top of page

Mixed Metaphors

In the previous Mishna (Avot 3:15), Rabbi Akiva offered a succinct aphorism synthesizing the apparent contradiction between the concepts of Divine foreknowledge and free will: “Everything is foreseen yet freedom of choice is granted.”  In contrast, in this Mishna, Rabbi Akiva provides a lengthy—and, at first glance, longwinded—set of metaphors that require elucidation. For the sake of clarity, following Jewish Studies scholar Professor Yonah Frenkel, we will break the Mishna into five parts.


He used to say:

(a)   everything is given against a pledge, and

(b)  a net is spread out over all the living;

(c)   the store is open and the storekeeper allows credit, but the ledger is open and the hand writes, and

(d)  whoever wishes to borrow may come and borrow; but the collectors go round regularly every day and exact dues from man, either with his consent or without his consent, and they have that on which they [can] rely [in their claims], seeing that the judgment is a righteous judgment, and

(e)   everything is prepared for the banquet.


Without clear transitions, Rabbi Akiva conjures distinct imagery related to lenders and borrowers (a and d), hunters or fishermen (b), a marketplace (c and d), and a host (e).  Professor Frenkel suggests that by utilizing disparate metaphors, Rabbi Akiva is attempting to make the more abstract and philosophical principle of free will articulated in the previous Mishna more concrete and relatable to the common person. While the commentaries glean nuggets of wisdom from analyzing the various nuances in the metaphors and the word choice, the essential theme is that though we are free to choose how we act and what we consume we must remember that there are consequences to our actions. If we don’t choose properly, there will be fair and appropriate judgment; but if we make the right decisions, we will be rewarded in kind.


Rabbi Israel Lipschitz provides some important insights from the more pessimistic imagery in the Mishna. Human beings, according to Rabbi Lipschitz’s reading, are more likely to encounter failure than success. We have a strong pull towards what Freud later termed Thanatos, or the death drive. Like the birds instinctively pursuing food, but running straight under the net, we also fall into alluring traps. Foreshadowing what psychologist Roy Baumeister calls “The Power of Bad,” Rabbi Lipschitz argues that even though we can choose good, we have a stronger tendency to lean towards the bad. Built into our psyche is the evil inclination, that, like the storeowner urging us to keep taking on credit, entices us to make irresponsible choices.  


Rabbi Akiva warns us of these challenges and encourages us to overcome them and choose the good, for which we will be rewarded for in the “banquet.” Just as the Mishna ends on an optimistic note, we can also read a more positive charge in the opening statement as well. The fact that “everything is given against a pledge” informs us that everything God gives us is a loan that we have a responsibility to use for the good. As Rabbi Berel Wein writes, “[t]he realization that we are God’s surrogates allows us to be more charitable and compassionate. After all, what we ‘give away’ is not really ours.” Rashi interprets the word pledge—which in Hebrew is eiravon—as being related to the word arvut, which means responsibility. He invokes the famous idea, that “everyone is responsible for one another.”

This is a fitting way to frame the Mishna, connecting it, once again, directly to the previous Mishna. We have free will, and we must use that freedom to take personal and social responsibility. Precisely because of the strong possibility of failure and suffering, we are called on to counteract the bad by using our gifts and abilities to help others, infusing the world with more positivity, nobility, and virtue.



bottom of page