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Pirqei Avot 1:2 – What Is The Basis?


Shimon the Just was one of the last survivors of the Great Assembly. He used to say: On three things the world stands: on the Torah, on the Service of G-D, and on acts of merciful benevolence.



Some thoughts:

In the just quoted part of Pirqei Avot 1:2, Shim’on HaTzaddiq (the Righteous) is quoted as saying that the world stands on three thing, namely on Torah, on the Service of G-D (‘Avodah), and on merciful benevolence (G’milut Hasadim). The verse furthermore tells us that he was one of the last survivors of the Great Assembly, mentioned in the first paragraph of Pirqei Avot.

What does this mean? Is there no world without Torah, without “Service of G-D”, and without merciful benevolence?

An interesting thing, when it comes to law, is that if anything has to be “just”, then we would certainly suffer from the strictness of law. If one was to do something to another, even unintentionally, and then have to pay the price for that, we would daily experience many punishments. Surely, we as human beings cannot exist without mercy, and that is what we can learn from this quote. An interesting addition here is that if we look to the Torah, we can learn exactly that.

In the Torah several Names are used for G-D, each having its own significance. According to haRaMBaM, Z”L, there are seven Names, each connoting its own meaning (Mishneh Torah, Hil. Yesodei HaTorah 6:2). The Name Eloqim signify strict justice, and interesting enough that is the Name, which is used about G-D in the first chapter. Commentaries have noted this and commented on it, stating that when G-D created the world, it would be created on strict justice, but seeing that humans wouldn’t not be able to survive this, He added mercy in judgement, which can be seen from chapter two, where the Name of G-D is added (Y-HV) to Eloqim. That Name is signifying mercy, namely G-D’s mercy for us, but not just any mercy, but a mercy we basically don’t deserve, hesed. This is the understanding of “hesed”, namely something that is not deserved (then it would be based on justice, not mercy), given out of love. G’milut Hasadim is merciful benevolence, and without this, the world wouldn’t stand, we would be destroyed by strict justice.

But how is this put into the world? We don’t always understand this concept, even the greatest Hassidim can make error in this matter, we are only humans. The knowledge and understanding by this is based on our Service for G-D, which is prayer. By praying to G-D, by giving us selves to Him, and understand our own smallness compared to His Greatness, can we understand how undeserving we are, and thus understand that sometimes other people next to us are to be given something we might believe that they don’t deserve, in order to make the general rule in the world be based on merciful benevolence, instead of strict justice.

What is the basis of all this? Where do we find this knowledge? In Torah. Torah itself is said to be an action of mercy from G-D, in order to bring us closer to Him by living our lives in a more divine way.


Who are introduced here?

Shim’on HaTzaddiq (שמעון הצדיק) was one the Tannaim, but also a Kohen HaGadol, which means that he lived during the time of the Second Temple. According to this verse in Pirqei Avot, he was one of the last men from the Great Assembly.

Exactly when he lived and who he was identified as, is not sure, but most likely he was either Shimon ben Honiyya, which makes him the grandson of Yadu’a, the Kohen HaGadol, who is mentioned in the Book of Nehamyah (12:11,12), and that would mean that he lived in the period of 310-273 BCE (not all the period). Or he is Shimon ben Honiyyah ben Shimon, which would mean that he lived in 219-199 BCE.

He is mentioned and quoted various places, both in the Mishnah, as is just shown, as well as in “Wisdom of Sirah,” “first book of Maccabee,” and by Josephus.

The Talmud gives the account about him (as does Josephus) that he was the Kohen HaGadol, when Alexander the Great conquered the ME. When Alexander came to Jerusalem, Shimon HaTzaddiq dressed in his priestly robes, and went out to greet Alexander the Great. On seeing Shimon HaTzaddiq, Alexander the Great went off from his chariot and approached Shimon HaTzaddiq, bowing when he reached him. When criticized for doing that, Alexander the Great explained that he had dreamt about Shimon HaTzaddiq, declaring that he, Alexander the Great, would be victorious.


New Terms:

Hassid: Hassidim (חסיד in singular, חסידים in plural) were a term used for righteous Jews, who went even beyond what was demanded and expected from them. The term is derived from “hesed” (חסד), meaning “loving kindness,” that is, doing more than expected from you. The term shouldn’t be confused with “tzaddiq” (צדיק), a righteous person, who fulfilled his obligations, though the terms have been used interchangeably in later ages.

Kohen: A Kohen (כוהן) is a member of the Aharonite family, within the Levite tribe, being the priests who took care of the sacrifices in the Temple. The High Priest is termed “Kohen HaGadol” (כהן הגדול), meaning “The biggest priest.” He had the responsibility for leading the prayers of the Hagim, as well as going to the Holiest of the Holy on Yom Kippur, being the only one who was allowed to do so.

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