1. A farbrengen at this time is unusual; but Chassidus teaches that a person should break out of his routine. The Talmud says that one who learns something one hundred and one times is one who “serves G‑d; one who learns it but one hundred times, does not serve G‑d. Tanya explains the difference between learning something 100 times and 101 times: “For in their days, it was routine to learn everything 100 times ... therefore this 101st time, extra to the routine to which he had become accustomed from his youth, is equal to all of them, and surpasses them ... therefore he is called “one who serves G‑d.”

Of course, the one who learns something 100 times continues afterwards to learn Torah. But because he has but followed routine, acted according to the habit ingrained in him, he is called “one who does not serve G‑d.” Only when one’s service is to change his habits, to break out of his routine, is he called “one who serves G‑d.”

The description “one who does not serve G‑d” is not to be taken literally (that he doesn’t serve G‑d at all); instead, it means he hasn’t served G‑d properly. Nevertheless, the fact that Torah describes such a person as “one who does not serve G‑d,” indicates how important it is to escape doing things out of routine — as, for example, holding a farbrengen at this time which is unusual.

If because of change in the regular way of doing things, however, the farbrengen need not be held on Shabbos specifically. Indeed, if it were to be held on a weekday, the break in routine would be even greater. Moreover, for some people, a farbrengen on Shabbos is in the nature of “bother for the community” — disturbing one’s Shabbos delight, such as sleep (“sleep on Shabbos is a delight”). Although the mitzvah to have delight on Shabbos is a Rabbinic one, it is connected with the positive precepts “Remember the Shabbos day to sanctify it” and “Observe the Shabbos day to sanctify it.” On a weekday, in contrast, the bother for the community involves only disturbance of work.

Nevertheless, this farbrengen is being held on Shabbos for it is the Shabbos immediately following the second day of Iyar, which marks the Rebbe Maharash’s birthday (on Friday). The farbrengen could not be held on the second of Iyar itself, for since it is erev Shabbos, the preparation for Shabbos precludes a farbrengen at such a time; thus it is being held on the next day, Shabbos. Moreover, the connection between erev Shabbos and Shabbos is not just that they are in proximity, but primarily because erev Shabbos is a preparation to Shabbos — as our sages say, “He who toils on erev Shabbos will eat on Shabbos.”

A further factor is that Friday, the sixth day of the week, and Shabbos, are closely related concerning the idea of a farbrengen. Rambam explains that each of the six days of creation correspond to a thousand years, and Shabbos corresponds to the time “which will be Shabbos and rest for life everlasting.” We are at the end of the sixth millennium, in the era of erev Shabbos after midday, and we must prepare for Shabbos, the seventh millennium. For “all the fixed dates [for the redemption] have passed and it depends only on repentance”; and the ultimate in repentance, “higher repentance,” corresponds to the idea of the inner dimension in Torah — the esoteric, Chassidus. And the secrets of the Torah have already been revealed by Rashbi, and have been presented in an intellectual framework, to be absorbed by a person, by Chassidus Chabad. Thus, Shabbos is the appropriate time to hold a farbrengen at which the inner dimension of Torah is explained.

Yet not all is clear: The second of Iyar, the Rebbe Maharash’s birthday, occurs every year, and occasionally it falls on erev Shabbos as this year. What is special about this year?

This year is the 150th anniversary of the Rebbe Maharash’s birthday; and 150 is thrice 50. Fifty is a jubilee, a period of time called “olam” — “forever” (I Shmuel 1:22, Rashi, Kiddushin 15a). “Olam” also means “world,” and thus three jubilees are three “worlds” — corresponding to the number of “worlds” in general (Beriah, Yetzirah and Asiyah).

Another reason for a farbrengen today has to do with the study of Rambam’s works. At previous farbrengens we proposed that all Jews should unite together through learning Rambam’s magnum opus, Mishneh Torah. We proposed that this work be divided into portions, a portion to be learned each day over the year. Study started on Sunday of this week, and thus Shabbos, which elevates and perfects all the matters of the past week, is the appropriate time to hold a farbrengen associated with the study of Rambam — a concept important enough to warrant its own farbrengen.

For the reasons given above (and other reasons), a farbrengen is being held this Shabbos — if indeed a reason need be given at all.

2. Because everything is guided by Divine Providence, it follows that there is a connection between the two reasons given for this unusual farbrengen: the second of Iyar and the study of Rambam.

The Rebbe Maharash, whose birthday is on the second of Iyar, said that one should behave in the manner of “lechatchilah ariber” — “in the first place, go above.” That is, unlike others who believe that when confronted by an obstacle one should first seek to deal with it by conventional means, and if that fails, then by other ways, the Rebbe Maharash said that one should in the first place transcend and surmount all obstacles. Indeed, the Rebbe Maharash conducted himself in “a Baal Shemsque manner” — i.e., a miraculous manner. And such conduct (“lechatchilah ariber” and “Baal Shemsque manner”) is one that transcends all limits, the idea of changing one’s habits and routine.

The above is associated with “tiferes shebetiferes” — “beauty of beauty,” the “sefirah” of the Omer counted on the second of Iyar. [There are seven “sefiros” (Divine attributes) — chesed, gevurah, tiferes, netzach, hod, yesod and malchus. Each “sefirah” is a compound of the other “sefiros,” containing within itself aspects of all seven “sefiros.” Thus the “sefirah” of chesed, for example, divides into chesed of chesed, gevurah of chesed, tiferes of chesed, and so on. There are thus in total forty-nine sefiros (7 x 7) — corresponding to the forty nine days of Sefiras HaOmer (the Counting of the Omer), each day possessing its unique sefirah. On the second day of Iyar we count the seventeenth day of the Omer, which corresponds to the sefirah of “tiferes of tiferes.”] What does “tiferes” refer to? We say in our morning prayers, “L‑rd, Yours is the greatness, the power, and the tiferes.” The Gemara (Berachos 58a) says “tiferes — this is Mattan Torah.” Since Mat-tan Torah marked the ultimate and full perfection of all things, “tiferes” indicates the full perfection of service.

Thus far “tiferes.” “Tiferes of tiferes,” “beauty of beauty,” means tiferes unadulterated by any other sefirah — “pure” tiferes (unlike “chesed of tiferes” or “gevurah of tiferes,” etc., in which the elements of chesed or chochmah are also present in tiferes). Thus, since “tiferes” means full perfection of service, “tiferes of tiferes” must mean a yet loftier service — that which transcends all limits.

“Tiferes of tiferes,” service which transcends all limits, mirrors the general nature of Sefiras HaOmer. There are two aspects to Sefiras HaOmer: The exodus from Egypt — for Sefiras HaOmer is the counting of the number of days that have passed since the exodus; Mattan Torah — for Sefiras Ha-Omer is the service of preparation to receiving the Torah.

Both these aspects emphasize service transcending all limits. The exodus from Egypt and Pesach are the concept of “leaping,” for, as Rashi notes (Shemos 12:11), “The sacrifice is called Pesach because of the ‘leaping over,’ for the Holy One, blessed be He, leaped over the houses of Israel [when he struck the Egyptian houses]....” And concerning Mattan Torah, our sages say (Pirkei Avos 6:2), “There is no free man except one who occupies himself with the study of Torah” — i.e., Torah frees a person from all limits. This, then, is the connection between the second of Iyar, “tiferes of tiferes” (and the concept of Sefiras HaOmer in general), and a farbrengen that is being held not at a usual time.

Now we can understand the connection between this reason for a farbrengen (the second of Iyar) and the other reason — the study of Rambam.

One of the important advantages in learning Mishneh Torah is because one thereby fulfills the obligation to learn all the laws in Torah, including those which are not necessary to know for the actual performance of mitzvos today. Now this obligation is not a new one that came about just now, and there have certainly been people who studied Rambam before our proposal. Why, then, have we now made a campaign to learn Rambam? Is it necessary to raise such excitement and tumult just because there are some people who haven’t learned Rambam yet?

The answer is that one’s conduct must not follow routine (as elaborated on above). Just as there are advantages to stable, unchanging service, so there are advantages to service which is new. Both types of service work hand in hand: The new must also be constant — meaning, one must constantly renew service.

Further, the world is “sleeping,” and the only way to enthuse people about learning Rambam is to generate as much excitement and tumult as possible.

The connection, then, between the two reasons for this unusual farbrengen — the second of Iyar and the study of Rambam — is that both emphasize the idea of newness and change, escaping routine.

The actual study of Mishneh Torah is itself the “lechatchilah ariber” of Torah study. Mishneh Torah is a compendium of the Torah’s laws, without the reasoning behind the laws. Indeed, the Alter Rebbe writes that the Rosh is of the opinion that since Mishneh Torah does not contain the reasons for the laws, one may not give legal rulings from it. Rambam thought otherwise: “He wrote his work Mishneh Torah without giving any reasons for the laws; and he composed it to give rulings from it, as he writes in his Introduction that a person need no other work in the world....”

When one learns the straight laws (without the reasons), there are no questions or dialectics. Thus study of Mishneh Torah is the “lechatchilah ariber” of Torah: everything is clear-cut and unambiguous, going straight to the point — the idea of “lechatchilah ariber” (“in the first place, go above”).

For the same reason, study of Rambam has particular relevance to Shabbos. The difference between Shabbos and weekday is analogous to that between the esoteric and exoteric aspects of Torah. The esoteric aspect of Torah stems “from the Tree of Life in which there are no questions ... and no arguments.” The exoteric, which deals with what is forbidden and what is permitted, what is impure and what is pure, is associated with the Tree of Knowledge, from which stem good and bad.

So too with Shabbos and weekday: Service on a weekday is concerned with extricating the good from the bad; on Shabbos, such service does not apply — similar to the esoteric aspect of Torah, in which, because there are no questions, it is unnecessary to “extricate” the truth by dialectics.

Thus, the study of Mishneh Torah, the straight laws without discussion or reasons, has special relevance to Shabbos.

Learning without dialectics was also the type of study present at Mattan Torah, which took place on Shabbos, for at Mattan Torah Jews heard the Ten Commandments, which are straight laws without discussion.

Likewise, Moshe Rabbeinu taught Torah to Jews in the same manner. The Talmud (Nedarim 381) says that the dialectics of Torah were given to Moshe only, but “Moshe in his generosity gave it to Israel.” Thus, what Moshe principally taught the Jews (what he had to — not what he did out of his generosity) was the straight laws, not dialectics.

Further, even the dialectics that Moshe taught were free of questions. If Rashbi’s Torah was free of questions and arguments, then certainly Moshe’s was, even in regard to dialectical study — similar to the type of study of Talmud Yerushalmi.

“Deed is paramount”: The purpose to the “tumult” in regard to studying Rambam is that as many Jews in all places should know of it and participate. On Shabbos, too, the principle “deed is paramount” is operative — although Shabbos’s theme is thought, not deed. For in thought there are three aspects: “thought within thought,” “speech within thought,” and “deed within thought.” Simply put, on Shabbos one should undertake good resolutions to be implemented in deed after Shabbos. Moreover, the Shulchan Aruch rules that when one resolves to do a good deed, and it is impossible to be carried out immediately (as in our case, there are some things that cannot be done on Shabbos), the very resolution brings the reward done for the deed — although the deed has not yet been done.

How can reward be given before the thing is actually done? Rambam rules that if a person does not want to give a divorce to his wife the Rabbinical court can coerce him until he says ‘I want to’ — although a divorce must be given of one’s own free will. For, explains Rambam, “since he wants to be of Israel and wants to observe all the mitzvos and refrain from transgressions, and it is his yetzer (evil inclination) which overcomes him, and since he is beaten until his yetzer is weakened and he says ‘I want to” — it is considered as if he has done it of his own will.

In other words, each Jew wishes, in his innermost desires, to follow Torah. That openly he doesn’t wish it is only because his yetzer overcomes him. When the Rabbinical court forces him to say that he wants to, this nullifies the external desire not to follow Torah — for now, he wants to follow Torah both in his true, inner self, and in actual speech.

So too in our case: One’s true desire is to do the good deed at once. When, therefore, he cannot do so because of an external reason — because Torah says that now is not the right time (for it is Shabbos) — the resolution to do the good deed is enough that he should receive the reward for such a deed.

May it be G‑d’s will that all Jews be united through the study of Rambam; and that we speedily merit to proceed from learning Rambam to learning the Torah of Moshiach.

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3. We said above that through learning Rambam all Jews are united together. We said that there are three ways of leaning Rambam:

1) To learn three chapters of Mishneh Torah every day.

2) Those unable to learn three chapters a day should learn one chapter a day.

3) Those incapable of studying Mishneh Torah, should learn Sefer HaMitzvos (also authored by Rambam), which is connected to Mishneh Torah. Rambam writes in his Introduction to Sefer HaMitzvos that it serves as an introduction to Mishneh Torah, for those concepts elaborated on at length in Mishneh Torah are explained briefly in Sefer HaMitzvos.

Since Sefer HaMitzvos discusses briefly the concepts elaborated on at length in Mishneh Torah, it would seem that there is no advantage to learning Sefer HaMitzvos vis-à-vis learning Mishneh Torah — the study of Mishneh Torah automatically embraces everything in Sefer HaMitzvos. It would thus appear that those learning Sefer HaMitzvos are in a lower category than those learning Mishneh Torah, and they have no advantage over the latter.

This is difficult to understand, for everything in the world is both a receiver and giver. In a relationship between two things, each has what to contribute and what to receive: No matter how low the one in comparison to the other, and no matter how much the former receives from the latter, there is always some aspect in which the lower one is superior to the higher — and which therefore the higher one needs to take from the lower. It is precisely such, a reciprocal need and relationship which forms a bond of unity between the two.

In our case, since Sefer HaMitzvos is a brief version of Mishneh Torah (i.e., they are not two different things), there seems to be no aspect to learning Sefer HaMitzvos which is superior to learning Mishneh Torah; and therefore nothing which those who learn Mishneh Torah need to “receive” from those who learn Sefer HaMitzvos.

In slightly different words: True unity between two categories exists only when there is a reciprocal relationship between them: Each must contribute to the other. But if one category is so much lower than the other that it has nothing to contribute, there can be no unity between them.

We must therefore conclude that for the study of Rambam’s works to produce true unity and love among Jews, there is some aspect in which the study of Sefer HaMitzvos is superior to the study of Mishneh Torah; and it is this aspect which those who learn Sefer HaMitzvos contribute to those who learn Mishneh Torah. What is that aspect?

Rambam in Mishneh Torah wrote the laws without giving the reasons and without citing the sources for his rulings. Although Rambam is of the opinion that people may make halachic rulings from his Mishneh Torah without knowing the reasons for the laws, it is obvious that he too would agree that there is an advantage to learning the laws together with their reasons and sources.

In Sefer HaMitzvos, Rambam cites the places in the Talmud which explain the details of the mitzvos. That is, in Mishneh Torah he cites only verses from the Written Torah, whereas in Sefer HaMitzvos he cites Talmudic references (the Oral Law) which explain the particulars of each mitzvah.

The advantage of learning Sefer HaMitzvos over Mishneh Torah, then, is that when one wants to know the sources of the laws in Mishneh Torah, one must consult Sefer HaMitzvos. There is thus unity between those who learn Mishneh Torah and those who learn Sefer HaMitzvos, each contributing something. Those who study Mishneh Torah learn all the laws at length with their full details; those who learn Sefer HaMitzvos know the sources for the laws. And thus when one who learns Mishneh Torah wishes to know the source of a law, he must ask one who learns Sefer HaMitzvos.

Just as a special course of study was set for those of the lower category, those unable to learn Mishneh Torah — the study of Sefer HaMitzvos — so, seemingly, a special course of study should be arranged for those of the highest category — those able to study the laws in Mishneh Torah with detailed discussion of the reasons, sources etc. Since it is impossible to learn those chapters each day in such a detailed fashion, surely some other arrangement should be made for such people?

However, one of the principal reasons for learning Rambam is to thereby unite all Jews. It is therefore obvious that this unity should not be impinged upon just because some people are capable of study in greater depth. Thus, they too should learn three chapters each day, although this will necessitate a more superficial type of learning.

Nevertheless, besides learning three chapters each day as the others do, those who are capable of learning in depth should study at least one law of each day’s portion in depth and with detailed discussion.

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4. Chapter 22, verse 28, of parshas Emor states: “Whether it is a bull or a sheep, you shall not slaughter it (“osoh”) and its young (“benoh”) on the same day.” Rashi quotes the words “It and its young” and comments: “This applies to the female — that it is forbidden to slaughter the mother and its male young or female young; it does not apply to males, and it is permissible to slaughter the father and its young.”

The word “osoh” and “benoh” are masculine tense, meaning “him” and “his young.” Thus this verse, which relates the command not to kill a parent and its young on the same day, is clearly referring to the male parent and its young. Nevertheless, Rashi explains that “This (command) applies to the female — that it is forbidden to slaughter the mother and its male young or female young.” Further, says Rashi, “it does not apply to males, and it is permissible to slaughter the father and its young.”

Why does Rashi offer an interpretation that directly contradicts the verse? Commentators explain that the source for Rashi’s interpretation is the tractate Chulin (78b), which states: “It was taught: I might have said that the law of [not slaughtering] ‘it and its child’ applies to both male and female parents ... The verse therefore states ‘it’ (singular tense) — that is, it refers to one [parent] and not to both. Since the verse discriminates [between the parents], I am justified in applying the [following] argument: There is a prohibition here [in this case of slaughtering parent and child on one day] and there is also a prohibition with regard to ‘The mother with the young’ [i.e., When a mother bird is sitting upon its young in a nest, it is prohibited to take the mother together with the young (Devorim 22:6)]. Just as the prohibition of ‘The mother with the young’ applies to the female parent and not to the male, so here [in our case] the prohibition applies only to the female parent and not to the male.” Toras Kohanim (on this verse) gives a similar argument that the prohibition applies only to the mother.

However, this explanation not only doesn’t answer the question raised earlier — why Rashi interprets this verse contrary to its explicit meaning — but reinforces it. The sole source for saying that the prohibition applies only to the female parent and not to the male is the tractate Chulin and Toras Kohanim — expositions by our sages, not the plain meaning of the verse. Rashi’s commentary, however, is based on the plain interpretation of Scripture, as he himself writes (Bereishis 3:8,24): “I have come only to [teach the] plain meaning of the verse.” Why, then, does Rashi on this verse discard the plain, explicit meaning (that the prohibition refers to slaughtering the male parent (“osoh”) and young on one day) in favor of the Talmud’s exposition? The question is especially puzzling since Rashi does not preface his interpretation with the words “Our sages expounded” — the absence of which indicates that Rashi considers that the interpretation he gives is the plain meaning of the verse!

A further problem is that in the tractate Chulin we find a conflict of opinions. The Rabbis are of the opinion that the prohibition applies only to slaughtering the female parent with the young; Chananiah holds that it applies to both the male and female parents. The Talmud does not decide in favor of either opinion. Rambam (Laws of Shechitah 12:11) accordingly rules that “The prohibition of [slaughtering] ‘it and its young applies to the female [parent], for it [the young] is certainly her child. And if we know for a surety that this is its father, one may not slaughter both of them [father and child] on the one day; if one did slaughter [them], he is not given stripes, for it is uncertain if [the prohibition] applies to males or not.”

Why, then, does Rashi write “it is permissible to slaughter the father and its child,” thereby deciding that the prohibition does not apply to the father, and thereby ruling against the opinion of Chananiah?

In addition to the above difficulties in Rashi’s interpretation, there is another, simple question. Rashi only makes an explanatory comment on a verse when there is a difficulty in understanding; and Rashi’s commentary is directed towards a five-year-old learning Scripture. In our case, had Rashi made no comment, the verse would be understood simply, without any difficulties. [That the Talmud gives an interpretation is irrelevant, for Rashi’s commentary is based on the plain meaning of Scripture.] Why need Rashi make any comment at all?

We could perhaps answer that Rashi’s intention in doing so is to resolve a question that may occur to a five-year-old who is learning Scripture. If that child will be in a slaughterhouse and see that they slaughter the male parent with its young on one day, he will be puzzled, for he has learned our verse that says “You shall not slaughter it and its young on the same day.” Rashi therefore explains that this prohibition applies only to the female parent, whereas it is permissible to kill the male parent and its young on the same day.

This answer, however, is totally unacceptable. First of all, what is a five-year-old child doing in a slaughter house? Second, even if for some reason he does go there, it would be impossible for him to know that the ox and calf slaughtered are father and young — even the slaughterer can’t know which ox is the calf’s father. Third, and most important, Rashi’s function is only to explain difficulties which crop up in interpreting Scripture. Any questions bothering a five-year-old because of an occurrence which does not seem to tally with what he has learned in Scripture are not Rashi’s business (but the child’s teacher’s).

Evidence that such is Rashi’s position may be derived from Rashi’s interpretation of the verse, “You shall not cook a kid in its mother’s milk.” This verse is written three times in Scripture (Shemos 23:9; Ibid 34:26; Devorim 14:21), and on each instance Rashi explains why this verse is written three times.

A five-year-old could ask the following question. The verse says, “You shall not cook a kid in its mother’s milk,” which implies that the prohibition applies only to cooking in its mother’s milk, and not in any other milk. Yet the child sees in everyday life that Jews do not mix meat and milk together — without differentiating between types of milk. Yet Rashi makes no comment to answer this question, indicating that his function is only to interpret Scripture, and nothing else.

Thus our original question remains: What difficulty does Rashi perceive in our verse that he finds it necessary to make a comment?

The Explanation

From the context of the passage in which our verse is found, we see that the mitzvos given in it are not “chukim” — statutes without reason — but mitzvos which are understood, which have a reason; and that reason is compassion. The verse preceding ours states: “When a bull or a sheep or a goat is born, it must remain with its mother for seven days” — for out of compassion, one should not cause distress to the mother by taking away its young as soon as it is born. It is for this reason that Rashi says that a calf extracted by a Caesarean operation is excluded from this prohibition: Since a calf’s birth by a Caesarean operation causes much pain to the mother, the mother’s affection to its young is somewhat diminished, and there may even be hatred towards the calf. Hence the reason for the prohibition against taking the young away from its mother during the first seven days — compassion upon the mother — does not apply to the same extent as in natural birth.

The prohibition in our verse, “Whether it is a bull or a sheep, you shall not slaughter it and its young on the same day,” has the same reason — compassion, consonant to the Torah’s command not to inflict anguish and pain upon animals.

This is also why at the end of this passage it says (22:31): “You shall keep My mitzvos” — mitzvos, commandments that are understood and have a reason; not statutes. Similarly, the next verse states: “You shall not profane My holy Name” — which concerns the prohibition against profaning G‑d’s Name among the gentile peoples. And it is specifically the non-observance of mitzvos that have a rational reason behind them that causes G‑d’s Name to be profaned, whereas the non-observance of statutes does not. Indeed, the gentile nations criticize and mock Israel for observing statutes (Rashi, Bereishis 26:5, Vayikra 18:4) — and thus their non-observance, unlike that of mitzvos which have reasons, would not be a profanation of G‑d’s Name in the eyes of the gentiles.

Because compassion is the reason behind the command, “You shall not slaughter it and its young on the same day,” Rashi explains, according to the plain interpretation of Scripture, that “This applies to the female — that it is forbidden to slaughter the mother and its male young or female young; it does not apply to males, and it is permissible to slaughter the father and its young.” Not to kill parent and young on the same day because of compassion for the parent is relevant only concerning the female parent, the mother, since she is the one which gave birth to the child, and she is the one that rears it. (And for the same reason Torah commands “When a bull is born ... it must remain with its mother for seven days.”)

Further, Scripture talks of that which is usual (Rashi, Shemos 21:28) — and therefore the command not to kill the parent and its young on one day cannot refer to the father, for it is highly unusual that a person should know which animal sired a particular child. In regard to the young, however, Rashi writes “It is forbidden to slaughter the mother and its male young or female young,” since the reason of compassion applies to both female and male young.

Not all is clear, however. Notwithstanding the above explanation, Scripture does explicitly say, “Osoh” — “him, masculine tense (and not “Osah” — ”her”), clearly referring to the male parent. How can we say it means the mother and not the father?

We must therefore posit that at the beginning of his comment Rashi wrote, “It states in the tractate Chulin” or “It states in Toras Kohanim,” thereby prefacing his comment with the explanation that it is an exposition of the sages. The reason these words do not appear in our editions of Rashi is because the printer thought that this was a citation added by Rashi’s disciples (as occurs in other places) and therefore omitted it. A search of manuscripts may turn up a manuscript containing these words.

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5. This week we recite the second chapter of Pirkei Avos, and we shall accordingly analyze a mishnah from that chapter — mishnah 6. This mishnah follows Hillel’s words in the previous mishnahs, and it states: “He (Hillel) also saw one skull floating on the water; he said to it: Because you drowned others, they drowned you; and ultimately those who drowned you will themselves be drowned.”

The theme of this mishnah is that G‑d pays “measure for measure.” Let none think that he may himself deal out punishment to another with impurity — for eventually G‑d will exact the same punishment from him.

There are some perplexing points in this mishnah:

1) It seems strange that the news Hillel is telling us in this mishnah in Pirkei Avos, which are “mili d’Chassidusa” — “words of piety,” is that G‑d pays “measure for measure.”

2) Hillel was a very great man indeed: The Talmud (Sukkah 28a) tells us he had eighty disciples, including Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai, who, although the least of all his disciples, “did not leave [unstudied] Scripture, Mishnah, Gemara, Halachah, Aggadah, details of the Torah, details of the scribes, etc.” If so, how is it possible that Hillel had to wait for a totally unusual event — to see a skull floating on the water — to understand that G‑d pays “measure for measure”?

3) Why does it say “one (i.e. a particular) skull”?

4) Why did Hillel speak to the skull (“He said to it”) — i.e., why did the skull need to know that G‑d pays “measure for measure”? Indeed, not only is there no purpose in speaking to the skull, but, because one may not mock the dead, it is prohibited to say words of Torah to a skull (for since dead people cannot learn Torah, speaking words of Torah to them is making mock of them).

The Explanation

Commentators explain that the mishnah says “one skull” because it is referring to one skull in particular — that of Pharaoh, king of Egypt. Pharaoh had decreed that all Jewish male babies be thrown into the river — and this is what Hillel meant when he said “you drowned others.” Since G‑d pays “measure for measure,” Pharaoh in turn was drowned.

Pharaoh had lived in Egypt, whereas Hillel lived first in Babylon and then in Eretz Yisroel. Thus, for Hillel to see Pharaoh’s skull floating on the water hundreds of years later needed a miracle. Since Hillel knew that “G‑d does not perform miracles for naught,” he understood that G‑d performed this miracle so that through him this skull, after floating on the water for hundreds of years, could finally come to rest. How? Because this skull provided Hillel with the means to derive a lesson, the skull thereby received purification [from its sins] and could now come to rest. This is why the mishnah says, “He said to it” — meaning, Hillel spoke for the sake of the skull, to help it in its rectification.

The skull, however, although it had now received its purification, could still have complaints against G‑d. Hundreds of years had passed since Pharaoh was drowned, and as yet those who drowned him had not yet been punished (for Hillel said “ultimately those who drowned you will themselves be drowned” — implying that they had not yet been punished). The skull could therefore ask why only it was punished and not those who drowned it. And as long as the skull was filled with complaints, it would not find peace.

To remove these complaints, Hillel continued to say, “and ultimately those who drowned you will themselves be drowned” — i.e., Hillel assured the skull that they would eventually be punished. When the skull heard Hillel’s ruling and assurance, it did not have to itself see the punishment carried out, for it could be sure that Hillel’s ruling would be fulfilled; and therefore it could now be at peace.

There is a lesson from this for man’s service to G‑d, for acting “piously.” We learn from this episode how great was Hillel’s conduct in doing “good for creatures”: The skull was Pharaoh’s, who decreed that Jewish male babies be thrown into the river, a decree designed mainly against Moshe Rabbeinu, the savior of Israel and the one who received the Torah from Sinai. Yet, when the time came for the skull to be at rest, Hillel made the purification for the skull.

This teaches us how important it is to do good to “creatures” — even if they have no other qualities except that they are “creatures.”