Elchanan Poupko

Pirkei Avot: The Pillars Upholding Our World

Jewish children and adults, one holding a Star of David banner, walking south on Nablus Road towards the grave of Shimon Hatzadik (Simon the Just), Jerusalem ) Library of Congress

Pirkei Avot, also known as Ethics of the Fathers, shares the powerful axiom of the three pillars upholding our world. This famous Mishna text can be found in frames and on walls of schools and synagogues. Let us examine its meaning and many lessons.

“Shimon the Righteous was one of the last of the men of the great assembly. He used to say: the world stands upon three things: the Torah, the Temple service, and the practice of acts of piety.”

Shimon the Righteous was an epically transformational figure in Jewish history; according to Jewish tradition, Shimon the Righteous greeted Alexander the Great upon his conquest of Israel. In this sense, Shimon, who was a remnant of the Great Assembly, was a key figure in the transition the Jewish people had to go through in adapting themselves to a Greek-Roman conquest which lasted more than four hundred years, away from living as a minority among the Persian Empire. He was a member of the generation of the Great Assembly who helped reestablish Judaism in the period of the Second Temple when few of those were left. 

As a young Yeshiva student, I went out of my way to study from great scholars who got their education in pre–WWII Yeshivot. I had the huge honor of meeting, hearing from, and studying alongside great Torah scholars such as Rabbi Zelig Epstein, Rabbi Chaim Pinchas Scheinberg, Rabbi Menashe Klein, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, Rabbi Michel Yehuda Lefkovitz, and other great scholars. I was not the only one. There was something very special about studying Torah and even just being connected to these Torah scholars or anyone who studied in the pre-WWII Yeshivot. It gave us the ability to connect to a world that was no longer. While there is no question there are also great Torah scholars who were younger we can study from, being able to connect to the previous generations’ scholarship and traditions, was a priceless experience to cherish. Among the many tragedies of the Holocaust was also the loss of traditions, Torah scholarship, and Mesorah–the sacred knowledge passed down from one generation to the other on the in and outs of Judaism. After the war and desolation of destruction, there was a huge thirst among the Jewish people to restore some of that Mesorah and scholarship, which was why so many of us were drawn to scholars of the previous generation.  

This was also very much who Shimon the Righteous was. He was a remnant of the Great Assembly–the people who made sure Jewish life in Israel can be resurrected after the Babylonian exile and after prophets were no longer among us. Certainly, he had a great deal of his own virtues and wisdom, yet the fact that he came from that transformational generation–men of The Great Assembly. 

Shimon the Righteous “HaTzaddik”–to understand how unique this title (Tzaddik) is we take a look in Tanach where the only two people to ever be referred to as a Tzadik in any way are Noah and King David. Even in the Mishna and the Talmud do not give the title to anyone other than Shimon. Why you might ask did he receive this title? The Talmud (Tractate Yoma 39a) shares the following:

“The Sages taught: During all forty years that Shimon HaTzaddik served as High Priest, the lot for God arose in the right hand. From then onward, sometimes it arose in the right hand and sometimes it arose in the left hand. Furthermore, during his tenure as High Priest, the strip of crimson wool that was tied to the head of the goat that was sent to Azazel turned white, indicating that the sins of the people had been forgiven…From then onward, it sometimes turned white and sometimes it did not turn white. Furthermore, the western lamp of the candelabrum would burn continuously as a sign that God’s presence rested upon the nation. From then onward, it sometimes burned and sometimes it went out…And during the tenure of Shimon HaTzaddik, the fire on the arrangement of wood on the altar kept going strongly, perpetually by itself, such that the priests did not need to bring additional wood to the arrangement on a daily basis…And a blessing was sent upon the offering of the omer; and to the offering of the two loaves from the new wheat, which was sacrificed on Shavuot; and to the shewbread, which was placed on the table in the Temple. And due to that blessing, each priest that received an olive-bulk of them, there were those who ate it and were satisfied….”

All this being said, Shimon HaTzaddik is given a status non of his contemporaries has received.  While he was not one of our prophets, he is recorded as one of the greatest spiritual powerhouses our poeple have ever seen. And so, between his historical transitional role, as well as his spiritual greatness, we must consider his words with added seriousness. 

He used to say: the world stands upon three things: the Torah, the Temple service, and the practice of acts of piety.

The term “he used to say” is not used often in the Mishna. There are things that we know. There are things that we write, there are things that we legislate into law. Yet it is the statements that we say as our mantras and the words we repeat time and again that will make the greatest difference. One of the most important experiences to me as a teacher is on Purim or towards the end of the year when I get to see my students imitate me in a play and act the way I do. It is at this time that I often get to see what it is that I say that resonated most and that I am most remembered for. Are they imitating my anger or my kindness, my reprimands or my advice, my virtues or my vices? This is the way we are remembered for. It is the “Hu Haya Omer”, he used to say, that makes the biggest difference. 

He used to say: the world stands upon three things: the Torah, the Temple service, and the practice of acts of piety.

The world stands upon three things–The rabbis understand this statement to be talking about three necessary ingredients. Shimon the Rightouess was not talking about three separate points; he is talking about the fact that all three are needed for this world to exist. While each of these three are of critical importance, none of them can keep the world going. Unless there are all three, the world cannot continue to function. While certain individuals can focus on each of these as their primary strength, none of these alone can allow us to survive. 

When looking at this Mishna, many people wonder: What personal value does such a statement have for me? Can I really be charged with maintaining all of these three essential ingredients? We often like to focus on our strengths and what we excel in. Some people excel in the study of Torah, others in prayer, and others in acts of kindness. The lesson our Mishna is teaching is that never will only one of these focuses keep the world standing. We need to do our best so that each one of these aspects is someone we engage in.

The world stands upon three things–while the statement Shimon HaTzaddik is making might be obvious to us, it presupposes a revolutionary idea; the idea that the world needs a reason to exist. This Mishna teaches us that a world without purpose is not a world that can just continue to carry itself. At times, every religion and group believed there was no purpose to the world or that the world existed regardless of what we say or do; Judaism came and taught that the world needs a justification to exist. 

The Torah– The prophet Jeremiah famously says (Jeremiah 33:25): “So said the Lord: If not My covenant with the day and the night, that the statutes of heaven and earth I did not place”. This verse famously inspired the great Rabbi Chaim of Volozhin to establish the first Yeshiva (Torah study institution). It was his belief, based on the tradition he received from his own teacher Rabbi Eliyahu–”The Gaon”–of Vilna, that if there was just one moment in the world in which there would not be a single person in the entire world studying Torah, the world would lose its right to exist and would be completely destroyed. From this perspective when we say the world stands on Torah it means the study of Torah. 

Some say that the “Torah” we are talking of in this Mishna, refers to wisdom. Others say it is keeping the Mitzvot of the Torah, while the common understanding is that it is the study of Torah that Shimon the Righteous was referring to. If this statement is relevant to the existence of the entire world, it is true ten times over when speaking about the Jewish people’s survival. I remember a friend sharing with me his study of Jewish communities and how they survived in America. He shared that when Jews arrived and were building new communities, there were two schools of thought: one was to build large synagogues as a center for Jewish life. The other school of thought was focused less on synagogues and had the adults willing to sacrifice their large social and synagogue facilities in favor of Jewish day schools that would teach Torah to the next generation. As the years went on the approach that proved itself in the test of history was clear: those who chose to educate their children with Torah and Judaism proved to succeed with preserving Judaism in the new country; those who chose beautiful sanctuaries, large synagogues, and spacious social gathering facilities were not able to sustain Judaism’s much-needed longevity. While it is easy to understand why this is and why it is that teaching your children Torah is a key to the long-term survival of the Jewish people, it is harder to point to a natural reason for Torah playing such a key role in our survival among adults as well. And yet, time and again, history has proven that unless there is serious Torah scholarship among us, unless there is a deep, profound, time-consuming, and meaningful commitment to the study of Torah, our communities cannot survive. 

As a testimony to this, we see countless Jewish communities around the world that had large numbers of Jews move there, but no meaningful engagement in the study of Torah. Too often, the Jews in such communities saw the level of observance and affiliation among them fade, leading to the ultimate assimilation and disaffiliation of the generations that followed, in many cases allowing any known Jewish life in those places to fade away. 

The Temple service–while many translate the term Avodah as “Temple service,” the literal translation of the Hebrew word “Avodah” here can mean either service or work.

The rabbis teach us that since the Beit Hamikdash in Jerusalem was destroyed, it is our prayers that have taken the place of the Temple service. The Midrash (Bamidbar Rabbah 18:21) states: “The children of Israel said: Master of the World, during the time the Beit Hamikdash existed, we would bring a sacrifice and our sin was atoned for and now all we have is prayer…the children of Israel said when the Temple existed, we brought the animal parts and fats on the Temple and our sins were atoned for, now, here is our own fat, blood, and souls [diminished through our fasting] may it be your will that those atone for us”.

Now that the Temple is destroyed, our own prayers and supplications are the “third leg” on which the entire world stands. It is this third aspect of Judaism’s essential that is often most ignored. Everyone understands the value of Torah studies and the power of Judaism’s intellectual pursuits. Everyone understands that without acts of kindness, the world cannot exist. Each individual in their own personal life understands the need to pursue the study of Torah on whatever level it may be, as well as the need to engage in acts of kindness. Yet the need to engage in spiritual supplication to God–in prayer–is often underappreciated. Aware of this problem, the Rabbis of the Talmud (Brachot 6B): “He said to him: These are matters of utmost importance, exalted, i.e., mitzvot or prayer, which people nonetheless treat with contempt.” 

Prayer is often difficult to engage in. This is more easily understood based on the very definition and name of prayer named in our Mishna: “Avoda”. The same word we use for work is used for the Temple service and for prayer. The Rabbis saw our own prayer as equivalent to the lethal sacrifice in animals because prayer is the only thing that gives you life, through a kind of death. When prayer we kill our desires, our daily distractions, our worldly plans, and we focus solemnly on our spirit. In order to study Torah, one must use their mind, in order to engage in acts of kindness, one must use their body. Yet in order to engage in prayer, one must silence both their mind and their body, and solemnly surrender those to the spirit.  

It follows that the third element that keeps our world going is prayer. This surrender of the spirit, the harnessing of mind and body to the service of the spirit, is the third foundation our world stands on. The word Korban in Hebrew is the word for sacrifice. It is well known it also has the same Hebrew root as Karov, which means close. When we bring a sacrifice, we submit to the material world for the cause of spirituality, and when we pray, we submit our mind and body for the focus of spirituality. As the Midrash notes, this is all the more intensified when we are also fasting as the submission of our material world to spirituality, and God are all the more intensified. (based on Maimonides in his commentary to the Mishna and the Maharal of Prague)

About the Author
Rabbi Elchanan Poupko is a New England based eleventh-generation rabbi, teacher, and author. He has written Sacred Days on the Jewish Holidays, Poupko on the Parsha, and hundreds of articles published in five languages. He is the president of EITAN--The American Israeli Jewish Network.
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