Akavia ben Mahalel
Rabbi Yaacov Haber
April 17, 2010
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 Hashem.  The simple meaning of this perspective gives us humility that protects us from a Gaiva that contributes to sin.  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.  It’s important to understand the historical context of Edios, and why they were giving testimony.  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 Klal Yisroel.  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 things together.  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 generations.  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 written.  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 Shabbos.  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.  After the 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 Hallachah.  Whenever I would meet someone who lived in pre-war Europe, I would ask him to tell me as much as he could remember.
This Mishna in Edios begins with a group of Chochomim talking with Akavia ben Mahalel.  Before 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 disagree about.  The first has to do with Tzoras – if a white hair is in a dark spot, and then the dark spot goes away.  The meforshim say this happened once in a hundred years.  The second 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 Giorah.  Akavia ben Mahalel said it doesn’t work with a Giorah.  He then 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 converts themselves.” 
The Chochomim were aghast as his comment, and put him in Charim.  He stayed in Charim until he died.  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 me.”  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 merits.” 
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 groups.  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 many questions.  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.”  Well, that was the end of my interview, and that is why I am here in this shul 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.  The simple meaning, that we shouldn’t lose sight of, is still that we need humility to keep us from the grip of sin.  But there 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 on.  Everyone is unique and has unique strengths, and we should feel empowered to use our strengths to make our unique contribution.  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 generation.