Yir’ah

In Mesilas Yesharim, the Ramchal (R’ Moshe Chaim Luzato) writes of three kinds of yir’ah (fear / awe / awareness of magnitude).

1- Yir’as ha’onesh: fear of punishment. This is the lowest of the three. However, since even fear of punishment is a motivator, even yir’as ha’onesh is viewed positively.

R’ Shlomo Wolbe zt”l writes that today, we’ve lost that motivating quality. Punishment invokes more thoughts of rebellion than of compliance. He therefore bans corporal punishment of children, and also plays down the role of yir’as ha’onesh a generation raised on democracy, rights, and personal freedoms.

2- Yir’as Shamayim: fear of [the One in] heaven

This is the lofty goal. It, in turn, comes in two flavors:

2a- Yir’as hacheit: fear of sin. This is distinct from the fear of punishment; it’s fear of the sin itself, of the possibility of erring. Mesilas Yesharim continues that when a traditional source speaks of “yir’ah” without specification, it means yir’as hacheit (fear of the sin [itself]).

Which would mean that it’s fair to assume this is the kind of yir’as shamayim is the one R’ Avraham Elya Kaplan described in Be’ikvos haYir’ah (translation from an article by R’ Yosef Gavriel Bechhofer).

…But one who has not traversed the actual pathway of illumination [that of the prophets and the sages],he who stands opposite the rays of light, at some distance, possesses little understanding of this term [yir'ah]. It would be better had he never known this term, and was now learning it for the first time. But this is his problem: He knows it, but does not know it properly. He possesses a dangerous translation of the entire concept, and cannot avoid its negative ramifications. For example, when we mention yir’ah to this person he can only translate it thus: Bent head, wrinkled brow, glazed eyes, hunched back, trembling left hand, right hand clapping al cheit, knocking thighs, failing knees, stumbling heels. And he does not know that this translation is heretical for the one who knows what yir’ah is and what it means, the source from which it flows, and from whence it comes… There are times that demand tears and eulogies… It is necessary then to stoop like rushes and take up sackcloth and ashes. Times come upon the world when our sins require these. Such, however, is not Yir’as Hashem, not it and not even part of it. It is not yir’ah’s essence, but only preparation for it…Yir’ah is not anguish, not pain, not bitter anxiety. To what may yir’ah be likened? To the tremor of fear which a father feels when his beloved young son rides his shoulders as he dances with him and rejoices before him, taking care that he not fall off. Here there is joy that is incomparable, pleasure that is incomparable. And the fear tied up with them is pleasant too. It does not impede the freedom of dance… It passes through them like a spinal column that straightens and strengthens. And it envelops them like a modest frame that lends grace and pleasantness… It is clear to the father that his son is riding securely upon him and will not fall back, for he constantly remembers him, not for a moment does he forget him. His son’s every movement, even the smallest, he feels, and he ensures that his son will not sway from his place, nor incline sideways – his heart is, therefore, sure, and he dances and rejoices. If a person is sure that the “bundle” of his life’s meaning is safely held high by the shoulders of his awareness, he knows that this bundle will not fall backwards, he will not forget it for a moment, he will remember it constantly, with yir’ah he will safe keep it. If every moment he checks it – then his heart is confident, and he dances and rejoices…

When the Torah was given to Israel solemnity and joy came down bundled together. They are fused together and cannot be separated. That is the secret of “gil be’re’ada” (joy in trembling) mentioned in Tehillim. Dance and judgment, song and law became partners with each other… Indeed, this is the balance… A rod of noble yir’ah passes through the rings of joy… {It is clear from the original Hebrew that this is a reference to the rods that held the boards together to make the walls of the Tabernacle. -mi} [It is] the inner rod embedded deep in an individual’s soul that connects end to end, it links complete joy in this world (eating, drinking and gift giving) to that which is beyond this world (remembering the [inevitable] day of death) to graft one upon the other so to produce eternal fruit.

A Swedish wise man, when once discussing sanctity, said: “The sanctity of an individual proves that he who possesses it has a direct relationship with the strongest source of existence.” In my opinion, in the conception of Judaism this is a definition of yir’ah (but sanctity – kedusha – is loftier still, we have a different idea of it, but this is not the place to define it). What is yir’ah? It is the broad jump over the vast gap between myself and my Creator… It is a mitzvah to separate – to separate from smallness! Fly over barriers! And from there quest Him, for there you will find Him…

It is a kind of fear of heaven that one is worried about letting G-d down, about doing something that would ruin the relationship.

The Maharal (Nesivas Olam, Nesiv Yir’as Hashem chapter 1) writes that “yir’as hacheit” (fear of the sin itself, which the Ramchal called the default definition) comes from a love of Hashem. When you love Someone, you give great importance to not disappointing Him.

2b- Yir’as haRomemus: fear of the Grandeur [of G-d]

Note that as the Ramchal progresses, the translation for yir’ah as “fear” becomes steadily less compelling, and that of awe, or acting with awareness of the magnitude of what one is engaging in, seem more appropriate. And actually, awareness of magnitude brings more weight to the event. It’s the difference between the joy of dancing at a siyum and that of dancing at a daughter’s wedding. Because the wedding is so momentous, the joy is that much more intense. To return to R’ Avraham Elya Kaplan’s metaphor, the depth of my love for my son adds to the joy of dancing with him. Without the yir’ah, the awareness of what a big thing it is to put one’s son atop one’s shoulders, the joy wouldn’t be there.

I don’t think that the more primary definition of “yir’ah” could possibly be “fear”. The Torah writes “Your mother and your father tirah — you should feel yir’ah.” Living in fear of one’s parents is unhealthy, and obviously not the Torah’s intent. Rather, I believe that “yir’ah”‘s primary meaning is that of the awareness, and from notion of awareness one can speak of awareness of the magnitude of possible upcoming bad consequences and gets the derived meaning of “fear”.

Later in the essay, R’ AE Kaplan writes:

Indeed, this is the direct relationship. Indeed, this is the true vision that we call yir’ah… And this, therefore, is the reason that we dwell so much on fear of punishment (“yir’as ha’onesh”). This is also vision – seeing things as they really are… One who refuses to see his future shortchanges only himself. Only if he sees (re’iyah) will he fear (yir’ah), and only if he fears will he repent… And from here we proceed to the fear [awe] of loftiness (“yir’as haromemus”) – that is the vision [the perception] of loftiness. From here – “The maid servant at the Red Sea saw loftier visions than the Prophet Yechezkel.” From here comes the direct view, across all the dividers, to the source of existence. This is an unceasing inner gaze toward the matter that is one’s responsibility [the bundle of his life's meaning] (that he must safeguard lest it fall…). The gaze is one that leads to remembrance, remembrance that leads to care, care that leads to confidence, confidence that leads to strength (“oz”) – an inner, bold, uplifting, strength (“Hashem oz li’amo yiten…”) and a strength that leads to peace (“shalom”) and wholeness, internally and externally, in thought and in deed (“… Hashem yivareich es amo ba’shalom”). Indeed, This is the wisdom of life: “Reishis chochma yir’as Hashem.” A fear that is vision. “And remember” – “And see” – “Shivisi Hashem l’negdi tamid…

Even yir’as ha’onesh has an important role. One who avoids it is avoiding dealing with things as they truly are. Facing reality, allowing oneself to experience (re’iyah) G-d’s interaction in our lives — both positive and not so — leads to being overawed by Him (yir’ah, i.e. “yir’as Shamayim veyir’as hacheit”). That is the yir’ah we are being asked to develop alongside ahavah in our relationship with Hashem. True yir’as shamayim, rather than being about quaking in one’s boots, debilitated, leads one to joy, song and action. And in fact, adds to the ahavah, the Love of G-d. By facing a glimmer of the Greatness of the Beloved, we come to treasure that love, and love Him all the more. “Az yashir — And then he will sing…”

Qedushas Beis HaKenesses

When a Jew talks during davening in a shul in America,
A shul in Netzarim is set aflame.
That’s the lesson I took from this Elul. The feelings generated from pictures of the fires and celebrations made me realize something. I care a lot more about the sanctity of a synagogue and all that it stands for than what I follow through in action.A thought, written minutes before I leave for Selichos: We have an opportunity to use those feelings as they are awoken by the news, to take the awe for Hashem that one can only feel as hurricane after hurricane washes away entire cities and leaves us no means of help but prayer.

For some shuls, thank G-d, speaking is not the issue. In some places, perhaps it’s that people trickle in 15 minutes or more late. In another, the davening runs as it should, but no one thinks of putting away the siddurim afterward; the sefarim collect on the tables in every-growing piles. Each of us can look at where we are and ask ourselves — what can I do constructively to address the loss of sanctity as synagogues burned to the ground amidst celebrations and looting?

So I ask you: Please don’t talk to me in shul. I’m weak, and easily distracted.

Qedushas Beis HaKenesses, part II

In an earlier entry, I suggested that we take the feelings generated by seeing the shuls of Azza ransacked, and use them to motivate our behavior in our own synagogues. Including (but not limited to) cutting down on the talking.I since learned of a program produced by the Orthodox Union for this past Shabbos with exactly the same thought in mind. Here’s a snippet:

In recent weeks we have been witness to devastating images of burning synagogues in Gaza, flooded synagogues in New Orleans — and perhaps soon, although we hope not, in the Houston area as well. This is surely cause for mourning, for the synagogue is the backbone of any Kehilla Kedosha, a holy Jewish community. This destruction is therefore emblematic of the loss of Torah and kedusha in the world.

In light of these tragic events, both in Gush Katif and in the American South, the Orthodox Union is calling on all of its member synagogues across the United States and Canada to participate in a Shabbat program for the purpose of giving increased emphasis to the holiness of our shuls. We ask you to institute a Ta’anit Dibbur – a period free of conversation – during the morning davening of the last Shabbat of the year 5765, Parshat Nitzavim, October 1, 2005.

So it’s too late to join them. It’s still a good and necessary idea, and not a bad thing to try for Shabbos Shuvah. Here’s their advice:

Levity is forbidden in synagogues and batei medrash. Levity includes, among other things, joking, laughing and idle conversation. (Orach Chayim 151)Idle conversation even includes discussion of secular subjects that is permitted elsewhere, such as business matters, not to mention generally forbidden talk, such as Lashon Hara, rechilus and quarrelsome speech. (Mishneh Brura ibid.)

During the Chazan’s repetition of Shmoneh Esray the congregation must remain silent, concentrate and answer “amen” after each bracha. If there are not at least nine individuals concentrating on the brachos, then they are considered brachos levatalah. Therefore, each person should conduct himself as if there will not be nine concentrating without him. (Orach Chayim 124)

Even reciting Tehilim or other prayers and learning Torah are forbidden during the Chazan’s repetition of Shmoneh Esray. (Mishneh Brura, ibid.; Derech Moshe as quoted in L’sefer Hagan, section 28)

Conversation is strictly forbidden during the Chazan’s repetition of Shmoneh Esray. If one speaks at this time, his sin is too great to bear, and he must be reprimanded. (Orach Chayim 124) We have witnessed the destruction of a number of synagogues due to this sin. (Mishneh Brura, ibid., quoting Eliyah Rabba)

Once Krias Hatorah has begun, it is forbidden to talk, even words of Torah. It is highly questionable whether one may even learn Torah silently instead of following the Torah reading. (Orach Chayim 146; Beur Halacha, ibid.)

It is forbidden to talk or learn during any other part of davening, even during the recitation of supplementary piyutim that one is not accustomed to say. (Orach Chayim 68)

Idle conversation is forbidden even when the congregation is not praying, i.e., before and after davening. (Derech Moshe Hanispach L’sefer Hagan section 29, quoting Rambam)

A person must make it clear to others that he does not talk in shul, and he should do so in a way that makes them want to act as he does. (Sefer Peleh Yoetz)

Follow these halachos no matter what those around you say or do. Cultivate your personal sense of Hashem’s constant presence and acknowledge the fact that when you enter a shul or bais medrash you are, quite literally, in immediate proximity to the Shechina. If you do not believe this, cannot take it seriously, or feel indifferent to it, recognize that you have a serious problem of fundamental faith that is necessarily infecting all of your Torah learning and observance. Pray to the Ribono Shel Olam for help and seek guidance from an authentic Torah personality.

Two Temidim a Day

The Shulchan Aruch, section Orakh Chaim opens as follows (1:1)

יתגבר כארי לעמוד בבוקר לעבודת בוראו, שיהא הוא מעורר השחר.
הגה: ועכ”פ לא יאחר זמן התפלה שהצבור מתפללין (טור).
הגה: שויתי ה’ לנגדי תמיד (תהילים טז, ח), הוא כלל גדול בתורה ובמעלות הצדיקים אשר הולכים לפני האלהים, כי אין ישיבת האדם ותנועותיו ועסקיו והוא לבדו בביתו, כישיבתו ותנועותיו ועסקיו והוא לפני מלך גדול, ולא דבורו והרחבת פיו כרצונו והוא עם אנשי ביתו וקרוביו, כדבורו במושב המלך. כ”ש כשישים האדם אל לבו שהמלך הגדול הקב”ה, אשר מלא כל הארץ כבודו, עומד עליו ורואה במעשיו, כמו שנאמר: אם יסתר איש במסתרים ואני לא אראנו נאם ה’ (ירמיה כג, כד), מיד יגיע אליו היראה וההכנעה בפחד השי”ת ובושתו ממנו תמיד (מורה נבוכים ח”ג פ’ נ”ב), ולא יתבייש ב מפני בני אדם המלעיגים עליו בעבודת השי”ת. גם בהצנע לכת ובשכבו על משכבו ידע לפני מי הוא שוכב, ג ומיד שיעור משנתו יקום בזריזות לעבודת בוראו יתברך ויתעלה (טור).

[One must] make himself as strong as a lion to get up in the morning for service of his Creator, that he should wake up at dawn.

Ram”a: At least, one should not delay beyond the time when the congregation prays (Tur).

Ram”a: “I have set Hashem before me constantly” (Psalms 16:8); this is a major principle in the Torah and among the virtues of the righteous who walk before God. For a person’s way of sitting, his movements and his dealings while he is alone in his house are not like his way of sitting, his movements and his dealings when he is before a great king; nor are his speech and free expression as much as he wants when he is with his household members and his relatives like his speech when in a royal audience. All the more so when one takes to heart that the Great King, the Holy One, blessed is He, Whose glory fills the earth, is standing over him and watching his actions, as it is stated: “‘Will a man hide in concealment and I will not see him?’ – the word of G-d” (Jeremiah 23:24), he immediately acquires fear and submission in dread of G-d, may He be blessed, and is ashamed before Him constantly (Guide for the Perplexed 3:52). And one should not be ashamed because of people who mock him in his service of G-d, and should also go modestly. And when he lies on his bed he should know before Whom he lies, and as soon as he wakes up from sleep he should rise eagerly to the service of his Creator, may he Be blessed and exalted (Tur).

Orach Chaim concludes with the laws of Purim. The very last se’if (697:1) reads:

יום י”ד וט”ו שבאדר ראשון אין נופלים על פניהם, ואין אומרים מזמור יענך ה’ ביום צרה, ואסור בהספד ותענית; אבל שאר דברים אין נוהגים בהם; וי”א דאף בהספד ותענית מותרים.
הגה: והמנהג כסברא הראשונה. י”א שחייב להרבות במשתה ושמחה בי”ד שבאדר ראשון (טור בשם הרי”ף) ואין נוהגין כן, מ”מ ירבה קצת בסעודה כדי לצאת ידי המחמירים; וטוב לב משתה תמיד (משלי ט”ו, ט”ו) (הגהות מיימוני בשם סמ”ק).

On the 14th and 15th of Adar I [in a two Adar year] we do not fall on our faces [to say Tachanun], and we do not say “Mizmor: Yaankha Hashem beYom Tzarah” and eulogizing and fasting are prohibited. However the other things [of Purim] are not practiced on them, and some say even eulogizing and fasting are permitted.

Ram”a: And the practice is like the first reasoning. Some say that there is an obligation to have a lot of feasting and happiness on the 14th of Adar I (Tur in the name of the Rif) and we do not practice this. In any case, he should increase somewhat in his meals in order to fulfil the position of those who are stringent — “and a good heart is constantly celebrating” (Mishlei 15:15). (Hagahos Maimoni in the name of the Semaq)

The first hing I wish to note is that Orach Chaim, the guide to hand washing, tzitzis, prayer, blessings, Shabbos, other holidays, and in general a lot of ritual opens and closes with a discussion of middos! The first halakhah is about zerizus (alacrity), which the Rama ties to yir’ah (fear/awe) by citing “I have set Hashem before me constantly” and it closes with a discussion of simchah, happiness!

Rav Aharon Rakeffet Rothkoff recently discussed this in a shiur he gave at the Gruss Kollel. (A recording is available on YUTorah.org here.)

One Purim at the se’udah, when people were feeling a little levity, Rav Chaim Volozhiner asked his Rebbe, the Vilna Gaon, for a berakahah. The Vilna Gaon blessed him that he would merit bring two temidim daily. Rav Chaim was thrown — we do not bring the tamid, the twice-daily offering, today as there is no beis hamiqdash! (Should I deduce from this that Rav Chaim was a kohein? After all, it was possible there would have been a third beis hamiqdash in his lifetime, but being a non-kohein would rule out the possibility in any eventuality.)

The Vilna Gaon referred him to the glosses of the Rama that we quoted. The Rama opens with a quote from Tehillim “שויתי ה’ לנגדי תמיד — I have set Hashem before me constantly” and he ends with a quote from Mishlei “וטוב לב משתה תמיד – and a good heart is constantly celebrating”. These two appearance of “tamid“, constant yir’ah and constant simchah are the two tamid offerings one can bring daily!

Awe and Fear

In a relatively recent post (“Confrontation and Babel“) I invoked a quote from R’ J.B. Soloveitchik’s Confrontation to highlight the linkage between language and worldview, and thus between language and religion.

Rabbi Soloveitchik writes:

The great encounter between God and man is a wholly personal private affair incomprehensible to the outsider – even to a brother of the same faith community. The divine message is incommunicable since it defies all standardized media of information and all objective categories. If the powerful community of the many feels like remedying an embarrassing human situation or redressing an historic wrong, it should do so at the human ethical level. However, if the debate should revolve around matters of faith, then one of the confronters will be impelled to avail himself of the language of his opponent. This in itself would mean surrender of individuality and distinctiveness.

I elaborated:

Words are pigeonholes for ideas. … A community tends to refer to some concept, be it “ball”, “run” or “salvation”, and therefore their language has a word for it. If the idea rarely comes up, they would use an expression to define it. But if the idea isn’t part of their worldview altogether, one would have to start with the differences in givens and spend hours building up our worldview in order to explain the idea to them….

… To someone who thinks in English, fear and anxiety caused by danger, the unknown or the possibility of erring are all variants of the same thing. …

I recently gave a talk on yir’ah which opened by discussing an example I gave then: the difference between dividing our emotional space between the “territories” of fear (and panic, terror, fright…) and awe and dividing our emotional space between yir’ah, pachad and eimah.

The Himba-Western Color Test

The Himba people of Nigeria are a favorite among some linguists and cognitive scientists. There was once a theory that if a society has only two words for color, they would refer to white and black. If there were a third word, red. And so on for the 11 most used color words that appear in English — and thus other languages. Which would imply that there is something hard-wired about how people perceive color. But the Himba did not focus on the hue of a color, where it sits in the spectrum. To them, darkness and lightness (to be more specific saturation and value) is just as primary. And thus they don’t share the same line between green and blue as we do.

To be specific, see the color chart at right. There are actually two colors that are not the same as the others. One you’ll probably see right away, the other may take longer, if you notice it at all.

To a Westerner, the aqua square at the second from the bottom on the right is obviously different. However, the lighter green square in the left column, second from the top, is a more of a challenge.

To the Himba, the reverse is true. They have only 4 primary color words, but they learn different words for these two shades of green when they are young, and the difference becomes obvious to them. However, the aqua square as the same darkness as the green ones, and so distinguishing it is a challenge.

This is startling, but it shows how much our perceptions are shaped by how we tag them. We use words to review our memories. So how we remember something also gets shaped by the language we use.

If this is true for something empirical, like color, how much more so for something so much harder to put a finger on, like fear or awe.

To really understand what yir’ah and yir’as Shamayim (yir’ah for [the One in] heaven) mean, we have to learn how to shift from thinking of yir’ah as a category that straddles awe and fear to thinking in terms of yir’ah itself.

Pachad and Eimah

To make this shift, I would step back and look at the other major “countries” dividing up this middah “continent” in the Torah’s terms.

The Chumash reads (in “Az Yashir”, Shemos 15:16):

תִּפֹּל עֲלֵיהֶם אֵימָתָה וָפַחַד בִּגְדֹל זְרוֹעֲךָ יִדְּמוּ כָּאָבֶן עַד יַעֲבֹר עַמְּךָ ה עַד יַעֲבֹר עַם זוּ קָנִיתָ

Terror and dread will fall upon them by the greatness of Your “Arm” they are as still as stone; until Your people cross, Hashem, until this people whom You acquired cross [the sea].

Rashi there comments:

“תפול עליהם אימתה” – (מכילתא) על הרחוקים

“ופחד” – על הקרובים כענין שנאמר (יהושע ב) “כי שמענו את אשר הוביש” וגו’

Eimah will fall upon them — those who are far. (Mekhilta)

And pachad — those who are near, like the matter which it says, “we [the people of Jericho] have heard how Hashem dried up the water of the Sea of Reeds…”

Eimah is remote, pachad is immediate.

Looking ateimah in particular, Yeshaiah 33:18

לִבְּךָ יֶהְגֶּה אֵימָה אַיֵּה סֹפֵר אַיֵּה שֹׁקֵל אַיֵּה סֹפֵר אֶת הַמִּגְדָּלִים.

Your heat will contemplate the eimah: ‘Where is he that counted, where is he that weighed? Where is he that counted the towers?’

Rashi:

“לבך יהגה אימה” – כשתראה השרים והחכמים של עכו”ם שהיו שליטים בחייהן והרי הם נידונים בגיהנם יהגה לבך אימה ותאמר איה חכמתן וגדולתן של אלו איה שהיה סופר בחייו ושוקל כל דבר חכמה שהיו שואלין ממנו כל עצת מלכות

Your heart will contemplate the eimah — When you see the lords and sages of the idolatrous nations that in their lifetimes are ruling, and behold they are being judged in gehenam “Your heart will contemplate the eimah” and say “Where is their wisdom and greatness? Where is the one who was a scribe in his life and weighed out every piece of wisdom that they asked of him, all of the advice for the king?”

As we saw in Shemos, those who heard of the crossing of the Sea of Reeds from afar experienced eimah. It also describes the experience of watching in wonder at the complete loss of greatness of the ruling class of the nations that oppress us. One experiences eimah when encountering the unknown.

Pachad, as we saw is the flip-side. It comes with immediacy. As when Yaaqov invoked the merit of Yitzchaq at the Aqeidah by referring to “pachad Yitzchaq” (Bereishis 31:42, c.f. Kelei Yaqar ad loc).Yitzchaq, whose prayer is described as going out “lasuach basadeh — to flirt [with G-d] in the field” experienced G-d as an immediate and very real presence. Pachad describes our fear of snakes.

Yir’ah

But both eimah and pachad incapacitate. Eimah freezes us with an inability to decide in the absence of data and surety; pachad triggers the fight-or-flight reflex, pushing us to react without taking the time for contemplation, for free-willed decision-making.

In contrast, yir’ah is the very essence of free will.

ואמר רבי חנינא הכל בידי שמים חוץ מיראת שמים שנאמר (דברים י:יב) “ועתה ישראל מה ה’ אלהיך שואל מעמך כי אם ליראה…?”

אטו יראת שמים מילתא זוטרתא היא? והא”ר חנינא משום ר’ שמעון בן יוחי: אין לו להקב”ה בבית גנזיו אלא אוצר של יראת שמים. שנאמר (ישעיהו לג:ו) “יראת ה’ היא אוצרו.” אין. לגבי משה, מילתא זוטרתא היא. דאמר ר’ חנינא: משל לאדם שמבקשים ממנו כלי גדול, ויש לו. דומה עליו ככלי קטן. קטן, ואין. לו דומה עליו ככלי גדול:

Rabbi Chanina said: Everything is in the hands of Heaven except yir’as Shamayim, as it says: “And now, Israel, what does Hashem your G-d demand of you but to feel yir’ah?” (Deuteronomy 10:12).

Is then the fear of Heaven a small thing?! Didn’t [the same] Rabbi Chanina say in the name of Rabbi Simeon bar Yohai: God has in his storehouse nothing but the treasure of yir’as Shamayim, as it says: “The fear of the Lord is His treasure” [Isaiah 33:6]. Yes, for Moses it was a small thing. For as Rabbi Hanina said: It is like a person who is asked for a big vessel and he has it, it seems to him to be small; [if asked for] a small vessel and he does not have it, it seems to him to be big.

- Berakhos 33b (there are other versions at Megillah 25a and Niddah 16b)

Yir’ah is the one thing Hashem treasures because only something that is sourced in yir’ah is from a free decision by a person, rather than from Him. We see this contrast in theextended Birkhas Qedushah (the third berakahah of the Amidah) for the Yamim Nora’im:

ובכן תן פחדך ה’ אלוקינו על כל מעשיך,
ואימתך על כל מה שבראת,
וייראוך כל המעשים
וישתחוו לפניך כל הברואים,
ויעשו כולם אגודה אחת לעשות רצונך בלבב שלם….

And so, place Your pachad, Hashem our G-d, on all that You have made, and Your eimah on all that you have created,
and all that were made will have yir’ah for You, and all that were created will bow before You,
and they will all be made into a single confederation to do Your Will whole-heartedly….

Pachad and eimah are placed on people by G-d. Yir’ah is something we do of our own.

In a future post (hopefully soon), I’ll discuss what yir’ah is. The points I’m trying to leave you with now are:

1- Words are how we divide the space of ideas into more specific “countries”. Our choice of vocabulary therefore not only reflects our thoughts, but shape them. And more importantly, they change what parts of our experience we notice, remember, and reinforce in our memories. A point the “Himba-Western Color Test” highlights. We could be living in different worlds.

2- In particular, we can’t really work on our yir’as Shamayim if we continue dividing the space in terms of fear (and terror, panic, etc…) and awe. Yir’ah may cover some of the same territory as the English concept of “fear” and much of the territory as “awe”. But yir’ah doesn’t come in two types / flavors / aspects. It is one stretch of emotional space.

3- And now that we looked at the neighboring “countries” of pachad and eimah, we are ready to explore the yir’ah as a primary concept in its own right.

The Country of Yir’ah

The time it took me to write my previous post grew long, so I cut it down to being set-up material for this one just to get it out the door. Here was the summary with which I left things:

1- Words are how we divide the space of ideas into more specific “countries”. Our choice of vocabulary therefore not only reflects our thoughts, but shape them. And more importantly, they change what parts of our experience we notice, remember, and reinforce in our memories. A point the “Himba-Western Color Test” highlights. We could be living in different worlds.

2- In particular, we can’t really work on our yir’as Shamayim if we continue dividing the space in terms of fear (and terror, panic, etc…) and awe. Yir’ah may cover some of the same territory as the English concept of “fear” and much of the territory as “awe”. But yir’ah doesn’t come in two types / flavors / aspects. It is one stretch of emotional space.

3- And now that we looked at the neighboring “countries” of pachad and eimah, we are ready to explore the yir’ah as a primary concept in its own right.

To elaborate the last point:

… [E]imah and pachad incapacitate. Eimah freezes us with an inability to decide in the absence of data and surety; pachad triggers the fight-or-flight reflex, pushing us to react without taking the time for contemplation, for free-willed decision-making.

In contrast, yir’ah is the very essence of free will.

ואמר רבי חנינא הכל בידי שמים חוץ מיראת שמים…

Rabbi Chanina said: Everything is in the hands of Heaven except yir’as Shamayim…

The truth is, I already wrote what I still think of (7-1/2 years later) as my canonical attempt to define yir’ah. It’s a fusion of the beginning of the treatment in Mesilas Yesharim with Rav Avram Elya Kaplan’s Be’iqvos haYir’ah. To quote excerpts:

In Mesilas Yesharim, the Ramchal (R’ Moshe Chaim Luzato) writes of three kinds of yir’ah (fear / awe / awareness of magnitude).

1- Yir’as ha’onesh: fear of punishment. This is the lowest of the three. However, since even fear of punishment is a motivator, even yir’as ha’onesh is viewed positively.

R’ Shlomo Wolbe zt”l writes that today, we’ve lost that motivating quality. Punishment invokes more thoughts of rebellion than of compliance. …

2- Yir’as Shamayim: fear of [the One in] heaven

This is the lofty goal. It, in turn, comes in two flavors:

2a- Yir’as hacheit: fear of sin. This is distinct from the fear of punishment; it’s fear of the sin itself, of the possibility of erring. Mesilas Yesharim continues that when a traditional source speaks of “yir’ah” without specification, it means yir’as hacheit (fear of the sin [itself]).

Which would mean that it’s fair to assume this is the kind of yir’as shamayim is the one R’ Avraham Elya Kaplan described in Be’ikvos haYir’ah (translation from an article by R’ Yosef Gavriel Bechhofer):

…To what may yir’ah be likened? To the tremor of fear which a father feels when his beloved young son rides his shoulders as he dances with him and rejoices before him, taking care that he not fall off. Here there is joy that is incomparable, pleasure that is incomparable. And the fear tied up with them is pleasant too. It does not impede the freedom of dance…

It is a kind of fear of heaven that one is worried about letting G-d down, about doing something that would ruin the relationship.

The Maharal (Nesivas Olam, Nesiv Yir’as Hashem chapter 1) writes that “yir’as hacheit” (fear of the sin itself, which the Ramchal called the default definition) comes from a love of Hashem. When you love Someone, you give great importance to not disappointing Him.

2b- Yir’as haRomemus: fear of the Grandeur [of G-d]

Sadly, Rav AE Kaplan died in his early 30s and didn’t live to marry off a child. Having recently had that experience, I would provide what I think is a parallel but more extreme — and thus hopefully more clear — metaphor than dancing with one’s son: Yir’ah is what makes participating in one’s own daughter’s wedding so much more exciting and joyous than when attending the wedding of one’s neighbor’s daughter.

In music, a pedal point is “is a sustained tone, typically in the bass, during which at least one foreign, i.e., dissonant harmony is sounded in the other parts.” (Wikipedia) A low pitched note typically played on a pipe organ (with the pedal, the the name) and held. Even though the sound may fade from the conscious, it is played for its effects on how we perceive the other notes. One of the things a pedal point provides is a sense of weight to the music by giving a nice rich bass sound. Its role in music is akin to yir’ah‘s role in our psyche.

(Tangent: The pipe-organ evolved from a musical instrument used in the second Beis haMiqdash, the magreifah. [Eirkhin 10b-11a] Interestingly, another instrument that also has the magreifah in its ancestry also has notes played and held in order to give a bass and weight to the music is the bagpipe with its drones.)

Pachad is fear of the other, the instinctive fight-or-flight when encountering a danger. But while yir’as ha’onesh is equally a self-preservational fear, to avoid personal pain, it is a fear of making the wrong choice. The danger is in my control — if I make the right choice. For someone to have yir’as ha’onesh they have to at least understand their choices. Otherwise, one faces eimah, the fear of the unknown and the terror of a life out of control.

What then is yir’ah? It’s the experience of encountering the the valuable. If we were to think in terms of awe and fear, both are involved; the awe of the Other and fear of ruining the encounter with it come as one. In the case of yir’as Shamayim, it is both yir’as haRomemus, the awe of standing before Divine Grandeur, as well as yir’as hachait, the fear of committing an action that is not in accord with respecting that Grandeur.

We saw that Moshe Rabbeinu tells us that all Hashem demands of us is yir’ah, and Rav Chanina explained that this is because Rav Chanina saying that every free-willed decision revolves around yir’as Shamayim.

This idea underpins one of the Mussar Movement’s foundation stories. A young Yisrael Lipkin used to follow R’ Zundel Salanter around. Rav Zundel wanted to live privately, secretly, so Rav Yisrael had to sneak around to watch the actions of this ba’al mussar. One time, he followed Rav Zundel into the woods, where Rav Zundel engaged in passionate hispa’alus (pouring out his soul “with lips aflame”). (No, this really isn’t a Breslov story…) Suddenly, Rav Zundel turned around, made eye contact, and instructed, “ישראל, לערן מוסר, אז דו זאלסט וערען א ירא שמים — Learn mussar so that you will be one who lives in awe of [the One in] Heaven!” Nesivos Or relates that Rav Yisrael Salanter called the moment a “thunderbolt” that changed his life.

Every time we choose something over its alternative, we are weighing pros and cons. We used some metric to decide one side was in some way greater than the other. That “greatness” could be in moral terms, clarity of truth, aesthetic pleasure, creature comforts or whatever — but on some scale the side that was chosen was found to be greater. Thus, every decision revolves around whether we use the Absolute system of values, aligning with Hashem’s plan for us, or some other metric.

I expect to be writing one more piece in this series: How yir’ah interrelates with other middos. (Prelude — Yir’ah and love or yir’ah and happiness are not dialectics or contrasts…)

Yir’ah and its Middos

The story so far…

Words are how we divide the space of ideas into more specific “countries”. Our choice of vocabulary therefore not only reflects our thoughts, but shape them. And more importantly, they change what parts of our experience we notice, remember, and reinforce in our memories. We can’t really work on our yir’as Shamayim if we continue dividing the space in terms of fear (and terror, panic, etc…) and awe. Yir’ah may cover some of the same territory as the English concept of “fear” and much of the territory as “awe”. But the language the mesorah speaks in does not divide this “continent” by the feelings generated by neurochemicals and hormones. Rather, it speaks of each constelation and dynamic of emotions in various kinds of encounters and entities in themselves. Pachad in the face of a well understood thread, eimah when facing something remote and incomprehensible, and yir’ah. Defining yir’ah as “awe / fear” misses this basic difference in perspective. We still think in terms of various bodily responses rather than recognizing the feeling of participating in something important — both the awe of the moment and the fear of making the wrong decision about something momentous. In reality, it’s all one sensation.


A thought that would have belonged in my previous post if I would have had the before writing it…

Rabbi Chanina speaks of “yir’as Shamayim” rather than “yir’as Hashem” when he says “All is in the control [literally: hands of] Shamayim except for yir’as Shamayim.” The one thing we can choose for ourselves is what we value. Are those values in line with Hashem’s plan for us, or are they creations of our own? Yir’ah as the key to free will isn’t so much our notion of Hashem’s importance in and of itself as the importance of that which He decreed central to our lives. This is “Shamayim“, Hashem in the context of a “retinue” running the universe.

But now, on to the intended topic…


Yir’ah, Zehirus and Zerizus

Zehirus is usually translated Watchfulness or Caution. I would suggest “Awareness”. The Ramchal opens Mesilas Yesharim ch. 2 (tr. R’ Shraga Simmons) with a description:

הנה ענין הזהירות הוא שיהיה האדם נזהר במעשיו ובעניניו, כלומר, מתבונן ומפקח על מעשיו ודרכיו, הטובים הם אם לא, לבלתי עזוב נפשו לסכנת האבדון חס וחלילה ולא ילך במהלך הרגלו כעור באפלה.

THE IDEA OF WATCHFULNESS is for a man to exercise caution in his actions and his undertakings; that is, to deliberate and watch over his actions and his accustomed ways to determine whether or not they are good, so as not to abandon his soul to the danger of destruction, God forbid, and not to walk according to the promptings of habit as a blind man in pitch darkness.

The connection to yir’ah is self-evident. Less obvious is the connection to zerizus. Again, turning to the Ramchal, this time ch. 6:

אחר הזהירות יבוא הזריזות, כי הזהירות סובב על ה”לא תעשה” והזריזות על ה”עשה”, והיינו (תהילים לד:טו): סוּר מֵרָע וַעֲשֵׂה טוֹב. וענינו של הזריזות מבואר, שהוא ההקדמה למצות ולהשלמת ענינם. … ותראה כי טבע האדם כבד מאד, כי עפריות החמריות גס, על כן לא יחפוץ האדם בטורח ומלאכה. ומי שרוצה לזכות לעבודת הבורא יתברך, צריך שיתגבר נגד טבעו עצמו ויתגבר ויזדרז, שאם הוא מניח עצמו ביד כבדותו, ודאי הוא שלא יצליח. הוא מה שאמר התנא (אבות ה:כ): הֱוֵי עַז כַּנָּמֵר, וְקַל כַּנֶּשֶׁר, וְרָץ כַּצְּבִי, וְגִבּוֹר כָּאֲרִי לַעֲשׂוֹת רְצוֹן אָבִיךָ שֶׁבַּשָּׁמָיִם….

AFTER WATCHFULNESS comes Zeal, Watchfulness pertaining to the negative commandments and Zeal to the positive, in accordance with the idea of “Depart from evil and do good (Psalms 34:15).” “Zeal,” as the name implies, signifies alacrity in the pursuit and fulfillment of mitzvos. … A person’s nature exercises a strong downward pull upon him. This is so because the grossness which characterizes the substance of earthiness keeps a man from desiring exertion and labor. One who wishes, therefore, to attain to the service of the Creator, may His Name be blessed, must strengthen himself against his nature and be zealous. If he leaves himself in the hands of his downward-pulling nature, there is no question that he will not succeed. As the Tanna says (Avos 5:20) “Be fierce as a leopard, light as an eagle, swift as a deer and strong as a lion to do the will of your Father in heaven.”

Zerizus is described at the flipside of zehirus. What zehirus taught us about when not to act (“sur meira — turn from evil”), zerizus teaches about when to do so (“va’asei tov – and do good”). More than that, the Ramchal notes that the basic job in developing zerizus is fighting the mass that comes with a body, laziness. Zerizus is actually a form of zehirus; it is a caution about being overly lazy, being aware about the cost of inaction.

Both are actually expressions of yir’ah, fear of damaging some of great value.

As we saw, yir’ah is the point about which free will revolves. It is not surprising, then, that both the motive for inaction and for action flows so directly from yir’ah.

Yir’ah and Anavah

These two middos are the transitive and intransitive versions of the same worldview, respectively. Yir’ah is my estimation of the other and my concern of damaging my connection to greatness. Anavah is the realization that my estimation of my self does not outweigh the importance of my connections to the other.

I also posted once on how true anavah motivates, because it as an awareness of the grand scheme of things and one’s place in it. Unlike the damaging effects of Rav Zechariah ben Avqulos’s modesty, when his inability to take a stand led to the destruction of the Temple. And perhaps this is why the gemara takes pains to coin the word “anavanus” for that story, rather than the usual term, “anavah“. This parallels what we saw about yir’ah, in contrast to pachad and eimah. Yir’ah is constructive; it motivates seeking appropriate action.

Yir’ah and Simchah

In the previous post in this sequence (“The Country of Yir’ah“) I already quoted Rav Avraham Elya Kaplan’s example of theyir’ah of dancing with your young son on your shoulders:

When the Torah was given to Israel solemnity and joy came down bundled together. They are fused together and cannot be separated. That is the secret of “gil be’re’ada” (joy in trembling) mentioned in Tehillim. Dance and judgment, song and law became partners with each other… Indeed, this is the balance… A rod of noble yir’ah passes through the rings of joy…  [It is] the inner rod embedded deep in an individual’s soul that connects end to end [like the inner rod that held together the walls of the Mishkan, it links complete joy in this world (eating, drinking and gift giving) to that which is beyond this world (remembering the [inevitable] day of death) to graft one upon the other so to produce eternal fruit.

He continues:

Indeed, this is the direct relationship. Indeed, this is the true vision that we call yir’ah… And this, therefore, is the reason that we dwell so much on fear of punishment (“yir’as ha’onesh”). This is also vision – seeing things as they really are… One who refuses to see his future shortchanges only himself. Only if he sees (re’iyah) will he fear (yir’ah), and only if he fears will he repent… And from here we proceed to the fear [awe] of loftiness (“yir’as haromemus”) – that is the vision [the perception] of loftiness. From here – “The maid servant at the Red Sea saw loftier visions than the Prophet Yechezkel.” From here comes the direct view, across all the dividers, to the source of existence. This is an unceasing inner gaze toward the matter that is one’s responsibility [the bundle of his life's meaning] (that he must safeguard lest it fall…). The gaze is one that leads to remembrance, remembrance that leads to care, care that leads to confidence, confidence that leads to strength (“oz”) – an inner, bold, uplifting, strength (“Hashem oz li’amo yiten…”) and a strength that leads to peace (“shalom”) and wholeness, internally and externally, in thought and in deed (“… Hashem yivareich es amo ba’shalom”). Indeed, This is the wisdom of life: “Reishis chochma yir’as Hashem.” A fear that is vision. “And remember” – “And see” – “Shivisi Hashem l’negdi tamid…

This then is the preamble to the Song at the Sea (Shemos 14:31-15:1):

וַיַּרְא יִשְׂרָאֵל אֶת הַיָּד הַגְּדֹלָה אֲשֶׁר עָשָׂה ה בְּמִצְרַיִם, וַיִּירְאוּ הָעָם אֶת ה, וַיַּאֲמִינוּ בַּה’ וּבְמֹשֶׁה עַבְדּוֹ. אָז יָשִׁיר מֹשֶׁה וּבְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל אֶת הַשִּׁירָה הַזֹּאת…

And Yisrael saw the Great Power [lit: Hand] which Hashem did in Egypt, and the nation had yir’ah for Hashem, and they believed in Hashem, and in Moshe His servant. Then Moshe and the Benei Yisrael would sing this song…

Sight (re’iyah) leads to yir’ah, leads to trust and faith (emunah), which leads to bursting out in joyous song.

Yir’ah gives an event or process the importance, the momentum, necessary to move us to joy.

Yir’ah and Ahavah

Yir’ah and love are often portrayed in contrast, as though they were poles of a dialectic. And if yir’ah meant “fear” this would be understandable. Fear for something drives out the possibility of living it. Even awe has some level of conflict with love — awe gives one a feeling of distance, love is an emotion of attachment, of closeness.

But yir’ah is an awareness of the value of something. And something that isn’t valued, that isn’t thought of as important, can’t be the object of love.

Yir’as hacheit flows from ahavas Hashem. It is very much the feeling a husband in a happy marriage has when making decisions that would impact his wife. He is not afraid of her revenge, but one that flows from how important it is to him that she remain happy. It is not the fear of repercussions for sinning, it is fear of the sin itself, of wronging my Beloved.

Yir’ah without love – surely there is here a deficiency of yir’ah;
love without yir’ah – there is nothing here at all.

- R. Yitzchak Hutner, Igeros uKesavim pg 346