Chapter 2: Mishna 11: Part 1
He used to enumerate their praises. Eliezer ben
Horkonus [is like a] cemented well which does not
lose [even] a drop [of water]. Yehoshua ben
Chanania -- praiseworthy is she who gave birth to
him. Yossi HaCohen is a "chasid" (a pious one).
Shimon ben Nethanel is one who fears sin. Elazar
ben Arach is a flowing spring that surges forth.
(As I wrote when we began the previous Mishna, the Maharal's
explanations do not follow the order of the Mishnayoth. I have
inserted the next Mishna at this point, but the beginning of our
explanation is a continuation from last week. One question that
was not yet explicitly answered from the previous Mishna will be
answered now, and we will introduce other questions -- not
necessarily in the order that they were asked -- that the Maharal
will answer about this Mishna.)
(Carried over from the previous Mishna: Didn't Rabban
Yochanan ben Zakkai have more than the five students whose
praises are enumerated here?! Furthermore...)
Why does our Mishna use the language "enumerate ('moneh')
their praises" rather than the simpler "informed ('magid') of
What is the greatness of Yehoshua ben Chanania that is
implied in "praiseworthy is she who bore him?" If his greatness
was that he was pious, then the same "praiseworthy is she who
bore him" could have also been said about Yossi HaCohen! And if
his greatness was that he feared G-d, then this description could
have been said about Shimon ben Nethanel as well! And if the
praise is because of his great wisdom, then it could have also
been said of Elazar ben Arach, whose wisdom was praised as a
flowing stream constantly surging forth!
Rabban Yochana ben Zakkai observed that he had five
principal students, and each one had a unique quality that was
rooted in a one of the five elements of the human being.
Therefore he enumerated their praises. The word "enumerated" is
used, implying the exhaustive nature of the these five
attributes, since these praises encompass each of the five
elements of the human being.
(The Maharal points out many times that when a number is
used, it communicates the exhaustive nature of the list that is
being presented. The Rabbis shouldn't need to provide the number
of components in a list, since we know how to count for
ourselves. Telling us the number communicates a conceptual
principle, rather than a mathematical summary.)
Another implication of the word "enumerate" ('moneh') is
that each one stands independently, which is the case of these
Rabban Yochana ben Zakkai began with Rebbe Eliezer ben
Horkonus, saying about him that he was a cemented well which does
not lose a drop [of water]. This is an acclamation in the area
of the nefesh. Memory is an attribute of the nefesh, and it is
through this vehicle that one is able to acquire and retain
wisdom. The ability to remember what one has learned indicates
that the individual is able to rise above the material ("chomer")
dimension of his existence. For "chomer" (matter) has the
characteristic of being subject to change, influenced by
environmental circumstances due to its instability. Something
which transcends the limitations of the chomer isn't limited by
the instability inherent in matter which causes it to be in a
state of constant change.
So by saying that Eliezer ben Horkonus was like a cistern
which loses no water, it means that his nefesh is imbued with a
transcendent energy, a stability that resists variation, which is
the ideal state of the nefesh. It is this desired state of
stability which is implied when we use the word "milui," sated,
to refer to the nefesh, as it is written (Koheleth 6:7) "Also the
nefesh will not be sated." The nefesh grasps and retains a
connection to things, due to the fact that it does not have
limitations of matter. It is to communicate this attribute that
Rebbe Eliezer is called a cistern that doesn't lose a drop. What
he receives is retained.
Then it is said about Yehoshua ben Chanania "praiseworthy is
she who gave birth to him."
As we have written, the energy of the nefesh ("koach
hanefesh") has to have a material medium through which it can
manifest itself. This is the "chomer," the material dimension.
Exalting the woman who bore him implies a purity in his chomer,
in the material dimension. If his mother didn't have a dimension
of purified chomer, it would not be possible for the child to
have this purity of chomer. The mother is viewed as being the
determining factor in the quality of the chomer of a child (see
Nidah 31a) due to her greater connection to the physical world.
(We have written extensively on this in Chapter One, Mishna 5.)
We find Rebbe Eliezer ben Horkonus and Rebbe Yehoshua ben
Chanania paired to together throughout the Talmud, and this is
represented here. For Rebbe Eliezer ben Horkonus embodies
excellence of the nefesh, which is transcendent, while Rebbe
Yehoshua ben Chanania embodies excellence of the chomer, which
serves as a carrier of the nefesh in the material world.
The class is taught by Rabbi Shaya Karlinsky,
Dean of Darche Noam Institutions, Yeshivat
Darche Noam/Shapell's and Midreshet Rachel for Women.