Thoughts on Judaism

Sunday, June 25, 2006

Plagues of the Pharisees

Mesichta Sotah 22 Amud Beis (As translated at

AND THE PLAGUE OF PHARISEES etc. Our Rabbis have taught: There are seven types of Pharisees: the shikmi Pharisee, the nikpi Pharisee, the kizai Pharisee, the 'pestle' Pharisee, the Pharisee [who constantly exclaims] 'What is my duty that I may perform it?', the Pharisee from love [of God] and the Pharisee from fear.

The shikmi Pharisee — he is one who performs the action of Shechem. (Rebel notes: Some explain, one who shows off, carrying his avodah on his "shoulders", others explain: One who performs mitzvos, milah for example, out of insincerity (going on the anshei shchem). Others explain: the deed of Shechem, that he tells others to perform some mitzva out of piety and then proceeds to take advantage of them. (going on the ma'aseh of Shimon v'Levi))

Obviously our sages were not enamored of the idea of people going about showing how they were holier than the rest of the world. It seems that they preferred a more humble and personal approach to avodah, one that did not include ever more extreme declarations of "piety". It is clear that they did not judge people based on how pious they "looked", on how they dressed, or on what sort of headgear they wore. They also had no love for those who mekarev-ed others in order to take advantage of them, under the guise of trying to bring them to a higher place.

The nikpi Pharisee — he is one who knocks his feet together. (Rebel notes: exaggerating that he is not walking with "pesia gassa", that he walks with his head down and with very small steps.)

Apparently our sages had no love for shows of extreme "humility". To them, humility was "done", not "expressed".

The kizai Pharisee — R. Nahman b. Isaac said: He is one who makes his blood to flow against walls. (Rebel notes: Some mefarshim say this means that he would rather walk with his eyes closed, even if it means that he will consantly smash his face into the wall, than look at women. Others say that this was an exaggerated expression of regret of sins.)

No comment required.

The 'pestle' Pharisee — Rabbah b. Shila said: [His head] is bowed like [a pestle in] a mortar. (Rebel notes: In davening, he bends his head so low, in exaggerated intensity, that the crown of his head is pointed down, and he is "shuckling" so hard, it looks like his head is a grinding pestle operating inside a mortar.)

The sages were at no loss for satire and sense of humor. No comment required.

The Pharisee [who constantly exclaims] 'What is my duty that I may perform it?' — but that is a virtue! — Nay, what he says is, 'What further duty is for me that I may perform it?' (Rebel notes: He already does everything perfectly in his eyes, so he is looking for a more challenging avodah.)

The sages are brevity engendered. He is trying to find chumras and "piety" customs to invent or carry on, not because they are the customs of his place, but because they make him appear to be more pious. The sages find this arrogant and worthy of satire. Similarly, the sages characterized Esav as a person who ma'asared salt to impress his father.

The Pharisee from love and the Pharisee from fear — Abaye and Raba said to the tanna [who was reciting this passage], Do not mention 'the Pharisee from love and the Pharisee from fear'; for Rab Judah has said in the name of Rab: A man should always engage himself in Torah and the commandments even though it be not for their own sake, because from [engaging in them] not for their own sake, he will come [to engage in them] for their own sake. (Rebel notes: I think he means that love and fear would be reasons to serve G-d, and the ideal is to serve G-d for its own sake. Abaya and Rava realize that one can use this in a good way, in order to reach the ideal. They understand the human failing.)

Apparently, our sages understood that certain standards were intended as ideals, but that there may be transitionary steps where most people will actually be in practical terms. They respected this concept, explicitly excluding "I am not there yet" from the definition of hypocrisy. They didn't try to bait people into faking compliance with very lofty ideals, but rather they removed such definition from the record.

R. Nahman b. Isaac said: What is hidden is hidden, and what is revealed is revealed; the Great Tribunal will exact punishment from those who rub themselves against the walls. (Rebel notes: R. Nachman's quote supports the ideas above, that false humility does not fool the main Interested Party. "Rubbing himself against the wall" is similar to "kizai" mentioned before.)

King Yannai (on his deathbed) said to his wife, "Fear not the Pharisees (Yannai's enemies) and the non-Pharisees (Tzdukim) but the hypocrites who ape the Pharisees (Rebel notes: so the fakers actually act like Pharisees, they wear the garb, do the shtick, sing the right song. Yannai says that even non-Pharisees, like Tzadukim, Biryonim etc. are less dangerous than people who make a show of it.); because their deeds are the deeds of Zimri, (Rebel notes: who claimed to be serving G-d publicly, even with his most deviant actions, claiming that he was only acting on behalf of the community) but they expect a reward like Phineas (Rebel notes: who was given the service of the Kehuna, power over the army, and a special place among kohanim. In other words, he got the extra measure of holiness in G-d's eyes that the "pious" Pharisees were trying to pretend that they had attained.)

The sages called it the Makos HaParushim, Plagues of the Pharisees. We call it _____________.