In our Gemara on amud beis, after hearing a particularly insightful piece of Torah from Rabbi Akiva, Ben Azai laments, “Woe to Ben Azzai, who did not serve under Rabbi Akiva.”  Meaning, he had opportunity to learn more from Rabbi Akiva if he would have become his assistant or shamess.

Torah consists of practical wisdom, and certain matters cannot be learned in a shiur but must be seen and experienced live. This idea is critical, especially when it comes to judgment calls and the so-called fifth volume of Shulkah Arukh.

The classic rabbinic example of this is Elisha serving Eliyahu, and Yehoshua serving Moshe. The Gemara Berachos (7b) goes as far to say that serving a sage is superior to the actual study, (or perhaps study alone). Ben Yehoyada notes in the language “yoser mi” “more than”, instead of merely “mi” “than”, that it is emphasizing that the knowledge-experience gap is great, and not a small difference at all. 

There is a plethora of opinions as to what is significantly greater about serving the master under his study, instead of merely attending his lectures.  I will quote some of the significant opinions and offer a reflection of my own.

Malbim Mishley (15:30) says that the sense of sight encodes information differently and more strongly than hearing.  Thus, observing the master’s practice, greatly enhances the memory of it.

Chovos Halevavos (Sha’ar Hachna’ah 6:2) explains that by serving the master, one is more humbled and therefore accepts the teaching with less resistance and more reverence, which is an aid to internalizing Torah ideals.

Abravanel (I Kings 19:20) says that Elisha’s service of Eliyahu allowed him to achieve prophecy by association on a higher level than he would have ordinarily achieved. He does not explain why, but perhaps it is based on the ideas in the Maharal (Derech Chayyim 6:6). Maharal says that the emotional attachment to the sage allows for something transformational beyond the intellectual.  Data is going to be exchanged unconsciously and be influential in a way that is non-verbal. Maharal compares it to how one wick can light another via proximity. This is similar to Rav Tzodok’s idea (Resise Layla 52) that the love for the master will draw the person deeper into the Torah. The non-verbal atmosphere conveys ideas and modes of thought that are not exclusively within the rational realm.  This is how Mei Hashiloach (Vayelech) explains the value of the Mitzvah of Hakhel, and the importance of bringing even toddlers who cannot intellectually understand what is being said, but are still emotionally starting to grasp.  He also explains there why it is important to follow the tradition of teaching children Torah Tziva Lanu Moshe, as soon as they start to talk, as it will resonate beyond the words.

I must say, it is something that I am grateful my wife took seriously when our children were young, and I am afraid in our iphone and video generation, some parents are forgetting how important that kind of ritual is.  Many Jewish mothers and fathers recite Shema and Modeh Ani with their little children, and I think it is vital for the continuation of Judaism.  

However, though each of the peshatim above are  powerful and true, none of them explain Ben Azai’s lament.  It would seem that Ben Azzai felt he lost out on a certain talmudic and analytical acumen.

Maharsha (Berachos 7b) and Pele Yoetz (330, “Kabbalah”) say a peshat that fits better with Ben Azzai’s sentiment. Maharsha says that often rabbi says theoretical ideas that are not the final halakha and it is difficult to tell the difference. (This concept is even noted in a remarkable Gemara Bava Basra 135a, where Abaye rhetorically exclaims, “Are we to rely halakhically on Talmudic answers to contradictions?”  As if to say, nice sevaras and pilpul, but lemaaseh when it comes to psak, no fancy peshatim”.)  Pele Yoetz similarly states that there are simply too many halakhos to learn in a lifetime, and thus by serving under a master, all kinds of nuances and situations will come up that otherwise one could not imagine or study.

Even so, none of these peshatim truly hit the mark and fully correspond to Ben Azzai’s declaration, and so I will offer what I believe is the correct peshat.

The Rambam in his introduction to his Commentary on the Mishnah famously declares that prior to Shammai and Hillel, there were no major disputes in halakha.  He explains that though they used derashos for the 13 Hermeneutical Principles, the derashos came from a unified underlying philosophy and sentiment.  (While this is hard to fully understand, consider how we discussed an overarching and unified approach to halakha that the Schools of Shammai and Hillel had, see Psychology of the Daf Nedarim 71, Kesuvos 91, and Eiruvin 13.) Thus, Ben Azzai needed to observe Rabbi Akiva’s approach and overall ethics and sentiment to derive proper Torah derashos.  Indeed, there is reason to believe that Rabbi Akiva’s approach and sentiment infrormed his derashos, as we suggested regarding Shammai and Hillel.  You can look up Ben Yehoyada Shabbos 64b, who amazingly says, that Rabbi Akiva’s heart leaned in the direction of interpreting a verse to give more honor to women and allow them to adorn themselves even when Niddah, against the ruling of sages.  (So you don’t call me an apikores, here is the exact quote: 

ומאחר שהיה נותן כבוד לנשים לכך שם על לבו לדרוש ולתת טעם בתכשיט הנשים גם בימי נדתה, כי התכשיטין הם כבוד האשה. )

Translations Courtesy of Sefaria, except when, sometimes, I disagree with the translation cool

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