Pillars of the World

The Three Pillars of the World

Mishna Avot 1:2 and 1:18

Interactive Learning Module

1. Introduction

  • Mishna Avot 1:2 and Mishna Avot 1:18 both speak of three things upon which the world stands. While Shimon HaTzaddik lists תורה, עבודה, וגמילות חסדים, R. Shimon b. Gamliel points to דין, אמת, ושלום.
  • Why does each sage choose a different three pillars and how should each of the pillars be defined?
  • This module will first explore each Mishna individually and then proceed to examine the relationship between the two Mishnayot, attempting to answer the question of: what are the values and deeds deemed most fundamental for the world's existence and survival?

2. What is "Avodah"?

  • Let's begin our study with Avot 1:2.
  • Two of Shimon HaTzaddik's three pillars, Torah and acts of kindness, seem fairly self-explanatory. What, though, does he mean when he speaks of "עבודה"? What type of "service" does he have in mind?
  • What does R. Yonah suggest? [See the fourth paragraph, "ועל העבודה".] According to him, why is this considered so fundamental to the world's existence?
  • R. Yonah mentions both sacrifices and prayer. How do the two compare?
  • Does R. Yonah imply that these are distinct but equal models of worship, or is one of them the ideal which should be preferred over the other?

3. Import of the Sacrificial Service

  • R. Yonah defines "עבודה" as the sacrificial service, and he suggests that prayer acts as its substitute in the absence of the Mikdash. He claims that the significance of each lies in the crucial role they play in attaining atonement.
  • Compare R"Y Bekhor Shor on Shemot 30:1 (starting midway through his comments, from the words "ולכך שיכן שכינתו ביניהם") and Ramban on Vayikra 1:9 (beginning about halfway through, with the paragraph that opens, "ויותר ראוי לשמוע") who similarly emphasize the importance of sacrifices to the atonement process.
  • According to each, how do sacrifices aid one to repent and change? Would they, too, agree that prayer would be an adequate substitute?
  • Now, compare Ralbag on Bereshit 9:13, focusing on the first few lines of the paragraph that begins, "ונאמר שכבר יֵרָאֶה שבענין הקרבנות".
  • What does he suggest is one of the most important functions of sacrifices? As such, how might they be viewed as a continuation of the revelation at Sinai? Why might they be considered a pillar of the world? Would prayer accomplish the same?
  • [For other understandings of the significance of the sacrificial system, see Purpose of the Sacrifices.]

4. Midrash Shemuel

  • Let's now return to our Mishna to see a second understanding of Shimon HaTzaddik's words. Look at Midrash Shemuel, from the second paragraph, "ואפשר עוד שרמז לנו" until "ועל גמילות חסדים".
  • How does he define "עבודה"? How does he define Torah?
  • Now, scroll down within Midrash Shemuel (to the second to last paragraph, and begin with the words, "א"נ הכל מדבר בתורה") to see the opinion cited of R. Matityahu Yitzhari. How does this opinion compare?
  • According to each, what is the relationship between the three pillars mentioned? What might this suggest about the relative value of study, belief, and deeds?

5. Rambam and Objections

  • Let's now look at Rambam's explanation of the Mishna. According to him, each of תורה, עבודה, וגמילות חסדים stands for a broader concept. What does he suggest each represents?
  • R. Shimon b. Tzemach Duran questions his reading. Scroll down to the middle of the last paragraph of his commentary, and scan from the words "ורבינו משה ז״ל פי'" until "משאר המדות". [Cf. Abarbanel who is a bit more explicit.]
  • Which two of Rambam's identifications does Rashbatz question? On what grounds?
  • What third more general objection does he raise? What does he mean when he writes, "אין זה סיבת קיום העולם כי אם שלימות האיש"?

6. Rambam's Response

  • How might Rambam respond to Rashbatz'sS objections?
  • Why might sacrifices have been chosen to symbolize all 613 precepts? Would it have been problematic to suggest that the word "עבודה" itself simply refers to the entire corpus of commandments?
  • To what extent do acts of kindness serve as the primary measure of a virtuous character? Do you agree with Rashbatz that it is problematic to identify the two?
  • Finally, why might Rambam view the various means to self-perfection as being equivalent to the pillars which sustain the world?

7. Search: עבודה

  • So far, we have seen three understandings of "עבודה", each more expansive than the previous one: (a) sacrifices, (b) mitzvot between man and His creator, and (c) complete mitzvah observance. Which of these meanings is best supported by the word's usage in the Mishnaic period?
  • Highlight the word "העבודה" in the Mishna and choose Search from the drop down. In the tree menu to the right of the search results, click on "משנה ותוספתא" to skip to those results. What does a quick scan reveal?
  • Now input עבד in the search field to see other forms of the root as well, and skip to the results from Mishna Kilayim. What does the root "עבד" mean in these sources? What type of work is referred to?
  • How might this more secular meaning be applied to our Mishna?

8. Contributing to Society

  • A search reveals that the word "עבודה" generally refers to cultic service rather than general observance. However, the root "עבד" also often takes the common connotation of labor, referring to working the land and the like.
  • If one adopts this meaning, what is the Mishna advocating? How would its message compare to Rabban Gamliel's advice in Avot 2:2?
  • What do you think should be the proper balance between learning Torah, earning a livelihood (or, perhaps contributing to society at large), and giving to the other?
  • Which of the various explanations of Shimon HaTzaddik's words discussed above appeals most to you? Which do you think was his original intent?

9. "על הדין, על האמת, ועל השלום"

  • Let's now turn to our second Mishna, Avot 1:18, to explore R. Shimon ben Gamliel's three pillars. .
  • How would you define each of דין, אמת, ושלום? What is the relationship between them?
  • What does Midrash Shemuel suggest? [Scroll several paragraphs down, and scan the passage beginning,ואפשר עוד ששלשתם הם מענין הדין באופן זה" ".]
  • According to Midrash Shemuel, the entire Mishna speaks of the judicial process. How so? At whom is each of the three pillars, judgment, truth, and peace, directed?

10. Abarbanel

  • Let's compare the reading of Midrash Shemuel with that of his predecessor, Abarbanel. Look at the third paragraph of his commentary, Nachalat Avot, which begins, "ואיפשר עוד לפרש".
  • Abarbanel agrees that the Mishna speaks only of judicial proceedings, but he suggests that it is aimed entirely at the judge.
  • He explains that a judge must sometimes judge according to the law, sometimes according to the truth, and sometimes according to peace. What does he suggest is the difference between these types of judgment?
  • Do you agree that, at times, one has the right to judge not in accordance with the strict law?
  • When should a desire for peace trump a desire for truth or strict justice? Are compromises always fair?

11. Meiri

  • R. Menachem HaMeiri offers yet a third reading of the Mishna. He discusses the Mishna in his comments to Avot 1:2. Scroll towards the end, and scan from the sentence beginning, "אבל מה שאמרו על ג' דברים העולם קיים".
  • What does the Meiri suggest is the common denominator between judgment, truth, and peace? Are they all relevant only within a court setting?
  • According to the Meiri, each of these things serves to promote peace in society. How is this accomplished?
  • Which of the above three readings of the Mishna do you find most compelling? Why?

12. A Comparison

  • Let's close our study by exploring the relationship between the two Mishnayot.
  • What leads the two sages to disagree regarding what is most fundamental for the world's existence? How can R. Shimon b. Gamliel dispute the words of an earlier sage?
  • Several commentators suggest that really there is no dispute between the sages, for the three things mentioned by each are not meant to accomplish the same goal.
  • Compare the wording of the two Mishnayot. What is the difference in meaning between "עומד" and "קיים"?
  • See R. Ovadiah of Bartenura on the relevant line in each Mishna. According to him, about what is Shimon HaTzaddik speaking? What, in contrast, are R. Shimon b. Gamliel's three pillars meant to accomplish?

13. Sages: Lives and Times

  • R. Ovadiah of Bartenura suggests that Shimon HaTzaddik focuses on the purpose of the world's creation (that mankind learn Torah, serve God, and engage in acts of kindness), while R. Shimon b. Gamliel moves to the next stage, explaining what society needs to function properly.
  • It is also possible, though, that the different perspectives of Shimon HaTzaddik and R. Shimon relate to the reality of their lives and time period.
  • Highlight the words "שמעון הצדיק" in the second Mishna and from the drop down, choose Search. Scan several of the results; what do they teach you about who Shimon HaTzaddik was and when he lived?
  • It is unclear which R. Shimon b. Gamliel is referred to in Avot 1:18. Is he the same Rabbi Shimon mentioned in Avot 1:17 who lived in the years immediately preceding the destruction of the Mikdash, or is he his descendant, who lived a couple of generations afterwards? [Compare Meiri and Abarbanel on the Mishna]. Note that both R. Shimons were the heads of the Sanhedrin.

14. Autobiographical Influences

  • How might Shimon HaTzaddik and R. Shimon b. Gamliel's distinct positions, priest and head of the Sanhedrin respectively, have impacted what each sage deemed necessary for the world's survival?
  • How might the attributes chosen by each sage have been impacted by their time period?
  • What challenges did the Jewish community face during the Greek period? How might Shimon HaTzaddik's words serve as an antidote to the dangers of Hellenism?
  • How might the fact that the destruction of the Mikdash was preceded by a period of intense civil strife have influenced R. Shimon b. Gamliel to highlight the need for judgment, truth, and peace? What might the Meiri, discussed above, suggest?

15. Summary

  • Together we examined several understandings of each of Shimon HaTzaddik and R. Shimon b. Gamliel's words, exploring which deeds and values each thinks are crucial for the world to exist.
  • In explaining Shimon HaTzaddik's three pillars, commentators debate the meaning of "עבודה", understanding it to refer to either the sacrificial system, mitzvot between man and his Creator, observance of all mitzvot, or simply labor.
  • According to R. Yonah, Shimon HaTzaddik is stressing that facilitating change and atonement (sacrifices) is just as essential to the world as Torah or kindness. Midrash Shemuel, in contrast, presents him as highlighting the need to balance Torah study and deeds, be these actions aimed at Hashem (עבודה) or one's fellow man (חסד). Alternatively, Shimon HaTzaddik might be advocating dividing one's time between sacred and profane, between Torah study, earning a livelihood (or engaging in "תיקון עולם") and giving to the other.
  • In contrast to Shimon HaTzaddik, R. Shimon b. Gamliel points to "דין, אמת, ושלום", understood by Abarbanel to refer exclusively to the realm of judicial proceedings. Judges must know when to judge according to strict law, when to make exceptions, and when to compromise. Meiri, alternatively, suggests that R. Shimon is highlighting how crucial peaceful relations are for the proper functioning of society, noting the importance of justice and truth-telling in attaining this.
  • The different pillars chosen by each sage might relate to their lives and times.
  • Shimon HaTzaddik, a high priest combatting Hellenism, focuses on Torah study, cultic worship or observance, and thinking of the other as the antidotes to Greek values. R. Shimon b. Gamliel, head of the Sanhedrin and living in a period marked by intense internal discord, instead highlights the need for proper judicial procedure, noting how this promotes peace.

16. Additional Reading