nav_off-02-01.jpg (890 bytes)
Contact Us
Keren Yishai
Rav Mordechai Elon
See the Mekorot
This week's shiur

Read the Shiur


(All rights reserved to Keren Yishai)

Parashat B’ha’alotcha and Pirkei Avot

“For the exertion of them both makes sin forgotten” – From Bikkurim to the L’vi’im

Rav M. Elon

Our studies today, and next week will be devoted to one issue which repeats itself many times in Masechet Avot, (Tractate of Avot,) generally referred to as ‘Pirkei Avot’ – ‘Ethics of the Fathers.’

This topic is the union of Torah and M’lacha – “work” or “vocation.” We will attempt to understand this point from one angle, related to this week’s parasha, and in the next shi’ur we will approach matters in a different manner.

This union and bond between Torah and M’lacha appears a number of time throughout Masechet Avot.

In the examples we will list, aside from the constant emphasis as to the importance of this union, we will see that this idea is repeatedly emphasized throughout a chain of generations of the Tannaim, (Sages of the Mishna.)

The Mishna in Avot states:

“Sh’maya and Avtalyon received (the tradition) from them.

Sh’maya says: Love m’lacha, despise lordliness, and do not become overly familiar with the government.”

(Avot 1:10)

Sh’maya was one of the Zugot, (pairs of Torah Sages who led the nation, one being the Nasi, Prince, ie. political leader; and the other being the Av Bet Din, Head of the Bet Din, ie. Torah leader,) and was the teacher and mentor of Hillel ha’Zaken, Hillel the Elder. Thus we see one appearance of this topic. A repeated emphasis of this motif appears a few generations later, in the generation of Rabban Gamli’el ha’Zaken, the son of Rabi Yehuda ha’Nasi:

“Rabban Gamli’el, the son of Rabi Yehuda ha’Nasi, says: Torah study is good together with an occupation, for the exertion of them both makes sin forgotten; all Torah study that is not joined with m’lacha will ultimately cease, and it leads to sin.”

(ibid. 2:2)

Let us pay attention to the severity of these words in relation to those of Sh’maya. In this Mishna of Sh’maya he does not simply speak of loving m’lacha as did Sh’maya, but he emphasizes that Torah together with m’lacha “makes sin forgotten,” and that Torah without m’lacha “will ultimately cease, and it leads to sin.”

The Mishna then concludes relating to those who expend themselves in community matters:

“All who exert themselves for the community should exert themselves for the sake of Heaven, for then the merit of the community’s forefathers aids them, and their righteousness endures forever. Nevertheless, as for you, I (God) will bestow upon you as great a reward as if you had accomplished it on your own.”


Thus one who involves himself with community matters was do it for the sake of Heaven. (We will not deal with this aspect now.)

We find another repetition of this motif of Torah study that must occur simultaneously with m’lacha in Chapter Four.

This Mishna already relates to those who study Torah

“Rabi Tzadok says: …do not make the Torah a crown for self-glorification, nor a spade with which to dig…”

(ibid. 4:7)

The Mishna then closes with an additional quote from Hillel ha’Zaken:

“So too Hillel used to say: He who exploits the crown (of Torah for personal benefit) shall fade away. From this you derive that whoever seeks personal benefit from the words of Torah removes his life from the world.”


Let us note that the individuals appearing in this Mishna historically precede Rabban Gamli’el ha’Zaken and Rabi Yehuda ha’Nasi, for Rabi Tzadok lived during the destruction of the Second Temple. In any event, the picture that develops before us is of a thread that is woven throughout the generations of the Tannaim that repeatedly emphasizes the value and worth of m’lacha, work, which accompanies Torah study.

We opened with Sh’maya, one of the Zugot; then meeting Rabi Tzadok of the era of the destruction of the Second Temple; and then finally we encountered the words of Rabban Gamli’el the son of Rabi Yehuda ha’Nasi in the post-destruction era. It is this very fact that in and of itself indicates the great importance of this idea, and it is this that we would like to understand.

Let us begin to analyze this issue, and we will see how all of the Mishnayot we have seen are brought together in the wondrous words of the great Halachic authority, the Rambam.

The Rambam writes these three Mishnayot in a very unique manner using unique terminology, as we will soon see:

“Whoever decides that he will busy himself with Torah, but will not do m’lacha, and subsist from charity – has desecrated God’s name, defamed the Torah, extinguished the light of the religion, causes bad to himself, and removes his life from the World to Come, for it is forbidden to benefit from the words of Torah in this world. Our Sages said: ‘Whoever benefits from Torah – has removed his life from the World.’ And furthermore they commanded and said: ‘Do not make the words of Torah a crown for self-glorification, nor a spade with which to dig.’”

(Rambam, Hilchot Talmud Torah 3:10,11)

The Rambam began, then, with the words of Rabi Tzadok. Until this point the Rambam mentions the prohibition of using the ‘Crown of Torah’ and of gaining one’s livelihood from charity. From here onwards however he emphasizes the value of m’lacha per se:

“And furthermore they commanded and said: Love m’lacha, despise lordliness.”

The Rambam does not quote the Mishna directly, but employs the term “commanded” – indicating that he feels there is an obligation to behave in this manner, and that it is not simply a maxim of the Rabbis intended as mere advice.

The Rambam continues and quotes Rabban Gamli’el:

“And all Torah study that is not joined with m’lacha will ultimately cease, and this person will ultimately steal from others.”

The Rambam is not content with Rabban Gamli’el’s words that Torah study that is not accompanied by m’lacha “will ultimately cease and it leads to sin,” for he stressed this point, adding “and this person will ultimately steal from others.”

The Rambam then seems to “get carried away” so to speak, and adds something more than the pure halacha:

“It is a great virtue for one to subsist from the work of his own hands, and this is a characteristic of the first Chasidim, (extremely pious.) And through this one merits all the honor and good in this world, and in the world to come, as the verse states: ‘When you eat the labor of your hands, you are praiseworthy and it is good for you,’ (Tehillim 128:2) - ‘you are praiseworthy’ in this world, ‘and it is good for you’ in the World to Come which is entirely good.”

Who this “first Chasidim” are and what they are about will soon become apparent. In any event the conclusion of the Rambam ‘When you eat the labor of your hands, you are praiseworthy and it is good for you’ - ‘you are praiseworthy’ in this world, ‘and it is good for you’ in the World to Come which is entirely good,” is taken from a saying of the Sages from Masechet B’rachot:

“Rabi Chiya said in the name of U’la: ‘He who benefits from the labor of his hands is greater than one who is fearful of Heaven; for regarding one who is fearful of Heaven it states: ‘Praiseworthy is one who fears God,” (Tehillim 112:1,) whereas regarding one who benefits from the labor of his hands the verse states: ‘When you eat the labor of your hands, you are praiseworthy and it is good for you’ - ‘you are praiseworthy’ in this world, ‘and it is good for you’ in the World to Come.”

(B’rachot 8a)

At first glance this Gemara seems very surprising, for it is not entirely clear what the connection is between he who is fearful of Heaven and he who derives benefit and sustenance from the labor of his hands – for each of these exist on very different planes. Yet it appears that there is a certain character trait that is expressed in one who benefits from the labor of his hands that does not exist in one who is fearful of Heaven. What is this quality? Soon we will examine this quality.

In order to understand these matters properly we will leave them for now, and will examine our parasha.

In our parasha, Parashat B’ha’a lot’cha we are witness to a historical revolution as a result of which the entire generation will wander through the desert. This revolution is hidden between the lines, and generally it is not studied adequately.

What events does our parasha describe?

At the beginning of Parashat Bamidbar, Bnei Yisra’el are commanded with regards the specifics of their encampment and traveling. Each tribe has its specific symbol, place, and characteristics. One may say that the words of Akavya ben M’hallel’el:

“Know from where you originate, and to where you are destined to go,”

(Avot 5:1,)

truly materialize here, for each individual knows exactly where his tribe camps. He knew exactly were he was “destined to go” for before him was the encampment of Yisra’el, each tribe under its own banner and flag. Each Israelite also knew exactly “Before whom he stands” for in the center of the encampment was the Mishkan, the Tabernacle. Without a doubt, such a sight would leave the observer elated.

We also see the wondrous description of the Ark:

“When the ark went forth, Moshe said: ‘Arise O God, and scatter Your enemies! Let your foes flee before You!’ And when it came to rest, he said: ‘Return, O God, to the myriads of Yisra’el’s thousands.’”

(Bamidbar 10:35,36)

Then immediately after this beautiful description we see the following astonishing verses:

“The people began to complain, (“k’mit’o’ne’nim”) and it was evil in God’s ears. When God heard it, He displayed His anger, and God’s fire flared out, consuming the edge of the camp.”

(ibid. 11:1)

The verse employs a very specific term, not saying “mit’o’ne’nim” – “complain” – but rather “k’mit’o’ne’nim” – literally “like complainers,” rendering the literal translation of the verse: “The people were like complainers, and it was evil…”

Appreciating this difficulty, Rashi comments:

“The term ‘mit’o’ne’nim’ indicates the terminology of ‘pretext,’ they are searching for a pretext to turn away from God, as the verse states regarding Shimshon: ‘That he sought a pretext (‘to’e’na,’)’ (Shoftim 14:4.)”

Rashi thus explains that this was not an authentic complaint, but what pre-empted the complaint was the desire to protest and find a pretext for something else.

This crisis is not clearly explained – what caused Yisra’el to reach such a low level of faith in God specifically now, as they camp in their tribes, surrounding the Mishkan? But Yisra’el do not stop here, we will soon meet with Korach and his entourage, as well as many other complaints thereafter.

Does the Torah record a collection of individual complaints – or is there a thread that runs through all of them?

Furthermore, what is the nature of this first complaint – “The people began to complain?” For as we mentioned it is not entirely clear, unlike the other complaints where the motives are expressly recorded in the verses.

What compounds the mystery is the severe punishment meted out for this act of complaining – “and God’s fire flared out” – what was so grave in the seemingly unimportant act of complaining?

Rabbi Simcha ha’Kohen of Dvinsk, in his work “Meshech Chochma” establishes a very important understanding in these verses, which as we will see is a revolutionary explanation that will aid is in our grasping of Yisra’el’s actions in the continuation of the verses.

Through his commentary we will see that Am Yisra’el’s complaint in fact contained a historical issue which explains many events and incidents.

Before examining his words we will mention a short introduction that will intensify his commentary.

An incident occurs to the generation of Am Yisra’el in the desert that is not suitably comprehended. It is during the lives of those deemed to wander in the desert that the ‘B’chor,’ the first-born Israelite loses his position to the Levi, who assumes his role in the holy service. The verse states:

“God spoke to Moshe saying, ‘I have separated the Levi’im from the Israelites so that they may take the place of all the firstborn who initiate the womb among the Israelites, and the Levi’im shall be Mine.”

(Bamidbar 3:11,12)

Thus, God chooses the Levi’im to usurp the role that was previously that of the firstborn of every Jew.

The occurrences that preceded this annulling of the firstborn’s status and its transfer to the Levi’im are generally understood as follows:

The B’chorot (firstborn sons) are sanctified and dedicated to God, as the verse testifies:

“For every firstborn became Mine on the day I killed all the firstborn in Egypt. I the sanctified to Myself every firstborn in Israel, man and beast alike, they shall remain Mine. I am God.”

(ibid. v. 13)

Then, at the sin of the Golden Calf, when Yisra’el commits the grave sin of idolatry, Moshe calls out “Whoever is for God, join me!” (Sh’mot 32:26,) only the tribe of Levi joins him – and thus the B’chorot lose their status. The Levi’im who did not commit the sin of the Golden Calf assume the position of the B’chorot.

This is the accepted approach in interpreting these events leading to the transferring of the rights and responsibilities of the firstborn Israelite to the Levi’im. While this understanding is not incorrect, it is not precise. Why is this?

We see that Moshe was commanded:

“Sanctify to Me every firstborn that initiates the womb among the Israelites. Among both man and beast, for it is Mine.”

(Sh’mot 13:2)

Hence we see the command to sanctify the firstborn.

Yet after these verse the Torah states:

“Every firstling donkey must be redeemed with a sheep. If it is not redeemed, you must decapitate it. You must (also) redeem every firstborn among your sons.”

(ibid. v. 13, 14)

The commandment of the redemption of the firstborn already existed prior to the sin of the Golden Calf. What, then, was the purpose of sanctifying the firstborn if in any event the firstborn was to be redeemed? (Once again, we emphasize that this redemption is obligatory as a specific mitzva – commandment – independent of the sin of the Golden Calf.)

Rav Ovadya S’forno mentions - and deals with - this difficulty. First we will mention his understanding in our own word, and then we will examine his words.

The essence of his words is that the firstborn Israelites were sanctified with a sanctity that is essentially different to the sanctity of the priesthood. In one sentence – it was the duty of the B’chorot to be “k’doshim-p’duyim” – “sanctified then redeemed.”

The significance of this is as follows:

The sanctity offered the B’chorot the possibility of and capability to offer sacrifices and serve in the Tabernacle, and then later in the Temple. Those sacrifices that were offered at Mount Sinai, were most probably offered by the B’chorot. The B’chorot were sanctified in order to administer in the holy service of God. Yet this sanctity was not expressed in their exclusion from the laws of inheritance, nor were they to live in separate cities, (both these facts pertaining to the Levi’im.) To the contrary, the B’chorot were to possess land in their respective tribes, and they were not exempt from military service.

Thus we see, that on one hand the B’chorot were sanctified and worthy of serving in the holy service, yet on the other hand they were completely immersed in the daily secular reality. This is an expression of the unique sanctity that characterized the B’chorot, whom we have termed “k’doshim-p’duyim.”

If we examine this concept closer, we will see that this joining of heaven and earth is in fact the greatest demonstration of what a “kingdom of priests” (Sh’mot 19:6) is. And it is thus significant that Am Yisra’el, whose function it is to merge the holy and mundane, is termed “My son, My firstborn, Yisra’el,” (Sh’mot 4:22) by God.

The S’forno explains from this point onwards as follows: In Egypt the B’chorot were sanctified yet not redeemed, for it was then that all the firstborn of Egypt perished, and in order to protect the Jewish firstborn from dying together with the Egyptian firstborn, God sanctified them. However they had not been redeemed, and in this manner they were shielded from the danger of death that smote the Egyptian firstborn. In the words of the verse we mentioned above:

“For every firstborn became Mine on the day I killed all the firstborn in Egypt. I the sanctified to Myself every firstborn in Israel, man and beast alike, they shall remain Mine. I am God.”

(ibid. v. 13)

In other words, the B’chorot were all consecrated to God in order to protect them from danger. Then the Egyptian firstborn are smitten, with the Plague of the Firstborn. This plague may be defined as the smiting of the ‘birthright’ (which is usually granted to the firstborn) of the world, the destroying of that human impulse to rule over and subjugate one’s fellow.

This, then, is the S’forno’s commentary:

“‘For Mine is every B’chor’ – the (Divine) service was originally performed by the B’chorot. ‘On the day I struck every firstborn in the land of Egypt I consecrated every b’chor in Yisra’el’ – indeed, as a result of that generation’s sin the B’chorot were deserving of being punished in the Plague of the Firstborn, for they were more esteemed, and they were unworthy of being saved from the plague (that struck) the (entire) country, as the verse “lest you be swept away by the sin of the city,” (B’reshit 19:15) indicates. And I saved them by consecrating them to Me, in that they would be forbidden to engage in those practices of the common man, as the law dictates that all (beasts) consecrated (to the Temple) may not be shorn nor may they be used for labor.”

(S’forno, Bamidbar 3:13)

Hence, the S’forno dscribes how in order to sustain the B’chorot of Yisra’el in Egypt from perishing in the sin of the nation – the righteous even perishing together with the evil – God saved them by consecrating them to Himself with complete sanctity.

The following process then takes place:

“And in order that they will be freed from this status, I required that they be redeemed similar to the law of all hekdesh (objects consecrated to the Temple) that is freed from its sanctity and enters the mundane state. This is as the verse states: ‘Every firstborn of your sons must be redeemed,’ (Sh’mot 34:20) – thus this redemption was not in order to exempt the B’chorot from the Divine service.”


Therefore, the redemption offered the B’chorot the possibility of being engaged in mundane activities, (as opposed to being required to only engage in matters of sanctity and Divine service,) yet their sanctity had not been removed, as the S’forno writes: “Thus this redemption was not in order to exempt the B’chorot from the Divine service.”

However, then the sin of the of the Golden Calf takes place, which then affects a fundamental, lasting change on the status of the B’chorot:

“But now that they sinned I have become revolted with them, and I have taken the Levi’im in their place as redemption, and (now) the Levi’im will be to Me for (Divine) service.”


Let us expand on these words:

As we mentioned above, the birthright of the firstborn in Yisra’el was intended to teach the world the appreciation that the possibility exists of merging the heavens and the earth. Furthermore, this is the purpose and destiny of Yisra’el – to demonstrate that amalgamation and the manifestation of lofty concepts in the earthly reality. This is the unique Halachic status of the B’chorot termed “k’doshim-p’duyim.”

The world in general understand the birthright of the firstborn as a privilege that justifies tyranny, allowing despotism, and which in turn serves as fertile ground for the development of the evil dictator. Therefore the Egyptian firstborn must die, and through this act the world then understand that in truth man is powerless on earth. It is in this manner that the world appreciates that the true birthright is that of “My son, My firstborn, Yisra’el.”

His nation possesses the characteristic of the birthright, which contains the ability to be “k’doshim-p’duyim” – and to fuse heaven and earth.

In the process of the revealing this grand ideal, the ‘nation of the birthright’ experiences a very severe setback, the nation stumbles with the sin of the Golden Calf. If we try to encapsulate what the basic nature of the sin of the Golden Calf was, we would say that the sin of the Golden Calf indicates the desire to tear the earth away from the heavens. This aspect is hinted at by the nation’s claim to Aharon:

“They gathered around Aharon and said to him, “Make us an oracle to lead us. We have no idea what happened to Moshe, the man who brought us out of Egypt.”

(Sh’mot 32:1)

In other words, Moshe, who brought us out of Egypt, is in the heavens… we need a leader who can connect us to God, we need a material God…

Then Moshe descends Har Sinai and calls: “Whoever is for God, join me!” (ibid. v. 26.) Moshe searches for those individuals who will once again show the nation the merging of heaven and earth. There is no-one better suited to this task than the B’chorot, but they do not join Moshe. Only the Levi’im gather round Moshe – this is when the horrible truth becomes clear that the B’chorot have lost their essence that testifies that both heaven and earth must fused together in one amalgamation.

From this point the process of Levi’im’s substitution of the B’chorot begins, as described in Parashat Bamidbar, (Bamidbar 3:40-43.) The Levi’im replace the B’chorot, assuming their responsibilities, and the numbers are almost identical: twenty-two thousand Levi’im replace twenty-two thousand, two-hundred and seventy-three B’chorot. (Verse 44 onwards explains how the discrepancy between these figures was accounted for.)

Now let us return to what was happening in the nation at that time. The nation must have been experiencing a terrible crisis, for until this point in time the nation was accustomed to having at least one individual in the familial home who represented the Divine service, serving in the Tabernacle, this being the firstborn. Now, however, that sanctity and ability to serve God became the monopoly of one tribe. This must have truly been a very difficult period for the nation.

The words of the S’forno – which we will mention in short – on the parasha of Viduy Ma’asrot (“Confession of the Ma’aser tithes”) are very enlightening. When one brings his Ma’aser tithes to the Temple, he recites a confession, stating:

“I have removed (all) the sacred (portions) from my house. I have given the appropriate ones to the Levi…”

(D’varim 26:13)

The S’forno poses two questions: Firstly what does “I have removed (all) the sacred (portions) from my house” mean? What is the nature of this terminology – for only now he approaches the kohen with the tithes?

Secondly, why is this process termed “Viduy Ma’asrot” – “The Confession of the Ma’aser tithes?” What exact confession is expressed here? It seems that this is merely a declarative statement.

The S’forno answers that the Israelite who brings his tithes to the Temple confesses for the crisis caused over generations as a result of the sin of the Golden Calf. He confesses that once there was a “sacred” individual in “my house.” If this reality, of the B’chorot, had persisted, then the B’chorot would eat the various tithes, and there would be no need to bring them to the Temple. But due to the sin, the “sacred,” sanctified individual was “removed from the house,” he is no longer in the house, and therefore the person confesses: “I have removed (all) the sacred (portions) from my house.”

Let us now return to the words of the Meshech Chochma regarding the sin of the nation who complained to Moshe, which we mentioned at the start of our si’ur:

“And He commanded that Yisar’el and the Levi’im be counted, and that flags be made, and to elevate the Levi’im. After this they traveled from the Sinai Desert arriving at Paran, and it is for this reason that the nation began to complain – about the transferal of the Divine Service from themselves to the Levi’im.”

(Meshech Chochma, Bamidbar 3:11)

In the Meshech Chochma’ view, the complaining was a result of the anger and frustration that the nation harbored in their hearts “about the transferal of the Divine Service.”

Therefore the verse states that the nation was “k’mit’o’ne’nim” – “like complainers” – and not true complainers; in the same manner as Rashi commented: “They are searching for a pretext to complain.”

In the continuation the Meshech Chochma asks why then, if this was their reason for complaining, did God’s fire burn amongst them, consuming them? He answers that through this complaint the nation indicated that it did not perceive the enormity of the sin of the Golden calf, nor the severe predicament that followed.

Now we can understand the various events as they continue to unfold. The congregating of Korach and his followers who challenge Moshe – Korach joined together with people from the tribe of Re’uven, Datan and Aviram, for instance, and at first glance the relationship between these different people seems to be unclear.

But in the light of what we have just said, we now may understand that in fact this grouping has “common interests” – Korach, who claims the High Priesthood for himself, and those members of the tribe of Re’uven who desire to regain the birthright of the firstborn. These interests motivate them to publicly challenge Moshe.

Afterwards we have the sin of the spies. In this sin we are witness to a strong inner impulse – which is incorrect – to cleave solely to the heavens. Here too we see the disintegration of the conception of the birthright which is aimed at fusing the heaven with the earth. However when the nation realizes it mistake, it sins further with the “ma’apilim” – those who “defiantly” ascended the mountain attempting to conquer the Land of Israel after God had decreed that they would not enter the land. They go ahead, overly cleaving to the land, forgetting heaven, and therefore they attempt the conquest – despite the fact that the Ark of the Covenant is not with them.

This is the decay which sets in and spreads after the sin of the Golden Calf – a false fissure forms between heaven and earth. It is through this that a great lusting for spirituality occurs, but at the same time there is also a great desire and lust for materialism. The direct result is the divide between the holy and between life itself, this result is termed “Galut” – “Exile” (from Israel.)

This, then, is the generation of the desert. This damage unfortunately accompanies us until today.

Let us now return to our opening words.

We do not know who those “first Chasidim” were whom the Rambam describes, but we do know that our Sages taught us (B’rachot 35a) that the first Chasidim “make their Torah (studies) permanent, and their work temporary.”

The terms “permanent” and “temporary” are not functions of time constraints, but rather of one’s relationship to these matters – which of these is the focus of one’s life.

The work and occupations of the first Chasidim was not something secondary or minor to them, it characterized them. They were able to merge the two together properly – Torah with worldly occupations. They understood how to demonstrate that it is possible – and essential – to strive for that status of “k’doshim-p’du’yim.”

Work, then, is not of minor significance, furthermore even when one knows how to make his Torah “permanent” and his work “temporary” while cleaving to both – this is the complete, perfect manifestation of God’s desire.

In Avot d’Rabi Natan this is expressed even more vehemently:

“Rabi Shim’on ben Elazar says: ‘Even Adam did not taste anything (from the Garden of Eden) before he performed work, as the verse states: ‘And He placed him in the Garden to work it and to guard it,’ (B’reshit 2:15) only after this does it state: ‘From every tree of the Garden you may eat,’ (ibid. v. 16)’ Rabi Me’ir says: ‘Even God did not rest his Presence on Yisra’el until they performed work, as the verse states: ‘You shall make a sanctuary for Me, and I will dwell amongst them,’ (Sh’mot 25:8)’”

(Avot d’Rabi Natan, Chapter 11)

Rabi Yehuda ben B’teira adds to this:

“Rabi Yehuda ben B’teira says: ‘Who has no employment – what should he do? If he owns a desolate yard or a desolate field, he should cultivate them, as the verse states: ‘You shall work for six days and do all your work,’ (Sh’mot 20:8.) Why does the verse state: ‘And do all your work?’ To include he who has desolate yards or fields that he should go and cultivate them…”


In our terms we would describe the words of Rabi Yehuda ben B’teira by saying that if someone has no work or occupation, he should initiate work for himself.

This does not suffice for the Mishna in Avot d’Rabi Natan, as it continues to define the obligation of woman and children to involve themselves in work.

“We have learned about men (that they are obliged to work,) what is the source for women? As it states: ‘Neither man nor woman must do any further work for the sacred donation (for the Tabernacle,)’ (Sh’mot 36:6.) What is the source for children? As it states: ‘And the nation ceased to bring (donations,)’ (ibid.)”

Thus the obligation to be involved in work and labor is a general obligation for each individual in proportion to his specific circumstances.

Furthermore we are witness to an entire educational approach.

Extreme words can also be found in the words of Rabi Avraham son of the Rambam on the verse: “You shall work (‘ta’avod’) for six days and do all your work,” which he explains as follows: For six days you should serve (‘ta’avod’) God, in what manner? “Do all your work!” And then on the seventh day your manner of Divine service is “Do no work, you, your son…” (Sh’mot 20:9.) In other words, “You shall work for six days” according to Rabi Avraham ben ha’Rambam (which are brought in the name of his father) is a command.

The focus of all that we have said is the understanding that work allows the manifestation of God in the world. It illustrates how one thread runs between worlds, from the world of the mundane through to the world of the holy, while the material secular world is the basis for God’s revelation.

Another addition to these words arises from the words of Don Yitzchak Abarbanel – who aside from being a Torah giant, was also a minister in King Ferdinand of Spain’s government.

The words we will bring contain somewhat of a “personal confession” of the Abarbanel, as to how many difficulties his lofty position, mingling with royalty, entails.

“And these are truly genuine matters, I admit them, that all my life I developed in the courts of kings and in their castles, woe to him who knows them and becomes close to them, and praiseworthy is he who distances himself from them and their honor, and one should only come close to the King of Kings, God, as the poet stated it: ‘But as for me, the nearness of God is my good,’ (Tehillim 73:28.)”

This is a very important comment – “woe to him who knows them and became close to them.”

The Abarbanel then writes as to the love of m’lacha – the love of work:

“And this Sage said ‘love m’lacha’ – not ‘engage in m’lacha’ – in order to say that there it is not good for one to be involved in m’lacha out of necessity or need, unhappy with it and against his will. Rather one should love m’lacha, and be involved in it out of happiness and a good hearted, as David said: ‘When you eat the labor of your hands, you are praiseworthy and it is good for you,’ (Tehillim 128:2) and our Sages expounded: ‘You are praiseworthy’ – in this world, ‘It is good for you’ – in the world to come. Therefore many of our Sages were also involved in m’lacha.”

His words speak for themselves. There is a genuine value to loving m’lacha.

The Abarbanel then describes the beauty of one who flees from positions of power and authority, involving himself rather in shepherding.

“How beautiful are the words of Sh’lomo who commented: ‘Be diligent to know the state of your sheep, and look well to your flocks,’ (Mishlei 27:24,) and many other verses that I understand to praise, commend and extol the life of one who involves himself in the labors of herding his sheep, and who flees from positions of authority and power among his fellows.”

Then the Abarbanel again emphasizes that the shepherd that he is speaking of is a genuine shepherd, not one who relies on others to herd his sheep for him, while he moves on to positions of authority in order to lead the state…

“Therefore he (Shlomo) said: ‘Be diligent to know the state of your sheep,’ in other words – ‘Do not say: ‘I will place my sheep in the charge of other shepherds, while I assume positions of authority;’ do not do this, but you yourself ‘Be diligent to know the state of your sheep,’ and in this manner you will ‘look well to your flocks,’ and all your thoughts will be turned to them.”

Let us return to the words of our Sages with which we opened: “He who benefits from the labor of his hands is greater than one who is fearful of Heaven.” We asked that fear of Heaven and m’lacha – work – are two separate concepts and spheres of involvement – one may in fact be a professional who is also fearful of heaven.

What, then, did our Sages desire to teach us?

This may be understood in the manner in which the Maharal expounds:

One who benefits from and enjoys the labors of his hands, and loves his work, and understands that everything he accomplishes is in fact from God – becomes one who loves God. However he who only fears Heaven, remains in the plane of fear, and will not have achieved true love of God.

Thus we see the virtue of one who benefits from the labor of his hands – for he loves his Creator – and then when the feeling of Fear of Heaven diminishes, he still remains faithful to his God. Yet he who merely fears God, should that feeling of fear weaken, with it his devotion to his Creator will weaken.

This, then, is the perfect fusion between Torah and m’lacha, and not simply m’lacha, but the love of m’lacha, for “toil in them both makes sin forgotten.”

Our return to Eretz Yisra’el is the fundamental test for our ability to reveal and develop that wondrous level that exists at the base of our national life, the “kingdom of priests” which is in fact that reality of the firstborn birthright of being “k’doshim-p’duyim.” Eretz Yisra’el demands this of her children who will build her. This fusion is the most essential amalgamation, and ignoring this may lead to destructive results, (which we will discuss next shi’ur.)

Let us conclude with the following Midrash that describes Eretz Yisra’el in the context of our words:

“Rabi Levi said: ‘When Avraham traveled through Aram Naharayim and Aram Nachor he observed them eating and drinking and acting rowdily. He said: ‘I sincerely hope that my portion will not be in this land.’ When he reached the Ladder of Tzur, he saw them hoeing when it was time to hoe, and tilling when it was time to till the soil. He said: ‘I sincerely hope that my portion will be in this land.’ God said to him: ‘I will give this land to your descendants,’ (B’reshit 12:7.)”

(B’reshit Rabba 39:10)

It is important to note the beautiful language of the Midrash – Avraham does not say: “I sincerely hope that my portion will be among these people” and “I sincerely hope that my portion will not be among these people,” rather he says “I sincerely hope that my portion will be in this land” and “I sincerely hope that my portion will not be in this land.”

We thus see that a characteristic of Eretz Yisra’el is labor, toil – and not simply labor, but the love of m’lacha which constitutes the basis for God’s manifestation in the earthly realm. Hence it is Yisra’el’s destiny, ‘the firstborn son’ of God, to be a “kingdom of priests and a holy nation,” to be “k’doshim-p’duyim.” This is possible when Yisra’el returns to its land, establishes a sovereign entity – and calls in the name of God in every aspect of its endeavors.


Translated by Sholem Hurwitz

Copyright Keren Yishai/Rav M. Elon


Home | Contact Us | Keren Yishai | Rav Mordechai Elon
Learn the Mekorot | Read the Shiur