The Nexus of Chochmah and Yirah
In the end of the third perek of Pirkei Avot, Rebbi Elazar ben Azaryah introduces us to four pairs of interdependent concepts. The first and the fourth refer to Torah’s interdependency with kemach (support) and derech eretz (breadth). The pairs teach us of the support (kemach) and breadth (derech eretz) needed to be involved in Torah, and how Torah learning gives meaning to the support and broadening ideas.
The middle two pairs relate to chochmah (wisdom). While the second of the middle pair links between the internal chochmah concepts of binah (understanding) and daat (knowledge), the first speaks of chochmah’s relationship with the seemingly unrelated value of yirah (fear). Chochmah and yirah are two central aspects of human experience that are generally perceived to be disconnected from one another. Rabbi Elazar teaches that they are not only connected, but absolutely interdependent — neither truly exists without the other.
Yirah — What We Are All About
Moshe Rabbeinu emphasized the foundational nature of yirah when he identified it as “all that Hashem asks from us.”1 In a world driven and controlled by Hashem, yirah (and the decisions and actions it inspires to do2) is all that is truly in our hands.3 Understandably, Chazal4 teaches us that yirah is the goal for which Hashem created the entire world and, thus, the component of the world that is most precious to Him.
We exist in order to achieve yirat shamayim (fear of Heaven).5 It is the goal and purpose of all the mitzvot.6 Going even further, based on a pasuk7 which presents yirah (and mitzvah fulfillment) as “kol ha’adam,” Rav Elchonon Wasserman8 highlights “yirah,” as a condition for maintaining a proper human standard. Without it, people inevitably descend to an animalistic level of existence and behavior.
A Wise Foundation
Our mishna quotes Rav Elazar ben Azaryah who teaches us that, in addition to yirah’s general importance, it is particularly important for chochmah. Based on the conclusion of a pasuk in Sefer Yeshayahu (that Chazal associate with Shas Mishnayos),9 the Gemara10 describes yirah as chochmah’s “storehouse.” A person can learn all of Shas, but without yirah, he has nowhere to “store” what he has learned.
Many pesukim in Tehillim11 and Mishlei12 (one of which we recite upon waking up in the morning) go a step further by describing yirat Hashem as the “beginning” (techilat and reishit) of chochmah. Yirat Hashem is the first step towards developing knowledge. Sefer Mishlei, which is about the importance of chochmah and the ways to acquire it, opens by emphasizing that yirah is how we need to begin our acquisition. Recognition of Hashem and His place in the world is the first principle of chochmah.
Rebbi Chaninah ben Dosa (earlier in Avot’s third perek13) goes even further14 by presenting yirah as not only the beginning of chochmah, but also as its prerequisite. Yirah is a necessary prerequisite for two reasons: First, yirah ensures that we develop our chochmah properly. The Gemara15 explains that while Torah can be a life-sustaining or even a life-saving drug, if studied by someone lacking yirat shamayim, it can also be poisonous.16 How we approach Torah determines how we appreciate it and the impact it has on our lives; we must approach it with an attitude of yiras Shamayim.
Rebbi Chaninah focused on a second dimension: “chachmato mitkayemet,” chochmah’s longevity. He taught that “chachmato mitkayemet,” hinges on “yirat cheto kodemet l’chachmato.” Only chochmah preceded by yirah has staying power.17 The Gra18 explains that yirat Shamayim gives our development of wisdom not only direction, but also significance. Recognizing Hashem as Creator helps us see the wisdom we acquire (by studying His world), as Hashem’s wisdom that He gives us with the intention that we appreciate, acquire, retain and live by it.
In addition to chochmah’s dependency on yirah, Rebbe Elazar ben Azarya also emphasized yirah’s dependency upon chochmah. In fact, we shall see next week that yirah also needs chochmah as a prerequisite. How can yirah and chochmah both be prerequisites for one another? Which one needs to come first?
I look forward to exploring and answering these questions together, im yirtzeh Hashem, next week.
Rabbi Reuven Taragin is the dean of overseas students at Yeshivat HaKotel.
1 Devarim 10:12.
2 See Shu”t HaRambam 436 who explains that the Gemara’s (see next note) yirat Shamayim is the exception (to the rule of Hashem’s control) which includes all of man’s decisions and actions.
3 Mesechet Berachot 33b.
4 Masechet Shabbat 31b.
5 Sefer Haikarim 3:31.
6 Moreh Nevuchim 3:52 based on Devarim 28:58.
7 Kohelet 12:13.
8 Kovetz Hama’amarim 39.
9 Yeshayahu 33:6.
10 Mesechet Shabbat 31a.
11 Tehillim 111.
12 Mishlei 1:7, 9:10, 17:16.
13 Mesechet Avot 3:9.
14 See the Abarvanel and the Maharal (on our mishna) who explain that Rav Elazar ben Azarya’s statement was placed here, because it builds off that of Rav Chaninah ben Dosa.
15 Mesechet Yomah 72b.
16 See also Emunah U’Bitachon (of the Chazon Ish) 3:24.
17 In a similar vein, the Gemara in Shabbat 31a describes yirat Shamayim as the preserving agent that sustains our wisdom.
18 Bi’ur HaGra, Sefer Mishlei 1:7.