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The Systems of the Jewish Year

Devarim Nechmadim on Avos: Chapter Four

By Rabbi Sender Haber

Ben Zoma and Ben Azzai

Shimon ben Zoman and Shimon ben Azai were two outstanding scholars in their generation. Both passed away at a young age before they had attained the title of ‘Rabi’.

Ben Zoma is noted for his intellect. The Talmud tells us that if someone saw Ben Zoma in a dream they could expect to be blessed with wisdom. Ben Azzai was noted for his passion. He was engaged to the daughter of Rabi Akiva but he was unable to stay married because his passion for Torah left no room for any other relationship.

The Talmud tells us that both Ben Zoma and Ben Azzai were part of the group that entered the Pardes, which Tosfos describes as a deep kabbalistic trance. Ben Zoma lost his faculties of reason from the experience; Ben Azzai died. Only Rabi Akiva entered in peace and left in peace.

Who is Wise? Who is Wealthy? Who is Strong? Who is Honored?

Wisdom, Wealth, Strength, and humility are important traits. We are taught that they are prerequisites for prophecy and the Talmud tells us that all of the prophets met these requirements. But Ben Zoma taught that Wisdom, Wealth, Strength, and Honor should not be measured or attained in traditional ways. Wisdom is about learning from all people, Wealth is about being happy with ones lot, Strength is about controlling our evil inclination, and honor is about respecting others.

Ben Zoma is teaching that if we can recognize that blessing come from G-d, all we need to do is connect to G-d’s wisdom, wealth, strength and honor. We connect to G-d by following His direction as described in the verses quoted in the mishna.

We are taught that the incense in the Temple made a person wealthy. The Bnei Yissoschar explains that the offering of incense was itself an act that connected a person to G-d’s wealth. A person who is successful in this relationship with G-d is truly wealthy.

It emerges from Ben Zoma’s teaching that to be wealthy a person does not actually need material assets and to be wise they do not actually have to know anything. Ben Zoma was content with the trajectory and direction of the persons thoughts. A connection to G-d’s attributes and blessings was enough. No overt actions were required.

They Are All Created To Serve Me

The Talmud (Brachos 58) tells us of a time that Ben Zoma was standing above Temple Mount and observing a crowd of 600,000 Jews. He made the blessing “Baruch Chacham Harazim”, Blessed is the G-d of secrets who knows what is in the thoughts of every one of those 600,000 people and knows that no two of them are thinking the same thoughts. Ben Zoma continued with a statement, “and all of them were created to serve me”.

Ben Zoma explained: A good guest dines with the attitude that his host prepared the food especially for him; a bad host dines with the attitude that the host prepared the food for himself and that he just happened to have leftovers. Although the truth may be the latter, a good host is obliged to assume the former.

If Adam and Chava wanted a piece of bread, they had to plow and plant and harvest and grind and bake. If they wanted clothing they needed to plant or shear and weave and comb and sew. Ben Zoma thanked G-d that he simply woke up in the morning and had the finished product as his doorstep.

He said, “Thank you for creating all of these people just to serve me”. Ben Zoma was a good guest.

Ben Azzai Disagrees

The Abarbanel writes that Ben Azzai disagreed with Ben Zoma’s assessment. Happiness alone does not make a person wealthy and a willingness to learn does not make a person wise. Ben Azzai demanded action of himself and of others.

Ben Azzai said, “Run to a Mitzvah and escape from an Aveirah … for the reward of a Mitzvah is another Mitzvah and the consequence of an Aveirah is another Aveirah”.

Ben Azzai agreed with Ben Zoma that our goal is to attach ourselves to G-d, but where Ben Zoma was satisfied with attitude, Ben Azzai demanded action.

Where Ben Zoma saw everyone working for him; Ben Azzai was not convinced.

When Pharaoh closed in on the Jewish people he effectively brought the Jewish people closer to G- than they had even been before. “U’Paroh Hikriv” – “and Pharaoh brought them close”.

Did Pharaoh receive reward for bringing the Jews close? According to Ben Azzai he most definitely would not. Since Pharaoh’s actions were ones of overt animosity, ant covert goodness that came of it was purely incidental. It did not pertain to Pharaoh at all. We look at actions. The reward for a Mitzvah is a Mitzvah, but the consequence of an Aveirah is an Aveirah. Pharaoh didn’t do a Mitzvah. He did an Aveirah.

Rochel, On the other hand, was doing a mitzvah when she gave the secret signs to her sister Leah. Her initial intention may have been to spare her sister embarrassment, but that led to another mitzvah: that of keeping a low profile and not making a scene. Although it was an unintended result she received a reward in the form of descendants like Shaul and Esther who were content to help the Jewish people while keeping a low profile.

When Avraham rescued his nephew Lot and the belongings of the Sodomites, it was clear to all involved that the spoils of war belonged to Avraham. Only the king of Sedom (who had trouble sharing) insisted on referring to the spoils as ‘his belongings’. Avraham knew that the spoils were rightfully his, but he chose not to accept them. Avraham wanted to make clear that the source of his wealth was his relationship with G-d.

According to Ben Zoma a relationship can be forged through attitude. According to Ben Azzai, it can be forged by actions alone.

Devarim Nechmadim is a commentary on Pirkei Avos by Rav Tzvi Elimelech of Dinov. This essay is loosely based on his work as well as on the classes and writings of my father, Rav Yaacov Haber , Shlita.

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