R. Pinchas b. Yair said: Study of Torah leads to caution; caution leads to diligence; diligence leads to cleanliness; cleanliness leads to restraint; restraint leads to purity; purity leads to piety; piety leads to humility; humility leads to fear of sin; fear of sin leads to holiness; holiness leads to divine inspiration; divine inspiration leads to resurrection of the dead. And piety is the greatest of them all, as it says, Then You spoke in a vision to your pious ones (Psalm 89:20). This differs from R. Yehoshua b. Levi, who said, “The spirit of God is upon me, for God has anointed me to bring tidings to the humble ones (Isaiah 61:1). It does not say ‘pious ones’ but rather ‘humble ones.’ Thus you learned that humility is the greatest of all of them.”
This baraita (a teaching from the first or second century), attributed to R. Pinchas b. Yair, is reminiscent of the favorite Passover song, Chad Gadya, which outlines a cascade of disastrous events that comes to a halt when God abolishes death. (Please note: you are obligated to read the next sentence in one breath.) The came the Holy One, Blessed is God, and slew the Angel of Death who killed the slaughterer who slaughtered the ox that drank the water that quenched the fire that burned the stick that beat the dog that bit the cat that ate the kid my father bought for two zuzim. The events in Chad Gadya, however, are not linked causally.
A closer analogy comes to us from Rabbi Yoda, who taught: “Fear is the path to the dark side. Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.” (View his shiur here.) The thinking behind Yoda’s teaching is that one emotion leads to another in a logical chain of causality. The Talmud offers us a causal chain in which the nodes are middot (religious character attributes and the behaviors they imply). R. Pinchas b. Yair explains that cultivating in ourselves specific qualities or characteristics leads to the development of others in a chain that leads, ultimately, to resurrection when the messiah comes.
The context for R. Pinchas b. Yair’s teaching is a mishnah concerning what objects one may craft and sell to idolaters knowing that they might use them in idolatrous worship. This segues to a discussion of the threat that beautiful idolatrous women present to righteous men. For the Rabbis, this marked the intersection of the two most dangerous pulls away from Torah: idolatry and women. The Sages explain, You shall keep away from every evil thing (Deuteronomy 23:10) to mean that one should avoid any daytime thoughts that might give rise to tum’ah (impurity) during the nighttime. In other words, sexual thoughts. R. Pinchas b. Yair explains how it works.
R. Pinchas offers a causal chain—like a ladder with 11 rungs—beginning with caution and ending with resurrection of the dead. He tells us that mastering one attribute paves the way for one to acquire the next, and so on. The final two rungs, divine inspiration and resurrection, are surprising. Can one develop the gift of prophecy in oneself, or is this a gift from God? Why is resurrection the highest rung, given that it is not even an attribute to master and what is more, everyone will be resurrected in order to face final judgment at the end of time? Perhaps R. Pinchas means that at the time of resurrection, the one who has mastered the aforementioned qualities will merit a far greater reward in olam ha-ba (world-to-come). Some commentators interpret the Gemara to mean that one who climbs higher than even divine inspiration—a gift reserved for prophets—will gain the power to resurrect the dead, an accomplishment achieved only by Elijah and Elisha. A more metaphorical interpretation is that one who reaches such an exalted spiritual level will inspire others to turn away from evil and onto the path of righteousness, thereby “resurrecting” them from spiritual death.
The attributes in R. Pinchas b. Yair’s teaching have become the focus of Musar (the teaching and practice of Jewish Ethics) and interpreted both concretely and metaphorically. For example, R. Mendel of Satanov, in Cheshbon ha-Nefesh (“Accounting of the Soul”), includes four of the first nine (cleanliness, humility, diligence, and restraint) among his list of thirteen essential soul-traits. The first nine attributes are the organizing principle of R. Moses Chaim Luzzatto’s classical work of Musar, Mesillat Yesharim (“The Path of the Righteous”).
The baraita concludes with a disagreement, first suggesting that despite the ordering, piety is the highest attribute. R. Yehoshua b. Levi, however, holds that humility trumps even piety in the divine hierarchy of religious attributes.
QUESTIONS TO CONSIDER AND DISCUSS
- Reflect on the causal order of R. Pinchas b. Yair’s teaching. Do you agree with it? How would you order the elements in R. Pinchas’ list and how do you see the relationships between the elements? For example, I’d be inclined to view the elements in Yoda’s formulation differently: suffering leads to fear (pain and powerlessness beget fear); fear leads to anger (powerlessness and fear beget resentment); anger leads to hate (born of a desire to cast blame for one’s suffering). Hence suffering can provide entry to evil in the absence of an empathetic response and compassionate care. What is your view?
- How important is R. Yair’s order? Is it possible that the Rabbis present R. Pinchas b. Yair’s teaching not as absolute truth, but rather to inspire thought and conversation, in the hope that we can identify in ourselves the attributes that need further development and might give rise in us to other attributes? Or is the order important, and why?
- Do you agree with the baraita that piety is the highest attribute, or with R. Yehoshua b. Levi that humility is the greatest quality? Which middah you believe to be the most important, and why?