QUESTIONS: The Gemara relates the story of Ilfa and Rebbi Yochanan. Ilfa and
Rebbi Yochanan were deeply immersed in learning Torah, and they suffered from
abject poverty. Finally, their situation became so difficult that they
decided to leave the Beis Midrash and go to work, in fulfillment of the
verse, "There will be no destitute among you" (Devarim 15:4). When they were
on their way to find work, Rebbi Yochanan overheard two Malachei ha'Shares
conversing with each other, saying that these two people deserved to be
killed for leaving the life of eternity (Torah study) and involving
themselves in the temporary life of pursuing a material livelihood. The only
reason they did not kill Ilfa and Rebbi Yochanan is because one of them would
soon be experiencing a propitious fate. Rebbi Yochanan, who heard this
conversation, decided to continue learning Torah in poverty and not to go to
work, while Ilfa, who did not hear the words of the Malachim, went to work.
By the time that Ilfa returned from his business endeavors, Rebbi Yochanan
had been inaugurated as the Rosh Yeshivah, a position of great prestige and
wealth (Rashi). The people of the town said to Ilfa upon his return, "Had you
stayed and learned Torah (like Rebbi Yochanan), you would have become the
When Ilfa heard this, he ascended the mast of a ship and suspended himself in
the crow's nest at the top of the mast. He proclaimed, "If anyone can ask me
a question -- which I cannot answer -- regarding the source in the Mishnah of
any statement of Rebbi Chiya and Rebbi Oshiya's teachings in the Beraisa, I
will jump down from here and drown myself!"
This fascinating incident poses a number of questions.
First, why did Ilfa climb to the top of a ship? Why did he not simply go to
the top of a Beis Midrash, or some other structure on land? Second, how could
he threaten to kill himself? No matter how disappointed he might have been,
killing himself is certainly forbidden! (See BEN YEHOYADA)
ANSWER: RAV JOSEPH PEARLMAN of London quotes his father, RAV REFOEL DOVID
zt'l, (HA'MEIR, Parshas Vayechi, 5742), who gave a beautiful explanation for
He explained that Ilfa felt that he was being criticized when he returned
from his business endeavors for not reaching the heights in Torah which he
could have reached. He felt that this criticism was unjust; he was perfectly
justified in choosing the path of "Torah combined with Derech Eretz,"
learning Torah while at the same time working for a livelihood. He wanted to
prove that his Torah had in no way suffered as a result of his involvement in
pursuing a livelihood (as Rashi writes, "[Ilfa said:] Even though I became
involved in commerce, I did not forget any of my learning").
Ilfa was a merchant who, like the people of Zevulun, traveled by ship to far
away places to trade his wares. (This might be why he was called Ilfa; the
word "Ilfa" in Aramaic means "ship.") By climbing to the top of the mast of
the ship, Ilfa meant to say that although he had attained the highest
pinnacle of success in his business, it had not interfered with his Torah
He declared that he was prepared to answer any question in Torah that he was
asked, and if he was unable to answer it, he would "jump down" from the top
of the ship -- that is, he would leave his immensely successful business and
wealth and abandon his Derech of learning and working together -- and "drown
himself" completely in the sea of Torah, in the same manner that Rebbi
Yochanan had done. If his Torah learning had suffered as a result of his
involvement in business, he was willing to jump down from the world of
business and immerse himself in the sea of Torah.
Let us add, that according to this Ilfa felt no regret for what he had done;
he considered himself to have chosen the correct way in the service of
Hashem, just as Rebbi Yochanan felt that *he* had chosen the correct way in
the service of Hashem. But isn't it clear from the "threat" of the two angels
at the beginning of the story that Rebbi Yochanan, and not Ilfa, was correct?
RAV REUVEN MARGOLIOS (introduction to Margolios ha'Yam) suggests that both
Rav Ilfa and Rebbi Yochanan did exactly what they were supposed to do; Ilfa
accomplished no less than Rebbi Yochanan did.
The Midrash (Shir ha'Shirim Rabah 8:7) says that Rebbi Yochanan told Rebbi
Chiya bar Aba that he used to own a large amount of real estate, but he sold
it in order to continue learning Torah. Rebbi Chiya bar Aba cried for him
that he no longer had anything with which to support himself when he became
old. Ilfa, on the other hand, perhaps came from a very poor family. Had he
not worked for a living, he would have had nothing at all to eat. Since Rebbi
Yochanan had what to eat, and only wanted to work as to ensure that he would
have sustenance when he became older, he made the right choice in giving up
his plans of working and instead living off of his inheritance until it would
be used up. He would trust in Hashem and not worry about what he would do
when he became old. Ilfa, though, had nothing to sell, so he made the correct
choice in deciding to involve himself with commerce.
According to this explanation, one may ask, why did the Malachim want to kill
both of them for leaving the life of Torah study? What could they have had
The Gemara says that they were sitting underneath a weak wall which the
Malachim wanted to topple on them. What difference does it make if the wall
was weak? If leaving Torah is such a bad thing, then even if the wall was a
strong one, the Malachim should want to push it onto Ilfa and Rebbi Yochanan
for leaving Torah!
The Gemara earlier (20a) says that one may not walk below a weak wall,
because doing so diminishes one's Zechuyos, which become "used up" protecting
him from the danger that it poses (Berachos 55a, Rosh Hashanah 16b). Ilfa and
Rebbi Yochanan's lives were in danger simply because they neglectfully sat
under a weak wall. The Malachim said that if they were still learning Torah,
their Torah study would have protected them (Sotah 21a). Torah is not part in
the realm of nature, and therefore those who study it are freed from nature's
grasp (Bamidbar Raba 10:8: "The only one who is truly free is one who learns
Torah."). But since they decided to stop learning Torah and instead to be
involved in a worldly occupation, they no longer merited Divine protection
from natural calamities. Nevertheless, they were protected in the Zechus of
Rebbi Yochanan, who was destined to become the next Torah leader.