Pirkei Avot -- Chapter 5

Quotes, as indicated by number at end after author's name, are from:
(1) In the Paths of Our Fathers by Eliyahu Tauger (Kehot)
(2) Fathers and Sons by Tuvia Kaplan (Targum Press)
(3) Pirkei Avos in the Light of Chassidus by Yekutiel Green (Author)
(4) Tzava'at Harivash by Jacob Immanuel Schochet (Kehot)
(5) The Baal Shem Tov on Pirkey Avot by
Charles Wengrov (Inst. for Mishnah Research)
(6) Pirkei Avos by the Sfas Emes and other Gerer Rabbis by Rabbi Y. Stern(Artscroll)

(7) Midrash Shmuel by Rabbi Shmuel ? of 16th century Tsfat, as translated in (3) above
(8) Maharal of Prague: Pirkei Avos by Tuvia Basser (Mesorah)

New Insight

Mishna 7

"Great is Torah, for it confers life upon it's practitioners, both in This World and in the World to Come……"

This mishna seems to contradict the renowned principle that we are not rewarded in This World. While ordinarily this is the case, someone who integrates Torah into the material world (ose'ha) deserves to be rewarded in This World. Moreover, one whose existence is inseparable from Torah merits that even his fate in This World will be conducted on the basis of Torah and not defined solely by the natural laws of the universe

(Adapted from Sfas Emes, Kedoshim 5636).

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Previous Insights on Chapter 5


Mishnah 1

"The world was created by means of ten utterances. What does this teach us? Could it not have been created by a single utterance?"

Our Sages state that the entire creation was contained in the first utterance, "In the beginning of G-d's creating the heavens and the earth." Following this, the entire creation became revealed and developed stage by stage, day by day, until it achieved its present form.
This is what the Mishnah asks: "Could it not have been created by a single utterance?" The creation could have remained in its initial undifferentiated, spiritual state. Why was it necessary to expand and differentiate the initial creation into all its details through the other nine utterances, until this physical world came into being?
The Mishnah answers that the purpose of creation is that there should be reward and punishment - to "exact retribution from the wicked," and to "grant ample reward to the righteous." For this purpose it was necessary that it become a coarse material world and that man be imbued with a yetzer hara and passions for material things. This was achieved by causing the initial utterance to descend into the remaining nine.

(Midrash Shmuel)

 

"With ten statements the world was created..."

By creating the universe with so many Divine statements - and, in the process, obscuring His Presence in the universe that He created - G-d deliberately made it possible for the heretic to deny His existence, or at least His management of the universe. Had man been created at the universe's inception - at a time when the primeval light of Creation, later hidden by G-d, was still present, and the Divine Presence was still quite visible - it would have been comparatively easy to be a believer. To be a believer in a universe where His Presence is veiled in the ten statements is a great feat not to be minimized and merits reward.

(Adapted from Sfas Emes)

 

"The world was created by means of Ten [Divine] Utterances."

According to the principles of Torah numerology, five represents a level of G-dliness above all limitation, while ten reflects the structure of our finite, material world. The intent of this chapter of Pirkei Avos is to reveal the G-dliness which transcends all limitations within the context of our material existence.

The Lubavitcher Rebbe (1)

 

“Indeed, it could have been created by one utterance”

If, however, the world had been created with one utterance, its nature would be fundamentally different than it is today. One utterance would have brought into being a material world, but there would have been no qualitative distinction between the various created beings. All existence would have reflected His oneness.
By creating the world with ten utterances, G-d endowed each order of being with a nature of its own. For the ten utterances of creation reflect the ten sefiros, which combine and subdivide into an infinite array of Divine powers. Each of these powers is associated with a particular element of existence. Thus, through these ten mediums, a world which appears to have an identity other than G-dliness came into being. By associating every element of existence with the dimension of the Torah that parallels it, man can demonstrate how the world is one with G-d, not only from the perspective of transcendent oneness, but also within the context of its own particular existence.

The Lubavitcher Rebbe (1)

 

“It was so to bring retribution upon the wicked who destroy the world which was created by ten utterances”

One might ask: why did G-d, the ultimate of good and kindness, create the world for this seemingly negative purpose? It is possible to answer as follows. On the verse: “G-d has made everything for His sake, also the wicked for his evil day”, the Alter Rebbe explains that G-d created the wicked so that they will transform their “evil” into “day”; i.e., so that they will turn to Him and allow the G-dly life-force hidden within themto shine forth.
To apply this concept in the present context: The word lehiphara, translated as “bring retribution” literally means “collect His due”. G-d does not bring retribution in order to punish, heaven forbid, but as a prod. He desires “to collect His due”, to prompt every individual to carry out the divine service for which he was created. When a person transgresses G-d’s will, he can “pay his due” by turning to Him in teshuva (repentance), for teshuvah transforms one’s sins into merits.
Yes, by creating the world with ten utterances rather than one, G-d allowed for the existence of a greater potential for evil. But this evil will not be permanent. Through teshuva, it will be transformed into light and holiness. To highlight this concept, our mishna mentions the wicked before the righteous. For as our sages declared: “In the place where baalei teshuvah stand, even those who are completely righteous cannot stand”.

The Lubavitcher Rebbe (1)


Mishna 2

"There were ten generations from Noah to Abraham to indicate how great is His patience...until Abraham our father came and received the reward of all of them."

The generations before Noah had no redeeming virtues whatsoever. They "repeatedly angered G-d" and lived in constant friction, conflict and discord. In contrast, although the generations before Abraham also "repeatedly angered G-d," they at least shared a kindred spirit and treated each other with love. But although their conduct generated reward, they themselves were unfit to receive it. Because Abraham, unlike Noah, sought to influence the people around him for good, he "received the reward" of all the comradely deeds of the generations that preceded him.

(Lubavitcher Rebbe)

"There were ten generations from Noach to Avraham…"

By discussing in Avot (a tractate devoted to ethics) the events that occurred millennia ago, the mishna is implying that we can learn from the errors of early man. The lesson to be derived from the Generation of the Flood is quite clear - it is sheer folly pursuing a hedonistic, animalistic life devoted to the pursuit of material pleasures. However, the message conveyed by their successors, the builders of the Tower of Bavel, while less obvious, is equally vital: Ideals alone are not sufficient. Once you have ascended to the level where you are capable of rendering intellectual judgments - not of formulating objectives - dedicate your newly found sense of idealism, your wisdom and knowledge to the service of G-d.

(6)

 

"The reward of them all"

What reward could these wicked people possibly have deserved, and why did Avraham receive it instead? Avraham repented not only for his own sins but for those of previous generations. And since he repented out of love of G-d rather than fear, Avraham transformed all their transgressions into merits (Yoma 86b) and received the reward for them.

Rav Chaim of Kosov (2)


Mishna 3

"Avraham our Patriarch, underwent ten tests, and he withstood them all…."

The ten trials which Avraham Avinu withstood correspond to the ten aspects of the soul. He nullified himself before G-d with every aspect of his soul
(Torat Shmuel 5626 p. 135) (3)

By withstanding these tests, Avraham revealed his great love for G-d. Similarly, when any Jew withstands a test in his service of G-d, he reveals the depth of his love for G-d.
This was said with reference to a person's work upon himself. But it is all the more so when he makes an effort to bring others closer to Torah. If he utilizes all ten powers of his soul, he will certainly succeed in revealing the great love of G-d -- an inheritance of our patriarch Avraham -- hidden deep in the heart of every Jew.

(Biurim l'Pirkei Avot p. 139) (3)

 

"How great was his [Avraham's] love for G-d."

Maimonides explains that Avraham’s first trial was exile, when G-d commanded him. “Go from your land, your birthplace, and your father’s house..” (Bereishit 12:1). It is difficult to understand how this command was a test since the next verse states that the Holy One promised Avraham great reward for fulfilling it. Yet Avraham fulfilled the commandment not because of any reward, but because it was the will of his Creator, as it is written: “And Avraham departed, as G-d had commanded him..” (ibid 12:4). This was his test: to fulfill the commandment not for the reward, but out of love of G-d.

Rav Pinchas Horowitz, Ba’al HaHaphla’ah (2)

 

Abraham our father was tested with ten trials, and he stood firm through them all.

It is written, G-d tested Abraham (Genesis 22:1). The Baal Shem Tov (of blessed memory) said that at the time a man is proved and put to the test, he is in a state of loss of his higher mental range. And thus he explained that in this verse, "G-d tested Abraham": that "G-d" connotes esoterically the intelligence in a state of smallness (as we know); it was then that He tested Abraham, when he was in the condition of smallness.

Me'or Ena-yim, naso (5) 


Mishna 4

"Ten miracles were performed for our forefathers in Egypt..."

Pirkei Avot is intended to teach us pious conduct. What is the lesson learned from the above statement?
When the Jews in Egypt witnessed the miracles performed on their behalf, they became aware of their true identity. Although they were in exile, they knew that they were servants of G-d rather than the Egyptian's slaves. Although we are still in exile, we are G-d servants, answerable to Him before any other authority.

(Lubavitcher Rebbe)

"Our forefather Avraham was tested with ten trials…"

It is noteworthy that it is only with regard to the Akeidah that the Torah uses the term test, (cf. Gen. 22:1). Whereas all the other trials experienced by Avraham (such as circumcision at age 99 or his forced migration to Egypt almost immediately upon arriving in Eretz Yisrael) served a purpose other than testing his dedication, the Akeida had no other purpose.

On a personal level, Avraham's trial of the Akeidah restored his level to that of having free will. Previously, the Patriarch had risen to such an exalted level of Divine service that he had virtually lost his capacity to defy G-d's will. Now, confronted with a particularly difficult challenge, to sacrifice his beloved Yitzchak, Avraham's spiritual equilibrium and free will were restored
(Tiferes Shlomo, Maggidei HaEmes)

However, the impact of Avraham's success was by no means confined to Avraham himself. As a result of Avraham's many trials, which he successfully withstood, Klal Yisrael (the Jewish People) attained the ability to withstand its many challenges. And just as Avraham grew spiritually as a result of overcoming impediments, so too Klal Yisrael grows from its many trials.
(Beis Yisroel, Maggidei HaEmes)


"...Ten Trials in the desert, as it is stated: 'By now they have tested Me ten times, and did not heed My voice."

The mishnah uses the expression "trials," rather than "sins" or "transgressions." The Jews' conduct in the desert tried G-d's power. But He proved Himself, and removed all their doubts, elevating the newborn nation to a higher level of faith. This is also indicated by the word "trial," for the Hebrew original, nisayon, also connotes "elevation."

The Lubavitcher Rebbe (1)

 


Mishna 5

"…when the people stood, they were crowded together, but when they prostrated themselves they had ample room….."

"The tribes of G-d went up there…to offer praise to the Name of G-d" (Tehillim 122:4) -- just as there is a Jerusalem below, so too there is a Jerusalem above. At each of the three Festivals, the Jewish people made the pilgrimage up to Jerusalem in order to see, and be seen by, the Divine Presence. The fact that when the people stood, they were crowded together, but when they prostrated themselves they had ample room indicates that their pilgrimage included an ascent to the Jerusalem above.

Likkutei Torah Pikudei, 4a (3)

 

“The people stood closely packed, yet they prostrated themselves in ample space”

When one stands erect and haughty, whatever space he has seems insufficient.  But when one is prostrated in humility, he feels he has all the space he needs.

Rav Menachem Mendel of Kotzsk (2)

 

When they prostrated themselves, nullifying themselves before G-d, they transcended their physicality, so there was ample room for them all.

Rav Simchah Bunem of Peshischa (2)

 


Mishnah 6

"Ten things were created on Erev Shabbat at twilight. They are: The mouth of the earth etc."

After Adam sinned (three hours before twilight), and external, negative forces became more powerful, G-d say the necessity to create these ten things for the sake of the Jewish people, for without these things the Jewish people would not be able to prosper. However, the Holy One, blessed is He, waited for twilight in order to create these ten things, because this is the period of time during which Israel ceases from work, thus adding this time from the weekday onto Shabbat. This would protect them from harmful forces.

(Midrash Shmuel)

"Ten things were created on Erev Shabbat at twilight. They are…..and also tongs, which must be made with tongs."

In order to explain that the first tongs were made by the Hands of Heaven, it would have been sufficient for the Mishna to end with the words, "and also tongs," without the additional phrase, "which must be made with tongs." It appears that by adding this phrase the author of the Mishna intended to suggest that the first tongs were created (by the Hands of Heaven) for the sole purpose of the second pair of tongs, made by man.

Thus, the Mishna does not list the first pair of tongs among those things which were created on Erev Shabbat at twilight. Rather, it mentions the tongs in such a way that the service of man is emphasized, for this is really more important than the actual creation of the first pair of tongs..

(Lubavitcher Rebbe)

 

"Ten things were created on Shabbat ever, at twilight. They are: the mouth of the earth….."

Korach's continued existence was harmful not only to Klal Yisrael but also to the very viability of the universe. The Sages (Bereishit Rabba 8:5) relate that when G-d contemplated creating man, the Attribute of Peace objected, arguing that mortals were simply too contentious for the universe. While G-d overruled this objection and nonetheless created man, He also graced the universe with an extraordinary Divinely inspired "infusion" of peace. By stirring needless controversy, Korach upset the universe's delicate balance of peace. Rather than jeopardizing the universe's equilibrium and endanger a peaceful haven for Klal Yisrael, the fomenter of controversy, Korach, had to fall by the wayside.

Sfas Emes, Korach 5651 (6)

“The [original] tongs, for tongs must be made with tongs.”

Tongs represent man’s ability to change and mold his environment. The mishnah emphasizes that this potential (the original tongs) is a gift given to man by G-d.
The tongs were created on Friday at twilight, i.e., they were the very last creations brought into being. This indicates that man’s efforts represent the ultimate goal of creation, for it is man’s efforts which will bring all existence to perfection.

Lubavitcher Rebbe (1)


Mishna 7

"Great is Torah, for it confers life upon it's practitioners, both in This World and in the World to Come……"

This mishna seems to contradict the renowned principle that we are not rewarded in This World. While ordinarily this is the case, someone who integrates Torah into the material world (ose'ha) deserves to be rewarded in This World. Moreover, one whose existence is inseparable from Torah merits that even his fate in This World will be conducted on the basis of Torah and not defined solely by the natural laws of the universe

(Adapted from Sfas Emes, Kedoshim 5636).

 

“A wise person does not speak before anyone greater than he in wisdom..”

His power of speech leaves him, for he received all his wisdom from those who are greater than he.  And if he loses his power of speech before such people, how much more so does he lose all sense of himself before G-d.

The Baal Shem Tov (2)

 

"He is not quick to reply..”

A wise person does not question Divine judgment; rather, he accepts all tribulations with love.  He is like Avraham, who, when told to sacrifice his son, did not answer:  "Yesterday  you promised, '...in Yitzchak your seed will be called' [Bereishis 21:12], so how can You now demand his sacrifice?"  Avraham accepted G-d's command for he understood that "everything G-d does, He does for the best"  (Berachos 67b).

Rav Yitzchak Isaac of Komarna (2)

The wise man does not speak before one who is greater than he in wisdom or number.

It rather means: The wise man does not speak -- because the capacity for speech is taken from him -- before the One from whom his greatness comes -- that is, the One from whom he has received his wisdom and knowledge, by whom he was thus raised in wisdom. Hence, when he comes before G-d, he reaches such a stage of dissociation in trance from physical reality that he no longer knows if he is a creature with or without speech (human or animal), or an inanimate object. Thus he does not know at all what he says (in prayer), because of his intense adherence to his G-d. (As one Sage said) "I am grateful to my head: When I reach the prayer, modim anachnu lach (We thank You), it bows down by itself" (Jerusalem Talmud, Berachot ii 4 end).

Notzer Chessed, citing the Baal Shem Tov (5)

 


Mishnah 8

"Seven kinds of punishment come to the world for seven types of transgressions…"

The Mishnah does not state that G-d sends punishment down on the world, but rather that punishments come to the world, in an automatic fashion.
The attributes of the Holy One, blessed is He, are not like those of man. He does not take revenge against those who hate Him and who transgress His Will. When a Jew sins, he himself elicits the attribute of severity upon himself. This is what the Midrash Rabbah (Re'eh) states: Neither evil nor good issues from the mouth of the Supernal One - rather, the evil comes of itself to one who does evil, and good to one who does good.

Midrash Shmuel (3)

 

"If some tithe and others do not, a famine of confusion ensues -- some go hungry and others have plenty."

Tithes allude to the fear of G-d (Zohar 3:122a). Thus, our mishna refers to one who sometimes fears G-d but other times does not. Concerning such a person, the Mishna (Rosh Hashana 1:1) states that the first day of Elul is the beginning of the year for the tithes of animals. That is, if one behaves like an animal most of the year, giving no thought to repentance, he must treat the first of Elul like Rosh Hashana, regaining the fear of G-d prior to the Day of Judgment.

Rav Yisrael, the Maggid of Koznitz (2)

“War comes to the world…for rendering a Torah decision not in accordance with halachah”

This mishnah indicates that there is a direct connection between peace and the integrity of Torah law. Flaunting Torah law is not only a question of religious observance, it’s a matter of security. The converse is also true; adherence to the Torah promotes peace and safety for our people, both in the Land of Israel and throughout the world.

The Lubavitcher Rebbe (1)


Mishnah 9

"Pestilence increases at four times…for robbing the poor of their gifts."

"The poor eat from G-d's table." The owner of a field does not actually give away anything of his own. Divine Providence gave him the merit of being an emissary to transfer the poor man's portion to him. Thus, when the owner of a field transfers the poor man's dues to him, this is regarded as a gift from the owner of the field. However, if he delays it, or does not give it at all, he is regarded as a thief, for he took that which did not belong to him.

Midrash Shmuel (3)

"Idolatry, for prohibited sexual relations, for murder, and for not leaving the earth at rest during the Sabbatical year…"

Pirkei Avot teaches mili dechassidusa, pious behavior beyond the measure of the law. Therefore, of what importance is the mention of these four sins? Even people who are not overly pious do not commit them.

The answer lies in the homiletic interpretation of these four transgressions. When mentioning idol worship, the mishnah does not refer merely to one who bows to a statue. The intent is to indicate anyone who even conceives of the existence of a power other than G-d. This, unfortunately, is a fault found in many. Is it not natural for a person to think, "It was my strength and the power of my hand which brought me this prosperity"? And do not people make idols out of wisdom or achievement?

With regard to sexual impropriety, even a person who would never consider performing such acts may from time to time relax his standards of modesty. And with regard to murder our Sages equate embarrassing a person in public with homicide.

Similarly, with regard to the observance of the Sabbatical year, in addition to the implied geographic conception of Eretz Yisrael, there is also a spiritual conception, the reaffirmation of G-d's creation, and the observance of the Sabbatical year in this context is relevant to all Jews, wherever and whenever they live.

The Lubavitcher Rebbe (1)

 

"Wild animals come to the world on account of needless oaths….."

Why does the Holy One arouse His children to repent by means of punishment? There are two kinds of medicine, bitter and sweet. When you give a child sweet medicine, he likes it so much that he doesn't even realize he's sick. When the medicine is bitter, however, the patient knows he is ill. Unfortunately, sometimes only bitter medicine can awaken the Jewish people to repentance.

Rav Shmuel of Lubavitch (2)


Mishnah 10

[One who says:]
"What's mine is mine and what's yours is yours" has the average mentality [although] some say this is the mentality of Sodom"

Why not judge such a person favorably, labeling him average rather than wicked as Sodom? After all, he does not seek anything that does not belong to him; he just wants what is his.
The mishna is referring to one who says, "What's yours is yours," but in his heart he is constantly scheming to appropriate another's wealth. Thus, the mishna teaches: One who truly says, "What's mine is mine and what's yours is yours" is average, but some say this, thinking otherwise, and that is the mentality of Sedom.

Rav Meir of Premyslan (2)

 

According to the first view, and all the more so according to the second view, this is an am ha'aretz viewpoint in the sense of being bound to material, earthly matters. The Holy One, blessed is He, is absolutely One, and therefore His Presence does not dwell where there is disunity, where one claims, "What is mine is mine, etc." but only where there is unity and harmony. For this reason, every person must make an effort to allow others to benefit from his possessions, and from his Torah learning, etc.

Tsemech Tsedek, Sefer Likkutim, vo.1, p. 441 (3)

 

"What's mine is yours"

Says the pious person: Even what is mine, i.e., everything I do for my sake, such as eating, drinking, and sleeping, is Yours, for it is done for Your sake. All the more so, what is Yours - Torah study and prayer - is Yours.
In contrast, one who says, "What is mine is mine" forgets G-d when he is involved in physical matters, eating and drinking only to satisfy his needs. He even compounds his error by saying, "what's Yours is mine," for even the commandments he fulfills are only for his own satisfaction. Such a person, who does nothing for the sake of Heaven, is wicked.

Rav Yisrael, the Maggid of Koznitz (2)


Mishna 11

"There are dispositions: Easy to anger and easy to pacify-- [such a person's] loss is offset by his gain; hard to anger and hard to pacify -- his gain is offset by his loss"

An alternate version of the mishna reads: "Easy to anger and easy to pacify -- his gain is offset by his loss; hard to anger and hard to pacify -- his loss is compensated by his gain." Being easy to anger and easy to pacify is worse than being hard to anger and hard to pacify. For the first type is easily angered because he is easily pacified -- he doesn't worry about becoming angry for he knows he will soon be appeased. His gain is therefore offset by his loss, for one causes the other. Furthermore, because he is easily pacified, he -- he doesn't worry about becoming angry for he knows he will soon be appeased. His gain is therefore offset by his loss, for one causes the other. Furthermore, because he is easily pacified, he underestimates the severity of anger, considering it only a minor imperfection. In contrast, one who is hard to pacify understand that anger is a vice and strive to avoid it.

Rav Yehuda Leib of Gur, the Sefas Emes. (2)

 

"Four Types of Disposition"

A child, being mentally immature, is easily angered and bursts into tears over the most insignificant matters when they contest his will. Since he is mentally immature, he cannot control his emotions. However, a mature adult is able to tolerate things which oppose his will. This is because he is mentally mature and therefore able to control his emotions so that he doesn't become angry at all. There are many different levels of proficiency in controlling the emotions, but in general, the more understanding a person is, the more difficult it is to anger him.

Likkutei Torah, Shir HaShirim 30b (3)


Mishnah 12

"Quick to understand and slow to forget - this is a good portion"

One who has a portion of the Good, who cleaves to G-d, will be quick to understand and slow to forget words of Torah.

Rav Yisrael, the Maggid of Koznitz (2)

 


Mishnah 13

"Four types of people give to charity….one who wants others to give but will not give himself…"

Why does the mishnah say there are four types of people who give to charity when this person will not give?

Our Sages comment on Bereishis 1:5, "'And it was evening' -these are the deeds of the wicked; 'and it was morning' - these are the deeds of the righteous. I would not know which deed G-d preferred [so the Torah stated in the previous verse], 'And G-d saw the light, that it was good' - the deeds of the righteous are preferable" (Bereishit Rabbah 2:5). What an astounding statement! Might we really think G-d prefers the deeds of the wicked?

This idea may be explained based on Koheles 2:13, "..wisdom is greater than folly as light is greater than darkness." In Hebrew, "greater than" literally means "greater from," or "greater because of." That is, the advantage of light is recognizable only because of, or relative to, darkness. So, too, wisdom is especially evident amid folly, righteousness amid wickedness, pleasure amid pain, and knowledge amid ignorance.

In this sense, each negative attribute becomes the "seat" of its opposite positive quality, uplifting and emphasizing it. As a result, the negative attribute is also uplifted, just as when a person lifts something, not only is the object raised up, but so is his hand. This clarifies why G-d might theoretically prefer the deeds of the wicked, for they are the "seat" of the deeds of the righteous. (Yet, although the deeds of the wicked and the righteous together form this kind of unit, they must be separated, just as G-d separated light from darkness [Bereishis 1:41].)

Thus, even one who gives no charity is included among the four types of donors, for he is like a "seat" uplifting and emphasizing the greatness of those who do give.

The Ba'al Shem Tov (2)


Mishna 14

"One who 'does' but does not attend [literally, "does not go"] is rewarded for his actions."

Is it possible to "do" but not to "go," that is, to perform mitzvos without rising to greater spiritual heights? Such a person receives reward only for his actions, for it must be that they are geared only toward receiving reward. Were his thoughts pure and his intentions for the sake of Heaven, however, his performance of mitzvos would indeed bring him greater spirituality.

Rav Dov Ber, the Maggid of Mezritch (2)

 


Mishnah 15

"There are four types among those who sit before the Sages:…; a strainer, which allows the wine to flow out and retains the sediment;..."

A strainer denotes a student who retains the secondary rather than the primary, just like a strainer which allows the wine to pass through while collecting the dregs. Such a student receives only the leftover scraps from his master - explanations, events that took place and stories, which merely serve to make the learning spicy - while forgetting the main content of his lessons. Such a student tends to neglect the essence and depth of the halachah, while selecting the secondary, incorrect reasoning.

"…a sieve, which allows the flour-dust to pass through and retains the fine flour.."

Meal (solet) alludes to the secrets of Torah, whereas flour (kemach) alludes to the plain meaning of the text. Not every student is able to absorb the secrets of Torah. In order to avoid negative results, a spiritual mentor or guide must sift things. He may retain the meal, while giving the flour to his students.

Midrash Shmuel (3)


Mishna 16

"Any love that is depended upon a specific consideration - when the consideration vanishes, the love ceases; but if it is not dependent upon a specific consideration - it will never cease."

According to the "Avodat Yisrael" our mishna is alluding to our love of G-d which should not be contingent upon Him showering us with bountiful blessings. Such inferior form of Love of G-d which is premised on material blessings could lead to a serious weakening of our belief in Him, whenever our material expectations are not immediately realized. On the contrary: our love of G-d should be unconditional and consequently will never cease - regardless of our current fortunes. True love is not in any way contingent upon gratification by the beloved of the whim of the suitor.

Magidei HaEmes (6)

"What is conditional love? That of Amnon for Tamar. And unconditional [love]? The love of David and Jonathan." (Av 5:16)

"And Jonathan's soul was bound to the soul of David, and Jonathan loved him like his own soul" (I Shmuel 18:1). The love of David and Jonathan was an expression of the intrinsic love of the closest of friends, who love each other as if they share the same soul. Just as a person loves his own soul (as the source of his life) so he loves his friend.

Toras Chaim, Shemos p. 363b; Sha'arei Teshuvah vol. 1, p. 55b (3)

 

"Any love that is conditional, will cease when the condition upon which it depends vanishes. But if it is unconditional, it will never cease."

Unconditional love transcends reasoning and comprehension. It is of the essence of the soul - for the essence of the soul loves, and longs to cleave to, the Infinite One, blessed is He.

Kuntreis HaAvoda p.31 (3)


In truth, there are two aspects of the essential love which a Jew has for G-d. One is of the aspect of the soul referred to as Chaya (there are five levels of the soul possessed by every Jew. From lowest to highest they are - Nefesh, Ruach, Neshamah, Chaya, Yechidah). The other is from the highest level of soul - Yechidah. The former is compared to the love of two dear, faithful friends (like David and Yonasan), whereas the second is comparable to the love of a father and son. Whereas the first type of love can weaken, and can even become obscured to such an extent that it needs to be aroused and renewed, the second type of love can never be forgotten, and never weakens, even with the passage of months and years. It appears that the author of the Mishnah deliberately quotes the example of David and Yonasan to describe unconditional love, rather than the example of a father and a son, because the former, being an expression of love from the level of Chaya, is relevant for every Jew. However, the level of love pertaining to the essence of the soul, Yechidah, is only relevant for a select few - the heads and leaders of the Jewish people. Since Pirkei Avot gives instruction in matters of middos chassidus which are appropriate for all Jews, it mentions only the lesser type of love.

See Sefer HaArachim, vol.1, p.241-4, 488; Biurim l'Pirkei Avot p.21 (3)


Mishna 17

"Any controversy which is for the sake of Heaven will endure….."

The Mishna states that a controversy for the sake of Heaven will endure forever! It will never be concluded, because each side of the controversy presents a different viewpoint of the truth -- "both of them present the words of the Living G-d."

Hisva'aduyos 5744, vol. 1 p. 99 (3)

"…Which controversy was not for the sake of Heaven? The controversy of Korach and his assembly [Bamidbar 16]"

The mishna speaks not of the controversy of Korach and Moshe but of the controversy within Korach's own faction, for such disunity is a sure sign that a group is not acting for the sake of Heaven. In contrast, those who are party to a controversy for the sake of Heaven are unified.

Rav Pinchas of Koretz (2)

 

"Which is a Controversy for the Sake of Heaven? The Controversy Between Hillel and Shammai"

The Zohar explains that the controversy between Hillel and Shammai stemmed from the fact that Shammai's soul was characterized by the qulity of gevurah, might, while Hillel's was characterized by the quality of chesed, kindness. These attributes are highlighted by several examples in the Talmud which show Shammai as short-tempered and Hillel as gentle and patient. For that reason, Hillel's opinions would generally be more lenient, and Shammai's more stringent. Nevertheless, the difference of opinion between Hillel and Shammai were not merely expressions of their personal natures; they were "for the sake of Heaven." As proof, we find several instances in which Shammai issued lenient rulings, and Hillel, more stringent ones. Because their study of Torah was characterized by a selfless desire to discover G-d's truth, they rose above their individual natures and at times displayed the opposite thrust. As long as a person's divine service follows his natural tendencies, he cn never be sure that his intent is to serve G-d; it is possible that his efforts, however worthy, do not reflect a commitment above his individual nature. When, by contrast, he is required to display tendencies that run contrary to his nature, it is clear that he is being motivated by a commitment to G-d that transcends his personal motives.

The Lubavitcher Rebbe (1)


Mihsnah 18

"Whoever inspires the community to be meritorious will not be the cause of sin…"

If one sins without repenting, he is reincarnated and given the chance to rectify his sin by not repeating it. However, one who inspires the community simultaneously atones for his transgressions, so he need never be tested by the opportunity to repeat them.

Rav Yitzchak Isaac of Komarna (2)

"Whenever a person causes the many to have merit, no sin shall come through him…"

This is not to say that such a person's free will is taken away, and he will be prevented from sinning. The intent is that since he endeavored to bring merit to many people, the positive influence these efforts generates will prevent him from becoming involved in circumstances which would cause him to sin accidentally or inadvertently.

The Lubavitcher Rebbe (1)


Mishnah 19

"Those who have a good eye…are the disciples of our forefather Avraham."

A true disciple of Avraham ensures that his eyes (his outlook) and perspective remain pure by shielding them from the lust and physical passions of This World. By contrast, Bilam and his followers are always seeking means of satiating their physical passions.

Lev Simcha, Maggidei HaEmes (6)

"…Those who have a good eye, a humble spirit, and a lowly soul are disciples of Avraham our forefather…"

A good eye sees the exaltedness of the Creator, a humble spirit sees his own shortcomings, and a lowly soul sees the inadequacy of his Divine service.

Rav Yisrael, the Maggid of Koznitz (2)

 

"…possess a good eye…"

It is written, Let your eyes be in the field that they are reaping (Ruth 2:9), which is to be explained with the verse, He who has a good, generous eye will be blessed (Proverbs 22:9). The eye mystically denotes wisdom; and in truth, looking is the lower level of wisdom, as he looks and regards something, he brings blessing into that thing. For when he looks at an object, he knows that object is as nothing before the blessed L-rd - meaning that it is truly nought and nothing except for His Divinity which is manifest within it….Without Him it is utterly nought - in keeping with the verse, but what are we? (Ex. 16:7) Through this kind of look and regard, he draws down supernal energy to that object from the divinity of the blessed L-rd. This is the recondite sense of the verse, He who has a good, generous eye will be blessed - he brings blessing to that object.

The opposite is equally true. When a person with an evil, ungenerous eye stares at the object and is impressed by it, thinking, "How lovely (or handsome) that object is," he makes it a matter of worth by itself. Thus he is a whisperer who separates away the Divine Friend (Proverbs 16:28). For by his regard and stare, that object is cut off from its root-source of energy - divinity. As it is known, such staring forms a "vessel", and as a result, the "evil eye" prevails (may Heaven spare us).

Likkuty Amarim, citing the Baal Shem Tov (5)

"A good eye, a humble spirit, and a lowly soul"

A good eye that sees the exaltedness of the Creator, a humble spirit sees his own shortcomings, and a lowly soul sees the inadequacy of his Divine service.

Rav Yisrael, the Maggid of Koznitz (2)

 


Mishna 20

"Yehudah Ben Tema said: 'Be bold as a leopard, light as an eagle, swift as a deer, and strong as a lion, to carry out the will of your Father in Heaven.'"


On the verse in the Book of Job, "Instruct us from the beasts of the earth; grant us wisdom from the birds of the heaven," the Talmud (Eruvin) states that even were (heaven forbid) the Torah not to have been given, we could learn the positive traits it teaches by meditating on the qualities with which G-d endowed the animals. As the Baal Shem Tov teaches (Keter Shem Tov): "Everything which a person sees or hears should serve as a lesson for him in his divine service." When a person sees a beast or a bird - even a non-kosher species like a leopard or an eagle - he should realize that the purpose is to teach him positive qualities which he should employ in his divine service.

(The Lubavitcher Rebbe)

 

"Strong as a lion"

When I was young, the evil inclination came to me early one morning and said: "Naftali, it's so early! It is not even morning! Sleep a little longer." But I was quick to answer, "You are already up and at work but I should continue sleeping? Go away and leave me alone!"

Rav Naftali of Ropshitz (2)


"The impudent to Gehinom"

Even to Gehinom, the wicked go impudently, still confident that their way is correct.

Rav Menachem Mendel of Kotzsk (2)


"The impudent to Gehinom, and the shamefaced to Gan Eden"

Concerning a sin, an act of Gehinom, the wicked are impudent and unembarrassed to transgress. However, when it comes to matters of Gan Eden, to the fulfillment of a mitzvah, they are suddenly too shamefaced to act.

Rav Baruch of Medziozh (2)

 


Mishnah 21

"…at twenty pursuit of a livelihood…"

The Heavenly Court does not punish a person for any sins committed before he turned twenty (Shabbos 89b). At age twenty, however, they begin to "pursue" him from Above. Then he in turn must pursue and defeat his evil inclination.

Rav Avraham Mordechai of Gur (2)


Mishnah 22

"At one hundred it is as if one were dead and had departed and ceased connection with the world."
This represents a crowning stage in personal development. On the verse "no man will see Me and live," our Sages commented: "While alive one does not see, but when dead one sees." At one hundred, a person can reach a level such that "it is as if he were dead," i.e., he can attain that degree of perception of G-dliness.

Similarly, the expression "had departed and ceased connection with the world" also has a positive connotation. It means the person has risen above all worldly matters. His focus and concern are solely spiritual.

The Lubavitcher Rebbe (1)

 

"…a hundred year old is as if dead…"

The hundred year old of whom the Mishnah speaks rises to the level of the innermost aspect of the highest of all sefiros, Keser. After a person has spent seventy years purifying his animal soul (seventy corresponding to the seven emotional attributes of the soul, each of which has ten aspects), he will be worthy of achieving his World to Come in this life. A hundred year old is as if dead because he is worthy of seeing that which no one can see while still alive, as mentioned above - "They do not see Me while they are alive, but they will see Me in death."

Or HaTorah Bereishis, p. 220; Ma'amarim 5672 p. 59 (3)


 

Mishna 23

"Yehudah ben Temima says: Be…swift as a deer.."

Be as fleet-footed as a deer to escape temptation. Yosef HaTzadik did not merely walk away from the importuning of Potiphar's wife, he ran away, as it is written: "he fled, and went outside" (Gen. 39:12).

Sfas Emes (6)

 


 

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