Rabbi Nechunya ben Hakanah said: whoever takes upon himself the yoke of Torah — the yoke of government and the yoke of worldly cares are removed from him; but whoever casts off from himself the yoke of Torah — the yoke of government and the yoke of worldly cares are imposed upon him.

Several pressing questions face us in this Mishnah.

(A) Our duty to accept the yoke of the mitzvos is clearly set forth in the tractate Berachos. Since Torah study is even “greater, for it leads to action,” and especially since “the study of Torah is equivalent to them all,” we may therefore deduce, a fortiori, that the yoke of Torah is certainly incumbent on everyone.

With this in mind, it is preposterous to say that here, in the Mishnah of Avos, which deals predominantly with “matters of special piety,” and exemplary conduct, which goes beyond the requirement of the law, and is motivated by the attribute of zealousness, the Tanna would teach us the directive to accept the yoke of Torah! It does not fit in here!

(B) Having found a reason to teach us this lesson here, and wanting to tell us of the quality of the yoke of Torah, could the Tanna not have found a better promise of reward than, “the yoke of government and the yoke of worldly cares are removed from him?” Is this the best evaluation of the worthiness of Torah? What about the reward of the World to Come? What about all the other promises of goodness and reward in store for one who accepts the yoke of Torah?

On the other hand, what are we told about the one who rejects the yoke of Torah? that the “yoke of government and the yoke of worldly cares” will be imposed on him? Is this all the retribution in store for him?

(C) It has often been mentioned that we may find more profound understanding by linking the author of a particular Mishnah to his teaching. This principle should take on an added significance in Pirkei Avos where we learn the Mishnah:

Whoever says a thing in the name of its author brings redemption to the world. (Avos 6:6)

What is the association between Rabbi Nechunya ben Hakanah and the teaching of this Mishnah?

The Gemara relates that Rabbi Nechunya ben Hakanah was a disciple of Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai, as we find in B. Basra:

Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai said to his disciples: “My sons, what is the meaning of the verse, ‘Righteousness exalts a nation, but the kindness of the peoples is sin?’” Rabbi Eliezer answered and said ... Rabbi Yehoshua answered and said ... R. Gamliel answered saying ... Rabbi Nechunya ben Hakanah answered saying....

Moreover, his superior expertise in Torah was so great that Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai said to his disciples:

The answer of Rabbi Nechunya ben Hakanah is superior to my answer and to yours.... (B. Basra 10b)

It is clear that Rabbi Nechunya ben Hakanah’s level of Torah learning was so lofty that it superseded the knowledge of all his colleagues and even the understanding of R Yochanan ben Zakkai! We also know that Rabbi Nechunya ben Hakanah was the author of Sefer Habahir, which indicates his expertise also in the esoteric teachings of Torah!

Knowing the calibre of the Tanna, we may now present a postulation of what he teaches us in the Mishnah, remembering that in Pirkei Avos we deal with “matters of special piety.”

When Rabbi Nechunya ben Hakanah tells us about “whoever takes upon himself the yoke of Torah,” he is not speaking of the usual acceptance of Torah and mitzvos. That is something which we are obliged to do by Halachah; not out of special piety!

In presenting his Mishnah, Rabbi Nechunya ben Hakanah was speaking from his own lofty plateau and giving counsel to one who is versed in the exoteric Torah and esoteric wisdoms. He is addressing a scholar who has attained the “delight” of “the kisses of His mouth,” the “secret meanings and hidden mysteries” of Torah. All his study is in a state of pleasurable delight. To this person Rabbi Nechunya ben Hakanah says, engage your attribute of special piety — do more than the requirement — accept Torah upon yourself as a yoke and don’t allow yourself to experience the satisfaction of your intellectual pursuits — do it because of the yoke of Torah!

Honestly, when we speak of Torah study this demand is unnatural. In the case of mitzvos, we can say that one should do a mitzvah because it is G‑d’s decree and not because he understands the reasons or motives of the particular mitzvah. And in fact, in Tanya this procedure is explained:

And even the occasional places where some apparently intelligible reason was revealed and explained, this, to our intelligible reason, is not the full and absolute reason; rather within it is vested the pnimiyus and principium of Chochmah, transcending conception and comprehension. (Iggeres Hakodesh 19)

Thus, even those Mishpatim, which seem to have clear, intelligent and logical, reason, meaning and cause, are still actually — Chukim — unintelligible statutes!

But this is only in the case of mitzvos, the act of doing G‑d’s will. However, when we speak of Torah, its whole essence is logic and understanding, and human nature is such, that the more one comprehends and understands an intellectual concept the more he enjoys it! How can we instruct someone to reverse this natural inclination?

Rabbi Nechunya ben Hakanah says, however, that within the venue of matters of special piety (Pirkei Avos), one must convert that nature and accept the yoke of Torah!

What will the reward be?

Torah accepts that in the natural world there is a place (and need) for the yoke of government, as the Gemara rules: “The law of the government is law” (Gittin 10b) or as we find in reference to Daniel:

You are our “king” only as regards taxes, annonae, fines and poll taxes,.... (Vayikra Rabbah 33:6)

Similarly, Torah accepts the inevitability of the “yoke of worldly cares,” as the Gemara says: “Combine the study of Torah with a worldly occupation,” and the Gemara concludes:

Many have followed the advice of R. Yishmael (mentioned above) and it has worked well; others have followed R. Shimon Bar Yochai and it has not been successful. (Berachos 35b)

Notwithstanding all this, when the person acts in a manner of special piety and rejects his natural instincts of garnering pleasure from his diligent study, then the Holy One, Blessed be He, repays him “measure for measure,” and he is not limited by the natural rules of the yoke of government or worldly cares — they are indeed removed from him!

If, however, his Torah study is conducted in the normal way — and he does glean pleasure from his intellectual pursuits, then he will be dealt with likewise in the natural way and the yoke of government and worldly cares will be imposed on him.

This exposition will help shed light on another aspect of Rabbi Nechunya ben Hakanah.

The Mishnah relates:

Rabbi Nechunya ben Hakanah used to say a prayer as he entered the Beis HaMidrash and as he left it — a short prayer. They said to him: What sort of prayer is this? He replied: When I enter I pray that no offense should occur through me and when I leave I express thanks for my lot.

The Beraisa goes on to elaborate:

On entering what does a man say? May it be Thy will ... that no offense may occur through me and that I may not err in a matter of Halachah and that my colleagues may rejoice in me ... and that my colleagues may not err in a matter of Halachah and that I may rejoice in them.... (Berachos 28b)

What about all the Tannaim before Rabbi Nechunya ben Hakanah? Not only was this prayer not spoken by them but they also asked him, “What sort of prayer is this?” What motivated Rabbi Nechunya ben Hakanah to say this prayer?

Under normal circumstances one who diligently studies Torah does not have to fear that some offense should occur or that he would err in a matter of Halachah. The Torah itself “guards and saves.”

But in the case of Rabbi Nechunya ben Hakanah we are dealing with a new phenomenon; he accepted the yoke of Torah. After reaching the apex of Torah study to the heights of delight, he then sublimated and purified this feeling and reached the higher level of the yoke of Torah.

At this point he rose to the highest possible level of Torah study, yet by denying the normal pleasurable feelings of study, he by-passed an important monitor. Not having the sympathy of a pleased and satisfied animal soul, there now might be some vacuum, where a slight error might creep in or a small offense might occur. Normally the delight of his soul would be a gauge to see if all systems were on target, but here he lacks this evaluation. His colleagues might err, from which he might be happy because he would benefit from the lesson of their error. Yet in his case this is also undesirable. So he prayed his special prayer.

The question has been raised:

Normally when a person’s Divine service includes his personal pleasure then he is functioning on a level where his personal motivation comes into play — would it not be better and more altruistic when there is no delight?

The answer however is, that when we speak of the delight in Torah study, we must remember that there are two completely different settings for Torah delight.

There are people who enjoy a brilliant thought or idea and they relish a sharp intellectual exercise; it is satisfying and enjoyable. Even a small child knows that he may experience a feeling of pleasure when his teacher reveals a nice concept to him and he understands it properly.

However, he may also find delight in general wisdom — not only Torah — and he may also find delight in games and play. In this case his personal feelings could interfere in his judgment.

The second level of delight in Torah is attained by one who has purified his power of delight through Torah. How does that happen? In stages.

First the study of Torah must permeate the simple level of thought, speech and action; and irradiate them and purify them. Then the Torah must penetrate to the powers of his attributes and intellect, and finally it can reach the transcendental powers of desire and delight, will and pleasure; to rectify and refine them, so that they will be dedicated solely to G‑d.

This was the level of the Torah of Rabbi Nechunya ben Hakanah. Here there is no room for selfish motivation or error. True, there is delight in Torah study — but that is because the Torah study has permeated the delight! It is not self-centered delight — rather altruistic delight!

Now when he rises from the lofty peak of Torah-saturated delight to the pinnacle of the yoke of Torah, by rejecting the aspect of delight and accepting Torah as statute and decree — he also loses the “yardstick” of his inner powers (intellect and attributes). Since he harbors no personal delight they are muted and numb, having accepted the higher yoke of Torah. In this setting there could be a slight glitch — so for this reason he needed the extra caution of prayer.

May G‑d grant that everyone should increase his and her Torah study in a manner that they will accept the yoke of Torah as taught to us by Rabbi Nechunya ben Hakanah and in this way we will remove the yoke of government and worldly cares:

I broke the bonds of your yoke and led you forth with your heads held high. (Vayikra 26:13)

May it come with the true and complete redemption through our righteous Mashiach quickly and truly in our days.