Akavia ben Mahalel
Rabbi Yaacov Haber
The third perek of Pirkei Avos begins, “Consider three
things, and you will not come into the grip of sin:
Know where you come from, where you are
going, and before Whom you will give a din ve chesbon.” We come from a putrid
drop, we go to a place of dust and worms, and we give a din ve cheshbon to
The simple meaning of this
perspective gives us humility that protects us from a Gaiva that contributes to
This is often quoted at Levayas.
Let’s learn a Mishnah in Edios that may give a slightly
different slant on this Mishnah in Pirkei Avos.
Edios means testimony.
important to understand the historical context of Edios, and why they were
The last of the zugos
was Shmaya and Avtalyon.
Shmaya was the
Av Beis Din - the head of the Sanhedrin, and Avtalyon was the Nasi, the face of
Then the Romans came.
The Romans made five Sanhendrins, in order to
divide and conquer.
When that didn’t
work, they disbanded the Sanhendrin entirely.
Then Herdus became king, and attempted to kill all the Chochomim.
Those who weren’t killed fled.
There was a terrible gap of about 70 years
when the Chachomim were pursued, during which the Bnei Besaira tried to hold
This was a blow to the
Mesorah, a Mesorah that began as Pirkei Avos said with Moshe receiving the
Torah from Har Sinai, giving it over to Yehoshua and so on through the
After this gap of 70 years
things calmed down, and Hillel and Shamai resumed leadership.
It was towards the end of this chaotic period that Edios was
The Chachomim gave testimony
about the Mesorah, saying over what they remembered, so they would be able to
re-create as much of the Mesorah as they could.
As an example of what had been forgotten, in Pesachim it recounts how
the Bnei Besarah couldn’t remember whether or not to bring the Korban Pesach on
Then Hillel by using the
Hermeneutical principles was able to reconstruct the hallachah, and the Bnei
Besaira made Hillel Nasi.
It often happens that after a chaotic period the Chochomim
try to preserve the Mesorah.
second Churban, Yehudah Hanasi wrote the Mishnayos.
After the expulsion from Spain, Rav Yosef
Kairo wrote the Shulchan Orech, to prepare a “laid out table” of the
Whenever I would meet someone
who lived in pre-war Europe, I would ask him to tell me as much as he could
This Mishna in Edios begins with a group of Chochomim
talking with Akavia ben Mahalel.
they get into the specifics, they say to him, “If you change your mind
regarding four of your opinions, we’ll make you Av Bes Din.”
Then they go through the four opinions they
The first has to do with
Tzoras – if a white hair is in a dark spot, and then the dark spot goes
The meforshim say this happened
once in a hundred years.
issue is about a shade of green blood that a Niddah may have.
The third has to do with a Bechor animal that
has a mum, and the owner takes some wool before the owner gives it to a Kohain
and then the animal is schected – is this wool mutar be hanah.
This happened once every 400 years.
The fourth issue involves whether a female
convert, a Gioras, who is suspected of being a Sotah, is given the bitter water
in which the Shem Hashem is ground up.
The water given to a suspected Sotah works only with Jews – she dies if
she is guilty, and gets a brocha is she is innocent.
The question is whether this works with a
Akavia ben Mahalel said it
doesn’t work with a Giorah.
said, “It is better that I look like a fool to the world, than I change my
positions regarding these four issues.”
He insisted that he have integrity before Hashem, and not change his
opinions for a job.
With regards to the last opinion, the Chochomim said to
Akavia, but we have a direct Mesorah to the contrary – we saw Shmaya and
Avtalyon give a Gioras this water in the Bais Hamikdosh.
Akavia responded, “That’s because they were
The Chochomim were aghast as his comment, and put him in
He stayed in Charim until he
Before he died, Akavia told his
son “You don’t have to hold by my position, in fact it is better if you agree
with the Chachomim.
I have a Mesorah for
these positions from a majority of my teachers, but you have heard it only from
Akavia’s son asked, “Can you put in
a good word for me”, and Akavia responded, “You’ll have to get by on your own
After Akavia died, the Chochomim put a stone on his kever to
indicate that they still disagreed with him. The Mishnah ends with a statement
from Yehuda ben Besarah.
He says, “Chos
ve Shalom that we should say that Akavia was not a Tzadik.”
The Gemarah in Pesachim describes how all of
the Jews – a million Jews - came to offer the Karbon Pesach in three
A group would fill the
courtyard, and when it was filled, the doors would automatically shut, similar
to an elevator.
If there was a Rasha in
the courtyard, then the doors wouldn’t shut, and everyone would look at each
other wondering who was causing the doors not to shut.
So Yehuda ben Besarah said that when Akavia
was in the courtyard, the doors shut, proving that he was not a Rasha.
So what is going on in this packed Mishnah?
What were they disagreeing about?
As an aside, let me tell you a story.
At one point, I was interviewed for the
position of Rabbi of a prestigious shul.
They asked me a lot of questions, and I responded by telling them a
story I had heard.
When J. B.
Soloveitchik was interviewed for a position, the search committee asked him
He responded by saying,
“You have only one decision to make – am I going to be your Rabbi.
If you decide in the affirmative, then I will
tell you all these Hallachas.”
that was the end of my interview, and that is why I am here in this
to tell you this story.
It seems to me that the main issue between Akavia and the
Bnei Besaira is the nature of Mesorah.
Do the Chochomim receive and transmit the Mesorah in a totally pure
form, completely untouched by themselves?
Or do they pass it through the filter of themselves?
Of course the Chochomim have to become a Cli
Kodosh and receive the Mesorah as precisely as they can.
But when they pass the Mesorah on, has it
been colored by their own unique way of looking at things.
Akavia said that the Mesorah is colored by the personality
of a Chochom, while the Bnei Besaira said it is not.
Take the issue of Shmaya and Avtalyon.
Akavia claimed that not only was his own
Mesorah different, but Shmaya and Avtalyon’s psak was colored by their
sensitivity to being converts themselves.
This could even mean out of sensitivity to the Gioras, they gave her
Mayim Meoririm even if it didn’t work.
But the Bnei Besarah did not agree.
They held that the Mesorah was something that was transmitted without
any coloration of the Chachomim who pass it on.
In the end, when they passed the leadership to Hillel, it became clear
that the Chochomim can work on the Mesorah, and use the Hermeutical principles
to fill in the gaps of what perhaps had become unclear.
So now we can go back to the Mishnah in Pirkei Avos, and we
can interpret it a new light.
meaning, that we shouldn’t lose sight of, is still that we need humility to
keep us from the grip of sin.
is an added dimension.
When you know
where you came from and where you are going, who will understand better the
coloration you can make to the Mesorah that you have received and are passing
Everyone is unique and has unique
strengths, and we should feel empowered to use our strengths to make our unique
Our life is short, so we
have to get working to make as much of a contribution as we can – a
contribution that only we can make.
When Reb Yochonon met Resh Lakish, he said words that
everyone Kiruv person should know and use: “Give your strengths and abilities
to the Torah.”
He was saying to Resh
Lakish, you are a great swimmer, you are a great thief. Contribute your unique
abilities to the Torah.
So we can add
this important dimension to what Akavia ben Mahalel says in Pirkei Avos.
Yes, humility is essential for keeping from
the grip of sin.
But we should also know
where we came from and where are going.
With this knowledge of who we uniquely are, we should feel empowered -
in the limited time that we have in our lives - to make our unique contribution
to the Torah, and to the Mesorah that we receive, and then transmit to the next