Torah is even greater than priesthood or royalty, for royalty is acquired along with thirty prerogatives and the priesthood with twenty-four [gifts], but the Torah is acquired by means of forty-eight qualities, etc. (Avot 6:5)

It is no coincidence that the Torah is acquired through 48 distinct methods. In the following remarks we elaborate on the significance of the number 48, both as a means of acquiring Torah and in other contexts throughout Tanach.

In the Midrash we find a dispute whether Avraham was 3 or 48 years old when he renounced Terach's idolatry and recognized G‑d (Nedarim 32a; Pesikta Rabbati 21:18). These opinions may reflect various stages in Abraham's development and correspond to different character traits associated with Abraham. In particular, we may assume that at age 3, Abraham had already acquired the three attributes later associated with him and his disciples - the traits of a good eye, a humble spirit and a meek soul. By the age of 48, Abraham had already completed the 48 which are prerequisites for Torah acquisition, cited in this Mishnah.

Forty-Eight Wells

The human personality is comparable to a well….

According to the Midrash (on Songs 4:15), the 48 attributes mentioned in the Mishnah correspond to the 48 occasions that the Torah speaks about wells using the Hebrew term "be'er". This association is not merely coincidental but helps explain the role played by the 48 qualities which facilitate our acquisition of Torah. Through the 48 attributes listed in the Mishnah, we can penetrate beyond the surface layer of Torah (which itself is sacred and profoundly important) and plumb its inner depths, its wellsprings. By mastering the 48 steps through which Torah is acquired, we obtain not only a deeper understanding of Torah, but also a much greater appreciation of our own potential.

The human personality is comparable to a well; only a limited amount of water is visible on the surface but it is infinite in its bottomless subterranean assets. By applying the 48 methods of acquiring Torah which correspond to the 48 "wells" mentioned in the Torah, we elicit the tremendous wellsprings of Torah and the enormous potential to grow in Torah learning that lies embedded in every Jew. Each time we are called up to read the Torah, we allude to our own hidden reserves of spirituality, to these hidden wellsprings of Torah that we all possess, by proclaiming, "…and implanted eternal life [of Torah] within us" [from the blessing upon reading from the Torah] - our connection to Torah lies within ourselves.

Forty-Eight Prophets

The five opening portions of each Book correspond to the five organs that are used to articulate the sacred words of the Torah….

The number 48 may also correspond to the 48 prophets of Jewish People (cf. Megilla 14a). These were individuals who practiced the virtues mentioned in the Mishnah and integrated the Torah in every fiber of their being, to the extent that G‑d could actually implant His word into their mouth, so that they served as His spokesman (cf. Isaiah 59:21). Moreover, the Prophets were the most effective catalyst to remind the Jewish People of their potential to implement the 48 attributes of our Mishnah. In fact, the Prophets and their teachings could be perceived as - the 48 potential means of acquiring Torah (Imrei Emet, Maggidei HaEmet).

Forty-Eight Readings of the Torah

While we generally assume that there are 53 Torah readings (counting Matot and Massey as one, since with rare exceptions they are read together), in reality, we can segment the Torah readings into two components: the five opening portions of each Book of the Torah (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy) and the 48 following portions. The five opening portions of each Book correspond to the five organs that are used to articulate the sacred words of the Torah (tongue, lips, teeth, palate and throat) and which are an integral part of the head. The 48 following portions - each teaching a unique approach of serving G‑d - correspond to the 48 Prophets, who also propounded their own approach to divine service.

According to the Zohar, the 48 Prophets are nurtured from 48 sacred "drops" which are manifestations of holiness emanating from the river that flows from Eden. The Torah states, "A river issues forth from Eden to water the garden" (Gen. 2:10); a river is constantly flowing (as indicated by the present tense), nurturing and inspiring the Jewish People's great ones. Returning to our previous theme, emphasizing the role of the 53 Torah Portions inspiring Jewish People and its Prophets, we note that in the merit of heeding the lessons imparted by these 53 approaches to divine service we will enjoy the rarefied ambiance of the Garden (in Hebrew, "gan") of Eden whose numerical value is 53 [nun-gimel, the letters which spell "gan"].

[Adapted by Rabbi Yosef Stern, from "Pirkei Avot: Sfas Emes" (Mesorah)]