Shekalim 9

Ladder to perfection.

Rabbi Pinchas Ben Yair said that being very careful (eager to follow the right path) leads to cleanliness (in our way of life), cleanliness leads to purity (of thought), purity leads to holiness (being different), holiness leads to modesty (relating to other human beings with care), modesty leads to avoiding doing the wrong thing, avoidance leads to piety, piety leads to being close to the Holy Spirit (encountering God), the Holy Spirit leads to resurrection (life after death), and resurrection leads to Elijah may he be remembered for good.

This quote from today’s daf is repeated in the Mishnah, the Babylonian Talmud, and the Jerusalem Talmud. It lists the steps required to become a genuinely religious and moral human being — a path, perhaps we might say, to perfection. The actual meaning of each step has been argued about for generations and still is. All translations are subjective; this one is mine.

The rabbi who gives us this road map, Rabbi Pinchas ben Yair, was a second-century Tanna (a rabbi from the generations that authored the Mishnah) and, according to Shabbat 33b, the son-in-law of the great mystic Rabbi Shimon Bar Yohai. (According to the Zohar, he was his father-in-law.) He was regarded as the epitome of the holy man. His holiness leant him marvelous powers. For instance, in a few pages we will see that he miraculously saves a girl who had drowned and the Talmud records several cases in which he parts waters like Moses.

Rabbi Pinchas ben Yair’s holiness is also expressed in being very particular about adhering to the letter as well as the spirit of the law — particularly when it comes to financial obligation. In a few pages’ time, we will see that he was so particular about not eating anything that was not properly tithed (i.e. the Temple taxes on that item had not been set aside) that when his donkey was stolen, it refused to eat the un-tithed food its captors offered it. Eventually, they turned it free because it was on track to starve to death and be of no use to them.

Rabbi Pinchas ben Yair’s terse prescription for spiritual perfection raises many questions. What do we mean by Separation? Holy Spirit? Resurrection? Why does it all culminate in the prophet Elijah who will herald the Messiah, rather than the Messiah himself? All of it needs clarification — but none is offered in the Gemara. The teaching is likely purposefully difficult; not meant for the masses but for esoteric mystics. 

Pinchas ben Yair knew full well that most people would never be able to reach this level of spiritual perfection — indeed, perhaps none. And many of us would not be able to understand most of these steps. But in laying out this path, he invites us to strive ever higher, to emulate these spiritual ideals and constantly try to up our religious game. Because none of us is above improvement — except perhaps Elijah.

Read all of Shekalim 9 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on March 30th, 2021. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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