Pirkei Avot -- Chapter 1

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 Di Uzeda of 16th century Tsfat, as translated in (3) above
(8) Maharal of Prague: Pirkei Avos by Tuvia Basser (Mesorah)
(9) Vedebarta Bam on Pirkei Avot by Rabbi Moshe Bogomilsky
(10) [commentary on] Pirkei Avot by Rabbi Yosef Marcus

This Week's Insights

Mishna 4

"Yose ben Yoezer of Tzreida said: Make your house a meeting place of the Sages; sit in the dust at their feet; and thirstily drink their words."

When you learn Torah for the sake of Heaven and mention the Sages of the Mishnah and the Talmud in connection with the laws they taught, you should imagine that those Sages are standing before you.

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

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Previous Insights on Chapter 1

Mishnah 1

"Moshe received the Torah from Sinai"

    Why doesn't the mishnah state that Moshe received the Torah "on Sinai"?
    It is written, "The man Moshe was very humble, more so than all other men" (Num. 12:3). Thus, when G'd commanded him to lead the Jewish people out of Egyptian bondage, he said, "Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and take the children of Israel from Egypt?" (Ex. 3:11). Yet when the Holy One announced that He would give the Torah through Moshe, and that he would be teacher of all Israel, the prophet did not protest. Where was his humility then?
    The Sages explain that the Torah was given on Sinai because it was the lowest of all mountains (Sotah 5a). When Moshe saw that the Torah was given by that which is lowly and unpretentious, only then did he agree to be the agent of its transmission. Hence, Moshe received the Torah "from Sinai" — he learned from Sinai that only the lowly and humble are worthy to receive Torah; therefore, he agreed that the Torah be given through him.

(Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev) (2)

"…Be patient in the administration of justice; raise up many disciples…"

In addition to patience in judgment, it is proper for a person to consult with this students, as it states, "I gained much knowledge from my teachers, but from my students more than from any of them." Through discussion among students the truth will endure.

Midrash Shmuel (3)


"Moshe received the Torah from Sinai…"

The Mishnah used the expression "from Sinai" in deference to the honor of the Holy One, blessed is He. Moshe did not receive the Torah in its entirety, and since it is not proper to associate something incomplete with the Holy One, blessed is He, the Mishnah states that Moshe received it at Sinai, where G-d had revealed Himself.

(Midrash Shmuel) (7)

"And he handed it down to Joshua."
And the L-rd said to Moses: "Write this for remembrance in the book, and convey it to the ears of Joshua, etc.
(Ex. 17:14)

This I heard in the name of the holy Baal Shem Tov (of blessed memory):
Even though the Almighty told Moses to write it in the sacred book (Scripture), and apparently this should have been enough, he yet told him, "and convey it to the ears of Joshua" -- by word of mouth, direct speech. For the main thing is what we hear from the tzadik of the generation; and (of course) Moses was the great man of piety in that generation.

(Migdal David, preface) (5)

"He who does not teach deserves death."

Although Hillel warns that one should not seek fame, one should also not refrain from teaching in an effort to remain humble. He who does not share his knowledge will ultimately lose it.



Mishnah 2

"Shimon the Righteous..used to say, 'The world stands on three things: On [the study of] Torah, the service [of G-d] and deeds of kindness'"

There is no question that over the years the world has progressed immensely. Modern technology has changed our lifestyle so drastically that the generation before us appears antiquated and primitive. Regardless of our great accomplishments, humanity continues to progress and develop even more sophisticatedly. With all this progress and advancement, some claim that Torah and the Torah lifestyle should be modified to the comtemporay modern age.

Shimon HaTzakkik's message is that regardless of the progress and forward movement the world is making, there are three things in which the world must be "omeid" - "stationary" -- i.e. remain the same as in previous times without being altered, modernized or modified in the minutest way. They are Torah, service of Hashem, and act of kindness. In regard to these the Jew in all generations must practice and observe them in accordance with the old established authentic ways of our rabbis of previous generations.

(Knesset Yisrael)

"..He used to say: The world stands upon three things -- upon Torah, upon Divine service, and upon acts of kindness"

It is significant that three distinct approaches to avodat Hashem are stated in the Mishna: firstly, Torah study which is initiated by the individual, followed by avoda, consisting of our pleas that Hashem bless us, and finally gemilut chasadim, in which the Jew shares his material and spiritual possessions with others. These three approaches -- man's initiative enhanced by Hashem's bountiful blessings which are then shared with our less fortunate peers -- are the pillars upon which the universe stands.

(Pirkei Avos) (6)

"…the world depends on three things: on the Torah, on the service (of G-d) and on kind deeds."

The soul of a Jew descended from its lofty perch above into a deep pit -- into this material world, where it became clothed in a physical body. This descent is for the sake of a later ascent. When a person occupies himself with Torah, Divine service, and acts of kindness, he elevates his soul, raising it to an even loftier level than it was on before.
In a general sense one could say that Torah affects all those matters which have to do with the brain, Divine service (prayer) affects all those matters which have to do with the physical body, and acts of kindness affect all of the Jewish people, and the entire world.

(Lubavitcher Rebbe) (3)

"The world stands upon three things"

The word for "world" in Hebrew is 'olam', which is cognate to the word 'helem'-'concealment'. The world was created in such a way that G-liness is buried and concealed within it. Only by removing the concealment will the light of G-dliness hidden within it be revealed.

    Every person is obligated to say, "The world (ha'olam) was created for me." Do not read this as "the world," but "the concealment" (ha'helem). Every person has the mission and obligation to remove the concealment through the service of G-d.
    How does he do this? Regarding this, Shimon HaTzaddik used to say: "The world stands upon three things...." The concealment remains until removed by three things-Torah, Divine service, and acts of kindness. Then the inner light is revealed.

(Rebbe Harayatz, Ma'amarim 5700, p.160) (3)


"The world stands upon three things: on the Torah, on the service (of G-d) and on kind deeds"

Since man is a microcosm, the three things on which the world stand also apply on an individual level. On the verse, "He has redeemed my soul in peace", the Talmud states:

Said the Holy One, blessed is He, "Anyone who occupies himself with Torah and acts of kindness, and who prays with the community is regarded by Me as having redeemed Me and My son (Israel) from among the nations of the world." (Berachot, 8a)

By occupying himself in all these three things, a Jew merits his own personal redemption. He is redeemed from among the nations of the world, and from the foreign elements within him. Moreover, he sustains the entire world, by causing it to follow the will of G-d.

(Lubavitcher Rebbe) (3)

Mishna 3

"Antigonos of Socho received the tradition from Shimon HaTzadik. He used to say: '...And let reverence for Heaven (literally, the fear of Heaven) be upon you'"

After Antigonos emphasizes that one should not serve G-d with a view to receiving reward, but out of complete love for Him, he declares that a person must also be careful regarding his reverence for G-d. One who serves with love is eager to fulfill a positive commandment, and one who serves with reverence is careful regarding negative ones. Thus, by being careful in both aspects, a person's service is complete.


Is it possible to receive reward?

When a servant fulfills all of his duties without any help from his master, it is permissible for him to expect a reward. However, when it is really the master who does the work, while the servant merely helps (and particularly when his help is so minimal that it can be disregarded), what kind of reward can he ask for? After all, one should not "be like servants who serve the master for the sake of receiving a reward!"
The master is the Holy One, blessed is He, who is called the Master and the Ruler, the Origin and the Root of all the worlds.
Serving the Master (et ha rav) in this context means im ha rav - together with the Master, for the lion's share of the work is done by the Holy One, blessed is He, Himself. Through fulfilling mitzvos a Jew merely assists the Creator. And asking for a reward for this is indeed vulgar.

(Kesser Shem Tov) (3)


"Do not be like servants who serve their master for the sake of receiving a reward"

Once the worker has finished his day's activity, the man has an obligation to give him his wages in full. This holds true, however, only if the laborer has done his work faithfully. But if the worker stood at the side with folded hands, while the man toiled and slaved away till he finished the work himself, would it enter anyone's mind to think that he still has to pay the worker for having stood idle?

A man observes the mitzvot of the L-rd, obeys His commandments as the blessed Creator bade him, and for this he asks payment, compensation for his service. Yet if we consider and examine the matter well, we will find that the man has done nothing at all: For all his words and deeds, all his movements and motions, are not his at all, but rather derive from the Holy One. Without the ten faculties that the Almighty gives a person when he is created, he would remain inert like a side of beef. Consequently it is not he at all but G-d who observes the mitzvot.

Now we can understand the words of our Sages here: "Do not be like servants who serve et ha-rav, with the master, for the sake of receiving a reward." Since you serve only "with the Master," with the faculties and energy that He granted you, you do not deserve any reward. You will, however, receive your recompense even though you do not strive and struggle to collect it.

(Otzar Mishley Hassidim, citing the Baal Shem Tov)


"...Do not be like servants who serve their master for the sake of receiving a reward…And let the reverence for Heaven be upon you."

Love and awe each comprise two levels, called the lower and higher levels of awe, and the lesser and greater levels of love. These four levels are alluded to in the Mishna. The order in which they appear follows the order which a person must follow in his service of G-d: the lesser level of awe; the lesser level of love; the higher level of love; the higher level of awe:

"Do not be like servants…" - This alludes to the lesser level of awe, where a person fears punishment of the blemish that will blight his soul through sin.

"…for the sake of receiving a reward" - This alludes to a lesser level of love. When one achieves this level of love, one becomes aware that even the greatest reward for his service, whether this reward if spiritual or material.

"…without intention of receiving a reward" - This alludes to the higher level of love. When one achieves this level of love, one becomes aware that even the greatest reward for one's service is only a small "slice" in comparison to the value of the service itself.

"And let the reverence for Heaven be upon you…" - This alludes to the higher level of awe, awe of the majesty and exaltedness of G-d, as well as shame to transgress in His presence. Be upon you - In fact, the higher level of awe is itself divided into two levels, that which is produced by his own efforts, known in Kabbala as "arousal from below"; and that which is bestowed upon man from Above, known in Kabbala as "arousal from Above". The latter is the essential aspect of higher awe. The Mishna states, "And let reverence for Heaven be upon you" - rather than within you, thus alluding to the level of awe which is bestowed upon a person from Above.

The Lubavitcher Rebbe [3]


Mishnah 4

"Yose ben Yoezer of Tzreida said: Make your house a meeting place of the Sages; sit in the dust at their feet; and thirstily drink their words."

Whereas Yose ben Yoezer's teacher (Antigonos of Socho) aimed at perfecting the person himself, Yose ben Yoezer instructed his disciples to aspire to an even higher level -- he taught how a person is to permeate even his house with love and awe of G-d.

(The Maharal of Prague)


"A meeting place for Sages"

When you learn Torah for the sake of Heaven and mention the Sages of the Mishnah and the Talmud in connection with the laws they taught, you should imagine that those Sages are standing before you.

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


"Drink in their words thirstily"

Usually, when a person drinks, his thirst is quenched and he can drink no more. One who drinks saltwater, however, becomes thirstier as he drinks. This is what the mishnah means by drinking in thirstily: our learning should leave us thirsty for even more Torah.

(Rav Yisrael of Modzitz) (2)

Mishnah 5

"[Men:] Let your house be wide open for guests…do not engage in excessive conversation with women."

Sometimes a person will refrain from having guests because he wants to be alone with his wife and be able to talk to her in private, which would not be possible in the presence of guests. Such a person is told, "Do not engage in excessive conversation with a woman" - do not acquire this habit, for it is a negative one.

(Midrash Shmuel) (7)

"Let your house be wide open [for guests]."

Our Sages state [Tractate Shabbos] that, "Welcoming guests is greater than receiving the Shechinah." Chassidic texts explain that the term Shechinah refers to the revelation of G-d within creation. However, when a person fulfills the mitzvah of hospitality, he draws down from the aspect of the transcendent revelation of G-d, beyond.

(Sefer HaLikkutim) (3)

"…treat the poor as members of your own family…"

"When one is charitable toward the poor, one lends to G-d," (Prov. 19:17). The Holy One, blessed is He, ensures the sustenance of the poor. Thus, when one gives charity to the poor, one lends the money to G-d, so to speak. And when the Holy One, blessed is He, reimbursed the lender, He repays him much more than He owes him.

(Ma'amarim 5686 p. 109) (3)

"...Do not indulge excessively in conversation..."

In Chassidic terminology, when mankind is contrasted with the animal and plant kingdoms, a human being is referred to as a medaber, (one who talks). Why is speech singled out over intellect or emotion to define man’s uniqueness? Because every other element of a person’s character centers around himself, while speech gives him the ability to transcend his own being and relate to another person. In the light of the uniqueness of this potential, our Sages proposed that sichah  (conversation) is the purpose of man’s creation. Nevertheless, they reject this hypothesis and explain instead that the goal of man’s creative efforts should be Torah study. For Torah study enables a person to establish a bond with G-d that transcends the natural limits of creation and endows a person and his environment with a new dimension of spiritual awareness.

(Lubavitcher Rebbe) (1)

Mishnah 6


"…Provide yourself with a teacher; acquire a colleague for yourself; and judge all men favorably."

All the instructions appearing in Pirkei Avot are intended to produce conduct which goes beyond the letter of the law, and thus require qualities of character of a loftier level than that demanded by the law itself. According to these standards, one should judge all people favorably, even one who, according to the law, does not deserve to be judged favorably. This principle was expressed by the saintly Rabbi Shalom Dov Ber of Lubavitch in his maxim, "the greatest pity is for a person whom the Torah forbids us to pity."

Hitva'aduyot 5742 p. 1928 (3)

Judge all men favorably -- even a person who apparently does not deserve favorable judgment. Since every person is obligated to provide himself with a teacher and acquire for himself a colleague, one must beware of providing oneself with a teacher, or acquiring oneself a colleague, who judges others unfavorably, for this may be the result of the teacher's or colleague's own deficiency. A minor deficiency of this sort in a teacher or a colleague is liable to cause a major deficiency of this sort in their student or colleague.

(Biurim l'Pirkei Avot p. 26) (3)


“Secure for yourself a teacher...”

Learning exclusively from books is insufficient; to improve one’s character and serve G-d fully, one must also secure a teacher. Thus, concerning the war against Amalek, G-d commanded Moshe, the teacher of Israel: “Record this as a remembrance in a book and place it [i.e., teach it] in the ears of Yehoshua..” (Shemos 17:14)

(Rav Yosef Yitzchak Scheerson of Lubavitch) (2)


“...Judge all people favorably”

Even if someone clearly has no merits, judge him favorably. For if even one person in this world loves him and befriends him, intercedes on his behalf, and judges him favorably, that in and of itself awakens G-d’s love and mercy towards him.

(Rav Shlomo of Radomsk) (2)

Judging a person favorably involves an honest appreciation of the challenges which that person faces. And this awareness should also lead to the understanding that G-d has surely given that person the ability to overcome these challenges. This, in turn, should heighten the esteem with which we regard this individual, for he is a person to whom G-d has entrusted the formidable powers necessary to overcome severe challenges.

When the manner in which we relate to that person reflects such respect, this will inspire the individual to bring these potentials to the surface.

(Lubavitcher Rebbe) (1)

Rabbi Yehoshua of Ostrov developed a kal vechomer (an inference from minor to major: if this…how much more so that…) from this mishna: If I am required to judge my peer favorably, then certainly I would be required to judge all of Hashem's actions favorably -- whether or not I can immediately appreciate them.

(Maggidei HaEmes) (6)

Mishnah 7

"Do not associate with an evil person.."

Do not aspire to associate with a wicked person in such a way that you are subservient to him. However, if he is interested in keeping you company, you do not have to avoid him, as long as he is subservient to you. On the contrary, it is proper to accept his overtures of friendship, because you might be successful in returning him to the path of good. And returning a Jewish soul is a profound mitzvah.

(Midrash Shmuel) (7)

"Do not fraternize with a wicked man"
Here, the mishnah does not use the term "keep away," for the intent is not that one should sever contact with a person because his conduct is unworthy. Al titchaber, translated as "do not fraternize," literally means "do not join to." One should not "join" a wicked person by accepting his standards. One should, however, reach out with warmth and love to all people, regardless of their conduct, and endeavor to inspire them to improve themselves.

(Lubavitcher Rebbe) (1)


"Keep away from a bad neighbor"
The mishnah does not say; "Keep away from a wicked neighbor," for its intent is not that one should judge another's conduct. Instead, the intent is that a person should decide whether closeness to a particular individual is beneficial or detrimental to his own divine service. The neighbor may be above all reproach, but traveling a different path of divine service. Any attempt to identify with him might thus be "bad," i.e., create confusion and discord.

(Lubavitcher Rebbe) (1)

"… Keep far away from a bad neighbor; and do not give up the belief in [Divine] retribution."

Although you have been commanded not to associate with the wicked, nevertheless, when their punishment descends upon them, save them! Such an action will perfect your soul. And as far as the wicked person is concerned, it is very likely that your act of kindness will return him to the path of good.

(Midrash Shmuel) (7)

"..do not give up the belief in [Divine] retribution"

If a person has transgressed extensively, he should not despair of ever having his repentance accepted. He should repent, and not despair of G-d's mercy, for He is abundantly merciful, and forgives sinners and deliberate transgressors.

(Midrash Shmuel) (3)


Mishnah 8


“When the litigants are stabding before you, regard them both as guilty”

Reshaim—translated as “guilty”, also means “wicked”. The very fact that two people are involved in a dispute severe enough to bring them before a judge appears to indicate that both possess a certain measure of wickedness. When two people cannot resolve their differences without arbitration, both need to increase their love for their fellow man.

(The Lubavitcher Rebbe) (1)


"When the litigants are departing from you, having accepted the judgment, regard them both as guiltless."

Unfortunately, it often happens that the person whom the judge has found guilty leaves the court in a tirade of curses and insults against the judge. Such a person should undoubtedly be regarded as totally wicked. However, after the judge has presented his verdict, and the litigants have submitted to the judgment, and agreed to do what they were instructed to do, they should both be regarded as righteous people. Accepting the judge's verdict shows that their dispute was not for the sake of controversy. There was merely a disagreement over some financial matter, and each one maintained the view that he was right.

(Meiri; Maharal; Midrash Shmuel) (3)

Mishna 9

Shimon Ben Shatach said: "Examine the witnesses thoroughly." (1:9)

There is a homiletic dimension to this teaching. Our Sages say: "The walls of a person's house testify regarding him [his character]." On the most simple level, it is possible to "examine the witnesses" and determine a person's character by studying the walls of his house - which books, whose pictures, and which art do they feature.

(The Lubavitcher Rebbe)

“Examine the witnesses thoroughly ...”

These are the good inclination and the evil inclination, both of which require examination.  The mitzvos of the good inclination must be scrutinized for any tinge of improper, selfish intention, and the deeds of the evil inclination surely require careful inspection to verify that there is no transgression or even any hint of wrongdoing in one's conduct.

(Rav Yitzchok Isaac of Komarna) (2)


"Be careful...[lest] they learn to deceive:"

A person must be very careful to fulfill whatever laws he teaches others and whatever precepts he focuses on in his rebuke.  Otherwise, others may learn in order to deceive, studying  Torah without fulfilling what they learn.

(Rav Shachne Tzvi of Nemirov) (2)

Mishna 10

Shemayah said... "Do not seek intimacy with the ruling power."

Since Shemayah was the Nasi - the Torah leader of the Jewish people - he knew the importance of humility. For a leader's prominence comes as a result of his selflessness. Because he has no concern for himself, he is fit to serve as a medium to lead his people to an awareness of G-d's sovereignty.

(Sichot Kodesh, Shemini, 5728)


"Love work; despise the holding of high office"

If everyone heeded this advice, who would teach Torah and who would judge? Rather, love the "work" of high office, the constant involvement in Torah and the Torah study, so that your every judgment will be prompt and clear. Despise only the holding of high office, the authority and the arrogance it may engender.

(Rav Menachem Mendel of Kotzsk) (2)

Mishnah 11

"Be careful of your words…lest the Students Drink"

A Rav must teach his students in such a way that his words will be understood and absorbed properly. When teaching a young, inexperienced student, he must lower himself to the level of that student, wrap himself in the understanding of the student, and then explain an idea to him from that point of view, so that he can set the student along the path to full and correct understanding, without veering to the left or to the right of the true understanding of the law. Therefore our Sages advised that a Rav should teach his students in a brief and concise fashion, without long and involved explanations and complicated reasoning, which might cause the inexperienced student to lose the main point, and reach incorrect conclusions, or even conclusions which are the exact opposite of the truth. This is what our Mishnah teaches - "be careful with your words….lest your disciples drink…" - lest they absorb what is irrelevant, incorrect, or even absolutely false.

(Toras Chaim, Shemos) (3)

Mishnah 12

"Hillel said: Be of the disciples of Aaron, loving peace and pursuing peace, loving other people, and drawing them to Torah"

Moses drew G-dliness down to the Jewish people from Above by means of the Torah which was given through him. Thus he is referred to as "the chaperone of the King" - analogous to the escort who accompanies the groom to his bride. Aaron, by contrast, brought the Jewish people closer to G-d from below to Above, and is thus referred to as "the bride's chaperone," analogous to the escort who accompanies a bride, leading her up to the groom who awaits her.

(Sefer Ha'Arachim Chabad, Vol. 2)


"…loving peace and pursuing peace.."

The difference between "loving" and "pursuing"

If peace runs away from a person - his friend does not want to make peace with him, or makes disparaging remarks about him, or curses him, etc. - he should run after him, and appease him.

(Midrash Shmuel)

"..loving other people.."

This refers to true love, which is expressed in bringing the beloved closer to Torah.

(Midrash Shmuel) (3)

"Be of the disciples of Aharon…loving the created beings, and bringing them near to the Torah."

The use of the term “created beings” instead of “people” implies that Aharon would reach out to individuals whose only redeeming virtue was the fact that they were G-d’s creations.
Aharon’s concern for his fellow man was all the more impressive because of his exalted position as High Priest. Leaving the Sanctuary where G-d’s Presence was openly revealed, he would reach out to people who had no virtue other than their having been created by
The order used in the mishnah is also significant. It implies that Aharon first concerned himself with establishing a relationship of love and trust, confidant that this would in turn enable him to draw them near to the Torah.
Also significant is the phrase, “bringing them near to the Torah.” Although Aharon reached out to these individuals and tried to accommodate them to the fullest degree possible, his efforts were centered on “bringing them near to the Torah,” and not G-d forbid, bringing the Torah near to them. His willingness to extend himself on behalf of others did not involve any compromise of Torah law.

(Lubavitcher Rebbe) (1)


"…loving your fellow men.."

The Hebrew word for "fellow men" literally means "creatures." For even if certain people are so distant from Torah and Divine service that they are referred to as creatures rather than as "Adam," the dignified name of man, one must draw them close with cords of love. Perhaps then one will be able to bring them to Torah and Divine service

(Rav Schneur Zalman of Liadi)(2)

Mishnah 13


Mishna 14


Hillel used to say: "If I am not for myself, who will be for me? And if I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?"

It is up to the individual to better himself and improve his behavior through his own hard work. No one else can do this for him; only he can achieve his own perfection. Yet no matter how high a level is reached, a person must never become to self-satisfied. "What am I" one should ask, "How may I further improve?" Finally, the observance of mitzvot should never be postponed until a later date. If negative character flaws are not corrected in one's youth, it is far more difficult to change in later years, when bad habits have already become ingrained.


"He used to say: If I am not for myself, who is for me?"

According to the Zohar the Hebrew word for 'who' here, 'mi,' is a designation for the Holy One, blessed is He. Hence, "if I am not for myself" - my own bodily needs in this world, but instead, I aspire to serve my Creator, then, "Who - the Holy One, blessed be He - is for me!" I.e. G-d will help. But, if I am only for myself - and my entire interest is in fulfilling my own physical needs - then what am I? Less than worthless!

Midrash Shmuel (3)

"He used to say: If I am not for myself, who is for me? And if I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?"

If I am not for myself, who is for me? - In general, a person is required to work on himself, both in terms of fulfilling the mitzvot, and improving his qualities of character and using his talents properly. What is dependent upon you, no one will do for you, and only by exercising your own free choice properly can you reach perfection.

And if I am only for myself, what am I?- Even when a person fulfills all his duties and obligations, he should not feel self-satisfied, or imagine that he is complete. He must always ask himself, "what am I?" - How can I perfect myself even more?

And if not now, when?- "One who labors on Friday, will eat on Shabbos," our Sages declare. And if he does not fulfill the mitzvot while he is alive in this world, then when will he do so? If he does not improve his qualities of character when he is young, then when will he ever do so? When he is old and firmly entrenched in his ways?

Midrash Shmuel (3)

"…If I am not for myself…."

While a literal translation of the phrase im ein ani li, "If I am not for myself," seems to suggest that we stand alone in our quest for spiritual growth, this interpretation is untenable. Our sages stated, "One who seeks to purify himself is surely assisted by Heaven" (cf. Shabbos 104a). The mishna is merely emphasizing the importance of taking the initiative, as the foregoing quote stresses: "one who seeks." On the contrary, once we take the initiative, not only the Al-mighty Himself (i.e. an act of direct Divine intervention), but also all of His creations, will in their own fashion assist those who seek to come close to Him.

It may be tempting for the individual now enjoying unparallel success to forget the source of his new-found prowess. To prevent this misconception, the mishna continues: "and if I am for myself, what am I?" Remember that your deeds are not sufficient without the bountiful Divine assistance that you now enjoy.

(From "Pikei Avos" Anthologized and Adapted by Rabbi Yosef Stern. Published by Mesorah Publications, Ltd)


If I am not for myself, who is for me? [And if I am for myself, what am I?..]

When praying one must be like divested from physical reality, unaware of your existence in this world. (Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chayim 98:1)
One must say, "When I reach the level that I am altogether unaware whether I am in this world or not, I will certainly have no fear of alien thoughts. For when I am divested of this world, alien thoughts will not approach me." This is the meaning of "who is for me?," i.e., what alien thought will come to me?
But "If I am for myself," i.e., when I regard myself as something substantial and real in this world, then I am really as of no value at all. This is the meaning of "what am I?," i.e. of what significance am I, and of what value is my service before G-d? For then alien thoughts will disturb me and I am as nothing in this world. The principal purpose of man's creation in this world is service [of G-d]; but I am unable to perform His service because alien thoughts disturb me.

(Baal Shem Tov) (4)


If I am not for myself - If, at the hour of prayer, a person is detached from the physical world, and he is not even aware of his existence in this world, then who is for me? Whom should he fear? No alien thought will even come near him.

But, if I am only for myself - when I regard myself as a person of stature and importance, then what am I? What am I really worth, and what benefit is all my service, since foreign thoughts bewilder me?

(Tzva'as HaRivash, para.62) (3)


During prayer, a person must transcend his physical limitations and rise above his individual existence in this world. Thus, if I am neither concerned with nor aware of myself, who can stand before me? I need fear nothing, for no foreign thoughts will disturb my prayer. But if I am only for myself, impressed with m own importance and significance, then what am I? How truly important am I and how significant is my worship of G-d, interrupted as it is by foreign thoughts?
(The Baal Shem Tov) (2)

"If I am not for myself, who is for me?"

Every person has a task in this world that only he can perform. For this task he was created, and no other person can accomplish it for him.
(Rav Yehudah Leib of Gur, the Sefas Emes)(2)

Mishna 15

"Make your Torah study fixed"

This instruction is directed towards businessmen as well, even though they fulfill their obligation by learning only one chapter during the day, and one at night. For them, their Torah learning must be fixed in their souls, not just in time. Even when occupied with business matters, each one's intention should be to earn money only so that afterwards he will have the opportunity to occupy himself with Torah, and guide his children in learning and fulfilling mitzvot.

(Ma'amarim 5672, ch.7) (3)


"Shammai said: Set a fixed time for your study of Torah; say little but do much; receive every person with a friendly countenance"

One should beware of obstacles and deterrents. When a person talks freely about his plans, saying what mitzvot he will fulfill today, how many pages he will learn today, etc., the matter is heard by those accusers who are agents of the side of unholiness. It is a hard and fast rule that the side of unholiness will then present its opposition to one's plans, and will prevent him from fulfilling them. Is one says much, in the end one will not even be able to do a little. One should rather say little, but do much.

Midrash Shmuel (3)

"Make your Torah study fixed"

The Alter Rebbe explains that Torah study must be fixed not only in time, but also in its position in the soul, serving as the foundation of a person’s life. Even if a person’s talents lie along another path of divine service, e.g., prayer or deeds of kindness, the foundation on which his effort rests must be the study of Torah.

(The Lubavitcher Rebbe) (1)


Mishna 16

"Rabban Gamliel would say: Provide yourself with a teacher and free yourself of doubt."

The words "free yourself of doubt" are superfluous. If one has a Rav, he will solve the doubts and obviously one will no longer have them?
Rabban Gamliel's' message is that in selecting a Rav, select one whose greatness in Torah and piety are unquestionable. If there are any "doubts" about his caliber, stay away from him and pick someone else.
(Be'er Ha'avot)

At the seder table, Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Lubavitch, the Tzemach Tzedek, once observed that by yachatz - breaking of the middle matzah for the purpose of Afikoman - someone was trying to determine which piece of the middle matzah was bigger. The Tzemach Tzedek remarked, "A gadol was men darf em mestin, iz kein gadol nit" -- "One whose greatness has to be measured is not really great." True greatness is readily apparent and recognized immediately.


"Remove yourself from doubt"

I heard from my teacher, the Baal Shem Tov, in the name of the Ramban, a great principle concerning both fulfillment of the commandments and one's own actions. If a person doubts the desirability of an action, let him "remove" or discount, any possible benefit that could accrue to him as a result. Without this factor of self-interest, he can objectively consider the action, weighing its pros and cons. In other words, remove yourself from the doubt and the doubt itself will vanish.

(Rav Yaacov Yosef of Polonnoye) (2)


"Do not tithe by estimation, even giving in excess of the required amount"

Because of doubt as to the precise requirements of his religious obligations, a person might decide to always act more stringently, as in the case of tithes when, instead of measuring exactly, he gives more than the necessary amount.

The mishnah emphasizes that his is not a proper approach. One should find a master who can instruct him with regard to the course of conduct which is particularly appropriate to his nature and character, and follow that master's directives whether lenient or stringent.

(Lubavitcher Rebbe) (1)

Mishnah 17

"..and I have found nothing better for a person (la'guv) than silence.."

Although we have rendered la'guv as, "for a person," its literal meaning is "for the body." In matters which concern the soul, such as learning Torah and praying, speech is very beneficial. However, in matters which concern the physical body and its needs, silence is preferable.

Midrash Shmuel (3)

"Whoever engages in excessive talk brings on chet (sin)."

The term chet denotes deficiency. Even when speaking with others words of the wisdom of the Torah, silence is much more preferable. For in silence one can think of the greatness of [G-d], blessed be He, and join oneself unto Him, blessed be He, more so than the joining by means of speech.

Similarly, it is stated, "'Silence is a fence for wisdom' (Avot 3:13), because in silence one is able to become attached to the World of Thought which is [the sefira] of chochma (Wisdom)."

[Ed. Note: A parallel version in Hanhagot Yesharot adds (in brackets) that this applies only to one who has attained an exalted level of spirituality. For all others it is preferable that they engage in words of Torah.]

Sometimes one can be lying in bed, and to others it appears that he is sleeping, but at that very time he is actually in solitude with the Creator, blessed be He.

(Baal Shem Tov) (4)


"All my days, I grew up among the Sages and I found nothing better for a person than silence.."

The Ari, z"l, explains that G-d created the world in the void caused by His tzimtzum (self-contraction). Disunity among the Sages creates a corresponding void. Thus, says G-d, "All My days [the six days of Creation], I grew up [caused the world to "grow up" and develop] among the Sages [i.e., in the void between them]."
In the Torah, speech is a metaphor for Divine creation, as in, "And G-d said, 'Let there be light'.." (Bereishis 1:3). Before Creation, therefore, the void was silent. Consequently, the mishnah continues, "I found nothing better for a person than silence." For only one who has achieved the level of silence may enter the void and relate to G-d in His infinite hiddenness.
Furthermore, the most important thing is not study - and explanations of the Sages - but actions, or creation, i.e., the world created by their words of Torah.
Finally, the mishnah concludes by alluding to the shattering of vessels. Caused by an excessive revelation of light, this event unleashed impurity in the world. Hence, "one who talks too much [revealing too much light] causes sin [by creating husks of impurity]."

(Rav Nachman of Breslav)

"..the most important thing is not study but action.."
In our times, when the intellect is weak, we must strengthen our fear of G-d. One must constantly meditate in fear and awe. Even during Torah study, it is good to pause occasionally and contemplate in awe. Although such contemplation detracts from one's study time, the most important thing is not study but actual, active fear of G-d.

(The Baal Shem Tov)

"…Whoever engages in excessive talk brings on sin."

Pride and self-consciousness - the opposites of humility - are often characterized by excessive talk. The mishnah points out that adopting this manner may therefore lead to sin. Moreover, chet (sin) can also be interpreted as meaning "a lack." Surely a tendency to excessive talk implies a lack of awareness of the true nature of the Torah.

Alternatively, this clause can be considered as a directive to teachers. Our Sages state that a person should always instruct his students in short, concise phrases. "Excessive talk" could create confusion and cause a student to misinterpret the teacher's instructions. At the very least, it could lead to a lack as mentioned above.

(Lubavitcher Rebbe) (1)

Mishnah 18

"Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel said: The world is sustained by three things: justice, truth, and peace...."

What is the difference between this mishnah and the second mishnah in this chapter ("On three things the world stands..")? The earlier mishnah refers to the existence of the world itself, which depends on Torah, Divine service, and acts of kindness.
Yet a talented individual can achieve these objectives more or less independently.
A moral society, however, can only be sustained when all people uphold justice, truth and peace.

(Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson of Lubavitch) (2)



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