“Torah is greater than priesthood and kingship, for kingship is acquired with 30 qualities, priesthood is acquired with 24, whereas the Torah is acquired with 48 ways. These are: … (14) limited business activity, (15) limited involvement with the world (some translate: sexual activity), (16) limited enjoyment, (17) limited sleep, (18) limited light conversation, (19) limited laughter…”
The theme of this week is moderation. The focus of the true Torah scholar is on growth in Torah alone. Any of the other activities which occupy a person’s energies, even perfectly legitimate ones, must be limited. Of course, our mishna does not recommend that the Torah scholar curtail any of these activities altogether. One cannot live without any source of livelihood, neither can a person live without pleasure, small talk, or involvement with others. The Talmud writes that before the great sage Rabba began his lecture, he would crack a joke, the rabbis would laugh, and then he would sit with awe and reverence and begin his lecture (Pesachim 117a). There’s a place for everything in Jewish life — especially good old Jewish humor. Yet the true scholar will be careful not to make business, pleasure or popularity too central a part of his raison d’etre.
Our mishna here lists activities which are neither good nor evil. They are a necessary part of life — and of course there is nothing wrong with them for us ordinary Jews. Yet the true test of scholarship is to what extent a person becomes preoccupied with such activities.
Deuteronomy, in urging us to observe the Torah, writes, “and [the Torah] is not across the sea so that you should say, ‘Who will cross the sea for us and… teach it to us…'” (30:13). On this the Talmud comments: “The Torah is not across the sea” — This teaches that accomplishment in Torah is not found among merchants who travel the seas (or fly business class) in search of business opportunities (Eiruvin 55a). We all need to support ourselves. Yet our careers all too often become our entire focus, to the detriment of family, physical well-being and religion. As the recent saying goes, no one ever died wishing he had spent more time in the office.
The same holds true for all the permissible pleasures of our mishna. As we’ve discussed many times in the past, Judaism is not a religion which forbids everything it suspects as being “sinful”. It does not preach celibacy, poverty or self-affliction. We are to live *in* this world, living well and contentedly on the physical plane as well as the spiritual.
However, the scholar of our mishna (and again, this entire chapter is dealing with the crown of Torah rather than ordinary good behavior) will live with a wise degree of moderation. In our very human need for companionship and social interaction, one can easily become too image-conscious or popularity-driven. It’s so natural to place a lot of our energies in our social standing — attempting to feel good about ourselves through our looks, popularity or sense of humor. The scholar must constantly remind himself that he must simply forgo such considerations. Just as the true believer must at times take a stand for truth regardless of what is fashionable or politically correct, he must likewise place his focus on spirituality above all other considerations. And as much as the rest of the world seems to care almost entirely about what *man* thinks, the scholar knows that he responds to a higher calling.
It is interesting to note, however, that the scholar of our mishna will still grow into the broadminded and giving person described further in our mishna. Later our mishna will describe him as one who loves mankind, shares his fellow’s burdens, and is not conceited in his learning. How does his relative isolation engender such giving and self-effacing qualities?
The answer is that the scholar does not see himself as limiting his social life because other people are not worthy of his consideration. He is focused almost entirely on study and personal growth, but ultimately he is not doing it for himself. He is studying because it is G-d’s will, and he is cultivating talents within himself which will eventually be utilized for all of Israel. The more he studies and the more he isolates himself, the more he will ultimately acquire to give over to the rest of mankind.
I’d like to illustrate this concept from the laws of the Sabbath. Perhaps the illustration is a little off the subject, but we should keep in mind that what our mishna recommends for scholars on an ongoing basis applies to every one of us on the Sabbath.
On the Sabbath we live on a more spiritual plane, in which we see the physical activities of the workweek as complete and no longer occupying our minds and bodies. We refrain from physical activity on the Sabbath and turn to more spiritual pursuits — just as the scholar lives the entire week. (See our series on the concept of Sabbath: Chapter 5, Mishna 8 (http://www.torah.org/learning/pirkei-avos/archapter5.html).)
In addition to the Torah restrictions on the Sabbath, the Rabbis forbade many other activities. Some examples are playing musical instruments, shopping, swimming, horseback riding, hiking outside the city limits, and taking certain medications. (Obviously, one should consult his rabbi regarding specific questions.) These were forbidden typically for reasons one might think of as kind of “forced”: the musical instrument may break and you will come to fix it on the Sabbath; you may come to manufacture more medicine via grinding (forbidden on the Sabbath by Torah law); you may cut off the branch of a tree in order to prod the horse, etc. One might feel these concerns hardly justify restricting such refreshing and enjoyable activities. The reasons seem almost contrived. And as a matter of fact, they probably are.
R. Yitzchak Berkovits of Jerusalem explained that whenever the Rabbis forbade something for reasons that leave us wondering, there is in fact a deeper reason involved. And here our Sages, in their great wisdom, recognized a compelling need to forbid such activities. When a person has a free day, he finds all sorts of hobbies and diversions to fill his time — shopping, his exercise program, music lessons, favorite novel etc. Once we are forced to stay home from work, there are so many not-much-more-spiritual things to fill our day. The Rabbis rightly recognized these as pleasant diversions from recognizing the true meaning of Sabbath. The Sabbath is a spiritual day — a day of study, prayer and spiritual growth. We are satisfied physically as well (with that mega helping of cholent), but the Rabbis saw to it as best they could that we not allow ourselves to become distracted, not reflecting on what the Sabbath is truly about.
The Rabbis therefore saw fit to reminded us what the Sabbath is really about — just as the Torah scholar must be reminded of his true purpose the entire week. We cannot have it both ways. The scholar must limit his pleasures and social activity if he truly wants great achievement. And we too, who have every right to live “normal” lives during the week, must recognize that there is one time which is sacred and must be preserved as entirely spiritual: the holy Sabbath.
Text Copyright © 2015 by Rabbi Dovid Rosenfeld and Torah.org.