Rabbi Yossi Slotnick
Former Rosh Kollel in Cape Town (1997-1998)
Currently Ra”m in Yeshivat Ma’ale Gilboa
This Shabbat, we will recite the fourth chapter of Pirkei Avot, which includes the following mishnah:
“R’ Shimon would say: There are three crowns: the crown of Torah, the crown of Kehunah (priesthood) and the crown of sovereignty, but the crown of good name surmounts them all.”
An obvious question arises even following a cursory reading of this mishnah. Although R’ Shimon says that there are three crowns, he in fact lists four: Torah, Kehunah, sovereignty, and good name. However, there is a simple answer; the mishnah actually quotes two different speakers. While R’ Shimon does in fact believe that there are only three crowns (Torah, Kehunah, and sovereignty), a second, anonymous Tana adds that there is a fourth crown – the crown of good name – that surpasses the first three. Although there are several proofs for this explanation, I will bring just two:
1. Shmot Rabba (Vilna) 34
“R’ Shimon Bar Yochai said, ‘there are three crowns: the crown of sovereignty, the crown of Kehunah, and the crown of Torah. The crown of sovereignty is the Shulchan, as it is written about it: “A golden zer (diadem) all around.” The crown of Kehunah is the Mizbeach, as it is written about it: “A golden zer all around.” The crown of Torah is the Aron, as it is written about it: “A golden zer.”
“’Why are they written “zar” (stranger) but read “zer”? To tell you that if a person merits, they make him a zer, but if not, then a stranger. And why does it say “and you shall make for it” with respect to everything, but with respect to the Aron, it says “and you shall make on it”? To teach you that the crown of Torah surpasses all of them. If a person merits Torah, it is as if he merited them all.’”
In this midrash, R’ Shimon only discusses the first three crowns and does not even mention the crown of good name. A much earlier source develops this idea further.
2. Mechilta DiRabi Shimon Bar Yochai 19:6
“’These are the words which you shall speak to Bnei Yisrael.’ What are these words? These are the three crowns with which Israel was crowned: the crown of Torah, the crown of Kehunah, and the crown of sovereignty. R’ Natan says, ‘and the crown of good name surmounts them all.’”
In this midrash, we learn that R’ Natan is the Tana who disagrees with R’ Shimon.
For the duration of this article, I will focus on R’ Shimon’s words only and will suggest two approaches to the hierarchy of the three crowns. To that end, I will cite the formulations from Avot DiRabi Natan which pertain to our mishnah. Although the quoted mishnah includes the crown of good name, the subsequent discussion does not address this fourth crown at all.
Avot DiRabi Natan (A) – 41
“R’ Shimon says, ‘there are three crowns. They are: the crown of Torah, the crown of Kehunah and the crown of sovereignty, but the crown of good name surmounts them all.’
“The crown of Kehunah – how? Even if he were to give all the silver and gold in the world, he would still not be given the crown of Kehunah. As it says, ‘And it shall be for him and his offspring after him a covenant of eternal Kehunah.’ (Bamidbar 25:13)
“The crown of sovereignty. Even if he were to give all the silver and gold in the world, he would still not be given the crown of sovereignty. As it says, ‘and My servant David shall be their prince forever.’ (Yechezkel 37:25)
“But the crown of Torah is different. Whoever wants to seize the toil of Torah can come and seize. As it says, ‘Ho! All who thirst, go to water.’ (Yeshaya 55:1)”
According to this midrash, the crown of Torah is preferable, because it is the most accessible. The Torah is unique, not because its crown is more valuable, but because there are no preconditions. “Whoever wants can come and seize.”
In stark contrast, the second Avot DiRabi Natan formulation expresses a completely different viewpoint.
Avot DiRabi Natan (B) – 48
“R’ Shimon says, ‘there are three crowns: the crown of Torah, the crown of Kehunah [and the crown of sovereignty], but the crown of good name surmounts them all.’
“The crown of Torah. This is the crown of Moshe. As it says, ‘remember the Torah of Moshe, My servant etc.’ (Malachi 3:22)
“The crown of Kehunah. This is the crown of Aharon, which can not be touched. As it says, ‘it is an eternal covenant of salt before Hashem.’ (Bamidbar 18:19)
“The crown of sovereignty. This is the crown of David. As it says, ‘you must know that Hashem, the God of Israel, gave the kingdom to David.’ (Divrei HaYamim II 13:5)
“The crown of good name surmounts them all.”
“Whoever merits the Torah should come and seize it.
“Aharon only merited the Kehunah because of the Torah. As it says, “for a kohen’s lips shall guard knowledge, and the Torah will be sought from his mouth.’ (Malachi 2:7)
“David only merited the kingship because of the Torah. As it says, ‘this came to me because I kept Your precepts.’ (Tehillim 119:56)”
This midrash views the Torah as a necessary condition for the other crowns. In other words, the Torah is what brought Aharon the Kehunah and David the kingship. Thus, the midrash implies that everything in the world is somehow connected to and nourished from the Torah. Therefore, the crown of Torah is significant not only because of its accessibility; the crown of Torah is also imperative in order to achieve and produce anything whatsoever in this world.
During this period of preparation for kabalat haTorah, we must remember both of these lessons. First, the Torah is waiting for us to come and seize its crown, and second, if we do not seize it, the remaining crowns will stay far beyond our grasps.