“Fear of Hashem is the finest of virtues;[1] wisdom and character refinement are scorned by fools” (Mishlei 1:7)


Matt Schneeweisss


The Meiri[2] explains that the term “yirat Hashem” in this pasuk refers to the fulfillment of a precept out of fear or awe of the One who commanded it, not because it makes sense to one’s mind.  On the surface, the Meiri’s interpretation of this pasuk seems to be problematic, for elsewhere[3] the Meiri writes that one should study the mitzvot with the goal of keeping them with “the ultimate [level of] keeping – as if they are mandated by the intellect.”[4]  In other words, a person is obligated to search for the rational reasons behind the mitzvot and know them to the extent that he will be compelled to fulfill them by virtue of their inherent rationale.[5]  This appears to be a contradiction – if the goal of man is to fulfill the mitzvot because they make sense to him, then how can yirat Hashem be considered the finest of virtues?  And if yirat Hashem is the finest of virtues then why should one even attempt to understand the reasons behind the mitzvot?  Understanding rationale behind the mitzvot seems to only detract from yirat Hashem!  In order to understand the Meiri’s interpretation we must first look at the rest of his commentary on this pasuk:2


Our Sages have already said,[6] “Anyone whose fear of sin precedes his chochma, his chochma will endure,” meaning to say that yirah is to chochma like a foundation to a building.[7]  It is known that if the foundation of a building is weak then the slightest disturbance can cause the destruction of the whole building.  So too with [the comparison of] yirah to chochma – if one’s yirah is weak, the slightest doubt will thrust a person into confusion and will destroy the inner foundations of his emunah in his heart.  [All of this will happen] if his “building” lacks a strong foundation. 


At first glance the Meiri’s analogy seems to make a lot of sense . . . that is, until one attempts to define the term “yirat Hashem” and describe its relationship to chochma.  The Meiri’s previous definition of “yirat Hashem” – unquestioning obedience out of awe – doesn’t make sense here, for how does weakness of will detract from emunah?  Ostensibly, a person can have strong emunah and still have weak will.  Furthermore, if one is deficient in his ability to obey God’s commandments, in what manner does that negatively affect his chochma?  Loyalty in action and chochma seem to be two totally separate virtues.  Isn’t it possible that a person might be strong in one area and weak in the other? 

In order to understand the Meiri’s analogy of yirah and chochma to a foundation and building, we must utilize the definition of “yirat Hashem” as expressed by the Rambam:[8]


“When a person contemplates His wondrous and great deeds and creations and appreciates His chochma which is infinite and without comparison . . . immediately he will recoil in awe and realize that he is a tiny, lowly, and dark creature, standing with a puny and limited mind before perfect knowledge, as David stated,[9] “When I see Your heavens, the work of Your fingers . . . [I wonder] what is man that you should recognize Him?” 


The Rambam explains that yirat Hashem is the result of the appreciation of God’s universe.  When beholding God’s creations, a person is overcome with awe at the absolute perfection of His handiwork.  He realizes that everything in existence, from the largest nebula to the smallest particle, is designed with divine chochma, and every element of creation functions in absolute harmony with the system as a whole.  The appreciation of such perfection fills a person with awe for the Supreme Designer.  A rabbi once explained, in accordance with the Rambam’s definition, that true yirat Hashem can be compared to a physicist’s appreciation of physics.  The physicist spends his entire life studying the intricacies of physics and truly appreciates the chochma therein.  Yet, when confronted with an anomaly or abnormality, he does not abandon his belief in the system of physics.  To the contrary, his appreciation of the perfection of physics gives him the assurance that although he does not understand this particular phenomenon, he is confident that there is a rational cause behind it, and his faith in the system of physics will remain unharmed. 


Now we can understand the Meiri’s analogy.  Just as the physicist will not abandon his belief in the validity of physics when confronted by a phenomenon he does not understand, so too, one who is confronted with information which seems to contradict his understanding of the Torah will not abandon his conviction in its veracity.  A person who truly recognizes the perfection of God’s Torah, when confronted with a contradiction, will realize that the contradiction is only apparent.  His knowledge that there exists a rational explanation for everything in the Torah will keep him on the proper path, and his faith in the Torah will remain unharmed.  If, however, he is confronted with an apparent contradiction and his yirat Hashem – his appreciation of the chochma and internal consistency of the Torah – is weak, he will be thrust into confusion, believing that this apparent contradiction is a disproof of the entire system.  This confusion will lead him to abandon Torah. 


With this knowledge we can now answer the apparent contradiction in the Meiri mentioned above.  There is no conflict between the “finest virtue” of yirat Hashem (fulfillment of the mitzvot out awe, not intellect) and the injunction to fulfill the mitzvot out of a rational understanding.  One must be able to do both.  He must strive to understand the mitzvot, but when confronted by a mitzvah (or any matter in halacha) that he does not understand, he must remain steadfast in his loyalty to Hashem and fulfill the precept out of yirat Hashem – awe of the Creator of the Universe and His perfect systems.  Yirat Hashem is the prime virtue because without it, man, whose intellect is limited and futile, would simply be unable to uphold the impossible task of keeping all of God’s Torah out of a rational understanding.  Indeed, yirat Hashem is as essential to chochma as a foundation is to a building, and without a strong foundation, the building will collapse.


We can also answer the second apparent contradiction, namely, that understanding the reasons behind the mitzvot seems to detract from yirat Hashem.  We see from the Rambam’s definition that the strength of one’s yirat Hashem will directly correspond to his intellectual level.[10]  The more one studies God’s universe, the greater his yirat Hashem will be.  So too, the greater understanding one has of the reasons behind the mitzvot the greater his yirat Hashem will be.  Hence, the truth is quite contrary to what we initially assumed – understanding the reasons behind the mitzvot does not detract from yirat Hashem, it enhances it.[11]  This fundamental truth could not have been stated any clearer than in the statement of Elazar ben Azaryah, “without chochma, there is no yirah, and without yirah, there is no chochma.”[12]

[1] This reading follows the Meiri (Commentary on Sefer Mishlei 1:7), who interprets the word “reisheet” in accordance with the statement of Yerushalmi Masechet Terumot 4:3-4, “The Rabbis interpreted the word ‘reisheet’ to mean ‘the most excellent of.’”  See Devarim 18:4, Bamidbar 15:20, and Shemot 23:19 and 34:26 for examples.  Most of the commentators, however, interpret “reisheet” in the sense of “first” or “primary,” and the word “da’at” as “knowledge,” rather than “virtues.” 

[2] Rabbeinu Menachem ben Shelomo haMeiri Commentary on Sefer Mishlei 1:7. 

[3] Rabbeinu Menachem ben Shelomo haMeiri Commentary on Sefer Tehillim 119:8.  The pasuk reads, “I will keep Your statutes; do not forsake me utterly”

[4] The Meiri iterates this idea many other times in his Commentary on Sefer Tehillim and in his other works.

[5] This concept is fundamental.  See the Sefer haChinuch #545 where he elaborates at length on the idea that the mitzvot have rational reasons behind them, supporting his view with the words of the Talmud, as well as the statements of the Rambam and Ramban.  He ends the discussion with the following remark: “For here you see with your eyes . . . that there is a reason for the precepts of the Torah, to benefit human beings in their character traits, to temper their disposition, and accustom them to act correctly in all of their actions, [and to make known] that the performance of the mitzvot is for those who perform them, not (God forbid) for [the benefit of] the Creator, blessed is He.”  See also the Rambam’s Guide to the Perplexed III:25-28

[6] Masechet Avot 3:9

[7] A similar analogy can be found in the Mivchar haPenimim 1:9 (attributed to either Rabbeinu Yedaiah haPenimi or to Rabbeinu Shlomo Ibn Gavriol), “a body without chochma is like a house without a foundation.” 

[8] Rabbeinu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Mishna Torah, Hilchot Yesodei haTorah 2:2

[9] Sefer Tehillim 8:4-5

[10] See the Mishna Torah, Hilchot Teshuvah 10:6, regarding ahavat Hashem, in which the Rambam states, “A person does not love God except for with the knowledge with which he knows him.  According to the knowledge will be the love; if [the knowledge is] little, so will [the love] be little, and if [the knowledge is] a lot, so will [the love] be a lot.”  The same is true for yirat Hashem, as can be inferred from Hilchot Yesodei haTorah 2:2. 

[11] The Meiri’s analogy also serves to refute the claim that understanding the rationale of Torah detracts from emunah and yirat Hashem.  Such a notion is as absurd as the notion that the larger a building is, the smaller its foundation will be.  To the contrary, the size of the foundation is in direct correlation with the size of the building.  The same is true with chochma and yirah.  Striving to understand the Torah will not cause one to lose faith in the Torah, but will only strengthen his conviction.  As the Rashba writes (in his T’shuvah b’Inyan Emunat haYichud), “one who increases inquiry increases his triumph over those who claim the opposite [of the truth.” 

[12] Masechet Avot 3:21.  See the Meiri’s commentary there for an elaboration on this concept.