May 19, 2024
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”רַבִּי אֶלְעָזָר בֶּן עֲזַרְיָה אוֹמֵר,
אִם אֵין תּוֹרָה, אֵין דֶּרֶךְ אֶרֶץ. אִם אֵין דֶּרֶךְ אֶרֶץ, אֵין תּוֹרָה.
אִם אֵין חָכְמָה, אֵין יִרְאָה. אִם אֵין יִרְאָה, אֵין חָכְמָה.
אִם אֵין בִּינָה, אֵין דַּעַת. אִם אֵין דַּעַת, אֵין בִּינָה.
אִם אֵין קֶמַח, אֵין תּוֹרָה. אִם אֵין תּוֹרָה, אֵין קֶמַח.“
(אבות ג:יז)

A Reciprocal Relationship

Last week, we saw Rav Chaninah ben Dosa’s linkage of chochmah (wisdom) to yirah (fear). Yirah is the first principle to wisdom and needs to precede it in order for wisdom to be sustainable. Rebbi Elazar ben Azaryah reaffirms this (earlier) statement of Rav Chaninah and adds a linkage in the opposite direction as well. Just as chochmah depends on yirah, so yirah hinges on chochmah. Wisdom is important, not just as an independent value, but also as a condition for yirah.

Earlier in Avot,1 Rabban Gamliel expresses this idea by asserting that “a brute cannot fear sin.” A person who lacks wisdom cannot properly appreciate God’s place in the world and the significance of defying His Will.

Sefer Mishlei goes even further by presenting chochmah as a prerequisite for yirah that needs to precede it, in order to facilitate it. Only once a person has achieved wisdom can he “understand yirat Elokim and attain knowledge of God.”2


Who’s on First?

Chochmah as a prerequisite to yirah seems to contradict Rav Chaninah’s opposite portrayal of yirah as a pre-condition for chochmah. Which one precedes the other — yirah or chochmah? Rav Chaninah emphasizes the importance of yirah preceding chochmah, while the pasuk in Mishlei emphasizes the need for chochmah to precede yirah.

This question also emerges from the Gemara in Shabbat,3 which presents statements that support both directions. The Gemara first quotes Rabbah Bar Rav Huna, who compares someone who learns Torah but lacks yirat Shamayim to a treasurer who possesses keys to the treasury’s inner chamber, but not its outer doors. We cannot achieve chochmah without having yirah first.

On the very next line, the Gemara quotes Rav Yannai, who compares the same person to one who erects an entranceway to a courtyard that does not exist. While Rabbah saw yirah as the door through which one enters the world of chochmah, Rav Yannai sees yirah as the end goal to which chochmah leads. Which acts as the entrance way and which acts as the goal?


Levels of Yirah

The Abarbanel,4 and later the Gra5 and the Ba’al Hatanya,6 all explain that there are different types and levels of yirat Shamayim.7 The process of yirah and chochmah is meant to begin with one type of yirah and ultimately facilitate a second, higher type of yirah.

On the most basic level, yirah means fear. One should fear sin, because one fears Hashem and His potential punishment. We find yirah used this way in Sefer Bereishit to describe Yitzchak’s fear of the Plishtim killing him in order to take his wife8 and Yaakov’s fear of Eisav.9 Accordingly, the Rambam10 defines the mitzvah of yirat Shamayim11 as fearing Hashem and His punishment.

Yirah can also mean awe. For example, the Torah describes Yaakov as having yirah when he awoke in the morning after his vision of the ladder and the angels.12 He was not afraid, but rather in awe of the place and Hashem’s Presence there.


Stages of Yirah

These two meanings of yirah are obviously very different levels. The young or uneducated, who are not able to fully appreciate the awesomeness of Hashem’s presence, are taught to fear Him.13 Experience and education help people gain a better appreciation of, and reach a level of awe towards, Hashem. This better appreciation is rooted in wisdom.

The Rambam develops this idea in Hilchot Yesodei Hatorah,14 where he teaches that, in addition to our belief in Hashem, we are required to feel love and yirah towards Him. The question, though, is: “How can one develop emotional feelings towards someone they have never met?” The Rambam explains that we get there by appreciating Him through studying His World.

This higher form of yirah is the one with ultimate significance. It was Hashem’s goal in Creation15 and the ultimate goal of our personal development.16 God does not seek our fear; He seeks our appreciation.

Yirah is, thus, both a necessary backdrop to chochmah and also its beneficiary. An initial fear of Hashem inspires taking learning, wisdom and life seriously.17 The learning and wisdom achieved, in turn, facilitates a higher level of yirah.

Rashi18 has a powerful way of linking the two types of yirah and the stages of development. He explains that because wisdom’s goal is yirah; it needs to be motivated by it. The direction that our chochmah leads us in hinges on its roots and motivation. One who seeks wisdom as an expression of Hashem’s Will, will be inspired by it to appreciate Hashem even further.


An Integrated Cohesive Existence

At first glance, wisdom and yirah seem like unrelated aspects of our consciousness. The first is in the mind, while the second is of the heart. Rabbi Elazar ben Azaryah teaches us that healthy personal development hinges on the integration of both. Yirah (we often describe as faith) is where wisdom begins and what ensures its proper direction and significance. At the same time, true faith is rooted in the wisdom that makes a meaningful appreciation of Hashem possible.

May Hashem help us succeed in pursuing both properlyin the merit of our aiming to do so.

*Written up by Yedidyah Rosenwasser

Rabbi Reuven Taragin is the dean of overseas students at Yeshivat HaKotel.

1 Avot 2:5.

2 Mishlei 2:1-5: The pesukim speak of seeking wisdom. Assumably, the significance lies in the wisdom achieved through the search.

3 Mesechet Shabbat 31a.

4 Based on Devarim 10:12, which says, “And now, O Israel, what does Hashem, Your God ask of you? Only this: to revere Your God …”

5 Peirush HaGra, Sefer Mishlei 16:34.

6 Sefer Hatanya, 1:43.

7 It is noteworthy that yirat Elokim in Tanach (Bereishit 22:12, Tehillim 128:1) often connotes following Hashem’s instructions — yirah in the sense of what Hashem shows us (as opposed to fear or awe). 

8 Bereishit 26:7.

9 Bereishit 32:12.

10 Rambam, Sefer Hamitzvot, Asei 4.

11 Sefer Devarim 6:13.

12 Sefer Bereishit 28:17.

13 Mishneh Torah L’Rambam, Hilchot Teshuva 10:1.

14 Rambam, Hilchot Yesodei HaTorah 2:2.

15 Mesechet Shabbat 31a.

16 Sefer Ha’Ikarim (Rav Yosef Albo) 3:31.

17 It is noteworthy that Rav Chaninah ben Dosa uses the term: “yirat chet’o —fear of sin” to describe the type of yirah needed as a prerequisite to chochmah. (On the other hand, Rabban Gamliel uses the same term to describe the type of yirah dependent upon chochmah). 

18 Yoma 72b.

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