UK Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis
UK Chief Rabbi Ephraim MirvisOffice of the Chief Rabbi

Sometimes, our greatest inspiration comes from within ourselves.

In Parshat Vayeishev, the Torah describes how Yaakov favoured his son Yosef and a reason is given for this in Bereishit 37:3:

“…ki ben zekunim hu lo,” – “…because he was a child of his old age.”


The Ba’al HaTurim, who is a master of Hebrew words and letters, says that we can learn from here that Yaakov taught Yosef all the lessons of the Mishnah.

What an extraordinary teaching! Where does the Ba’al HaTurim get this from? The Ba’al HaTurim explains that it comes from the words ‘ben zekunim.’ Zekunim has five letters. The zayin stands for Zeraim, which is the first of the orders of the Mishnah, teaching us the laws of agriculture. The kuf stands for Kodshim, the sacrificial rites, the nun for Nashim teaching us all the laws relating to women and marriage, and so on. The yud stands for the word Yeshua, saving, relating to the way in which we need to save ourselves from the threat of being damaged as is described in Seder Nezikin, and then finally the mem stands for Moed which deals with all our festivals.

Now there’s a huge question we have to ask on this Ba’al HaTurim. Even a little child, from the seder experience, knows about ‘Shisha Sidrei Mishnah’ – there are SIX orders of the Mishnah! The Ba’al HaTurim only refers to five of them here!

The Admor, Rev Itsche Meir of Gur, explains beautifully. He says that only five of the orders are mentioned because they relate to the passing down of information, to instruction. When a parent instructs a child about something, it’s a cerebral activity, which is how Yosef was able to learn from Yaakov about agricultural law, about the festivals, and so on.


When, however, it comes to the sixth Order of the Mishnah which is called Taharot, how to live a life of purity, no person can receive that automatically from previous generations. We need to look into ourselves to derive inspiration from ourselves to lead a pure life. That’s something that Yaakov could not give to Yosef, and that’s why that seder is missing.

Over many years I have come across many people who’ve been from the finest, most outstanding homes and yet that is not reflected in their way of life, and on the other hand I’ve seen so many extraordinary people who come from backgrounds which they would probably wish to forget about and yet from within themselves they have reached exceptional levels of human conduct and are an extraordinary inspiration for many others.

So when looking for guidance and inspiration in life, often we should just start from within ourselves.

Shabbat shalom.