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Acquiring Torah 15: The Tall Tree

Rabbi Akiva gave five instructions to Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai when Rabbi Akiva was incarcerated in prison (See Berachot 61b): Rabbi Shimon said to him, “Master! Teach me Torah!” Rabbi Akiva said, “I will not teach you (to protect his student from being imprisoned).” Rabbi Shimon said, “If you do not teach me, I will tell Yochai, my father, and he will report you to the government (for more serious crimes than those for which you were imprisoned [Maharsha])!” Rabbi Akiva said to him, “My son! More than the calf wishes to suck, the cow wishes to suckle.” Rabbi Shimon said to him, “But who is in danger? Is it not the calf (the student) that is in danger?” Rabbi Akiva said to him, “1. If you want to get yourself choked, hang yourself from a tall tree. 2. And when you teach your son, teach him with a book that has been corrected from mistakes. 3. Do not cook in a pot in which your friend has cooked. 4. If one wishes to perform a Mitzvah and profit handsomely, he should eat the produce and will have capital. 5. If one wishes to perform a Mitzvah and have a pure body as well, he should marry a woman, and to him, children!” (Pesachim 112a-b)


“If you want to get yourself choked, hang yourself from a tall tree.” Rabbi Akiva is saying, “If you want to assume the life and death responsibility of deciding the Halacha for others, learn from a great rabbi and repeat his teachings in his name. In this way, your decisions will be noted and accepted.” (Rashbam)

Rashi explains: “If you wish to have your decisions accepted, say them n the name of a great man, even if he never said them (as understood by Magen Avraham 156:2). The Chidah (Machzik Berachah) rules that this only applies to one who is qualified to pasken.

There are intense debates when a student should begin to teach and serve as a Rabbi. Many people hold that he should wait until he has mastered everything he can before he teaches so that he will not be constantly confronted with issues with which he is unfamiliar, and will be strong enough to withstand the pressures of rabbinic authority. Others hold that, especially in times such as ours, when ignorance of basic Torah is prevalent; a person should go out to teach as soon as he has mastered the basics.

I believe that Rabbi Akiva is addressing this debate when he uses the phrase, “if you want to get choked.” I understand the choking, as being held back when you want to move forward. A person must go through a stage of “choking,” or, being held back, before he can go out and teach. He must experience the frustration of being yanked back so that he understands that A) He is making a choice to go out and teach even though he has more to master and learn, and B) That there is so much more he must learn.  The “Choking” experience must become part of him so that he has humility, and strives to constantly master more of Torah. We should note that Rabbi Shimon himself was “choked” for the thirteen years he spent in the cave, preparing to go out and reveal new illuminations to Israel.

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