Shabbat 31: Awe and Fear

By: Rabbi Jay Kelman |

“And now, O Israel, what does the Lord your G-d demand of you but l’yirah, to revere the Lord your G-d, to walk only in His paths, to love Him, and to serve the Lord your G-d with all your heart and soul” (Devarim 10:12). 

There is little, our tradition teaches, that is more important than yirat Hashem, awe[1] of the Creator. Imbued with it, we are only too happy to “submit our will to His will” and to treat our fellow man with the respect, love and care owed to those who contain a spark of the Divine. 

“The beginning of wisdom is the fear of G-d” (Tehillim 111:10). It is only because Shlomo Hamelech, the wisest of men, understood this teaching of his father that the book of Kohelet was allowed entry into the Biblical canon. 

“Rav Yehuda, son of Rav Shmuel bar Sheilat, said in the name of Rav: The Sages sought to bury the book of Kohelet because it is full of contradictions. And why did they not bury it? Because its beginning is words of Torah and its end is words of Torah....Its end consists of matters of Torah, as it is written: ‘The end of the matter, all having been heard: Fear G-d and keep His mitzvot, for this is the whole of man’” (Shabbat 30b). 

It is striking that our Sages included Kohelet in the Biblical canon not because they resolved the contradictions of sefer Kohelet[2]. Rather, the importance of yirat Hashem is so great that emphasizing its importance was enough to allow our Sages to include it as one of the books of Tanach, despite any contradictions it may contain. We can live with contradictions—the Torah is full of them[3]—but without fear of heaven, we have missed the point of life. 

Shlomo Hamelech’s emphasis on awe of heaven not only saved sefer Kohelet from oblivion, it did the same for the book of Mishlei. The Gemara continues, “and even the book of Mishlei they wanted to bury because its words contradict one another”. The Gemara explains that they did not, because “sefer Kohelet, did we not examine it and find good reason [to include it]? So, too, let us examine [the book of Mishlei] [4]”. Once it was established that Shlomo was a “G-d-fearing man”, it was assumed anything he wrote would reflect such. 

The discussion regarding awe of G-d is picked up less than a page later. Reish Lakish wonders: “What is the [additional] meaning of the verse (Yishayahu 33:6): ‘And the faith of your times shall be the strength of salvations, wisdom and knowledge; yirat Hashem hee otzaro, fear of the Lord is his treasure?’” (Shabbat 31a). 

Reish Lakish explains that the verse alludes to the six orders of the Mishna, teaching that as important as mastery of them may be, it is the awe of G-d that serves as the storehouse for this knowledge. Without fear of heaven, knowledge spoils and rots away, serving little purpose. Sadly, knowledge without moral constraints can lead to much destruction. Rava understands the verse as alluding the final day of judgement, i.e., when we die, explaining that our best protection will have been living a life in which we truly were in awe of G-d. 

Linking these two discussions is the exhortation of the Gemara that, “One should always be humble like Hillel and not impatient like Shammai”. By way of example, the Gemara relates how someone wagered 400 zuz—an enormous sum of money, twice the value of a standard ketuba—that he could get Hillel angry. Despite a most “valiant” effort, this “poor” fellow could not get Hillel upset. With great patience, Hillel answered stupid question after stupid question—late on Friday afternoon, no less. 

The Gemara continues with three stories—the middle one amongst the most well known in rabbinic literature—of three potential converts. Each of these converts first approached Shammai, asking, respectively, to be converted even as they reject the Oral Law; while standing on one foot; and on the condition that they could become the high priest. Shammai threw them all out, without nary saying a word. Hillel, on the other hand, engaged them in conversation, eventually converting them. “One day, the three [converts] gathered together in one place, and they said: Shammai’s impatience sought to drive us from the world; Hillel’s humility brought us beneath the wings of the Divine Presence”.

These stories have little to do with the subject matter under discussion and theoretically, could have appeared in many other places in the Talmud—unless one understands that these stories are an illustration of what yirat shamayim is all about. Yirat shamayim begins with humility. To be in awe of the Creator is to recognize His greatness. “Wherever you find the greatness of G-d, there you find His humility” (Megillah 31a). Is it any wonder that the only character trait the Torah tells us about Moshe is that he was humble? Having met G-d face to face, his awe of the Creator was unmatched. 

And what, we may ask, is humility? It is having the utmost patience with people, despite their attempts to drive us crazy. It is the willingness to talk to people on their level, and to spend time with their concerns whatever they may be. After all, if G-d can be patient with us, we can do so with others. It is this approach that will bring others “under the divine presence” and in awe of heaven[5].

The discussion of yirat Elokim takes place within the context of the laws of extinguishing fires on Shabbat. “One who extinguishes the lamp because he is mityareh, afraid, due to gentiles, or due to thieves, or due to [mental] illness, or to help a sick person sleep, is exempt” (Shabbat 29b).

Our halachic discussion begins with the culpability of one who violates the laws of Shabbat because of fear. The fear may be justified—hence, the exemption—but such fear is unfortunate. The aggadic discussion on this Mishna teaches that the ideal type of “fear” is that of awe of heaven—once again demonstrating that halacha and aggadah reflect two complimentary ways of looking at any given issue. 

 

[1] The term yirah is, more often than not, translated as fear. I prefer to use “awe”, which has a much more positive connotation. As Rav Soloveitchik notes, the term for fear is pachad, a phrase we use during the Yamim Noraim, when our lives are hanging in the balance as we pray that G-d “should instill His fear upon all his creatures”.

[2] The Gemara does present and resolve one contradiction—but that comes only after the Sages granted it entry into Tanach due to is final message of yirat Hashem. And Kohelet’s primary claim, hevel havalim, that life is basically meaningless—a claim in direct contradiction to the Biblical claim that life is very good—is left unresolved. 

[3] We acknowledge this fact each and every day, when we recite the 13th of Rabbi Yishmael’s principles of Biblical interpretation. 

[4] Our Sages also contemplated banning Shir Hashirim, the third of the Biblical books attributed to Shlomo Hamelech. Perhaps this near-banning reflects a somewhat ambivalent attitude towards Shlomo. While in many respects, he was amongst our greatest kings, he also violated the basic Torah command given to a king that “he shall not have many wives, lest his heart go astray; nor shall he amass silver and gold to excess” (Devarim 17:17).

[5] Interestingly, the Talmud (Yoma 86a) defines the mitzvah of loving G-d—the flip side of being in awe of Him—as causing others to also love G-d. This, the Gemara explains, is also done through our pleasant interactions with others, especially as related to the realm of one’s business dealings.