Nechuniah ben Hakanah
Rabbi Yaacov Haber
May 15, 2010
“Rabbi Nechunia ben Hakanah says:  If someone takes upon himself the yoke (ohl) of Torah, then the yoke of Malchus and the yoke of worldly responsibilities are removed from him.  But if someone throws off the yoke of Torah from himself – then the yoke of Malchus and the yoke of worldly responsibilities are placed on him” (3:6)
To understand the background of this Mishnah, we have to understand something fundamental about our Mesorah that comes through Hillel.  After Hillel became Nasi, a document was found that traced his lineage back to Dovid Hamelech.  This was very important because our Mesorah says that there will be a direct chain of leadership - Malchus - from Dovid Hamelech to Moshiach ben Dovid who will be our ultimate leader and redeemer.  Hillel’s son was Gamliel whose son was Shimon Ben Gamliel. The family of Gamliel was considered royalty among the Jewish people.  When the Romans conquered Israel, they outlawed the family of Gamliel because they saw it as a threat to their attempt to establish their own Malchus.  The Romans took very seriously what they saw as their task of establishing the rule of Eisav over Yaakov.
Hillel had eighty main Talmidim. The greatest of them was Yonason Ben Uziel, about whom we don’t know much except that birds got burned up when they flew over him when he was learning.  (Somehow this is considered a big zchus for Shiduchim.)  The smallest of Hillel’s talmidim was Yochanan ben Zakai, who took over the leadership from Hillel.  When Yerushalayim was under siege, Yochanon ben Zakai was snuck out in a coffin to talk to Vespatian.  Yochonon ben Zakai asked for and got Yavneh as the new center of learning, and to have the leadership of the family of Gamliel restored.  Yochonon ben Zakai regarded this leadership as so important that he stepped aside to let Shimon ben Gamliel become the leader at Yavneh.  In this line of leadership Shimon ben Gamliel was followed by Rabbi Yehoshua and Rabbi Eliezer ben Hurkanis, who (along with Nachum Ish Gamzu) were the teachers of Rabbi Akiva.  One of Rabbi Akiva’s advantages as a link in our Mesorah was that he was able to learn from many different sources. Rabbi Akiva who was both a Torah leader and a political leader.  At the same time that he founded and ran a Yeshiva with thousands of Talmidim, he also established the army of Bar Kochba which fought against the Romans and even minted its own currency. 
Throughout this chain of leadership is an emphasis on Malchus – political leadership that dealt both with how to lead the Jews, and how to deal with the Romans.  All of the these – how the Gamliel family was linked to Malchus, how Yochanon ben Zakai negotiated with Vespatian, and how Rabbi Akiva founded the army of Bar Kochba – all this shows an orientation that places an importance on Malchus.
This is in contrast to the approach of Nechunia ben Hakania the author of our Mishnah.  He lived about 150 years before Rabbi Akiva, and had a Yeshiva in Kiryat Ono which is near Lud, close to what is now Ben Gurion airport.  He had a different approach, and that is to try to deal directly with Shamayim.  His emphasis was not on establishing Jewish Malchus or in dealing with Roman Malchus – his was a more purely spiritual approach that felt the emphasis should be on just dealing directly with Shamayim.
The Gemorah says that Shmuel Hakatan had a Nevuah about the Asarah Harogeh Malchus – that ten of the leaders of the Jews would be killed by the Romans.  Nechunia ben Hakana’s reaction was to go directly to Shamayim to see what could be done.  The Gemorah says that he went up through six of the seven Rakiah’s (levels of Heaven) of Shamayim.  When he was about to go through the seventh Rakiah, he was stopped by Gavriel, who asked him where he was going.  Nechunia answered that he wanted to deal directly with Hashem.  Gavriel asked him why he thought he could be successful, and Nechunia answered that he knew - and was going to use - the 42 letter name of Hashem.  He then went to the seventh Rakia, and learned that this Gezerah was rooted in the sin of the 10 brothers selling Yoseph many generations before, and that there was nothing that could be done to anull the Gezerah. 
The main Talmid of Nechuniah ben Hakana was Yishmael Kohain Godol.  The Gemorah in Brochas tells us that when Yishmael Kohain Godol was offering Ketoras in the Haichal, Hashem asked Yishmael Kohain Godol for a Brochah.  Yishmael Kohain Godol responded, “My blessing to You is that Your hand of Rachamim should be stronger than Your hand of Din, and that You should show Rachamim to Your children benei Yisroel.”   So while Yochonon ben Zakai negotiated with Vespatian, and Rabbi Akiva established the army of Bar Kochba, Nechuniah ben Hakanah went directly to Shamayim to try to have the Gezerah annulled, and his Talmud Yishmael Kohain Godol blessed Hashem in the Haichal.  This is a different approach with regards to dealing with political issues.
Nechuniah ben Hakanah wrote a book of Kabalah called Sefer Habahir.  Roughly translated it means the Book of the Shining. Most people have heard of the book of Kabalah written by Shimon Bar Yochai, but relatively few people have heard of the Sefer Habahir.  The Arizal explains that in order to deal with the spiritual, the subject needs a Kli – a container - and that the Sefer Habahir is so pure and powerful, that no Kli can contain it.  Therefore it is harder for us to handle and relate to it.  The Sefer Habahir is a book that is available. I have it in my library, and it’s translated into English by Feldheim with a nice introduction.  
But most people have not heard about it because Nechuniah ben Hakana’s approach is more purely spiritual, trying to deal directly with Shamayim. In contrast, our Mesorah of Kabalah comes mainly from Shimon ben Yochai who was a Talmud of Rabbi Akiva who is more into the ‘Malchus’ approach.
Malchus is the ‘lowest’ level of the Spheros.  It is the closest to our physical world.  But as the Arizal says, it is really the highest of the Spheros because it is how Hashem becomes manifest in this world.  Our major tradition deals with the importance of the physical world.  We believe that Hashem regards physical mitzvos as primary. He wants us to put on Tefillin, to say Brochos, to be good and honest people, to improve our physical world.  In contrast to this, Nechuniah ben Hakanah tries to take a more directly ‘Shamayim’ approach.
So this background should give us a better understanding of our Mishnah.  Perhaps it’s better to translate the word ‘ohl’ as ‘job’.  Nechuniah ben Hakana’s says that our job is to deal directly with Shamayim, and if we do, we won’t have to deal with the subject of Malchus – both our own leadership, and the leadership of those who challenge and confront us.  Our predominant Mesorah, from Hillel through Rabbi Akiva, emphasizes the importance of Malchus.  Nechunia ben Hakanah has a different emphasis, on dealing directly with Shamayim, and that is what he is talking about in our Mishnah.
These contrasting approaches are reflected in a dispute in a Gemorah between Bais Shamai and Bais Hillel as to which was created first, Shamayim or Haaretz.  The first sentence in the Chumash mentions the creation of both Shamayim and Haaretz.  Bais Shamai says that Shamayim was created first, and Bais Hillel says that Haaretz was created first.  The question they are debating is which is Primary and which is Secondary, Shamayim or Haaretz. 
At one point in my teaching, I realized that many of the people who had taught Kabalah had died young.  Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan died at the relatively young age of 49, the Arizal died at 38, and the Ramchal died when he was 40.  So I became concerned that perhaps I shouldn’t be ‘megaleh Sod’, revealing hidden topics that perhaps shouldn’t be revealed. So I went to my Rebbe, Rabbi Sheinberg, and mentioned my concern.  His answer was, “If you know it, it’s not Sod.”
The first two of the Asarah Harugeh Malchus were representatives of these two approaches – Yishmael Kohain Godol (the main Talmid of Nechuniah ben Hakana), and Rabbi Shimon Ben Gamliel, who was the Nasi at the time.  It’s not clear why the Romans chose to kill them.  They were the only two of the Asarah Harugeh Malchus that were killed when the Bais Hamikdosh was still standing.  Though they represented these two different approaches of dealing with Malchus, it’s clear from the Gemorah that that loved and respected each other. The Gemorah recounts how they both wanted to be the one who was killed first, so that they wouldn’t have to witness the murder of the other.  So they drew lots.  It’s not clear if the winner of the lots would be killed first or second.  After the lots were drawn, Rabbi Shimon ben Gamliel was chosen to be killed first.  The executioner took his sword and took off his head.  Yishmael Kohain Godol picked up his head and put it in his lap, and cried out, “How could the mouth that spoke such pure words of Torah be licking the dust?”
The Gemorah in Chagigah tells us how Rabbi Yochonon ben Zakai and Elezer ben Aruch were leaving Yerushlayim after the Bais Hamikdosh had just been destroyed, and Yerushalayim as in flames.  It says that Yochonon ben Zakai was riding on a Chamor and Elezer ben Aruch was pushing it from behind.  Then Elezer ben Aruch said, ‘I would like to say some words about the Merkavah’ a reference to the spiritual vision that Ezekiel had seen after the first Bais Hamikdosh had been destroyed.  The Merkavah with its wheels symbolized that Hashem was moving out of Yerushayim with the exiled Jews.
Rabbi Yochonon ben Zakai got off his Chamor – which represents Chomer, the physical – saying “How can I sit on a Chamor while you are talking about the Merkavah?”  Then Elezer ben Aruch talked about the Merkavah, and there was fire in the sky over their heads.  This represents the directly spiritual approach advocated by Nechuniah ben Hakana.  This is not our predominant approach, which is a more Malchus oriented approach that comes through Hillel down through Rabbi Akiva.  It is a different approach – one that we are less familiar with - to try to solve the problems that confront us by going directly to Shayayim. Nechuniah ben Hakana says that if we adopt this approach, we won’t have to concern ourselves with Malchus – neither our own Malchus, nor the Malchus of those who attack us. Nechuniah ben Hakanah in our Mishnah is advocating this alternative approach, of solving the political issues that confront us  by going directly to Shamayim.
Note from Akiva:
Perhaps it would be good to give a Mecor and a context for Nechuniah’s derech if you referred to the times in the Chumash where something similar was done:
1. Avraham with Sodom.
2. Yaacov with the Sar of Eisav.
3. Moshe pleading for the Jews at Har Sinai.