Balakmain postsPirkei Avot

Pirkei Avot 5:6: The Athens – Jerusalem Syndrome

Ten things were created on the eve of Shabbat, at twilight and they are: the mouth of the earth [that swallowed Korach], the mouth of the well [Miriam’s well], the mouth of the donkey [Balaam’s donkey], the rainbow, the manna, the staff [Moses’ staff], the shamir; the letters, the writing, and the Tablets [of the Covenant]. And some opinions include the burial place of Moses, and the ram of our father Abraham. And some opinions also include the demons as well as the original tongs, for tongs are made with tongs.[1]

Shabbat eve at twilight is the finale of Creation and corresponds to the very last aspects of the sefirah of kingdom (malchut), which in the Zohar is referred to as, “the end of all levels” (סוֹפָא דְּכָל דַּרְגִּין). All ten things created at that time are part of the attribute of kingdom. Kingdom is connected to the mouth,[2] and hence, the list of ten things begins with three mouths: the mouth of the earth, the mouth of the well, and the mouth of the donkey.

The things that were created at twilight[3] on Shabbat eve are wondrous, from the “twilight zone,” the gap between the mundane and the holy. The mouth of the donkey refers to Balaam’s female donkey. “And God opened the donkey’s mouth.”[4] Balaam’s donkey and its mouth can be understood as symbols for true wisdom that turned into disbelief in God, called apikorsut in rabbinic parlance.[5] In fact, the value of “donkey” (אָתוֹן), 457 is the same as the value of “apikorus” (אַפִּיקוֹרֶס).

In addition, the Hebrew word for the female donkey, the jenny, is phonetically very similar to Athens (אַתּוּנַהּ), which certainly serves as the symbol of the universal-humanist culture that eventually evolved into the basis of modern science, which is also often used as a tool to defame the Torah and deny God’s existence and sovereignty over the universe.

Like all true wisdom, originally, Balaam’s donkey was good and loyal, serving the real needs of its master. Even the prophetic powers it displayed when it opened its mouth were real. But because Balaam did not listen to it, it rejected its role and turned against him. The same happens to wisdom. If its true discoveries are ignored and not properly integrated into Torah, eventually it attacks the Torah. This is also true of those special souls among the Jewish people that become apikorsim (the plural form of apikorus). The origin of their spiritual energy is very lofty, deriving from the World of Chaos, which preceded the World of Rectification. The World of Chaos touches upon the riddles of existence. But if their energies and discoveries are ignored, they eventually turn and learn to express their questions as doubts that break the vessels of Torah.

Athens, which symbolizes the origin of Western culture, stands as the arch-rival of the holy city of Jerusalem. Part of the Mashiach’s destiny is to rectify the wisdom of Athens, as did Rabbi Yehoshua, the rabbinic sage in his debates with the wise men of Athens.[6] One of the areas in which Athens excelled was the wisdom of governance. Indeed, Mashiach will rectify their theories on political science and will create a truly just state, or kingdom, as is written about him:[7]

Rejoice greatly, daughter of Zion, blow the trumpets, daughter of Jerusalem,

Behold, your king is coming to you, He is pious and triumphant,

Yet he is impoverished [i.e., in ego], riding upon a donkey, and upon a foal, the son of a donkey.

The Hebrew word for “son” (בֶּן) is grammatically cognate with “understanding” (בִּינָה). Thus, the Mashiach is able, like Rabbi Yehoshua, to defeat the wisdom of Athens, because he understands its mindset and can bring it back to serve Torah as was originally intended.


[1]. Avot 5:6.

[2]. Patach Eliyahu.

[3]. See Shabbat 24b: The sages taught that twilight is a period of uncertainty. It is uncertain whether it consists of both day and night, it is uncertain whether it is completely day, and it is uncertain whether it is completely night. Therefore, the Sages impose the stringencies of both days upon it. And what is twilight? From when the sun sets, as long as the eastern face of the sky is reddened by the light of the sun. If the lower segment of the sky has lost its color, and the upper segment has not yet lost its color, that is the twilight period. If the upper segment has lost its color, and its color equals that of the lower one, it is night; this is the statement of Rabbi Yehudah. Rabbi Nechemyah says: The duration of the twilight period is the time it takes for a person to walk half a mil after the sun sets. Rabbi Yossi says: Twilight does not last for a quantifiable period of time; rather, it is like the blink of an eye: This, night, enters and that, day, leaves, and it is impossible to calculate it due to its brevity.

[4]. Numbers 22:28.

[5]. See Mishnah Sanhedrin 10:1. The title Apikorus is given after its namesake, the Greek philosopher Epicurus whose teachings symbolize the opposition to Jewish staples of faith.

[6] Bechorot 8b. The story with Rabbi Yehoshua ben Chananyah began with the question regarding the maximum gestation time of a snake. Once Rabbi Yehoshua gave his answer based on Torah logic, the Roman emperor said to him,

“But how can you disagree with the sages of Athens? Aren’t they wise? Rabbi Yehoshua responded: We are wiser than they. The emperor said: If you are indeed wiser, go defeat them in debate and bring them to me. Rabbi Yehoshua said to him: How many are there? The emperor answered: Sixty men. Rabbi Yehoshua said to him: Construct a ship that has sixty rooms for me, and each room should have sixty mattresses in it. The emperor constructed it for him. Rabbi Yehoshua then set out on the ship for Athens…. Rabbi Yehoshua succeeded in entering the building of the Athenian sages. He found the younger sages sitting in the upper, more prominent section, and the elder ones in the lower section. He said to himself: I must first greet the younger sages, as they are sitting in the upper section, prior to the elder sages; but if I greet these younger sages first, those elder sages will kill me, as they maintain: We are better, because we are older and they are children. Rabbi Yehoshua said: Greetings to you, but did not directly address either group. They said to him: What are you doing here? Rabbi Yehoshua said to them: I am a Sage of the Jews, and I desire to learn wisdom from you. They said to him: If so, we will ask you questions and see if you are worthy of this privilege. Rabbi Yehoshua said to them: Very well. If you win, you may do to me anything you wish, and if I defeat you, then eat with me on my ship.

The first challenge the Athenian sages posed to Rabbi Yehoshua was:

In the case of a certain man who goes and asks to marry a woman and her family does not give her to him, why would he see fit to go to a family that is greater than the first? Rabbi Yehoshua took a peg and tried inserting it into the lower part of the wall, but it did not go in. He then pushed it into the upper portion of the wall, and it went in. He said to them: In this case too, where he goes to a more distinguished family than the first, perhaps he will find the girl destined for him.

Apparently, he had met their challenge. The explanation offered in Chasidic writings for the significance of Rabbi Yehoshua’s demonstration is that the lower parts of a wall are harder to penetrate because there is more physical weight on them, while the higher parts carry less weight and are therefore easier to penetrate. We learn from this a very important principle, that if someone wishes to be a tzaddik and fails, he actually needs to aim higher and not lower. What is higher than a tzaddik? A ba’al teshuvah (excerpted from the unpublished transcript of HaRav Ginsburgh’s lectures on Rebbe Hillel of Paritch’s essay Hirkavta Enosh Lerosheinu, ch. 4).

[7]. Zechariah 9:9.

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