"Rabbi Akiva said: Jesting and lightheadedness accustom a person to
immorality. The oral transmission is a protective fence for the Torah.
Tithes are a protective fence for wealth. Vows are a protective fence for
abstinence. A protective fence for wisdom is silence."
This will be our fourth and final class on this mishna. Up until now we've
discussed R. Akiva's first two statements. Of the remaining three, two --
the third and the fifth -- are closely related to themes we've discussed in
the past. I will basically refer the reader to our previous discussions. We
will then, for the remainder of this class, discuss the remaining theme -- #4.
R. Akiva's third statement is that tithes -- separating the appropriate
quantities of our crops (or our paychecks for us white-collar employees) --
will assure our financial success. Our inclination would be to see charity
as a necessary evil -- as a decreasing of our savings, but as necessary
because of G-d's commandment and our moral obligation to mankind. Yet the
Sages tell us otherwise. Giving charity will increase our wealth rather than
decrease it. As we all know too well, G-d ultimately controls our life
savings; He holds the purse strings. He has more than enough messengers to
deny us our wealth if it is undeserved: the fridge will go, a kid will need
braces, an infirm parent will require large amounts of medical or home care,
G-d forbid. "Saving" money has little bearing on how much we will ultimately
be left with. Investing it is basically a lost cause. (Not to belittle
making the proper effort. But realize that the best investment we can
possibly make involves giving that deserved 10% to those in need.)
Recently (3:8 -- http://www.torah.org/learning/pirkei-avos/chapter3-8b.html)
we noted that this phenomenon, that charity generates wealth, goes even
further. The Prophet Malachi exhorted the people to "test" G-d in this: give
more charity and see the results. In this one area we have every right to
expect that G-d will deliver on His promises. In that class, we discussed
the ramifications of this -- why here alone does G-d allow us to test Him,
something we do not see in any other area of Judaism. Any of my readers is
welcome to take the Pepsi challenge and try this out, but for the complete
discussion, please follow the link above!
Our mishna's final statement is the importance of silence as a means of
acquiring wisdom. Our purpose in study should not be to make ourselves heard
or impress others with our acumen. It is to humbly gather knowledge
ourselves. And for this there is no better means than silence. We discussed
this at greater length at the end of Chapter 1, please see our discussion
We finally arrive at R. Akiva's second-to-last statement and the last we
will deal with -- that vows are a protective fence for abstinence. Vows,
their fulfillment and their annulment are lengthy and complex topics in
Jewish law. Simply speaking, we have the ability to bind upon ourselves new
obligations or restrictions beyond that which the Torah requires or forbids.
For example, a person may swear he will fast the next day, bring his animal
as a Temple offering, adhere to his diet, etc. and the act he commits to
will become a Torah obligation for him, or the item he forbids will become
as forbidden to him as pig. A do-it-yourself prohibition. And our mishna
appears to recommend such a practice as a means of ensuring we keep
ourselves in line.
In truth, however, the Torah generally frowns on oath-taking. Deuteronomy
23:23 writes: "If you refrain from taking an oath, you will not bear a sin."
Why take the risk of obligating yourself with a promise you may not keep --
possibly for reasons beyond your control? The Talmud likewise states,
"Whoever takes a [voluntary] oath, even if he fulfills it, is called sinful"
(Nedarim 77b). There is no reason to take undue risks. We learned earlier
that one should "say little and do much" (1:15 --
http://www.torah.org/learning/pirkei-avos/chapter1-15b.html). If you want to
perform great deeds, *do* them! And if you cannot, keep quiet! But what is
gained by making magnanimous promises which you might not be able to fulfill
when the time comes?
Further, in the case of restrictive oaths, the Torah does not really
recommend that we make our lives unduly difficult with additional
restrictions. The Talmud states it so well: "The Torah hasn't forbidden
enough already that you want to *add* to it?!" (Jerusalem Talmud, Nedarim
9:1). Judaism places quite enough restrictions on us, thank you. Attempting
to be more pious than the Pope (the High Priest?) may simply be courting
If so, how are we to understand our mishna which seems to encourage
oath-taking? Our mishna is presumably discussing a person who wants to
refrain from inappropriate behavior, and who places upon himself vows
towards that end. To understand, we must define what type of improper
behavior our mishna refers to (for again, if it's permissible, why should we
be restricting ourselves?) and why at times one is permitted to go so far as
the risky approach of taking an oath.
In Numbers Chapter 6 (1-21) the Torah discusses the Nazir. A Nazir is a man
or woman who takes a special type of oath, forbidding upon himself a number
of activities -- drinking wine, cutting his hair, and coming into contact
with ritually unclean objects, such as a corpse. (The long-haired,
super-strong Judge Samson was a type of Nazir. See Judges 13-16.) At first
blush, we would assume the Nazir is a person of superior holiness, one who
separates himself even from certain permissible pleasures and spiritual
impurity. The Torah does not require this behavior of all of us but offers
this "advanced track" to someone looking for higher levels of piety.
But it is not so simple. The Talmud (Ta'anis 11a) is far more ambivalent
about our oath-taking teetotaler. Numbers 6:11 writes that the Nazir must in
certain instances bring a Temple sin offering, and he must do so "for he has
sinned against a soul." The Talmud asks, "Against whose soul did he sin?
[His own -- ] for he denied himself wine." Again, if the Torah does not
forbid wine, why should this fellow invent transgressions?
On the other hand, G-d *did* include the section of the Nazir in the Torah.
Why does G-d allow a person to take such vows if He does not care for such
abstinence in the first place?
The answer is that vows are considered drastic action. We should not
normally need them -- they are both risky and overly restrictive -- but some
people have no choice. Say a person cannot handle alcohol. He knows he has a
problem. Telling himself, cajoling himself, knowing how detrimental liquor
is to himself, his family, his career, and his life just do no good. He is
an addict; he is out of control. He is incapable of trusting himself to make
rational decisions. The normal avoidance and moderation which is fine for
the rest of us is for him a waste of time. He needs drastic action.
And so the Torah created the concept of vows. Such a person can *forbid*
liquor upon himself, making it in the eyes of the Torah the equivalent of
pig. He has created a new restriction -- he has gone beyond the bounds of
what even our Torah forbids -- but he had to. For he needed a vow. He needed
to trek that dangerous path towards improvement -- because it would just not
happen any other way.
Perhaps this is part of the idea behind the Nazir as well. He too realizes
he is addicted to pleasure -- even to such permissible pleasures as wine or
the simple grooming of his hair. Such pleasures do not simply allow him to
enhance his enjoyment of life, as they should. They control him. He lives
for pleasure. He realizes it has to stop but is helpless to do anything
And so, the Torah created the Nazirite Vows. But the Torah went further. It
forbade the Nazir not only to drink wine, but to consume any product
remotely related to the vine: grape juice, grape skins, raisins, raisin
bran, even a grape Nehi. ;-) And the message is clear: If you want to get
yourself under control, go to the absolute opposite extreme. Don't go
anywhere near a bottle; don't consume anything even remotely reminiscent of
wine. Take drastic action: take an oath. You can't be "normal" about this;
you cannot drink in moderation. You are fighting a war.
As is often the case, the Torah deals with specifics, but the message for us
is far from specific. If we cannot control ourselves in certain ways, if we
have a weakness, a craving or addiction, we must go to the opposite extreme.
Maimonides (Mishne Torah Hil' De'os 2:2
(http://www.torah.org/learning/mlife/ch2law2a.html)) writes that one who
cannot control his anger must make himself into a doormat. He must never
argue, raise his voice, or talk back -- even when perfectly justified. If he
allows himself to get started, there's no telling what kind of damage he
will do to himself and to others, how quickly relationships which took years
to nurture will be destroyed. If, however, he adopts the opposite practice,
it will slowly become second nature to him (for how we act eventually
becomes who we are), and ultimately he will attain that golden middle.
At the conclusion of the section of the Nazir, the Torah discusses the
procedure the Nazir must undergo at the completion of his period of
abstention. The Torah then concludes, "and afterwards, the Nazir may drink
wine" (v. 20). R. Moshe Alshich (of 16th Century Tzefas, Israel) asks in his
commentary: Why does the Torah still refer to him as "the Nazir"? Didn't he
just complete his vow? Isn't he now an ordinary individual? We might even
call it a contradiction in terms to write "the *Nazir* may drink wine!"
R. Alshich answers that ideally, even after the Nazir's oath is concluded,
he should remain a Nazir -- not literally, but in spirit. Now that he has
conquered his addiction, now that wine does not control him, he may partake
-- and in fact he should enjoy that which G-d has granted us in this world.
But it should still be in the spirit of the Nazir. He is not enjoying this
world because he lives for it or because it controls him. He enjoys this
world because G-d has given us a beautiful world. For a healthy individual,
there is no reason to add restrictions the Torah did not forbid. The
physical pleasures of life can be enjoyed and can increase the recovered
Nazir's appreciation of the G-d who has granted them. And in that spirit,
"shall he drink wine."
(As an important postscript, after sending out a previous version of this
class, a medical student wrote back to me saying that current medical
opinion is that the recovered alcoholic should *never* dabble with spirits
again -- for his old ways may readily return. I therefore quote the
Alshich's comment not as a practical statement of guidance for recovering
alcoholics but as an accurate statement of man's ideal relationship with the
pleasures of this world.)