"Akavya ben Mahalalel said: Reflect upon three things and you will not come to sin. Know from where you came and where you are going and before whom you are destined to give account and reckoning. From where have you come?--from a putrid drop. Where are you going?--to the place of dust, worm, and maggot. Before whom are you destined to give account and reckoning?--before the supreme King of kings, the Holy One, blessed be he." (Avot 3:1)

Rabbi Akavya enumerates three thoughts which are apt to help a person avoid committing a transgression. Since we can all count to three, and the thoughts are mentioned separately, why did Rabbi Akavya have to tell us that there were three considerations? Midrash Shmuel suggests that Rabbi Akavya wanted to stress that these three considerations are effective only if one thinks of all of them at the same time. Hence he stressed the number three.

The yardsticks applied to the soul are in accordance with its superior origin….

The author of this Midrash proceeds to show that whereas the first of the considerations listed by Rabbi Akavya referred to the body, the second referred to the soul. This explains why he did not use the word for "nothing" when describing the way we are headed as he had described the place we originate from; instead, he refers only to a direction. The soul enters the body "naked", and its task is to leave it after having become a personality, i.e. after having acquired suitable "clothing".

These subjects are discussed in the chapter about the soul in Pardes Rimonim. When it has to give an accounting, the soul has to demonstrate its accomplishments while in a body before the attribute of Justice because the yardsticks applied to the soul are in accordance with its superior origin. The body has to give an accounting before the King of kings, the King who judges all the terrestrial kings, as pointed out in the Talmud, in Tractate Avoda Zara.

Such considerations also enable us to explain the Mishna in Avot: (5:8)

Ten miracles were performed for our fathers in the Temple:

  • no woman miscarried from the odor of the flesh of the offerings;

  • the flesh of the offerings never turned putrid;

  • no fly was ever seen in the place of slaughter;

  • the high priest never suffered a pollution on the Day of Atonement;

  • rain never quenched the fire of the wood arranged on the altar;

  • no wind prevailed over the pillar of smoke;

  • never was a defect found in the omer or in the two loaves or in the showbread;

  • though the worshipers stood pressed together, they could freely prostrate themselves;

  • never did serpent or scorpion do harm in Jerusalem;

  • and no man said to his fellow, "There is no room for me to lodge in Jerusalem.

Why did the author of this Mishna not say "G‑d performed these miracles..." instead of phrasing it passively, merely as something experienced by the people? When the same phraseology is used in connection with the miracles performed in Egypt as listed in the preceding Mishna, this could be explained as a by-product of the plagues, i.e. Israel being saved from the afflictions suffered by the Egyptians. It is worthwhile to read the comment of Midrash Shmuel on this Mishna which he attributes to a Rabbi Moshe Almosnino [a prominent scholar in Salonika and Constantinople during most of the 16th century. Ed.].

Sacrificial meat…is not subject to decay and worms….

The reason the ten miracles are described in the manner they are is that they teach us ten lessons. Man has free choice. Five of the miracles listed represent man's right hand, the other five represent his left hand. The right hand symbolizes the three types of awareness demanded by Rabbi Akavya concerning one's soul - plus the need to rectify any sins one has already committed, which makes four. The fifth is the awareness of before whom one has to give an accounting. Once one has to give an accounting before G‑d, it is too late to engage in remedial action, i.e. Tikunim.

There are also five types of awareness that apply to the body, i.e. the "left hand". In view of all this, our Mishna in Chapter 5 commences with the negative aspects of such miracles, whereas it concludes with miracles which demonstrate positive accomplishments by the people who experienced them.

The fact that a pregnant woman did not experience a miscarriage due to the stench of the meat on the altar corresponds to the statement of Rabbi Akavya that we must be aware of the putrid drop of semen our body originates from. This subject is mentioned in Yuma 82 where we are told about a pregnant woman who experienced a terrible urge to eat on the Day of Atonement and whose predicament was presented to Rabbi Yehudah Hanassi. The latter instructed that one should whisper to this woman that the date was the Day of Atonement. When this advice was followed the woman's hunger pains subsided. Concerning this incident they applied the verse: "I have known you before you were even formed in the womb"; (Jeremiah 1:5) the baby that this woman gave birth to was the famous scholar Rabbi Yochanan. The Talmud next reports about another similar case involving Rabbi Chanina and a pregnant lady. The same procedure was followed, but it did not assuage the lady's terrible urge to eat. The bystanders applied to that lady the verse: "The wicked are defiant from birth"; (Psalm 58:4) the child born from that pregnancy was a certain person named Shabtai, who hoarded produce during years of drought and sold it at exorbitant prices.

We draw a parallel from the experience of pregnant ladies who passed the Temple and who did not abort an embryo due to the unpleasant smell of the sacrificial meat to women who did not feel revolted by the smell (or awareness) of their own flesh and blood. According to Rabbi Akavya the mere thought of it should have been revolting.

The second kind of awareness demanded by Rabbi Akavya, consciousness of one's destination, a place of worms and decay, similarly holds no terror when one speaks of meat such as the sacrificial meat which has been sanctified on the altar. Such meat is not subject to decay and worms. The Talmud describes several instances of rabbis whose body had not decayed for many years after their burial. One such instance was that of Rabbi Eleazar who was blessed by a Jewish adulterer about to be executed that his flesh should not become worm-eaten nor decay. (Baba Metzia 83)

The presence of flies then symbolizes an excessive concern with the physical….

The absence of flies in the slaughterhouse cited as one of the ten miracles which occurred in the Holy Temple symbolizes an absence of bodily desires. The body is less likely to decay when one controls it. Rabbi Akavya therefore demanded an awareness of the fact that there would be a price to pay for indulging one's body in order to frighten us into controlling such urges.

The Talmud states that the Shunamite woman who used to provided lodging for the prophet Elisha recognized that he was a holy man because flies never bothered him or his food.(Berachot 10) The presence of flies then symbolizes an excessive concern with the physical. The people who ignored Moses' instructions not to try and leave over part of the manna which fell on the first day (Ex. 16:19) learned their lesson because their leftovers became worm-eaten and stank. We read: "I will strew dung upon your faces, the dung of your festival sacrifices, and you shall be carried out to its heap"; (Malachi 2:3) the presence of flies and their ilk round the sacrificial meat is a clear sign of a curse. We have stated that our own table should serve as our private altar, i.e. as the visible symbol that we should strive for holiness.

When one lives on such a basis, the pollutant transmitted as a residue of Eve's sin is purified each and every day….

The fact that during the hundreds of years the Temple stood the High Priest never suffered from an involuntary emission of seminal fluid on the Day of Atonement is a clear indication that the putrid drop of semen (mentioned by Rabbi Akavya) from which human life originates has been rehabilitated. The origin of seminal fluid is in the brain, and pure thoughts influence the purity of the seed. When man starts out correctly, pure, undefiled, every day of his life can be like a Day of Atonement and in his purity he may be comparable to the angels. This is what Rabbi Eliezer had in mind when he told his students to repent one day before their death, i.e. on a daily basis. (Shabbat 153) When one lives on such a basis, the pollutant transmitted as a residue of Eve's sin is purified each and every day.

The inability of the rains to extinguish the woodpile of the altar alludes to the eternity of the judgment in the future. Let me first explain something about the nature of the rain and what it symbolizes to the extent that I understand the matter.

The souls have to demonstrate their ability to maintain an affinity with the Divine while assigned to this world….

The Hebrew word for rain is "geshem", which is also an expression denoting the spiritual influence exerted from the higher regions, denoting that the purpose of the spiritual input has been achieved. This process applies to the various worlds, such as the worlds of Beriya, Yetzira and Asiya, respectively, until in our physical world the drops of moisture that fall from the sky are also called "geshem". This is actually a name "borrowed" from a word which had a broader meaning to begin with.

Keeping this in mind, we understand that when the Torah lists a number of blessings in store for us as a result of observing G‑d's various statutes, etc. (Lev. 26:4) The first such blessing mentioned is that of rain, "geshem". In view of the fact that rain is only one of the instruments enabling a crop to materialize, we would have expected the Torah to first mention bountiful crops as a consequence of Torah observance. The fact that the Torah chooses to mention rain first is an indication that there is much more to it than we thought.

Regarding the miracle of the woodpile on the altar not being extinguished by rain, the corresponding fire in the Heavenly Regions is a mystical dimension involving the souls of the righteous which the archangel Michael sacrifices on that altar. We have explained that the word "geshem" in its original meaning expresses the outpouring of spiritual largesse to regions in the various worlds, such spiritual largesse eventually to be perceived in this physical world as rain. The ability to absorb such spiritual largesse without being overwhelmed by it is tested, so to speak, by the souls in those regions. The souls have to demonstrate their ability to maintain an affinity with the Divine while assigned to this world. The souls who pass this test have demonstrated love for their spiritual origin. Once they have done this theirs is the kind of love of which Solomon has said that the most powerful waters cannot extinguish such love (Songs 8:7) i.e. the fire symbolizing such love.

Thus we have discussed the five miracles that pertain to the body.

[Translated and adapted by Eliyahu Munk.]