Meet Ben Azzai: “Despise No One!”

Ben Azzai used to say: Despise no one and think nothing impossible, for every person has their day, and every thing has its place. – Pirkei Avot 4:3

So who was this Ben Azzai? His full name was Shimon Ben Azzai, and he lived in the early years of the second century. He was a brilliant student of the rabbis, famous for his diligence in study and for his piety. Despite his youth, his words appear in several places in the Talmud. However, his is a sad story, because he had a very short life. He died young in a tragic accident and never married, so he left no children.

There’s a very famous story in the Talmud about Ben Azzai’s death. He was one of four pious Jews who were doing mystical meditation or kabbalah. Rabbi Akiva was truly ready for the experience and survived it. Ben Zoma was driven mad by it. Elisha ben Abuya rejected the vision and caused great destruction. Shimon ben Azzai died.

When you hear that a student “should be married and older than 40″ to study Kabbalah, this is the story behind that saying. Even though these four were brilliant, only Rabbi Akiva survived the mystical union with God, because he was the only one sufficiently prepared for the experience. Ben Azzai became the example of the pure, young, brilliant soul who flew too high and too fast, a Jewish Icarus.

So back to our passage from Pirkei Avot. The first time I read it, I was reassured by it. It seemed to say to me that there was hope for me, even though I was beginning my studies late in life, even though I struggled to learn Hebrew. “Despise no one, even yourself!” I imagined Ben Azzai saying to me.

Then I learned who he was, and the saying deepened in its meaning. “Despise no one” is a nice thing to say, but when it comes from the mouth of a young prodigy it is particularly touching. When one is young and brilliant, so brilliant that Rabbi Akiva invites one to study with him, one is rarely wise enough or humble enough to say, “Despise no one.” Now I imagine Ben Azzai saying it to himself: “Yes, Ben Azzai, you have been given brains and great teachers – but despise no one!”

“…for every person has their day…” Each of us has some important piece of Torah to do in our lifetime. We don’t know what that piece of Torah might be. Maybe I’ve already done mine; maybe it’s still ahead of me. But if I skip some mitzvah, dodge some responsibility, I might miss it, and what a tragedy that would be!

Ben Azzai argues for the importance of every life, no matter how humble. He is arguing even for the importance of things: every little part of creation has its place. We must never forget that every one of us is included in God’s summary of creation, on the sixth day:

And God saw every thing that God had made, and, behold, it was very good. And there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day. – Genesis 1:31

Tu B’Shevat for Beginners

There’s a wonderful Jewish holiday coming soon – 15 Sh’vat, also known as Tu B’Shevat.

It’s not a huge big deal, unless you choose to make a big deal of it. However, if you are around a synagogue, you may hear about it. If you know Jews who are very concerned with the earth and its care, you may hear about it.

All Jewish holidays have changed through history. This one may have changed the most, because it has gone from being an accounting device (really! see below) to being Jewish Earth Day. What hasn’t changed is its other name: The New Year of the Trees.

Here are the basic facts for Tu B’Shevat:

1. THE NAME.  “Tu B’Shevat” means “15th of Shevat.” Tu is a way of pronouncing the letters that make up the number 15 in Hebrew. (For more about Hebrew numbers, check out this article in Wikipedia.) Shevat is the month in the Jewish calendar that includes the deep winter in Israel, generally January and a bit of February.

2. ORIGINAL MEANING. Tu B’Shevat is often referred to as the “New Year for Trees.” But didn’t we already celebrate a New Year at Rosh HaShanah?  And a secular New Year on January 1? This is the beginning of a fiscal year for agricultural accounting of plants in the Land of Israel. Originally, it was a calendar date at which farmers began counting the year for trees, so that they’d know when trees were old enough to reap the fruit according to Jewish Law (Leviticus 19:23-25), and the point from which tithes could be calculated.  At this time of year, the trees are either dormant or just beginning to blossom.

3. MYSTICAL MEANINGS. After the Jews were expelled from Spain in 1492, some traveled east to the land of Israel. Most settled in and around the town of Safed, in the northern Galilee, which became a center for Jewish mysticism (kabbalah.)  These mystics began to mark the holiday with a seder (ritual meal eaten in a particular order) somewhat like the Passover seder. At a Tu B’Shevat seder, four cups of wine are drunk and seven different kinds of fruit.  The seder was a celebration of rededication to the Land of Israel and an appreciation of its trees.

4. ZIONIST MEANINGS. With the return to the Land of Israel in the 19th and 20th centuries, Jews revived the observance of Tu B’Shevat as a rededication to the land and a celebration of the relationship between Jews and this particular plot of earth. Many Jews worldwide observed the custom of planting trees in Israel, to replace trees that had been stripped from the land during the Roman and Ottoman periods.

5. JEWISH EARTH DAY.  In the late 20th century, as concern for the environment has grown, Tu B’Shevat has taken on more meaning as a day for Jews to express their concern for ecological issues.  The Tu B’Shevat seder has been revived as not only a celebration of the Land of Israel and its trees, but as a celebration of the holiness of the earth and its creatures.

Image from Flickr Commons, no known copyright