Four Types of Perfection

The gemara (Nedarim 38a) states:

אמר רבי יוחנן: אין הקב”ה משרה שכינתו אלא על גבור ועשיר וחכם ועניו.

Rabbi Yochanan said: HaQadosh Barukh Hu won’t rest His Shechinah, unless it is on someone who is mighty, wealthy, wise, and humble.

The notion that someone can’t be a navi unless they were an anav seems logical enough, and the need to be wise, also makes sense. But why does a navi need to be mighty or wealthy?

Maybe Rav Yochanan were using the terms as Ben Zoma did (Avos 4:1):

בֶּן זוֹמָא אוֹמֵר:
אֵיזֶהוּ חָכָם? הַלּוֹמֵד מִכָּל אָדָם….
אֵיזֶהוּ גִבּוֹר? הַכּוֹבֵשׁ אֶת יִצְרוֹ….
אֵיזֶהוּ עָשִׁיר? הַשָּׂמֵחַ בְּחֶלְקוֹ…
אֵיזֶהוּ מְכֻבָּד? הַמְכַבֵּד אֶת הַבְּרִיּוֹת…

Ben Zoma said:
Who is wise? Someone who learns from every person….
Who is mighty? Someone who subdues their [evil] inclination….
Who is rich? Someone who rejoices in their lot….
Who is he that is honored? Someone who honors their fellow human beings…

If we take the liberty of identifying honoring others with general moral perfection, the lists are identical, if in different orders. And it explains wisdom, might, and wealth in moral terms as well. But that’s a significant stretch, and is at best speculative.

In the last chapter of Moreh Nevuchim (3:54), the Rambam ranks these items as four forms of perfection:

The ancient and the modern philosophers have shown that man can acquire four kinds of perfection.

The first kind, the lowest, in the acquisition of which people spend their days, is perfection as regards property; the possession of money, garments, furniture, servants, land, and the like; the possession of the title of a great king belongs to this class. There is no close connection between this possession and its possessor; it is a perfectly imaginary relation when on account of the great advantage a person derives from these possessions, he says, “This is my house, this is my servant, this is my money, and these are my hosts and armies.” …

The second kind is more closely related to man’s body than the first. It includes the perfection of the shape, constitution, and form of mans body; the utmost evenness of temperaments, and the proper order and strength of his limbs. This kind of perfection must likewise be excluded from forming our chief aim; because it is a perfection of the body, and man does not possess it as man, but as a living being: he has this property besides in common with the lowest animal; and even if a person possesses the greatest possible strength, he could not be as strong as a mule, much less can he be as strong as a lion or an elephant…

The third kind of perfection is more closely connected with man himself than the second perfection. It includes moral perfection, the highest degree of excellency in man’s character. Most of the precepts aim at producing this perfection; but even this kind is only a preparation for another perfection, and is not sought for its own sake. For all moral principles concern the relation of man to his neighbor; the perfection of man’s moral principles is, as it were, given to man for the benefit of mankind. Imagine a person being alone, and having no connection whatever with any other person, all his good moral principles are at rest, they are not required, and give man no perfection whatever. These principles are only necessary and useful when man comes in contact with others.

The fourth kind of perfection is the true perfection of man: the possession of the highest, intellectual faculties; the possession of such notions which lead to true metaphysical opinions as regards God. With this perfection man has obtained his final object; it gives him true human perfection; it remains to him alone; it gives him immortality, and on its account he is called man.

Examine the first three kinds of perfection, you will find that, if you possess them, they are not your property, but the property of others; according to the ordinary view, however, they belong to you and to others. But the last kind of perfection is exclusively yours; no one else owns any part of it, “They shall be only thine own, and not strangers’ with thee” (Prov. 5:17). Your aim must therefore be to attain this [fourth] perfection that is exclusively yours, and you ought not to continue to work and weary yourself for that which belongs to others….

It seems, therefore, that Rav Yochanan is simply saying that a navi must be perfect in every way. Even those that would seem to be less important.


Notice that the Rambam reverses the order of the third and fourth items. The gemara‘s list is “גבור ועשיר וחכם ועניו — mighty, wealthy, wise, and humble,” The Rambam not only places character third and knowledge of G-d last, he ranks them accordingly. The Rambam says that character is less a person’s own property than such knowledge. Not sure why. But the aim is to the knowledge, and the other forms of perfection are the means of obtaining it.

This is a pretty far break from Rav Yochanan. There is a reason why, contrary to the Rambam, the majority of Jewish tradition places character as the ultimate goal.

For more on this topic, see:

I just thought this comparison really makes the distinction stark.

You may also like...

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *