"Rabbi Shimon was known to say: there are three crowns - the crown of Torah, the crown of priesthood, and the crown of kingship, and the crown of good name is greater than them all." (Avot 4:12)

In line with themes throughout the Maharal’s work Derech Chaim on Pirkei Avot, this Mishna is not advice on how to be popular or successful, but rather a window into the spiritual makeup of the human being.

...the number three...illustrates an aspect of completion.

We saw already in Chapter 1 that the number three is significant because it illustrates an aspect of completion. Instead of the three essential human relationships that the Maharal discusses there , here we will be discussing the three aspects that make up the spiritual nature of the human.

Says the Maharal: "The three crowns [cherished tasks] that G‑d gave to Israel - Torah, Kingship, and Priesthood, relate to the spiritual makeup of a person, which includes three parts: his intellect, his nefesh, and his physicality [not the physical body itself, but rather the spiritual element that inhabits the physical]."

The Maharal continues his analysis with the priest, explaining that the priest represents sanctity found within the body, the meeting place between the physical and the spirit. His physical actions in the Temple bring G‑d’s presence into the world. In other writings, the Maharal makes a unique observation concerning the gematria of the word Kohen, noting that it adds up to seventy-five. Seven, being the completion of the Creative process, represents what is natural or worldly. There are seven days of the week, seven days of creation, seven shades in a rainbow, seven musical notes in a scale, etc.

Eight, however, is one above seven, i.e. that which is beyond nature, miraculous and outside the rubric of scientific methodology (for example the eight days of Chanukah). The priest stands between the seven and the eight, bridging the two realms. Therefore his numerical representation is seventy five, as if to say 7.5, that which stands between seven and eight as an intermediary.

The nefesh is represented by the crown of kingship. This is because the nefesh is the control center within the human being. It is the seat of the emotions as well as physical action. Just like the king is the ruler over the people, so too the nefesh controls the spiritual/emotional nature of the person, and even guides its actions. Both the force that inhabits the physical as well as the intellect, the other two components mentioned, are passive in relation to the nefesh.

The crown of Torah is unique in that anyone can earn it.

The third crown is the Torah, compared to the intellectual aspect of the person. The crown of Torah is unique in that anyone can earn it. Unlike the other two crowns, which can only be received through birthright, the Torah is available to whoever is willing to dedicate him or herself to it. A fundamental idea in the writings of the Maharal is that the intellect of a person is "nivdal" or separated. The intellect of a person is never truly united with any aspect of the physical; it resides within it, yet maintains its own independence since it has no physical aspect.

This is also true of the Torah, understood as a reflection of Divine wisdom. The acquisition of Torah in the strictly intellectual sense never fully integrates with the physical, as opposed to doing mitzvot, which is connected to the person's other two aspects mentioned previously. Divine knowledge, due to its spiritual nature, can never fully intertwine with any aspect of the physical. Like a dense morning fog that covers the hills, the intellect inhabits the physical but never unites with it.

The Mishna mentions one final crown as the pinnacle: the Crown of Good Name. A name is something that knows no bounds, which "can reach from one end of the world to the other" as the Maharal says, and has no connection with the physical component of the person. It is a qualifier that acknowledges his or her root essence, or the abstract spirit of that person. It is the least tangible of the lot, meant to give expression to the person as a whole; therefore it maintains the top position.

...the fourth crown...is...the unified picture...

Did you notice a discrepancy in the Mishna? How many crowns does the Mishna note? There are four, but it only counts three. The Mishna does not count the fourth crown because it is not another component but rather the unified picture, and therefore should not be added to the count.

The spiritual mapping of the human is a matter which requires much more study than we’ve provided here. But one point is clear from this initial analysis: the essence of a person far outweighs his or her composite parts. Beyond the fractured nature of the soul there is a grand and awesome unified vision of the human; it is his "name," his essence that sits high above his distinct parts.

Based on Maharal’s work Derech Chaim on Pirkei Avot

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