Shabbos 31b: The Yerei Shomayim who is not so scholarly

Shabbos 31b: Rabbi Simon and Rabbi Elazar were sitting, when Rabbi Yaakov bar Acha walked by. One said to the other, “Let us stand up for him because he is a man who fears sin.” The other replied, “Let us stand up for him because he is a Torah scholar.” The first one retorted, “I tell you he is a man who fears sin, and you tell me he is a Torah scholar?”

שבת לא ע”ב רבי סימון ורבי אלעזר הוו יתבי, חליף ואזיל רבי יעקב בר אחא. אמר ליה חד לחבריה: ניקו מקמיה, דגבר דחיל חטאין הוא, אמר לו אידך: ניקו מקמיהֹ דגבר בר אוריין הוא. אמר ליה: אמינא לך אנא דגבר דחיל חטאין הוא ואמרת לי את בר אוריין הוא?

During World War I, Reb Elchonon Wasserman headed the yeshiva in Smilovitz, founded by the Chofetz Chaim. There was a debate in that period about whether to institute an official mussar seder in the yeshiva. However, either way, the students could learn mussar just by watching Reb Elchonon. One student from Smilovitz wrote, “The fear of G-d constantly hovered over him. One could almost touch with his fingers the fear of Heaven that suffused his face. Only on the rarest occasions, on Simchas Torah or Purim, could even the slightest smile be noticed on his face. His economy of words was truly astonishing. He would speak only to the point, and say only what was necessary. He regarded the fear of sin as the crown of all virtues. There was among us at the time a student who excelled in piety, observing the lightest mitzvah as punctiliously as the gravest, although his application to study was by no means great. Yet Reb Elchonon would always rise up before him. On the other hand, I once saw him expel a student who bordered on genius in ability, and was considered outstanding – but who had behaved improperly. Reb Elchonon did not put him to shame in public, and also refrained from communicating the expulsion order directly. Instead, he took a volume (the Shulchan Aruch or some mussar work), turned the pages until he found the relevant passage where the deed is censured, took the open book to the bochur and pointed to the text. The bochur took the hint and left.”

Source: Reb Elchonon (Artscroll), p. 91.

[The Gemara is not a source to say that one should stand up for an ignorant person who fears sin – after all, all agree that Rav Yaakov bar Acha was a Torah scholar too, and he is mentioned many times throughout Shas. Reb Elchonon was not advocating this either; the student in this story was at least somewhat scholarly. And in fact, there is no such thing as an ignorant person who fears sin, as Pirkei Avos (2:5) says, אין בור ירא חטא. Rather, Reb Elchonon’s chiddush is that even if the person is far below your level of learning, you should stand up for him because of his piety.]

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