Torah Above All Else

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For the first time in Pirkei Avot we are formally introduced to a teaching of the great sage Rabbi Meir. While in
Chapter 3 Mishna 10 Rabbi Dostai quoted a teaching in the name of Rabbi Meir, Chapter 4 Mishna 12 is the first actual
teaching that we hear from Rabbi Meir himself. Rabbi Meir, living as a member of the third generation of Tanaaim
following the destruction of the Temple, was one of the most important and influential sages of the Tannaic period. It
was around this time period of Rabbi Meir that Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi compiled the Oral Tradition into its current
written form—the Mishna. In fact, the Gemara in Tractate Sanhedrin (86a) teaches that, “A general Mishna is according
to Rabbi Meir.” In other words, any Mishna that does not quote a specific Rabbi is according to the teaching of Rabbi
Meir. The Gemara in Tractate Eiruvin (13b) actually makes reference to the relationship between Rabbi Meir and Rabbi
Yehuda HaNasi. According to the Gemara (and Rashi’s commentary) Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi sat behind Rabbi Meir
while he was teaching and therefore Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi testified that he did not have the same sharpness of Rabbi
Meir for he only saw Rabbi Meir from behind. So great was Rabbi Meir that the Gemara in Eiruvin continues and
describes that he was called Rabbi Meir because he illuminated (Meir in Hebrew) the eyes of the other sages in matters
of Jewish law.
To say that Rabbi Meir was a great Torah scholar would be an understatement. However, what made Rabbi Meir truly
unique relative to other sages was his approach and appreciation of Torah as well as his incredible character. The
Talmud Yerushalmi in Tractate Bikurim (3:3) recounts how Rabbi Meir always conducted himself with great humility in
that he would always stand before every old person. Perhaps the greatest story of Rabbi Meir’s humility can be found
cited in the Talmud Yerushalmi in Tractate Sotah (1:4) based on a Midrash in Vayikra Rabbah (9:9). The story goes that
one Friday night a woman came home late after listening to a lecture by Rabbi Meir. By the time she got home, her
Shabbat candles had gone out and her husband was in a terrible mood. When this woman explained to her husband
that she had been listening to Rabbi Meir, her husband angrily yelled at her, “Don’t come into my house until you go
and spit in his face.” Not knowing what to do, this woman sat outside of her home for three weeks. How could she
possibly spit in the face of the great sage Rabbi Meir? Meanwhile, through Divine inspiration Rabbi Meir saw what had
transpired and pretended to be suffering a terrible illness in his eye. The only way to cure his ailment, said Rabbi Meir,
would be for someone to spit on the wound. When the woman’s neighbors heard of Rabbi Meir’s illness they
encouraged her to go speak to Rabbi Meir about her situation. When she arrived in front of Rabbi Meir he asked her
whether or not she knew how to heal his wound through spitting. When she admitted that she did not know, he
encouraged her to try, saying, “Try seven times for perhaps you will succeed.” Having no other option, this woman did
as Rabbi Meir instructed and spit in his face. Having now fulfilled the demands of her husband, Rabbi Meir sent her
home to be with her husband. There was no ego for Rabbi Meir when it came to helping make peace between a
husband and a wife.
The Gemara in Tractate Chagiga (15b) shares another story about Rabbi Meir’s greatness in regards to his
commitment to Torah study. Rabbi Meir was a student of Elisha ben Avuyah, known in the Talmud as ‘Acher’ ; ‘The
Other,’ a sage of the Talmud that lost his faith. Yet, despite the fact that Elisha ben Avuyah had been corrupted, the
Gemara goes on to describe that Rabbi Meir continued to study Torah with him. While a great scholar in his own
right, Elisha ben Avuyah had effectively been thrown out of the community. What was Rabbi Meir doing with such a
person? While he may have had personal ties to his teacher, Elisha ben Avuyah was someone that the sages
encouraged people to stay far away from lest they become corrupted as well. Yet, the Gemara describes that, “Rabbi
Meir found a pomegranate and ate the contents while throwing away the peel.” In other words, Rabbi Meir was able to
separate the good from the bad, the words of Torah from the words of heresy, when relating to Elisha ben Avuyah.
Despite who is teacher was, Rabbi Meir was able to see the good, ‘the pomegranate seeds’ in Elisha ben Avuyah and
managed to continue to learn Torah from him. As the Gemara in Tractate Sanhedrin (44a) teaches, “Yisrael Af Al Pi
Shechata, Yisrael Hu” ; “A Jew, even though they have sinned, is still a Jew.”
In addition to studying by Elisha ben Avuyah, Rabbi Meir was also one of five students of Rabbi Akiva that remained
following the tragic death of Rabbi Akiva’s students. So close was Rabbi Meir to Rabbi Akiva, that the Gemara in
Tractate Yevamot (121a) describes how Rabbi Meir followed Rabbi Akiva when his teacher left the land of Israel. Rabbi
Meir, and his subsequent students (including Somchos and Rabbi Shimon ben Elazar) served as the connecting link of
strong Torah authority from the time of Rabbi Akiva on through to the next generation of students.
Of Rabbi Meir’s many teachings and insights, it is his incredible focus on the value and importance of Torah study that
shines through. The Gemara in Tractate Horayot (13a) shares a teaching of Rabbi Meir that even a Torah sage that is a
Mamzer (that has religious limitations) takes precedence over an unlearned Kohen Gadol (High Priest). Further, the
Gemara in Tractate Bava Kamma (38a) teaches in the name of Rabbi Meir that even a gentile that learns Torah is
comparable to a Kohen Gadol. It is precisely this emphasis on the importance of Torah study that is the focus of
Mishna 12, “Minimize your business and engage in Torah.” While the relationship between earning a living versus
studying Torah has been discussed previously, Rabbi Meir is taking a very important stand. It is not that one should
totally remove oneself from this world vis-à-vis their occupation, but rather the sole purpose of earning a living is such
that a person should have the capacity to learn Torah. A person should limit his or her business activities such that
they now have more free time to learn Torah.
A number of commentators interestingly build on this notion. Rabbi Meir is teaching that not only will a person not
have enough time to learn Torah if they do not reduce their business activities, but also a person that is deeply
involved in their business may find it very difficult to clear their mind and actually focus on Torah learning. Finding the
perfect equilibrium between how much time a person should allocate to earning a living to support themselves and
their family while leaving enough time for Torah study with a clear head is a difficult charge. This is what Rabbi Meir
must mean in the end of Mishna 12 when he teaches, “If you neglect the study of Torah, you will have many excuses to
neglect it.” In other words, not giving the proper attention to Torah study (i.e. being distracted by one’s occupation
and business matters) enables a slippery slope that leads to great neglect of the Torah.
This interpretation helps us connect to the teaching in the previous Mishna in Chapter 4. In Mishna 11, Rabbi Yonatan
taught that anyone that fulfills the Torah despite poverty would ultimately fulfill it due to wealth. However, anyone that
neglects Torah due to wealth would ultimately neglect it due to poverty. Many of the commentaries explain this
Mishna to mean that someone that is poor is often more inclined to study Torah because of their poverty. On the
other hand, one that is wealthy often neglects Torah because of their wealth. Having great wealth can be a great
distraction to studying Torah in a serious way. Whether a person is focusing on their business activity or even how
best to ‘spend their wealth,’ any moment not focused on Torah is considered wasted.
One of the underlying themes of Mishna 11 is that there is never an excuse to not learn Torah—no mater how
wealthy or unfortunately how poor a person may be, the main purpose in a person’s life is the study of Torah. In fact
the Gemara in Tractate Yevamot (35b) teaches that at the end of one’s life her or she will stand in judgment and be
asked whether they used their time to study Torah. Those that lived an impoverished life will argue that their poverty
prevented them from studying. On the other hand, those that are rich will blame their neglect of Torah study on the
burden of their wealth. In response to these claims, the Heavenly Court will declare, “Were you poorer than Hillel?”
The great sage Hillel was so poor that he couldn’t even afford the insignificant fee to get in to the Beit Midrash to
study. Yet, despite having to sit outside in the cold, he did his utmost to listen carefully to catch whatever trickle of
Torah that might escape through the walls of the Beit Midrash. In response to a wealthy person, the Heavenly Court
will say, “Were you wealthier than Rabbi Elazar ben Charsom?” Despite the fabulous wealth that Rabbi Elazar amassed,
he had others run his business for him and carried food with him to study Torah all day in the Beit Midrah. In both
cases, if the desire is strong enough, nothing can stand in the way of Torah learning. There are no excuses and we
must do our utmost to try and live our lives devoted in this way to the study of Torah.
Submitting oneself in this way is incredibly challenging. We raise our children to learn and study to get in to the best
colleges and universities and to get the best jobs. In a capitalistic society, we push our children and ourselves to make
as much money as we can. However the question we must ask ourselves is simple—Why? Why do we work so hard
to amass wealth? How much money is enough money when our focus should be on learning Torah? When we are
working hard to earn a living, how often do we think about the role of Torah? How often do we think about when we
are next going to sit down and study? Earning a living is a means towards an end of a life filled with Torah learning. In
fact, the Gemara in Tractate Kiddushin (82a) describes that Rabbi Meir taught that a person should always teach his
son, “a clean and easy profession, and pray to the One who owns all wealth and possessions…for neither poverty nor
wealth comes from a particular profession; rather, everything is in accordance with a person’s merit.”
Finally, wealth and poverty need not be in terms of monetary and physical possessions. The Sfat Emet defines the
poverty and wealth in Mishna 11 as being related to the teaching of Ben Zoma in Mishna 1 of Chapter 4—that a
wealthy person is one that is happy with their portion. When a person learns Torah diligently, overcoming financial
hardship and other difficulties, they will be spiritually uplifted and gain true happiness within the Torah itself. On the
other hand, “whoever neglects Torah despite his wealth” is a person that does not know how to use their most
precious resource—their time. A person that does not learn Torah when he has the wealth of time, in the end will
awaken too late at the end of life, when there is no longer an opportunity to gain the one property that gives a person
happiness.