QUESTION: The Gemara (27b-28a) records a number of incidents wherein the Talmidim of a Tana or Amora asked their teacher how he merited to live such a long life. In each case, the Tana or Amora answered by relating an act (or acts) of especially upright conduct which he practiced. In the middle of the Sugya, the Gemara relates that Rebbi Akiva once asked Rebbi Nechunya ha'Gadol how he merited to live so long. Rebbi Nechunya's attendants thought that Rebbi Akiva asked his question mockingly, as though he was upset that Rebbi Nechunya had lived so long, and they began to hit him. Rebbi Akiva escaped to the top of a tree from where he called to Rebbi Nechunya, "If the Torah says, '[You shall prepare] a lamb' (Bamidbar 28:4), then why does it add the word 'one (Keves Echad)'?"
Rebbi Nechunya understood from Rebbi Akiva's question that he was a genuine Talmid Chacham, and he ordered his attendants to leave Rebbi Akiva alone. Rebbi Akiva then answered his own question: the Torah adds the word "Echad" (one) to teach that the lamb must be the most special lamb of its flock.
Rebbi Nechunya informed Rebbi Akiva why he merited to live so long. "I never accepted any presents, I never stood up for my due (to get back at someone who had wronged me), and I was forgoing with my money."
This incident needs clarification. Why were the attendants so upset with Rebbi Akiva's question to Rebbi Nechunya, and what did Rebbi Nechunya see that changed his viewpoint about Rebbi Akiva's question?
ANSWER: RAV YAAKOV D. HOMNICK (in MARBEH B'SIMCHAH on Maseches Megilah) explains as follows. The Gemara in Yevamos (49b) records a dispute among the Tana'im about the meaning of Hash-m's blessing to His people, "The number of your days I shall fill" (Shemos 23:26). The Beraisa there says that the blessing refers to the days of a person's lifespan. Rebbi Akiva says that if a person is worthy, Hash-m lets the person live his entire allotted time. If a person is unworthy, Hash-m cuts his life short and takes him before his allotted time is completed. The Chachamim disagree and say that if a person is worthy, Hash-m adds to his allotted time (and not that Hash-m merely keeps the person alive for his allotted time). Since Rebbi Akiva is the minority opinion, the Halachah should follow the Chachamim.
For this reason, the attendants of Rebbi Nechunya became upset with Rebbi Akiva when he asked how their master merited to live so long. Since his extra years were a blessing of addition to his allotted lifespan, it was not proper to speak about it openly because a "blessing [of addition] exists only upon something which is hidden from the eye" (Bava Metzia 42a). They feared that by revealing the extra years granted to Rebbi Nechunya and discussing why he was blessed, the blessing would become one that was no longer hidden and, as a result, cease to continue.
Rebbi Akiva, however, was acting according to his own opinion (in Yevamos) that when a person lives for a very long time, those years are not an addition to his allotted life but rather a blessing from Hash-m to live out his allotted time (which, in Rebbi Nechunya's case, happened to be a very long time). Therefore, Rebbi Akiva wanted to know the proper manner of conduct which brings merit to complete one's allotted lifespan. Since that does not involve a blessing of extra, additional years, it is not subject to the requirement that it remain "hidden from the eye."
Rebbi Akiva conveyed his intention by hinting to the lamb of the Korban Tamid. One who consistently uses each day of his life to carry out Hash-m's will -- thereby fulfilling his "daily obligation" like the Korban Tamid -- will merit to live for his entire allotted lifespan.
Rebbi Akiva's intent is also evident in Rebbi Nechunya's response. When Rebbi Nechunya understood that Rebbi Akiva was asking how he managed to live for his allotted time (and not how he merited to have additional years added to his lifespan) he answered, "I never accepted any presents," meaning that he felt full and satisfied with his portion in life and needed nothing else. Measure for measure, he was awarded with the full portion of his lifespan. Similarly, "I never stood up for my due, and I was forgoing with my money" -- he trusted in Hash-m to repay his due in full measure, for which he was rewarded with fully living out his allotted years.
This is the only incident of all of the incidents recorded by the Gemara which discusses the ways to merit fully living one's allotted lifespan, since the question in this incident was posed by Rebbi Akiva. All of the other cases are in accordance with the view of the Chachamim in Yevamos, and thus they discuss how to add to one's lifespan.
A remarkable support for this understanding can be found in the words of the MESILAS YESHARIM. The Mesilas Yesharim (ch. 19) writes that these stories teach how to act with the attribute of Chasidus (adding to the requirement of the law) for which one will be rewarded measure for measure by having more time added to his allotted lifespan. The Mesilas Yesharim cites a number of the stories mentioned in the Gemara before the incident with Rebbi Akiva and Rebbi Nechunya, and he also cites the story of Rebbi Zeira which follows the one with Rebbi Akiva. Why does he entirely omit the story of Rebbi Akiva?
According to the above approach, the reason for the omission is that the story of Rebbi Akiva does not demonstrate how to add to one's lifespan, but rather how to merit completing one's allotted time.
This explains why -- when Rebbi Nechunya said that he never accepted any presents -- the Gemara cites an example for this attribute from the conduct of Rebbi Zeira, who never accepted presents. In the very next case of the Gemara, however, Rebbi Zeira was asked how he merited to live so long. He answered with six reasons but he did not mention that he never accepted presents! It must be that the conduct of not accepting presents is a reason to have one's allotted time completed, but not a reason to have more years added, and thus Rebbi Zeira did not mention that attribute when he was asked how he merited to have more time added to his life.
QUESTION: The Gemara quotes the Amora'im, Avuhah Bar Ihi and Minyamin Bar Ihi, who praised themselves for their virtuous conduct. One praised himself ("Teisi Li" -- "I will be rewarded") for never looking at a Kusi. The other praised himself for never entering a partnership with a Kusi.
Similarly, the Gemara later (29a) quotes Abaye who praised himself ("Teisi Li") for traveling a long distance to pray in the synagogue in Bavel where the Divine Presence rested.
In a number of other places, the Gemara quotes Amora'im who publicly prided themselves in a Mitzvah they performed by saying "Teisi Li" ("I will be rewarded") for that Mitzvah (see Rashi to Shabbos 119a and Bechoros 30a, DH Teisi Li). For example, the Gemara in Shabbos (118b) quotes Amora'im who said "I will be rewarded" for doing Mitzvos such as eating three meals on Shabbos, praying with Kavanah, and performing the Mitzvos of Tefilin and Tzitzis properly. The Gemara later in Shabbos (119a) quotes Rava who said, "I will be rewarded because I love Talmidei Chachamim so much that when a Talmid Chacham is involved in litigation, I do not go to sleep until I research whether there is a way to exonerate him." Similar expressions are found in Moed Katan (17a) and Erchin (16a).
However, a number of sources teach that it is inappropriate to pride oneself in his virtuous deeds. The Mishnah in Avos (2:8) says, "If you have learned much Torah, do not attribute worthiness to yourself." The Midrash (Shemos Rabah 44) says, "If you have performed a Mitzvah, do not seek a reward." In the same vein, the Mishnah in Avos (1:3) says, "Do not be like servants who serve their master in order to receive compensation."
Similarly, the Gemara in Sanhedrin (93b) points out that the Sefer which Nechemyah penned is called "the Book of Ezra" and not "the Book of Nechemyah," because Nechemyah erred by publicly giving credit to himself for his accomplishments when he said, "May my G-d remember me for good, for all that I did for this nation" (Nechemyah 5:19). The Gemara there concludes that one is not supposed to make such statements unless they are part of a prayer during a time of need.
In light of these exhortations, why were the Amora'im justified in requesting reward for their deeds?
(a) The RIF in the EIN YAKOV (Shabbos 118b) explains that when an Amora said "Teisi Li," he meant that "although I might not have served Hash-m in the best possible way, at least I did this Mitzvah and therefore I should not be punished for what I failed to do." He explains that when Rav Nachman (in Shabbos) said that he should be rewarded because he fulfilled the Mitzvah of having three meals on Shabbos, he meant that even though he did not eat the fourth meal that Rebbi Chidka there requires, he should not be punished but rather he should be rewarded for what he did fulfill. When Rav Yehudah there said that he prayed with Kavanah, he meant that "while failure to concentrate during prayer is one of the three sins which every person commits every day (Bava Basra 164b), and I certainly erred regarding two of them like everyone else, nevertheless since I did not err with regard to the third -- praying with Kavanah -- I should at least be rewarded for that."
Support for this approach may be found in TOSFOS in Ta'anis (7a). Tosfos quotes a Midrash in which the Amora Shmuel scorns those who waste their time studying astronomy instead of learning Torah. When his students asked him how he himself became an expert in astronomy, he replied "Teisi Li, that I studied astronomy only when I was in the bathroom." He was saying that even though he spent time studying astronomy, it was done in a way that did not take him away from his Torah learning.
However, this approach does not seem to explain the other occasions of "Teisi Li," such as when Rav Sheshes and Rav Nachman said "Teisi Li" for fulfilling the Mitzvos of Tefilin and Tzitzis properly.
(b) The MAHARSHA in Shabbos explains that there is a certain type of reward which a person may request. That reward is the type of reward mentioned in the Mishnah in Avos (4:2): "The reward for a Mitzvah is the opportunity to perform another Mitzvah." The Amora'im asked Hash-m to provide them with further opportunities to do these Mitzvos, since they put forth so much effort into fulfilling them properly in the past.
(c) TOSFOS in Bechoros (2b, DH Shema) points out that the expression "Teisi Li" appears only with regard to deeds which one is not obligated to perform, or which most people are not careful to do properly. (The Amora'im who praised themselves for observing the Mitzvos of Tefilin and Tzitzis meant that they never walked four Amos without Tefilin or Tzitzis, as Rashi explains, or, alternatively, most people around them indeed did not perform these Mitzvos properly; see Tosfos to Shabbos 49a, DH k'Elisha, and Rashi to Shabbos 130a, d'Amar Rebbi Yanai.)
Perhaps a person may not demand reward for a Mitzvah which Hash-m commanded him to do. However, when a person performs a Mitzvah in a way which is above and beyond the minimum obligation, perhaps it is not considered inappropriate to ask for reward. (Support for this may be inferred from the Mishnah in Avos (2:8) which says, " If you have learned much Torah, do not attribute worthiness to yourself, because it was for this that you were created" -- that is, one is obligated to learn as much Torah as he can, and thus there is never a point at which he can ask for reward for learning "more.") (M. KORNFELD)
(d) The RITVA in Shabbos explains that the reason why the Amora'im praised themselves for fulfilling the Mitzvos of Tefilin and Tzitzis is because they excelled in the performance of those Mitzvos, as Rashi explains. The Ritva infers from the Gemara there that every Talmid Chacham should choose one Mitzvah to fulfill in the most ideal manner, with scrupulous attention to every detail.
The Ritva's words may be based on what the RAMBAM writes in Perush ha'Mishnayos at the end of Makos. The Mishnah there (23b) states that Hash-m wanted to give the Jewish people the opportunity to earn reward, and therefore He gave them many Mitzvos. The Rambam asks, how does the presence of many Mitzvos provide more opportunity for reward? On the contrary, if there are more Mitzvos to observe, their fulfillment is more difficult and there is more opportunity for punishment! The Rambam explains that when a person properly fulfills just one Mitzvah with no ulterior motives but entirely Lishmah and out of love for Hash-m, he will merit Olam ha'Ba. The Mishnah means that Hash-m gave many Mitzvos so that a person would find it easy to choose at least one of them to observe in an outstanding manner.
Perhaps this is what the Amora'im meant when they said, "Teisi Li." They were not demanding reward, but rather they were saying that "any reward that I receive will be because of this Mitzvah, because this is the Mitzvah which I fulfilled in the most outstanding manner."
This also seems to be the intention of the IYEI HA'YAM cited by the ETZ YOSEF in Shabbos. He explains that the Amora'im meant to say that "if you see that I receive reward, then know that it is because of this Mitzvah."
This approach may resolve a question in the commentary of Rashi in Shabbos. When the Amora'im there (118b) said "Teisi Li" for the respective Mitzvos listed there, Rashi does not explain the meaning of the words "Teisi Li." He explains these words only later in Shabbos (on 119a), when the Gemara quotes Rava who said, "Teisi Li because I love Talmidei Chachamim." Rashi there says "Teisi Li" means that "I will be rewarded." Why does Rashi not explain these words earlier when they first appear in the Gemara? (See IYUN YAKOV.)
The answer might be that had Rashi explained these words earlier, then we would have been bothered by the question of why the Amora'im demanded reward for their good deeds. When Rava said that he would receive reward for loving Talmidei Chachamim, it was clear that he was not requesting any form of material reward, because Rava himself says earlier in Shabbos (23b) that one who loves Talmidei Chachamim will be rewarded by having children who are Talmidei Chachamim. Rava was not asking to be rewarded, but rather he was explaining that if he has children who are Talmidei Chachamim, everyone should know that it is because of his love for Talmidei Chachamim. That is why Rashi waited until there to explain the meaning of "Teisi Li." (M. KORNFELD) (See also Insights to Sanhedrin 93:3.)