be OK! )
Another difficulty is the seeming redundancy of the lesson.
If we are taught that the task is immense, then we know that the
day must short, RELATIVE to the amount of work that needs to be
done. (To say that the time is short has relevance only in
relation to the amount of work that needs to be accomplished in
that time. Ten minutes could be a very long time for one person
to wash two plates. Yet for that same person to wash a few
thousand dishes, even a full eight hour workday would be a very
A further redundancy is the statement "the Proprietor is
demanding." If the intention is to teach us that G-d, Who is the
Proprietor, wants us to be constantly learning Torah, this has
already been implied in the statement "the task is immense." If
the proprietor isn't demanding that the work be done, then it
can't be said about the task that it is immense!
Finally, what lesson is being taught with the statement "The
workers are lazy"? (The Tanna certainly isn't into name-
calling!) It would have been more appropriate to instruct us
directly and simply, "Do not be lazy"!
Rebbe Tarfon's basic lesson is to teach man that he should
not direct his attention towards "time-wasters," but rather
towards Torah study. Due to the vastness of the task with which
he is charged , the task of studying and knowing the Torah, one
who spends his time on trivial matters is considered
irresponsible and negligent.
Even though we have been taught (Berachoth 5a) "One who does
more and one who does less [are equivalent to each other] as long
as one's intentions are for the sake of Heaven," in addition to
being taught that "it is not incumbent on you to complete the
task" (both statements implying that we don't judge a person by
the results) these refer only to a person who is conscientious
and not negligent. A person must be involved in Torah with the
level of diligence one would have AS IF he was trying to complete
Therefore, a person who is mindful of the task: a) in
relation to the "Proprietor" (G-d); b) in relation to the task
itself (enormous); c) in relation to the nature of man (innately
"lazy," resistant to exerting himself); d) in relation to the
time available (limited); he will not spend time on trivial
matters, but will undertake his task with alacrity and diligence.
A person is responsible to work in a way that indicates at least
an attempt to finish the task. Otherwise, he is considered
careless and negligent in the performance of his
Due to the limited amount of time available to man, we are
taught "the day is short" since man's days flit by like a shadow.
(This alludes to the verse in Iyov 8:9, "Our days on earth are
like a shadow." Man's time is inherently short, independent of
In addition to the limitation of available time, the task of
learning Torah is itself inherently immense, due to the unlimited
nature of the Torah. This was the intention of King David, when
he wrote (Tehillim 119:96) "To all [material] goals have I seen
an end..." Material things have boundaries, and man has the
ability to delimit them, have full access to them, and complete
them. But Torah, which is purely of an intellectual/spiritual
nature, has no boundaries or limits which are accessible to man.
Therefore, even if man could live for "all the time in the world"
(as long as the world exists) the task of completing the
unlimited Torah is impossible for him to accomplish, due to
nature of man's existence in this world, which is a limited
physical one. The intention of the Tanna's lesson "The task is
immense" is to teach us the fundamental, infinite nature of the
task, after having taught us the lesson about the limited nature
We are also taught that "the Proprietor is demanding," which
is a lesson about the nature of G-d, Who gave us the Torah, and
His demand that our study of that Torah be done with alacrity.
As a non-corporeal reality, G-d transcends the material
dimension, so He is not burdened with the limitations of time
that are a property of matter. It is only man, operating as a
material being within the constraints of time, that is afflicted
with "laziness," resistance to overcoming the inertia of that
The Tanna is teaching us that our study of Torah as service
of G-d has to be performed in a way that is aligned with the
Divine reality that we are serving. Having received the Divine
Torah, it is appropriate for man to study that Torah in a way
that is consistent with the nature of G-d, unburdened (as much as
possible) by the limits of time and the inertia of the material .
Teaching that "the workers are lazy" is the contrast to the
fact that "the Proprietor is demanding." G-d, as the Proprietor,
transcends any limitations of the material, while man, as the
worker, is rooted in and completely subjected the limitations of
the material. Because of his material reality, his ability to
act is limited by the need to overcome physical inertia and the
limits of time, which is the cause of his natural "laziness."
(Man is not being castigated by saying "the worker is lazy."
Rather, as is true in the earlier parts of the Mishna, the Tanna
is teaching a dimension of reality. In this case, it is teaching
the essence of man as being limited by inertia and time, which he
finds difficult to overcome.)
The Mishna is not demanding that man do more than he is
capable of doing. However, since the nature of a) the available
time, b) the task at hand, c) the Proprietor and His demands ,
and d) the worker, all make it impossible for man to completely
do justice to his assignment (of studying and knowing the Torah)
if these limitations are compounded by man devoting time and
attention to "time-wasters," which would be completely
irresponsible behavior. How can man consider wasting time on
excessive eating and drinking, and on the range of trivial
matters that could easily divert him, when the task of learning
Torah is so immense and his nature is not naturally aligned with
the task. Rather, man should study Torah with diligence and
alacrity, avoiding any time-wasters, acting as if his goal was to
complete the study of the entire Torah (even though it is not
possible to actually accomplish this goal).
In summary, when a person has an immense task, when the time
available is limited, and if the proprietor is demanding
completion of the task, he certainly acts with maximum diligence
and alacrity. Because we have been taught (in the previous
Mishna) "Be diligent in the study of Torah" the Tanna now
concludes with a lesson about the fundamental challenges that
must be overcome in accomplishing that goal.
The class is taught by Rabbi Shaya Karlinsky,
Dean of Darche Noam Institutions, Yeshivat
Darche Noam/Shapell's and Midreshet Rachel for Women.