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Moshe Kline

The Art of Writing

The Oral Tradition

Leo Strauss,
The Maharal of Prague
and Rabbi Judah The Prince

       ...No one can so well understand a thing and make it his own when he learns it from another as when he discovers it for himself.

Descartes, Discourse on Method

       ...An author who wishes to address only thoughtful men has but to write in such a way that only a very careful reader can detect the meaning of his book.

       ...Writing between the lines. This expression is clearly metaphoric. Any attempt to express its meaning in unmetaphoric language would lead to the discovery of a terra incognita, a field whose very dimensions are as yet unexplored and which offers ample scope for highly intriguing and even important investigations.

Leo Strauss, Persecution and the Art of Writing


       Level 1: The chronological shell

       Level 2: The static rule

       Level 3: The dynamic rule: extension

       Level 4: Wisdom

       Level 5: Empowerment


The Maharal of Prague (Rabbi Judah Loew) viewed the Mishnah as a composition rather than a collection. He did not use such terminology, of course, but this view is clearly implicit in his explanation of how the various parts of the text are related. His most convincing arguments are based on the structure of the list of "Pairs" in the first chapter of Avot, a list which appears to be chronological and historical. In his unique commentary Derekh Hayyim, he demonstrates that this passage must, in fact, be read as a literary and philosophical composition. Perhaps because of the obscurity of the Maharal's language and the complexity of his ideas, the implications of his reading have not yet been fully appreciated. With this article, I hope to clarify the significance of the Maharal's findings and to begin a reappraisal of the approach they entail.

In his discussion of the Pairs passage, the Maharal describes three levels of order. He also implies that there is a fourth level, though he does not describe it explicitly. Later, I will argue that one can even speak of a fifth level. But first let us consider the Maharal's argument.


Level one: The chronological shell

From Pirkei Avot Chapter 1

(1) Moses received the Law at Sinai and handed it down to Joshua, and Joshua to the Elders, and the Elders to the Prophets, and the Prophets to the men of the Great Assembly.
They said three things:
be deliberate in judgement,
raise up many disciples,
[and] make a fence around the Law. 

(2) Simon the Just was one of the last survivors of the Great Assembly. 
He used to say, 
Upon three things is the world based: 
upon the Law, 
upon worship, 
and upon the practice of charity. 

(3) Antigonos of Sokho received the tradition from Simon the Just. 
He used to say, 
Be not like slaves who serve their master for the sake of a reward 
but rather like those who serve their master without hope of a reward; 
and let the fear of heaven be upon you. 

Tractate Avot begins with a description of the transmission of the Torah from one generation to the next through the leaders of each generation: from Moses to Joshua to the Elders to the Prophets to the men of the Great Assembly. Starting with the men of the Great Assembly, the text cites a series of aphorisms, one in their name and one in the name of each of the authorities introduced thereafter, spanning a period of five generations. Two personalities are mentioned as receiving the Torah in each generation, giving us a total of five Pairs, until the culmination of the Second-Temple period with the last of the Pairs: Hillel and Shammai. We thus have ten statements reported in the names of the five Pairs. These ten aphorisms make up the literary-philosophical construct described by the Maharal.

The Pairs, Avot ch.1, According To The Maharal Of Prague


The Five Pairs Text

From The Maharal's Commentary 

...The counsel (mussar) of each Pair adds to that of the previous Pair. 

"One based his admonition on love and the other on fear"


 (4) Yose ben Yoezer of Zereda
 and Yose ben Yohanan of Jerusalem
received tradition from them

For the first Pair ordained correct behavior in regard to those members of one's household to whom he is most closely related 


Yose ben Yoezer said: Let your house be a meeting place for the wise; sit in the dust of their feet, and drink in their words thirstily 


(5) Yose ben Yohanan of Jerusalem said: Let your house be open wide; let the needy be part of your household. Do not speak too much with women. They said this of one's own wife; how much more is it true of another man's wife. Hence the Sages said: When a man speaks too much with women he brings evil upon himself, neglects the study of the Law and in the end will come to perdition. 


(6) Joshua ben Perahia and Nittai the Arbelite 
received tradition from them

After this, the second Pair ordained behavior toward one's teacher, friends and neighbors, who are more distant but still close to one 


Joshua ben Perahia said: Get yourself a teacher,acquire a comrade, and give the benefit of the doubt. 


(7) Nittai the Arbelite said: Stay away from an evil neighbor, do not associate with the wicked, and do not despair of retribution. 


(8) Judah ben Tabbai and Simon ben Shetah 
received tradition from them. 

Then the third Pair ordained behavior toward those one judges and leads, for they are yet more distant. 


Judah ben Tabbai said: Act not the part of counsel; while the litigants stand before you, regard them as guilty, but as they leave, regard them as innocent, for they have accepted the verdict. 


(9) Simon ben Shetah said: Examine the witnesses thoroughly, and watch your words, lest they learn from them to lie. 


(10) Shemaia and Avtalion 
received tradition from them. 

And after that, the fourth Pair spoke of the behavior of one who gives orders, who is even further removed, for being over the others he is set apart from them.... 


Shemaia said: Love labor, hate domination, and do not make yourself known to the ruling powers. 


(11) Avtalion said: Sages, watch your words, lest you incur the penalty of exile, and be banished to a place of evil waters, and the disciples that follow you drink and die, and the Heavenly Name be profaned. 


(12) Hillel and Shammai 
received tradition from them. 

Finally, the fifth Pair ordained correct behavior in regard to all men, that the bond of peace be not broken; for there is no greater order than that of the world as a whole. 


Hillel said: Be of the students of Aaron, loving peace, pursuing peace, loving one's fellowmen and drawing them close to the Torah. (13) He also said: He who invokes the Name will lose his name; he who adds not will be taken away; he who studies not deserves death; and he who makes use of the Crown will soon be gone. (14) He also said: If I am not for myself, who will be for me; and if I am only for myself, what am I; and if not now, when? 


(15) Shammai said: Make regular your [study of the] Torah; say little and do much; and greet everyone cheerfully. 

The Pairs passage comprises a literary unit with clear principles of organization. The most obvious is that the Pairs are presented in chronological order: each Pair "received tradition" from the previous one. This simple observation permits two different approaches to the text. On the one hand, it could be maintained that the content of the statements is not related to the chronological sequence. This is the way the text is usually read. On the other hand, one could take the approach of the Maharal, looking for the connection between the content of each statement and its place in the sequence. This reading implies that the text was arranged so as to reflect a meaningful rather than chance relationship among the aphorisms. The Maharal's comprehensive, or contextual, reading does not necessarily conflict with the more narrowly focused reading that takes each statement on its own terms. The Maharal, too, is certainly concerned with the spiritual and philosophical views of each of the speakers. But he adds two levels of possible signification. First, he relates the content of a given statement to a specific historical stage. Second, the broader overview adds its own level of meaning: the "forest" rather than just the "trees".

The Maharal demonstrates two interrelated rules of organization or conceptual elements in the structure of the Pairs passage. One is dynamic and the other static. The first relates to the flow from Pair to Pair and parallels the historical progression defined by the editor. I refer to this as a dynamic rule because it defines the movement from one Pair to the next. The static rule points to a fixed relationship between the members of each Pair.


Level two: The static rule

We know from the Mishnah itself (Hagigah 2) that each of the Pairs was comprised of the two highest officials of its generation, those who bore the titles nasi, President, and av beit din, Chief Justice. The order of the appearance of the two is consistent: in each of the five Pairs, the President precedes the Chief Justice. The first of the conceptual principles described by the Maharal relates to a uniform distinction between the content of the statements of the President and those of the Chief Justice.

You must know that the first, Yose ben Yoezer, was the President and [the second,] Yose ben Yohanan, was the Chief Justice. Now the presidency is exalted, and one whom the Lord has exalted and glorified will love the Lord for the exaltation bestowed upon him and will serve Him out of love, for he must be thankful for the goodness done to him, and therefore his instruction concerns the love of the Lord. The Chief Justice, as is implied by his title, is responsible for justice, and his instruction is connected with fear. For insofar as his characteristic quality is justice, it is based on fear. For it is stated of Isaac, whose chief attribute was justice, "The fear of Isaac filled me" (Gen. 31). For litigants are afraid of seeming to show insufficient respect [for the court]. And so the Chief Justice's admonitions concern fear.

Each of the Pairs has a common frame of reference, with positive and negative aspects. Within this frame, the first statement emphasizes the positive and the second the negative. In the Maharal's terms, the President speaks from the viewpoint of love, ahavah, and the Chief Justice from the viewpoint of fear or awe, yirah. This is consistent with the traditional difference in character between Hillel and Shammai. Hillel, the President, is considered to have been lenient and forthcoming, as opposed to Shammai, the Chief Justice, who is known to have been strict and aloof. As the Maharal points out, the text implies that this difference may have been one of role rather than of personality. In each of the five cases, the President, as we would expect from Hillel, is more positive and lenient than the Chief Justice, who like Shammai, comes across as stricter or more preoccupied with the negative. In some of the Pairs this distinction is quite obvious. For example, it is the President who asserts in positive terms, "Acquire a comrade," whereas the Chief Justice confines himself to the negative injunction, "Do not associate with the wicked". In the following table I have selected the elements in each Pair that illustrate the distinction made by the Maharal.

Distinctions Between Love and Fear 
In the Aphorisms of the President and Chief Justice







Chief Justice


drink in their words thirstily

do not speak too much with women


acquire a comrade

do not associate with the wicked


regard them as innocent

watch...lest they learn to lie


love labor

watch...lest... the Heavenly Name be profaned


loving peace...loving fellow men

say little

Following traditional interpretive methods, the Maharal stresses the consistent relation between attitude and role in the Pairs. Literary analysis corroborates this insight. While a full analysis of all the literary techniques employed by the editor/author is beyond the scope of this article, I will give one example now of how such an analysis would lead to conclusions like those of the Maharal. Each Chief Justice except Nitai the Arbelite indicates that one should limit one's speech: "Do not speak too much," "Say little," "Watch your words". This finding is consistent with the Maharal's concept of yir'ah, fear or awe, which implies a negation or limitation:

You must understand that the difference between love and fear is that love causes one to perform the positive commandments from his love of the Lord and His commandments, while fear prevents one from sinning. For one who fears another will fear transgressing against him, hence [one who fears God] is said to be a fearer of sin. This is what Maimonides writes, in his (commentary on) the first chapter, concerning Antigonos' saying "and let the fear of heaven be upon you": "This commandment, concerning fear, appears in the Torah: `Fear the Lord your God;' and the Sages say, `Serve out of love, serve out of fear;' and they state further, `One who loves will not forget to do what he should do, and one who fears will not do what he has been warned not to do.' For fear plays an important role in prohibitions." It should thus be clear that the things we should do depend on love, while those that are forbidden depend on fear. That is why you will find that the President admonishes us concerning things that should be done and the Chief Justice concerning things that should not.


Level three: The dynamic rule: extension

The basic structural unit in our text is a Pair. Insofar as it is a Pair, the two members must have something in common. And since they are two distinct elements they must also differ. As we have seen, the elements of all the Pairs differ in the same way, thus obeying the static rule. We must now examine each Pair in order to define what its members have in common. The editor/author has left no doubt as to the common element in the first Pair. Both statements begin with the identical phrase "Let your home be," thereby unmistakably defining the home as the common frame of reference. The home provides the origin or baseline for a conceptual process parallel to the chronological order.

The Maharal points out that each succeeding Pair "adds" to the previous one and expands on its statements. By "adds" he means, he tells us, that the social framework widens from Pair to Pair. While the first Pair confines itself to actions within the home, the second Pair expands the circle, going out of the home to deal with close personal contacts such as friends, neighbors and teachers. While the second Pair, like the first, deals with private, individual matters, the third Pair moves into a more formal area, the court of law. The Maharal describes this as yet "further" from the initial privacy of the home. The fourth Pair addresses itself to men of power, the leaders of society. The progression from the home to the halls of power is quite clear and convincing through the first four Pairs. The fifth Pair, the Maharal emphasizes, is the most inclusive of all in the reach of its statements. Hillel refers to Aaron the Peacemaker, who as high priest embodied an all-embracing social consciousness. Shammai, too, speaks of relating to humanity as a whole: "Greet everyone cheerfully." There is thus a complete progression: from the total privacy of the individual home to an overview of society. The Maharal refers to this movement from Pair to Pair as "extension," hitpashtut.

What does the Maharal's description of the dynamic flow from Pair to Pair add to our understanding of the text? On the aesthetic level, his analysis is striking in its elegance. He has made one of the many, a whole of the parts. He has found a progression in the inner meaning of the text which runs parallel to the outward historical progression (the transmission of the Torah from generation to generation) it describes. We are now confronted with two parallel processes which share only the sense of progression: the transfer of knowledge from the leaders of one generation to those of the next, and circles of social concern that expand steadily outward.

It is clear that we are dealing with an extraordinarily complex composition. In light of the clear rules of organization which we have seen so far, it is impossible to view our text as a chance collection or historical accretion. Someone put a great deal of effort into constructing this literary document.


Level four: Wisdom

The Maharal repeatedly refers to the foregoing principles of organization when speaking of the relationship between the members of each Pair and the flow from pair to pair. There is evidently yet another rule which he found but only hints at, one which differs in kind from the first two. The Maharal alludes to the third rule when he speaks of a gap between the President and the Chief Justice that develops during the period of the second temple. The first Pair start out "close" to each other. The succeeding Pairs draw farther away from each other. The process culminates in the establishment of the separate schools of Hillel and Shammai.

The Maharal, uncharacteristically, does not explain in detail what he means. It sounds as if he were superimposing the first two rules upon each other. From the static rule we learned that the President and the Chief Justice have a fixed relationship stemming from the difference in their roles. But over the course of five generations, as the common subject area broadens, the relationship between the members of each Pair also "broadens" in the sense that they grow apart, polarize. It could be that the matters with which they must deal become increasingly substantial, thereby heightening the differences between their positions. Alternatively, we could speculate that as the roles became more clearly defined over the generations, the individuals who occupy them became more entrenched in their respective role orientations. This line of speculation fits well with the chronological sequence in which the Pairs are presented and would be appropriate for an idealized history of the Second Temple period. Unfortunately, as we shall see, this theory is at best only marginally relevant to the composition before us. As the Maharal might say, this would be an attractive explanation if we read Rabbinic thought as mere speculation. However, the respect due to the sages and their wisdom demands that we look for a deeper level of meaning.

In his discussion of Mishnaic concepts, the Maharal uses the scholastic terminology of his age. I have attempted a modern, literary approach to the text. Close analysis reveals that a subtle device is used to convey the sense of a widening gap between the Pairs. In each of the five Pairs the common frame of reference is expressed differently. For example, in the first Pair there is a simple repetition of the initial phrase. But the devices which point to the common subject change from Pair to Pair, thus creating a progression parallel to the progression described in the dynamic rule. As we will see, the overall effect of this sequence of devices is to create a sense of increasing distance between the members of the Pairs. While this type of analysis may seem at first dry and academic, it eventually leads to a rather surprising conclusion: a reading of the text as an esoteric composition. We will see now how this "rule of literary devices" is derived from the first three Pairs and then utilize it to understand the fourth and fifth.

The statements of the first Pair begin with the identical words "Let your house be". This has two effects. As we have seen, in reference to the second rule, it gives them an absolutely common frame of reference and directs us to seek similar frames of reference in succeeding Pairs. It is also the basis for the Maharal's description of the Pairs as beginning "close" to each other, using the same words. In terms of our modern literary analysis, we can add that their statements are also structurally similar. Both of them have three parts, speak of who should be in the home and, in the third element, relate to conversation: "Drink in their words", "Do not speak too much."

 The Second Pair

Joshua ben Perahia said:
Get yourself a teacher,
acquire a comrade, and
give the benefit of the doubt.

Nittai the Arbelite said:
Keep away from evil neighbors;
do not associate with the wicked; and
do not despair of retribution.

The statements of the second Pair do not share a linguistic element, but structurally they are identical. Each statement has three parts. The first two point to close personal contacts and have the root ch-b-r in common in the second element. The third part of each of their statements speaks of a general attitude rather than a specific relationship. It is clear that the two statements have been cast in the same mold, even though they do not share the same language, as did the first Pair. However, since they do not have an explicit common element, they can be described as "farther apart," in line with the Maharal's observation.

 The Third Pair

Judah ben Tabbai said:
Act not the part of counsel;
when the litigants stand before you
regard them as guilty,
but as they leave, regard them as innocent,
for they have accepted the verdict.

Simon ben Shetah said:
Examine the witnesses thoroughly,
and watch your words,
lest they learn to lie from them.

The statements of the third Pair have neither a linguistic nor a structural common denominator. It is clear from their contents that both statements are addressed to a sitting judge. While the statements have diverged in form, they are still close in substance. Each of the first three Pairs indicates its common subject in a different way. I will summarize this point in the following table.

Parallels Within The First Three Pairs


Literary Device 

Degree of Parallel


a. identical language 
b. identical structure (three parts) 



a. similar language 
b. identical structure (three parts) 

very precise 


obviously similar subject 


In our terms, we have seen three different types of textual parallels in the first three Pairs. In the Maharal's terms, the Pairs grow farther apart, the differences between them more pronounced. Evidently, he is speaking in terms not of content but of form. Both speakers in the third Pair are quite clearly addressing the same audience. Their common subject is even clearer than that of the second Pair. Only when we analyze the devices utilized to define the common frame of reference in each Pair, does it become apparent that it is the devices themselves that are logically ordered. The similarity in the first two Pairs is based on structural and linguistic parallels. These are elements of style and can be thought of as extrinsic to the content. The statements of the third Pair have no common structure or linguistic element to tie them together, but there is an intrinsic parallel in their content. We began with an obvious linguistic parallel and have been drawn more and more into the content of the statements in order to see what they have in common. Of course we have read the statements of only three Pairs and can not draw substantive conclusions at this point. Still, we have already seen a degree of literary sophistication in the overall scheme which demands that we be prepared to follow wherever the text may lead. It seems to be leading to the conclusion that analysis of the structure reveals additional layers of meaning. This observation is at the core of the third rule. Before analyzing the literary device employed in the fourth Pair, I would like to underline this link between form and content by means of a short digression concerning the names of the Pairs.

The Names of The Pairs


Yose ben Yoezer of Zeredah and Yose ben Yohanan of Jerusalem 

Joshua ben Perahia and Nittai the Arbelite 

Judah ben Tabbai and Simon ben Shetah 

Shemaia and Avtalion 

Hillel and Shammai

There is a dynamic flow in the names of the Pairs which runs parallel to the chronological and conceptual flow. Through the five generations, the names a process of simplification. In the first Pair, both of the names have a three-part form: first name, father's name, place of origin. Both start with the same first name, Yose, just as their statements begin with the same words. Both have a place delimiter, as does the content of the statements, the home. In the third Pair, the names are in the standard form of "A ben B." In terms of the structure of their statements, the second Pair is closer to the first than the third. However, the form of the names indicates an intermediate position between the other Pairs. Like the third Pair, one, Joshua ben Perahia, is in the standard form. Like the first Pair one has a place delimiter, "the Arbelite." Looking forward to the fourth and fifth Pairs, we see that they are introduced only by their first names. Since the names of the fifth Pair are shorter than those of the fourth Pair, we can infer a process of "simplification" from generation to generation. In Hebrew, we could use the word hitpastut to describe the process. This is the word used by the Maharal to describe the conceptual flow of expanding social circles. The same word is used for seemingly opposite processes, expansion and contraction (literally: simplification or undressing). This is more than just a linguistic curiosity. We are about to see that the interdependence of these concepts is an essential feature of our text.

We will now examine the literary device employed in the fourth Pair. It requires the application of a lemma of the second rule. The lemma can be described as follows. Each of the expanding social circles is associated with a social role. The range of the first Pair is the home, and the role is that of householder. In the third Pair the range is that of law or formal relations, and the role is that of judge. There is an inverse relationship between the size of the sphere of influence and the number of people in the role. Householders are much more common than judges, but their individual influence is less than that of a judge. This inverse relationship is the lemma, and it will lead us to the role associated with the fourth Pair.

While we have had no difficulty in identifying the roles associated with the first and third Pairs, the second is less clear. If, as in the first Pair, we derive the role from the common linguistic element, we can identify it as that of the chaver or comrade. This role typifies the types of interpersonal relationships considered in the first elements of the second Pair. The word chaver is also the formal title of a student; he is a "member" of the academy. After him comes the judge, the subject of the statements of the third Pair. We see that the social circles of the second rule may imply an academic pyramid:



















Householder or Layman 

We have jumped from the "social circles" pattern to one which is defined in terms of academic standing. This could imply that the basic standard for social groupings is an academic standard or that the text forces a quantum jump, a new level of differentiation between the Pairs. Now comes the point of internal verification. All of the statements of the Pairs are imperatives. The speakers in the third Pair are not describing an abstract theory of justice. They are giving advice to judges. They and all the other Pairs are directly addressing specific role requirements. The subjects being addressed are those we identified in the academic pyramid. Therefore we were justified in making the jump from the "social circles" theory. In fact, the academic pyramid is a closer representation of the text, because it acknowledges that different types of roles are being addressed by each Pair. Part of the artifice of the text, in fact, is the direction of each set of aphorisms to a different audience. Actually, the line between artifice and substance is no longer clear. Now we will consider how the academic pyramid is connected to the progression of literary devices.

We found that a literary device was used to define the common subject of each Pair's statements and that each Pair addresses a specific role. Each of the devices is suited to the role being addressed. The layman is the least sophisticated and must be addressed with statements that are literally identical, "Let your house be", in order to grasp that both members of the Pair are speaking about the same subject. The student or "comrade" is more advanced and, as his title implies, deals with connections, chibbur. He is equipped to appreciate the more subtle device used by the second Pair. The judge is told to examine carefully what the witnesses say. He involves himself with content. The first two stages are similar in that they utilize superficial similarities to establish the common element in the respective Pairs. The Judge is limited to the testimony of the witness, the content of his statements. Superficial resemblances have no significance for him. From this reading of the link between the type of literary device and the role, we are prepared to predict some things about the fourth Pair. First of all we are looking for a role on a higher level than that of the Judge of the third Pair. Secondly, we are looking for a literary device which goes beyond the content of the two aphorisms.

 The Fourth Pair

Shemaia said:
Love labor,
hate domination,
and do not make yourself known
to the ruling powers.

Avtalion said:
Sages, watch your words,
lest you incur the penalty of exile,
and be banished
to a place of evil waters,
and the disciples who follow you
drink and die,
and the Heavenly Name be profaned.

The editor has left no room for doubt as to who is next up the ladder from the judge. Avtalion's statement is addressed directly to the sages. Proof that the next category is in fact the Sages appears in Shemaia's statement. It is also the solution to a textual problem. He says, s'na et harabanut, which can be taken literally to mean "hate authority." But Shemaia is hardly likely to be telling the average citizen to rebel. If, however, he is addressing the Sages (or those who could become such), his admonition makes sense: "Those of you who have been chosen to lead must commit yourselves to the task--`love labor'-and not become enamored of the perquisites of the role--`hate domination.'" There can be no doubt that both members of the fourth Pair address themselves to leaders. And yet it is virtually impossible to reach this conclusion without going through the process of analyzing the previous statements and abstracting the dynamic rule.

The key element in identifying the role addressed by the fourth Pair is the literal appearance of the term "Sages". But this is not the point of departure for an analysis of the statements of the fourth Pair; it is, rather, the fulfillment of a prediction. From observing the process that begins to unfold in the first three Pairs, it is possible to predict that the fourth Pair would speak to those higher up the academic pyramid than judges, and sages exactly fit the expectations. Literally, "a word to the wise is sufficient," if the word is "the wise"! The parallel in the fourth Pair is predicated upon the fact that the reader comes to the text prepared by the dynamic rule which has developed over the first three Pairs. Once he/she spots the opening, "Sages", he/she knows that the pyramid theory is valid.

The device employed by the fourth Pair is not limited to the content of their statements, as was that of the third Pair. This new literary device requires the reader to be "wise" and integrate the content of the statements of the fourth Pair into the rule determined by the first three Pairs. The fourth Pair demands that the reader be aware of the previous Pairs. It dictates his/her active participation on a level beyond that of the isolated parts of the text, the level of a comprehensive overview. In terms of the progression of literary devices, the Sage transcends the limitations imposed upon the Judge who was directed to the evidence of the witnesses, the Pair who stood before him. As a Judge he could clearly determine that their statements supported each other and were ato a judge. The Sage does not limit his judgement to the evidence presented to him in the testimony of the fourth Pair. He is wise because he integrates their statements within the context of all that preceded them. The device is his inclusive reading of the text.

It is no longer sufficient to say that each Pair independently addresses a particular role. The fourth Pair requires the context of the first three Pairs in order to be comprehensible to its subject. This fact has implications regarding the authorship of the text. It demonstrates that if we read our text as a mere collection, Shemaia's and Avtalion's statements must be seen as having been made in the context of an earlier collection which included the statements of the previous three Pairs! We must concede that we are reading a text written by one hand. Pirkei Avot is redefining itself. From a collection of aphorisms has emerged a text which admits that it is not what it appears to be. This revelation takes place in the framework of statements addressed to Sages. The exoteric collection has been replaced by an esoteric composition, one reserved for the initiated, the Sages. I believe that here, too, the text provides internal verification. Avtalion's statement, which otherwise seems inscrutable, begins to make sense if it is read as a warning to those who have begun to probe the esoteric level of the text. The key is in the reading of the word g'lut, dispersion, as g'lot, revealing.

Avtalion's statement has no overt meaning. It is a cryptic metaphor addressed only to those, the Sages, who are capable of deciphering it. I suggest the possibility of reading the warning as if it said "choose your words carefully lest you be forced to reveal [more than you should]...". Not all knowledge can or should be transmitted openly. This reading of Avtalion's statement sheds additional light on part of Shamaia's saying: "do not make yourself known to the ruling powers." The free transmission of certain knowledge is dangerous, both to the teacher, as implied here by Shemaia, and to the student, as stated by Avtalion, "the disciples who follow you (will) drink and die". The image of knowledge as water already appeared in the first pair: "sit in the dust of their feet and drink in their words thirstily." The beginning student, the layman of the first pair, lacks the necessary tools to understand the teacher fully. Nevertheless, because of his "thirst" he may "drink" ideas which he cannot digest. Therefore the teacher must be careful not to expose the unprepared student to ideas that could harm him. While this doctrine may seem inimical to the modern democratic spirit, it was far from uncommon in the classical world. We need only to read our text as the Sages would in order to understand some of the potential danger inherent in the knowledge acquired by them.

We can now see that our text has been crafted to exemplify the dichotomy between exoteric and esoteric knowledge. For seventeen hundred years Jews have been have been delighting in the collected aphorisms of the Sages, the exoteric Pirke Avot. Rabbis and teachers have found inspiration for countless homiletic flights within each of the collected sayings. Yet, from our analysis, the scholar who grasps the text as a whole, the esoteric book, is forced to say that it is a composition, written by one hand, not a collection. Is the scholar free to contradict common wisdom and declare his conclusions in the marketplace? This question is similar to the question our author is addressing through Avtalion. The author has created a vehicle for transmitting esoteric knowledge to the few who can profit from it while keeping it totally hidden from the masses whose faith could be endangered. At the same time, he has created a popular work which can be used by the general public while reserving its treasures for the initiates. The continued popularity of Avot attests to the author's skill.

Following a process demanded by the text, under the instruction of the Maharal, I reached a place where I was convinced that I was reading a composition rather than a collection. This composition is inaccessible until one goes through the process required to reveal it. There can be no doubt that the text reads like a collection, as generations of readers have testified. But once I have seen it as a composition, I no longer agree with the accepted, orthodox, view. By following the internal logic of the text, I have developed a special relationship with the author. I know that the text contains a level of meaning which is available only to the few, which is, in at least one way, diametrically opposed to common sense. This is part of the message being conveyed. The pursuit of wisdom can lead to dangerously unpopular opinions. Socrates is the classical example of the life threatening dangers inherent in philosophy. Avtalion's warning is even more forceful than the example of Socrates because he indicates that the philosopher risks not just his own life but the lives of his students as well.

Our next task is to clarify the progression of devices through the first four Pairs and apply it to the last Pair. We have been following two parallel developments. The first, the revelation of the academic pyramid, was a direct corollary of the Maharal's description of the subject flow from Pair to Pair. Each Pair has a common subject. We found that the subject could be identified with a specific station on the religio-academic pyramid. The second development is the set of literary devices associated with the various levels of the pyramid. We found that the common elements of the first two Pairs were superficial devices. The third Pair depended solely on similar content without an extrinsic device, leading us to say that the content itself was the device. With the fourth Pair we made a quantum jump. The device was no longer within the text of the Pair under investigation. It would remain invisible if the reader were not , wise, if he were not able to abstract the dynamic rule of the first three Pairs and anticipate its application to the fourth Pair. In this sense, the text has become "interactive." Only a participant reader could extract all of the information included in it and receive the feedback of internal verification. At the exact point where the device transcends the limits of the Pair, the text transcends the limits of its exoteric content.

In the Sage we found a theoretician. He read the statements of the first three Pairs, formulated a theory and verified it with the fourth Pair. If we are continuing up an intellectual ladder, we are looking now for one whose achievements go beyond those of the Sage. To continue the image of the pyramid, we are looking for one who stands at the pinnacle, in a class by himself. He is not part of a class of individuals, the occupant of a role, but a singular personality. Such were the members of the fifth Pair, Hillel and Shammai. They transcended the roles of President and Chief Justice to become institutions in their own right: the School of Hillel and the School of Shammai. This development is also consistent with the connection we found between the dynamic rule and its lemma. When we view the Pairs in terms of expanding social circles, expansion reaches its limit when all of society is included. The pyramid of academic types points to a process which is the direct opposite, leading to an inevitable question: who is on top? The asking of this question becomes the literary device of the fifth Pair. At this point the text completely transcends itself. The reader is the device.


Level five: Empowerment

Having successfully completed the analysis required, the student learns that he is being addressed by the author. His proven ability wins him the title "Sage". The fourth Pair addressed Sages; if he understood their message, he himself must be one of them. This awakening is at the heart of the process that we began identifying as the progression of literary devices. They were indeed devices, but different in scope than we might have thought at first. Their function was not simply to acquaint us with the common elements of the Pairs, but to make us aware of the teacher, just out of sight, who whispered encouragement at every small step of progress, finally to reveal himself with the fourth Pair. The last step of the process is the student's self-realization. He recognizes that the author is trying to reach him as a unique individual. The reader has already seen that the text must be viewed as esoteric, written for the few. At the pinnacle of the pyramid stands just one, the reader who has gone this far in his analysis. At the instant when he becomes aware of the question "who is on top", he knows the answer.

Perhaps those coming to the Mishnah already acquainted with the fact that Hillel and Shammai regularly appear together to present opposing views would look for the point of disagreement here too. But only by expanding the dynamic rule of the first four Pairs is it likely that one would know where to look for the question upon which they disagree. In fact, the question we asked-Who is at the top?--is the question that they must be addressing. Hillel answers: "students of Aaron", those who are totally committed to the active pursuit of peace, "loving peace." This is clearly an expansion of the previous President's statement, "Love labor". The ultimate labor is peacemaking. Shammai's answer is more laconic: "Make regular your [study of the] Torah; say little and do much; and greet everyone cheerfully." Like Hillel, Shammai also emphasizes the active life-"do much"-but he does not refer to any specific activity. The two sages also have in common a reference to their fellow men, expressed in Hillel's active love of "fellow-men" and Shammai's passive acceptance of humanity-"Greet everyone cheerfully." But the most striking parallel between them is in fact unspoken. And had we not gone through the process of defining the dynamic rule in the first four Pairs, we would remain ignorant of the fact that just as this rule reaches its epitome with Hillel and Shammai, it disappears. The first four Pairs all deal with clearly defined categories. The individuals are addressed by the Pairs as sharply delimited social types or roles, from "laymen" to "Sages". At the tip of the pyramid there are no more categories, only total socialization as expressed by Hillel and total individualization as seen in Shammai's statement. For Hillel, the ideal is the High Priest who sacrifices his self for his role. The individual becomes totally identified with society: "He who makes use of the Crown will soon be gone". Shammai offers us existential man, one who has internalized all. He needs neither role nor social structure. His statement which I have translated in line with the more traditional commentaries as "Make regular your [study of the] Torah," should in fact be read as "realize your theories", build the world from your understanding. We can easily read the otherwise murky have m'qabbel et kl ha'adm, which in any case carries overtones of Ecclesiastes, as "accept the human situation." The author has created a brilliant parallel between the chronological limit imposed by the fall of the Second Temple, which closed the age of the Pairs, and the conceptual limit imposed by the apex of the pyramid.

Let us summarize the distinction between Hillel and Shammai. They are both dealing with "ultimate" man, one who fully realizes his potential. For Hillel this means selfless service. Total identification with the other. The focus of action is external, social. Shammai appeals to the individual to develop himself from within. They are in fact polar opposites. Only the reader who has successfully prepared the right question can understand the dichotomy they represent. The literary device which points to the similarity between Hillel and Shammai is the reader.
We could continue the literary analysis, pointing out that Hillel's position reflects the inverse pyramid of expanding social circles and Shammai's the pyramid of individualization. We could also note that the two ostensibly opposite senses of hitpastut, expansion and contraction, which we noted earlier in connection with the names of the speakers, are also reflected in the pyramids. However, we have reached the point where individual creativity takes over from strict analysis. The reader has been empowered. He is no longer the student of an ancient tradition but a participant in the process of revelation. With the collapse of the institutions associated with the Temple, a new Man emerges, Rabbinic Man.

I will conclude with another quote from Leo Strauss's Persecution and the Art of Writing:

In Plato's Banquet, Alcibiades-that outspoken son of outspoken Athens-compares Socrates and his speeches to certain sculptures which are very ugly from the outside, but within have most beautiful images of things divine. The works of the great writers of the past are very beautiful even from without. And yet their visible beauty is sheer ugliness, compared with the beauty of those hidden treasures which disclose themselves only after very long, never easy, but always pleasant work. This always difficult but always pleasant work is, I believe, what philosophers had in mind when they recommended education.

No doubt the author of the Mishnah was one of the "great writers of the past."