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Pirkei Avot 1:10 Converts and Penitents

Shma’ayah and Avtalyon received from them. Shma’ayah would say: Love work, loath mastery over others, and avoid intimacy with the government. (Pirkei Avot 1:10) 

Shma’ayah and Avtalion were from a family of converts descendant from the sons of the sons of Sancheriv, the Assyrian general that destroyed the first Temple.[1] According to Maimonides and additional commentators,[2] they themselves were converts (and not only descendants of converts). This is also understood from the words of the holy Arizal.[3] Righteous converts are considered the greatest penitents since they were non-Jews and became Jews, while a Jew from birth is a tzaddik in his essence.

The Talmud debates this point. Rabbi Yochanan says that the level of tzaddikim is greater than the level of penitents. But, Rabbi Abahu says, “In the place that penitents stand, even consummate tzaddikim cannot stand.”[4] Generally, we adopt Rabbi Abahu’s opinion.[5] But, since both opinions are the words of the Living God,[6] we can conclude that there are penitents who are greater than tzaddikim and there are tzaddikim who are greater than penitents. A regular, so to speak, tzaddik is on a lower level than the penitent. But there is also a penitent tzaddik, who has acquired the lofty level of teshuvah and is therefore on a higher level than an ordinary penitent. This is the meaning of the saying that the Mashiach will cause the tzaddikim to repent. He will add the title and essence of “penitent” to the tzaddik.

Just as there is a tzaddik who became a penitent, so there is a penitent who became a tzaddik. He started out completely distant from Torah and mitzvah performance. Alternately, he may have converted to Judaism thus becoming a penitent.  Ultimately, he became a consummate tzaddik, a Torah giant and a man of stature in the performance of good deeds. He actually becomes part of the chain of people receiving the Torah, like Shma’ayah and Avtalyon. Such a great penitent is greater than an ordinary tzaddik or penitent.

Mashiach possesses the power to turns the tzaddik into a penitent. But in order for the penitent to transform into a consummate tzaddik, he needs the essential power of the penitent who strives to merit the “Crown of Torah.” It is said that the Crown of Torah is available to everyone. It is simply waiting to be acquired. As such, it is God Himself that helps him to achieve!

The three statements by Shma’ayah and Avtalyin are guidance for the convert-penitent, until he will ultimately merit the Crown of Torah: First, he must “love toil” (for “man was born to toil”[7]). Then he must “loath mastery over others.” Rabbi Ovadyah of Bartenura explains these two characteristics as meaning: do not prevent yourself from doing work and do not strive to rule over the public, for the conduct of a penitent must be very lowly. Finally, “avoid intimacy with the government” (in order to receive control from it…so that it will not make you transgress the doctrine of your Maker).

Amazingly, the gematria of these three words, “toil, mastery, and government” (המלאכה הרבנות לרשות) equals four times Shma’ayah (שמעיה)!

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[1] Gittin 57b.

[2] Maimonides in his preface to the Yad Hachazakah and Rashi Brachot 19b.

[3] Sefer Halikutim, parashat Vayeirah and additional places.

[4] Brachot 34b.

[5] Maimonides, Laws of Repentance,7:4.

[6] Eruvin 13b:10-11

[7] Job 5; Sanhedrin 99b.

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