Rabbi Chanina, deputy to the kohanim, would say: Pray for the integrity of the government; for were it not for the fear of its authority, a man would swallow his neighbor alive.
The teaching of R. Chanina is interesting because he was a late Tanna, we lived just before the destruction of the Temple. By skipping more than 100 years forward to R. Chanina, the Mishna indicates to us a thematic connection between R. Akavia ben Mehallel and the teaching of R. Chanina. R. Akvia was focused on individual versus the group, but that was no longer the actual question a hundered years later. Now, the question is individual versus the government.
What happened in the decades before the destruction of the Holy Temple? Well, this was the time of increasing anarchy in the land of Israel, with the appearance of homegrown brigands and terrorists, and progressive weakening of governmental authority. At the same time, the notion of the Kingdom of Heaven, a place that was supposed to and radically better than the kingdom of this Earth, began to circulate. It is very clear from the Gospels that the radical teaching that devalued temporal authority and considered obeisance to it to be a betrayal of the Heavenly Kingdom, has gained many adherents at that time. Whereas before the Rabbis were focused on the questions of the religious meaning of individual service to God versus national destiny, the very value of earthly authority was now being questioned. Rabbi Chanina defined two different charges of earthly authority. One was to serve as a moral and ethical force. The Roman prefect never fulfilled that function. However, it was time to remind faithful Jews that the government also served as a deterrent to interpersonal and intercommunal violence. It may not be fulfilling a positive role that Shimon Hatsadik envisioned, but it was still a powerful barrier to general anarchy. That alone justified that Jews should pray even for an unrighteous government, even for one that represented and elevated values that where radically at conflict with Torah values.
Some people have a sense that it is not Jewish to pay attention to one’s physical needs and that it is more spiritual to eschew physical activity. However, that is not the case. Already R. Yochanan gave us this advice: “spend one-third of your time in sitting, one-third in standing and one-third in walking (Kesuvos 111a)”. Shabbos 147a advises exercises after a bath, which Rabbeinu Chananel explains to mean: “one bends and stretches the arms forwards and backwards as well as the legs on the haunches so one becomes perspired and warm”. Rav Sheshes said: “great is work for it makes warm those who engage in it (Gittin 67b)”. In Talmudic times Jews played a form of volleyball (Koheles Rabba12:11) and a sport in which a ball was thrown against a wall (Yerushalmi Sukkah 5). Rambam (Deyos 4: 19) advises exercize as an aid to gastrointestinal health. He prohibits exercise on Shabbos because it is a form of healing (Shabbos 21”28). He farther wrote: “For there are many things that are necessary or very useful according to some people, whereas according to others they are not at all needed; as is the case with regards to the different kinds of bodily exercise, which are necessary for the preservation of health according to the prescription of those who know the art of medicine . . . Thus those who accomplish acts of exercising their body in the wish to be healthy…. are in the opinion of the ignorant engaged in frivolous actions, whereas they are not frivolous according to the Sages." (Moreh 3, 25)
I have been pursuing a line of thought that Akavia represented a distinct school from that of Hillel and Shammia and the defining characteristic of his school was extreme individualism. With this in mind, a certain well known Talmudic passage becomes more intelligible.
Our Rabbis taught(Shabbos 31a): A certain gentile once came before Shammai and asked him: "How many Torot do you have?"
"Two," he replied: "the Written Torah and the Oral Torah."
"I believe you with respect to the Written, but not with respect to the Oral Torah. Make me a proselyte on condition that you teach me the Written Torah [only].
Shammai scolded and rejected him in anger. When he went before Hillel, Hillel accepted him as a proselyte. On the first day, Hillel taught him, "Alef, bet, gimmel, dalet." The following day Hillel reversed the letters.
"But yesterday you did not teach them to me like this," he protested.
"Must you then not rely upon me? Then rely upon me with respect to the Oral Torah as well."
There is a Halachic problem with what Hillel did, which Rashi points out. Talmud says in Bechoros 30 that a convert who accepts all of the Torah except for one matter is not allowed to convert. How could Hillel take in a convert who did not accept the Oral Law. Rashi answers that this convert did accept the Oral Torah; he just didn't believe that it was given by Hashem. This is a kind of answer that generates volumes of discussion, and it did exactly that in the subsequent generations.
It appears to me, however, that this convert did believe in Oral Law but he did not trust either Shammai or Hillel to transmit their versions of it to him. This is why he said: "In regard to Oral Law, I don't believe you". He did not say that he did not believe in it, only that the did not believe Shammai and HIllel. He was quite an individualist and he wanted to learn it from someone like Akavia ben Mehallel.
You see from here an indication, if not a proof, that an alternative formulation of Oral Law existed in the days of Hillel and Shammai, presumably that of Akavia ben Mehallel.
It is the day after Hurricane Sandy. Most families in the neighborhood do not have electricity and men walk around with long faces and preoccupied. The Shul has power. A man walks over to me and starts a conversation. He is obviously in high spirits and joyful.
Man: Rabbi, Hashem make a real miracle for me today!
I (expecting a story about a falling tree that missed him by a few inches or something like that): Baruch Hashem, tell me what happened.
Man: You know that I was out of work for over a year.
Man: So, I was going to have the house go into foreclosure. I had a hearing in June, but I just got a new job and I asked them to postpone it till I got a few paychecks, and they did.
Man: So the hearing was supposed to be October 30th and I was going to offer them a deal, take it or leave it.
I: So what happened?
Man: They postopned it again. I am so HAPPY? I am going to pay some of my tuitions now!
I: Baruch Hashem, you should have a lot of Hatzlacha.
After he leaves, musing to myself - Ah, this is why Rachamim is the plural? Our world runs on Rachamim, which is a combination of Chesed and Gevura. So, goes it in our world. One man's loss is another man's gain.
So, Akavia ben Mehalel represented a tradition that was a parallel and an alternative to Hillel's as received by Shammaya and Avtalion, a tradition that ended with Akavia. The little that we know about Akavia's teaching does not suffice to tell us much more that it was a deeply individualistic tradition that valued truth over conformity and located the center of religious experience within the individual.
"Akavia ben (son of) Mehalalel said, consider three things and YOUll not come to sin. Know from where YOU have come, to where YOU are heading, and before Whom YOU will give justification and accounting. From where have you come: from a putrid drop (of semen); to where are you heading: to a place of dirt, worms and maggots; and before Whom will you give justification and accounting: before the King of kings, the Holy One blessed be He."
Compare this centering of the Fear of Hashem within man conscience and the attitude of Rebbi, who placed it squarely with G-d. Rebbi said in the beginning of chapter 2 of Avos: "Consider three tings and you will not come to sin: The Eye that sees, the Ear that hears and all your actions are written in the book".
However, like all great truths and all disagreements for the sake of Heaven, Akaviah ben Mehallel's approach survived through Ben Azzai in the 3rd chapter of Derech Eretz Rabbah. This part of this masechta is often cited by Rishonim as the tractate "Ben Azzai" and it contains some moral reflections on the origin and destiny of man. This section is considerably older than chapters 4-11. Ben Azzai says almost the same things as Akavia but he introduces a fourth theme and subtly shifts the emphasis form the entirely man-centric focus to a man cum G-d perception that is more compatible with HIllel's overall balanced approach. He does this by first laying out Akavia's approach and then repeating it with a crucial modification that focuses on Hashem's role as the Judge.
Ben Azzai says: He who places four things before his eyes, will not ever sin. From where he came, and where he goes and Who judges him and what will be.
Form where did he come? From a place of darkness and obscurity.
From where he came? From a place of inpurity.
Where he goes? To render others impure.
From where he came? From a spolied wetness and from a place that no man can see.
Where he goes? To Sheol and Destruction in Gehenna and to be burned in fire.
Who is his Judge? His judge is not flesh and blood but the Lord of all things, before Whom there is injustice and no forgetting and partiality and no bribes.
What will be? Worms and maggots, as it says(Job 25)" even man is worm and son fo man maggots".
Several conclusions jump at me when I look at this teaching and compare it with that of Akavia.
First, Ben Azzai had two versions of Akavia's statement, both of which he listed.
Second, Akavia's statement is then reworked in such a way as to make it more balanced and include the awareness of Hashem as Judge in addition to the man-centered approach of Akavia. In this fashion, the teaching of Akavia is restated in a way that is much more balanced, more Hillel than Akavia.
Finally, we don't know whether Akvia and Ben Azzai both received a tradition that is even older than Hillel and Akavia, except that Ben Azzai wrote it down in the way that it came to him through the prism of the school of HIllel and Akavia formulated it in his own tradition, which, came to an end with him.
Where might have this tradition come from? Sfas Emes on Avos says that the three questions of Akavia ben Mehallel are the same as the three questions that Yakov warned his messengers that Eisav will ask:
1.From where do you come?
2.Where are you going?
3.Whose is are these ones before you?
He explains that these are questions which will produce the Fear of Heaven, if a Jew asks them, but depression and distancing from G-d, if it is Eisav who asks them.
This is a profound lesson. It also may be the source for the tradition that came down to us in two formulation, of Akavia ben Mehalel and Ben Azzai.
He who occupies himself in Torah, it is not possible that his neck should be thick and his body should be fat (Mivchar Peninim 1:29).
On the face of it, this is a perplexing statement. What about the famous Talmudic sages who were very heavy? R. Elazar b'Rebbi Shimon and R. Yishmael b'Rebbi Yosi were very fat. R. Yochanan's and Rav Papa's were also big (but not as big( Bava Metsiah 84a). In fact, in our own day,we had Rav Simon Schwab and Rav Shlomo Freifeld who cut an imposing figure.
A commentary to Mivchar Peninim attempts to explain this by quoting a Tosafos in Taanis 7a that had the sages been more ugly, they would have been even greater. Similarly, those sages who are fat despite their fasting, would have been much heavier, had they not fasted.
This reminded me of an interesting story quoted in the biography of Rabbi Freifeld byR. Yisroel Besser. He reports that Rav Shlomo was eating schnitzel Pentecost in the when a famous biographer of Jewish figures passed by. Rabbi Freifeld humorously exclaimed: "Oy, now they will not write a biography about me. So, is it Shlomo's fault that Shlomo likes schnitzel?"
It seems to me that the mindset that scholars must be thin and pale, is no longer the prevailing one in Judaism, at least, not since the Chassidic revolation. There was a time when there operative mindset was that the weakening over the body to the strengthening of the soul. Since Avodah B'Gashmiyus" (Serving G-d through the body) displaced the idea of ascetism and weakening the body, the previous paradigm of self-denial no longer operates. That does not mean that one should not limit oneself for reasons of health or to be in balance and practice self control. However, it is no longer a virue in itself but merely a stepping stone to other achievements.
Perhaps the Talmudic sages in Bava Metziah were harbingers of the Chassidic revolution?