Before Reb Zusia

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by R. Gil Student

I. Being Measured Against Others

Over a decade ago, I challenged the eighteenth century Chasidic scholar Reb Zusia of Hanipol‘s famous last words. On his deathbed, he said that he wasn’t worried that the heavenly court would ask why he wasn’t like Moshe, because he could answer that he lacked Moshe’s abilities. But he was worried that they would ask him why he wasn’t like Zusia, i.e. why he did not live up to his full potential?

I pointed out that the Gemara (Yoma 35b) tells us that when a poor man reaches the heavenly court and says that he could not study Torah due to his poverty, he will be asked if he was as poor as Hillel. As a young man, the sage Hillel was so poor that one day he could not even afford the trivial entrance fee for the study hall. However, this did not stop him and, through tremendous personal pain and sacrifice, he found a way to study anyway (by climbing onto the roof of the study hall despite the falling snow). Hillel obligates poor people, the Gemara states. He makes their poverty, even severe poverty, inadmissable as an excuse for failing to study Torah. In other words, poor people do not have to live up to their own abilities of perseverance, as per Reb Zusia, but to Hillel’s standard. The Gemara adds that rich people cannot claim that they were too busy with business, because R. Elazar was able to overcome his wealth and study Torah. Rich people are judged according to R. Elazar’s abilities.

Additionally, the midrash (Tanna Devei Eliyahu Rabbah, ch. 25) states that each person must say “When will my deeds reach the deeds of my ancestors?” (i.e. Avraham, Yitzchak and Ya’akov, as made explicit in Yalkut Shimoni on Deut. 5:6, no. 830). We see that people are specifically judged against the standard of the patriarchs, contrary to Reb Zusia’s claim.

II. Upside Down World

I found a precedent from two centuries earlier. Rav Moshe di-Trani (Mabit; Beis Elokim, introduction) quotes the Gemara (Pesachim 50a) which tells the story of Rav Yosef the son of R. Yehoshua Ben Levi. Rav Yosef became sick and died briefly before being resuscitated. Rav Yosef said that during his brief visit Heaven he saw an upside down world; those above (important below) were below (unimportant) and those below were above. On one level, this story describes the confused values in this world resulting in misplaced social hierarchy. Mabit applies this to people accomplished in Torah learning and mitzvah fulfillment. We tend to judge someone based on how much Torah they know and how many mitzvos they do.

However, Mabit says, everyone has different abilities and potential. In Heaven, people are judged by how well they fulfilled their potential. Someone who was a great Torah scholar may have failed to fully achieve his potential while someone who barely knew anything surpassed his abilities. The Mishnah (Avos 2:8) quotes R. Yochanan Ben Zakkai who would say, “If you have learned much Torah do not claim credit for yourself, because you were created for this.” Mabit explains this to mean that you were given certain potential. Do not think you are better than your less accomplished colleagues because you were created with your potential just like they were created with theirs. In Heaven, everyone is judged based on their individual potential.

The Mishnah (Avos 2:4) also says, “Do not judge your fellow until you reach his place.” Mabit explains this as meaning that you cannot judge someone unless you understand his full circumstances, including the potential he was given. Maybe his limited Torah learning and mitzvah fulfillment surpass his potential, making him an excellent success story.

Since we cannot know our own potential, Mabit recommends pushing ourselves to our limits and then doing even more. That way we know we reach our potential, and maybe even surpass it.

III. Inconclusion

How does Mabit answer the questions with which we began? I don’t know. But at least Reb Zusia has an earlier precedent for his view. Rather than an early Chasidic approach, it is a pre-Lurianic view.

(reposted from Nov ’19)

About Gil Student

Rabbi Gil Student is the Editor of, a leading website on Orthodox Jewish scholarly subjects, and the Book Editor of the Orthodox Union’s Jewish Action magazine. He writes a popular column on issues of Jewish law and thought featured in newspapers and magazines, including The Jewish Link, The Jewish Echo and The Vues. In the past, he has served as the President of the small Jewish publisher Yashar Books and as the Managing Editor of OU Press. Rabbi Student currently is serving his third term on the Executive Committee of the Rabbinical Council of America and also serves as the Director of the Halacha Commission of the Rabbinical Alliance of America. He serves on the Editorial Board of Jewish Action magazineand the Board of OU Press. He has published four English books, the most recent titled Search Engine volume 2: Finding Meaning in Jewish Texts -- Jewish Leadership, and served as the American editor for Morasha Kehillat Yaakov: Essays in Honour of Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks.


  1. I would answer the question from Hillel, etc. by explaining it as follows: The gemara means that people are not necessarily expected to do things that are unprecedented. Hillel essentially “raised the bar” by his actions. This answers your question because if no one ever knew about Hillel’s achievement, the gemara would not have included it. It’s not about being judged based on someone else, it’s about how Hillel’s actions made it it possible for others to follow him, though each would be judged according to their own abilities. There’s more to say about this but I’ll leave it at that. As far as masai yagiu maasai, that really sounds like a mussar. Don’t set your sights lower. It’s not focused on expectations.

  2. Point 1: You are misunderstanding the statement of R’ Zusha. His point, as has been explained in Chasidic tradition and numerous Chasidic sources, is that one must strive to be the best you that you can possibly be, living up to all the potential Hashem has given you, not that one shouldn’t aim to emulate the ways of the avos.

    Point 2: It is unfortunate to see how readily you dismiss the teaching of R’ Zusha, yet so readily accept the teaching Mabit, as if R’ Zushe is not a good enough source, but the Mabit is. Why does R’ Zushe need an earlier precedent and the Mabit does not? This is actually a pattern with your writings regarding Chasidic works. You constantly work to find a precedent for their teachings, yet you don’t apply the same requirements for teachings from classical misnagdic rabbis and their seforim. .

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