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Questions and Answers on Chapter Five of Pirkei Avot

Questions and Answers on Chapter Five of Pirkei Avot


"בעשרה מאמרות נברא העולם"
“The world was created by means of ten [Divine] utterances.” (5:1)

QUESTION: The Gemara (Rosh Hashanah 32b) asks that in the Torah discussion of the creation it says “vayomer” — “and He said” — only nine times? The Gemara answers, Bereishit nami ma’amar hu” — “[The creation of heavens and earth in the verse] ‘in the beginning’ was also done through an utterance, as it says, ‘By the word of G‑d the heavens were made’ ” (Psalms 33:6).

Why doesn’t it say clearly “vayomer” — “G‑d said [there should be heavens and earth]”?

ANSWER: Heavens and earth were created yeish mei’ayinex nihilo — and all the things generated from heavens and earth were also created at the same time. Each thing, however, was placed in its permanent position and given its function on the day upon which it was decreed for it to serve the world. This is indicated by the superfluous word “et” in the phrase et hashamayim ve’et ha’eretz”“the heavens and the earth” (Bereishit 1:14, Rashi).

The word “vayomer” — “and He said” — fits only when one is speaking to something or someone. Thus, all the instances of “vayomer” were to something already in existence and it was a command that it begin to function or go into position. However, since the initial heavens and earth were created ex nihilo, and there was no one or nothing to speak to, the word “vayomer” was not used, although their coming into existence was indeed through a specific utterance from Hashem.

(תפארת ישראל)

"בעשרה מאמרות נברא העולם"
“The world was created by means of ten [Divine] utterances.” (5:1)

QUESTION: The Gemara (Rosh Hashanah 32a) states that there are ten utterances that appear in the passages regarding creation. However, there are only nine instances of “vayomer” — “and G‑d said,” the Gemara asks, and it answers, “Bereishit nami ma’amar hu” — “the word ‘bereishit’ — ‘in the beginning’ — is also an utterance, as it is stated, ‘By the word of G‑d the heavens were made.’ ”

“Bereishit” literally means “in the beginning.” What in this word indicates Hashem’s command that there be heavens and earth?

ANSWER: On the first day, when Hashem created the heavens and earth, He actually included in their creation all that was done on the succeeding five days. On each of the days He merely gave a command to a specific item to start functioning or occupy its position (Bereishit 1:14, Rashi).

Prior to the actual creation of the world, Hashem first thought it over in His mind, so to speak (ibid. 1:1, Rashi). Just as when a king wants to issue a command, all he needs to do is say one word and his message is clearly understood and obeyed, likewise, when Hashem was ready to actually create the world, He uttered one word: “Reishit” — “beginning.” This was His Divine order that there be a beginning, i.e. a start of the world He had planned to create, and instantaneously there were heavens and earth and everything which they included.

Thus, according to the Gemara the first word of the first pasuk of Torah, “Bereishit,” means “be” — “with” — “reishit” — [uttering the word]“beginning” — Hashem created the heavens and the earth.

(מצאתי בכתבי זקני הרב צבי הכהן ז"ל קאפלאן)

"עשרה דורות מאדם ועד נח...שכל הדורות היו מכעיסין ובאין...עשרה דורות מנח ועד אברהם...שכל הדורות היו מכעיסין ובאין, עד שבא אברהם אבינו וקבל שכר כלם"
“There were ten generations from Adam to Noach...For all those generations repeatedly angered Him...There were ten generations from Noach to Avraham...For all those generations repeatedly angered him, until Avraham our father came and received the reward of them all.” (5:2)

QUESTION: 1) If “All those generations repeatedly angered Him,” which reward was due to them that Avraham received? 2) Why did only Avraham receive the reward of the ten generations that preceded him and not Noach?

ANSWER: Dor Hamabul — the Generation of the Deluge and Dor Haflagah — the Generation of Dispersion (which built the Tower of Babel) — both sinned and angered Hashem. Nevertheless, their punishments differed. The Generation of the Deluge was blotted out of existence (Bereishit 7:23), and the Generation of Dispersion was only dispersed over the face of the whole earth (ibid. 11:8). In addition, the Generation of the Dispersion according to all opinions, definitely has no share in the world to come (Sanhedrin 107b); however, regarding the Generation of Deluge there is an opinion in the Zohar (I:69a) that they do have a share in the world to come. Why the distinction?

Hashem’s way of punishment is commensurate with the crime. Regarding the Generation of the Dispersion the Torah says, “The whole world was one language and of common purpose” (ibid. 11:1). Thus, in regard to inter-human relationships their behavior was exemplary, but their sin was that they wanted to go up to heaven and declare war against Hashem. On the other hand, the people of the Generation of the Deluge did not make any endeavor to revolt against Hashem. They were corrupt and lacking in their inter-human relationships to the extent that “The earth became full with robbery” (ibid. 6:13), and it was because of this that their destruction was decreed (ibid., Rashi). Through corruption in inter-human relationships, they distorted the laws which Hashem conveyed to humanity in this world, and thus, their punishment was greater in this world. And since the sin of the Generation of Dispersion was more of a spiritual nature, namely, concerning their relationship with Hashem, their punishment was more stringent in the spiritual realm — Olam Haba — and lenient in the physical world — Olam Hazeh.

For living in harmony and dealing uprightly with their neighbors, the people of the generation of dispersion were entitled to reward. Due to their wickedness, however, even their good deeds did not have favorable spiritual consequences, but instead gave increased vigor to klipot — spiritual forces of evil, and thus, they did not receive reward (see Shulchan Aruch Harav, Talmud Torah 4:3, Tanya, 39). When Avraham came along and sought Hashem’s mercy even for the wicked Sodomites, he elevated all the previous generations, too, and received all their reward.

The Generation of the Deluge on the other hand, did not do any good for which reward was due to them, and even if they did, Noach did not pray on their behalf or make any endeavor to elevate them. Thus, even if they were due any reward, he would not have been entitled to it.

(לקוטי שיחות ח"ג ע' 755)

"שכל הדורות היו מכעיסין ובאין עד שהביא עליהן את מי המבול"
“For all those generations repeatedly angered Him, until He brought the waters of the flood upon them.” (5:2)

QUESTION: 1) The word “uba’in” is superfluous? 2) The flood was only brought on Noach’s generation, so why does it say, “Until He brought aleihen — upon them” — which seems to refer to all the ten generations from Adam to Noach?

ANSWER: The people of the early generations were all reincarnated in the later generations and all were reincarnated in the tenth generation. Thus, due to their continuous return to this world it says “uba'in” — “they kept coming.” Hashem hoped that ultimately they would repent and improve their ways. Upon seeing that instead of getting better, they became worse, so that “All flesh had corrupted its way upon the earth” (Bereishit 6:12), He brought the flood “aleihen” — “upon them” — i.e. the generation of Noach, which included all the preceding nine generations.

(פניני אבות)

"נתנסה אברהם אבינו"
“Our father Avraham was tested.” (5:3)

QUESTION: When he is mentioned in the previous Mishnah, he is simply called “Avraham.” Why here is the title avinu — “our father” — added?

ANSWER: A father passes on physical and spiritual attributes and abilities to his son. The Mishnah, through emphasizing “our father,” is teaching that Avraham was the first to be tested by Hashem, and he conveyed to his children the strength and determination to undergo tests and thereby achieve perfection. Avraham was a trailblazer for all his descendants, enabling us to succeed in overcoming the challenges Hashem places before us. Following his great achievements, we are able to have the same unquestionable devotion and dedication to Hashem.

(עי' מדרש שמואל)

"עשרה נסיונות נתנסה אברהם אבינו"
“With ten tests was our father Avraham tested.” (5:3)

QUESTION: What were the ten tests?

ANSWER: 1) In Ur Kasdim, King Nimrod threw him into the fiery furnace when his father Terach complained about his destroying the idols (Bereishit 11:28, Rashi).

2) He had to leave his homeland to settle in the land of Canaan (12:1).

3) He had to move from Canaan to Egypt due to famine (12:10).

4) Sarah was taken to Paroah’s palace (12:15-20).

5) The war with the kings to free his nephew Lot (14:1-24).

6) The Covenant Between the Parts, where he was told of his children being enslaved and also of other exiles (15:7-21).

7) Circumcision at the age of ninety-nine (17:24).

8) Expelling his wife Hagar from his home (21:10-14).

9) Expelling his son Yishmael from his home (21:10-14).

10) The Akeidah — the binding of Yitzchak to be an offering to Hashem (22:1-19).

(אבות דר' נתן פל"ג:ב')

"עשרה נסיונות נתנסה אברהם אבינו"
“With ten tests was our father Avraham tested.” (5:3)

QUESTION: The Hebrew word for test is “bechinah.” Why doesn’t it say “Asarah bechinot nivchan Avraham”?

ANSWER: The word “neis” in Hebrew means not only a test, but also a banner, as the Psalmist says, “Natata lirei’echa neis lehitnoseis” — “You gave those who fear you a banner to raise themselves” (Psalms 60:6). A banner is something which is raised high to show its beauty. Similarly, when Hashem tests an individual, the purpose is to lift him into a higher sphere. When the individual passes the test, he is spiritually elevated and exalted.

Hence, the verse can be rendered “And G‑d exalted Avraham.” Through the trial, his hidden potential powers of faith were evoked and brought to fruition.

(מדרש בראשית רבה נ"ה א')

"עשרה נסיונות..."
“With ten tests...” (5:3)

QUESTION: The tenth test was the Akeidah — the binding of Yitzchak as an offering. Why is this referred to as a test for Avraham, and not a test of Yitzchak?

ANSWER: Avraham was asked to bring up his son as an offering. Of course, Yitzchak’s consent was needed, but immediately Yitzchak’s life would come to an end. Avraham, who would personally perform the act of slaughtering his son, would have to live on not letting the fact that he personally slaughtered his son affect his faith in Hashem.

This is the most difficult part of the test, which only Avraham would experience.

"עשרה נסיונות"
“With ten tests.” (5:3)

QUESTION: Regarding the tenth test — the Akeidah — the binding of Yitzchak as an offering — the Midrash Rabbah (Bereishit 56:8) says, “He stretched forth his hand to take the knife while the tears streamed from his eyes — yet, even so, his heart rejoiced to obey the will of his Creator.”

Avraham’s crying seems to cast a doubt on his sincerity and eagerness to fulfill Hashem’s will. Wouldn’t it have been better if he had not even shed one tear?

ANSWER: Many wonder how it is possible for a father to bring his beloved and only child as an offering to Hashem. Ignorantly, they conclude that Avraham lost all his paternal instincts and that therefore he was not exhibiting any particular greatness.

To dispel this error, the Midrash tells us that when he stretched forth his hand to take the knife, tears streamed from his eyes. He was a genuine father who loved his child dearly and was filled with compassion for him. Nevertheless, he did not permit his fatherly instincts and love for his child to prevent him in any way from fulfilling the command of Hashem.

(מצאתי בכתבי אבי הרב שמואל פסח ז"ל באגאמילסקי)

"עשרה נסים נעשו לאבותינו במצרים"
“Ten miracles were performed for our forefathers in Egypt.” (5:4)

QUESTION: What were the ten miracles performed for the Jews in Egypt?

ANSWER: When Egyptians were plagued it could have easily affected the Jews also, but Hashem miraculously limited the destructive power to differentiate between Egyptians and Jews.

(מדרש שמואל)

* * *

Alternatively, originally when Moshe came to Paroah asking that he release the Jewish people from enslavement, it had an adverse effect. Paroah angrily ordered, “Let the work be heavier upon the men” (Shemot 5:9). Though after every plague he became more obstinate and refused to release the Jews, nevertheless, the Egyptian bondage came to an end on the first of Tishrei following the beginning of the plagues in Nissan (See Rosh Hashanah 11a, Tosafot) and the Jews no longer worked for the Egyptians during the later plagues.

Thus, the miracle was the change of attitude on the part of Paroah, that he did not increase their work load after each of the earlier plagues or return them to slavery after the later ones. A miracle of this nature thus accompanied each of the first nine plagues. After the tenth miracle, he was impotent and could not do any harm to the Jews. So the tenth miracle was that prior to the smiting of the firstborn, they publicly prepared the lambs for the paschal sacrifice and were not afraid of any repercussions from the Egyptians who worshipped the lamb.

(דרך אבות לנכד אחי הגר"א)

* * *

The following story illustrates Hashem’s relationship with the Jewish people. A person who returned his soul to his Maker and came up to heaven and was shown a replay of all the steps he took during his entire lifetime. In amazement he asked the angel, “I have only two feet, so why am I seeing four footsteps?” The angel explained him that two were his and the other two were those of Hashem, who accompanied him through life. He then turned to the angel and asked, “If so, why do I only see two footsteps for the difficult times. Where was Hashem then?” With a kind smile, the angel told him, “You are mistaken. The two footsteps you see are actually Hashem’s, and to help you get through the challenging times He took you on His shoulders.”

(שמעתי מהרב יהושע בנימין הכהן שי' ראזענפעלד, באגאטא, קאלאמביא)

"ועשרה על הים"
“And ten at the Sea.” (5:4)

QUESTION: What were the ten miracles performed for the Jews at the sea?

ANSWER: 1) The waters split.

2) They shaped like a tent and the Jews entered.

3) The floor of the sea became completely dry.

4) The floor of the sea became muddy when the Egyptians chased after them.

5) The frozen water on the floor was not one layer of ice, but like small tiles to make walking easy.

6) The frozen water walls were hard as a rock and the Egyptians injured their heads against them.

7) The walls of water created twelve corridors, one for each tribe to pass through.

8) The walls of water were like transparent glass, so that all the tribes would see the others while they walked through, thanks to the light from the pillar of fire.

9) There was sweet drinking water available to the Jews.

10) The unused sweet water froze so that Egyptians couldn’t drink it.

(ר' עובדיה מברטנורה)

"ועשרה על הים"
“And ten at the Sea.” (5:4)

QUESTION: What were the ten plagues the Egyptians experienced at the sea?

ANSWER: They are all described in the Az Yashir which the Jews sang when they crossed the sea and arrived safely on the other side:

1) Ramah bayam — [The horse with its rider] He cast into the sea.

2) Yarah bayam — [Paroah’s chariots and his army] He hurled into the sea.

3) Tube’u beyam suf — [The elite of his officers] were drowned in the sea.

4) Tehomot yechsayumu — The deep waters covered them.

5) Yardu bimetzolot — They dropped into the depths [like a stone].

6) Tir’atz oyeiv — [Your right hand] shatters the enemy.

7) Taharos kamecha — You destroy those who rise up against you.

8) Yocheleimo kakash — [Your fury] consumes them like straw.

9) Kisamo yam — The sea enveloped them.

10) Tzalalu ka’oferet — They sank like lead.


"עשרה נסיונות נסו אבותינו את הקדוש ברוך הוא במדבר"
“With ten trials did our forefathers try the Holy One, blessed be He, in the wilderness.” (5:4)

QUESTION: What were the ten trials with which the Jews tried Hashem?

ANSWER: 1) When the Egyptians were pursuing them, prior to entering the sea, they said to Moshe, “Were there no graves in Egypt that you took us to die in the wilderness?” (Shemot 14:11)

2) In Marah they complained when they had only bitter water to drink (15:24).

3) In MidbarSin they complained when they ran out of food (16:3).

4) They left the manna overnight, contrary to instructions (16:20).

5) They went out to gather manna on Shabbat, though they were told it would not descend that day (16:27).

6) In Rephidimthey complained when they ran out of drinking water (17:2).

7) They made the golden calf and worshipped it (32:1-8).

8) The rabble among them complained that the mannawas not good and that they wanted meat (11:4-6).

9) In Tav’eira the wicked took to seeking complaints with the intent of separating from Hashem (Bamidbar 11:1-3).

10) They accepted the evil report of the spies about Eretz Yisrael and complained bitterly (14:2-4).

(מסכת ערכין דף ט"ו ע"א)

"לא הפילה אשה מריח בשר הקדש"
“No woman miscarried because of the aroma of the meat of the holy sacrifices.” (5:5)

QUESTION: When a pregnant woman has an urge to eat something, she is in great danger if she refrains. Thus, some explain this to mean that no pregnant women ever had a desire to eat the meat of the sacrifices (Tosafot Yom Tov). How did our Sages know what was in the heart of all the women?

ANSWER: In the Gemara (Yoma 82b) there is a story about a pregnant lady who overcame her desire to eat on Yom Kippur and gave birth to the great Sage Rabbi Yochanan. Another pregnant woman, who refused to overcome her desire, (although she acted legally due to danger — pikuach nefesh) gave birth to a rasha — wicked person — who was known as “Shabtai Otzar Peirot” — “Shabtai Hoarder of Provisions” (for speculations).

The miracle was not that no woman ever had a desire for the holy meat, rather the women who came to the Beit Hamikdash were so permeated with its holiness that even when one would crave the meat, when she was told that it was an offering of the Beit Hamikdash forbidden to be eaten by a non-Kohen, she would overcome her temptation and there would be no adverse consequences.

This is substantiated by the wording of the Mishnah. It does not say lohirichah [a woman] did not smell [desire] the holy meat — rather, lo hipilah — she did not have a miscarriage — from the smell she desired and did not eat it, since untimately when she was cautioned of the holiness, she overcame the desire.

(לקוטי בתר לקוטי)

"ולא אמר אדם לחברו צר לי המקום שאלין בירושלים"
“Nor did any man say to his fellowman, ‘The place is too crowded for me to lodge overnight in Jerusalem.’” (5:5)

QUESTION: The words “nor did any man say to his fellow” are superfluous; it should simply say “lo hayah tzar hamakom” — “the place was not crowded”?

ANSWER: Considering the multitudes of people that made the pilgrimage, Jerusalem was indeed very crowded. Nevertheless, no one expressed this verbally. Everyone felt comfortable thanks to the love that each one had for Jerusalem and the love that prevailed there among the Jews. When unity and harmony prevails, a large family can fit into a small apartment, and when it is lacking, each one feels that the other is encroaching on his space.

(חתם סופר)

"עשרה דברים נבראו בערב שבת בין השמשות"
“Ten things were created on Erev Shabbat at twilight.” (5:6)

QUESTION: What message is implied by the fact that so many things were created necessarily at the time of twilight?

ANSWER: A Jew may not do any work on Shabbat eve at twilight because he does not know precisely if it is still daytime or night. If it is still day, work is permissible, and if it is night it is forbidden. To Hashem, however, there are no doubts, and He knows the last moment of day precisely and the exact moment when night commences.

The mili dechassiduta — message of piety — is to value every moment at one’s disposal. Hashem used the final moment of the sixth day of creation to create numerous things and thus enhanced creation in its totality. Similarly, a person should employ every moment granted him to improve himself and have a positive influence on those around him.

(ביאורים לפרקי אבות)

* * *

The famous Chassidic Rebbe Rabbi Avraham Mordechai of Ger (known as the “Imrei Emet”) once said that the reason for the custom of giving a chatan a golden watch is to teach him that every minute is “wrapped in gold” and should not be wasted.

(שמעתי מאבי חורגי הרב אליהו משה ז"ל ליס)

"קברו של משה רבינו"
“The burial place of Moshe Rabbeinu.” (5:6)

QUESTION: Regarding the “burial place of Moshe” the Torah writes, “And no one knows his burial place to this day” (Devarim 34:6).

The Gemara (Sotah 13b) relates, “The wicked government once sent to the governor of Beit Pe’or, ‘Show us where Moshe is buried.’ When they stood above, the site appeared to them to be below. When they stood below, it appeared to be above. They divided themselves into two parties; to those who were standing above it appeared below, and to those who were below it appeared above.”

Why was the government eager to know where Moshe was buried?

ANSWER: This Gemara can be interpreted as a metaphor for the relationship between the nations of the world and the Jewish people.

Moshe was the one who gave the Torah to the Jewish people, and till this very day it is referred to as Torat Moshe — the Torah of Moshe. It is the spiritual life-source of Klal Yisrael, and throughout the millennia nations of the world have endeavored to “bury” Moshe — i.e. influence the Jewish people to assimilate and detach themselves from Torat Moshe.

Some have advocated that “the burying of Moshe” can be accomplished through an approach of “amdu lema’alah” — “standing above” — elevating the Jews to high positions, giving them prestige and honor, so that ultimately they will join the secular society and abandon the teachings of the Torah. When this method failed, others tried “amdu lematah” — “standing below” — pushing the Jews downward. They imposed harsh economic restrictions upon them, discrimination, persecution and oppression, anticipating that this would “bury Moshe” — force the Jewish people to assimilate or be physically eradicated. And there have also been advocates of combining the two approaches.

Thank G‑d, all efforts have failed, and no one has been able to find a way to “bury Moshe” — extinguish the light of Torah from the Jewish people. Jews and Torah are inseparable, and their attachment will be eternally vibrant.

The Mishnah is telling us that the reason they were not able, G‑d forbid, to “bury” the Jewish people is that Hashem created us to exist as long as the world is in existence. Therefore, immediately at the outset, He hid the burial place of Moshe from everyone; i.e. no one knows how to, G‑d forbid, bury and get rid of the Jewish people.

(מצאתי בכתבי אבי הרב שמואל פסח ז"ל באגאמילסקי)

"ואילו של אברהם אבינו"
“And the ram of Avraham our father.” (5:6)

QUESTION: How did Avraham know that the ram which he took as a sacrifice in lieu of Yitzchak was the ram which was created on Erev Shabbat at twilight?

ANSWER: In describing Avraham’s finding the ram, the Torah says, “Avraham lifted his eyes and saw Vehinei ayil achar — Behold, a ram afterwards — caught in the thicket by its horns” (Bereishit 22:13). The word “achar” — “afterwards” — seems superfluous because the pasuk could merely have said “Behold a ram caught in the thicket”?

On the sixth day of creation animals were created. Afterwards man (Adam) was created. On Erev Shabbat bein hashemashot (immediately before nightfall) the ram which Avraham used for the Akeidah was created.

Thus, this ram was created after all animals. The Torah is hinting this by saying, “Va’yar vehinei ayil” — “Avraham saw [prophetically] a ram” — which was “achar” — “after” (created after all other animals). He realized that there was something unique about the ram, and used it, therefore, as an offering in lieu of his son.


* * *

What impressed Avraham about this ram particularly was that it was also “achar” — “different” — (as in acheir) from all other rams by the fact that it did not have a navel. Every animal has a navel and through the umbilical cord attached to its navel it receives nourishment from its mother — and each in turn sustains its offspring by the same means. Since this ram was uniquely different, Avraham realized that it must have been created at the time of creation for a special unique purpose.

(מעינם של אבות בשם הנצי"ב, ועי' תורת שלמה להר"מ ז"ל כשר כ"ב:י"ג, וכלי יקר)

"ויש אומרים אף המזיקין"
“Some say also the spirits of destruction.” (5:6)

QUESTION: Which spirits of destruction?

ANSWER: The Mishnah is conveying an important lesson. Erev Shabbat is a time when everyone is busy preparing for Shabbat, and it is quite common that regardless of what time in the day Shabbat begins, people do not finish their preparations till the last minute. This causes much anxiety and tension in the house and often can also lead to the destruction of shalom bayit.

The Mishnah is telling us that mazikim — spirits of destruction — were created at the commencement of the first Shabbat, and this opened the channel that every Erev Shabbat there is a potential for new destructive forces to be created due to people’s behavior. Extra care should be taken to calmly prepare everything in due time for the Shabbat, so that when Shabbat arrives the king and queen of the house and their princes and princesses will all be in a happy disposition.

"חכם...ואינו נבהל להשיב"
“A wise man...He does not rush to answer.” (5:7)

QUESTION: What wisdom does this show?

ANSWER: There was a simple Jewish girl who worked in a Jewish home. It was her duty to help out in the kitchen and prepare dinner for the family. Once she was in a dilemma: She could not figure out what to prepare for dinner. Suddenly it dawned on her that her mistress would send her periodically to ask the rabbi she’eilot — questions — so she would approach the rabbi and seek his help with her problem.

When she arrived at the rabbi’s house, he noticed that she was distressed and inquired as to what was troubling her. When she told him, he became very serious and told her that this was a difficult question and told her to come into his study. There he looked into some sefarim and then asked her what she had prepared during the past three days. After she replied, he again thought for a short time and told her that for the main dish she should make what she made three days ago, and for the side dishes she should make an item similar to one served two nights ago and an item similar to one served the previous night. The rabbi then gave her his blessing for success, and she left very relieved and happily.

The rabbi’s wife happened to be observing the entire scene, and after the young girl left, she said to her husband, “I do not understand you. As rabbi of the community don’t you have better and more important things to do than helping this foolish girl plan a menu?!”

The rabbi said to her, “You do not understand what happened. This simple girl is very sincere, and she knows that whenever there is a difficult question in the kitchen she is sent to ask me. Therefore, now that she had a question which pertained to kitchen matters, she came to me. If I would have laughed it off, which perhaps I should have because of its foolishness, she might decide to take all questions that may arise in the future very lightly, and when there will be a really difficult question, she will also not come to ask.”

This rabbi was a chacham and therefore he did not rush to answer. An unwise person might have answered immediately so that she would have been made aware of her stupidity, and as a consequence she would have been lost forever.

(עי' מדרש שמואל בשם הר"מ אלמושנינו ז"ל)

"ועל מה שלא שמע אומר לא שמעתי וחלופיהן בגלם"
“Concerning that which he has not heard he says, ‘I have not heard’ and the reverse of these characterize a stupid person.” (5:7)

QUESTION: 1) What great “wisdom” does one demonstrate when he says the truth? 2) If the “golam” — “fool” — claims to have heard even something that he did not hear, then he is not a fool but a “shakran” — “an outright liar”?

ANSWER: The word “mah” in Hebrew connotes something of little significance. For example, when Moshe says Mah Hashem sho’el mei’imach ki im leyirah” — “What does Hashem ask of us, only to fear Him” (Devarim 10:12) — the Gemara observing the word “mah” asks, “Is fearing Hashem a little thing?” meaning that He is asking a little thing.

When a lengthy lecture is being delivered the wise man in the audience who does not understand “mah” — one small point will say “lo shamati” — “I do not understand the whole thing yet, because as long as I am lacking part of it, apparently I still do not have proper comprehension of the entire subject.” The fool in the audience is just the opposite: “Al mah sheshama” — when he understands one little piece of the discourse — immediately he jumps to the conclusion and conceitedly proclaims that “shamati” — “I understand it all.”

(הרה"ח ר' מענדל ז"ל פוטרפאס)

"ומודה על האמת"
“And he acknowledges the truth.” (5:7)

QUESTION: This is a sign of honesty. What sign of wisdom is in this?

ANSWER: The word “modeh” does not only mean “acknowledges” but also “expresses thanks,” as in the word “todah.” When a wise man is made aware of his error, he not only acknowledges the truth, but also thanks the person who alerted him to it. The fool, on the other hand, may reluctantly acknowledge something, but he does not thank the person for alerting him of the truth.

(פניני אבות בשם באר האבות)

"ושלא לטול את החלה, רעב של כליה בא"
“If [they also decided] not to separate challah, a famine of destruction ensues.” (5:8)

QUESTION: In the tochachah — admonition — which contains the horrendous punishments that will befall the Jewish people, G‑d forbid, for not observing Torah, it is stated, “Vehifkadeti aleichem behalah” — “I will assign upon you a panic, swelling lesions, and burning fever, which causes eyes to long and souls to suffer; you will sow your seeds in vain, for your enemies will eat it” (Vayikra 26:16). The Gemara (Shabbat 32b) says, “Read not ‘behalah’ — ‘panic’ — as it is written, rather read it as if it were written ‘bechallah’ — ‘on account of challah’ — hence, because of not separating challah” the people will sow their seeds in vain. In addition, the Gemara interprets the verse’s word“vehifkadeti” — in the sense of diminishing (see Bamidbar 31:49), and the verse is implying that because of not giving challah, Hashem will diminish that which was already gathered (Rashi).

“Challah” is spelled with a chet (חַלה) and “behalah”הלה) with a hei.” Why is “behalah” — “panic” — the punishment for non observance of “challah”?

ANSWER: The rabbis have instituted that a private person give 1/24 of the dough as challah, and a bakery 1/48. However, according to Biblical law, by separating even a piece as small as a barley, one has complied with the mitzvah of challah (Rambam, Bikkurim 5:1).

A “chet” is closed entirely on three sides, and in a “hei” there is an opening between the left foot and the top. Regardless of how small the opening is, it is a “hei” and not a “chet.”

With the mitzvah of challah the Torah teaches that a Jew must make a small opening, i.e. not keep all the dough for himself, but give away something to the Kohen. Thus, the Jew who insists on keeping the “chet” closed, i.e. he wants everything for himself and refuses to part with any of it, will end up with“behalah” — “panic” — (with an open “hei”) in lieu of “bechallah.” This will serve as a reminder that in the future he should open the “chet” of challah — he must give away a portion of the dough to the Kohen.

* * *

Incidentally, there is an opinion that the Gemara (ibid.) and our Mishnah are talking of different scenarios. The Mishnah, which gives the punishment of a famine of destruction, refers to a situation in which everyone decides not to keep the laws of challah. The Gemara, which talks of a panic caused by fevers, refers to a situation in which only some had decided not to separate challah.

(מדרש שמואל)

"חיה רעה באה לעולם על שבועת שוא ועל חלול השם"
“Wild beasts come upon the world for swearing in vain and for profaning the Divine Name.” (5:9)

QUESTION: Why is an attack by a vicious animal the punishment for swearing in vain and profaning the Divine Name?

ANSWER: Hashem metes out punishment midah keneged midah — commensurate to the iniquity. When one swears falsely, he mentions Hashem’s Name in vain, thereby demonstrating his lack of recognition for His greatness. Likewise, when one desecrates Hashem’s Name, he obviously is not recognizing His supremacy over all.

Hashem instilled in creation the law that “Your fear and terror will be upon every wild beast of the earth” (Bereishit 9:2). When an animal attacks a man, it is because at that time the man appears in his eyes to be like an animal (Shabbat 151b) and it is common for an animal to attack one of its own.

Since the person who swore falsely and desecrated Hashem’s Name was not recognizing His supremacy, his punishment is that animals do not recognize man’s supremacy over them and attack him.


Alternatively, it is incumbent on man to sanctify the Name of Hashem in this world. One who profanes the Divine Name is changing the pattern which was set for man. Thus, his punishment is that the vicious animal, whose place is in the wilderness, changes its pattern and comes into the inhabited area of the world against its nature.

(בית לאבות)

"על שבועת שוא"
“For swearing in vain.” (5:9)

QUESTION: Why does he say “shevu’at shav” — “swearing in vain” — and not “shevu’at sheker” — “swearing falsely”?

ANSWER: A shevu’at shav involves swearing about something contrary to what is known by all, i.e. swearing that a piece of wood is not wood but stone. A shevu’at sheker involves swearing falsely; i.e., one who has eaten swears that has not eaten anything.

The punishment of an attack by vicious animals is befitting only for swearing in vain and not when swearing falsely, since in both the sin and the punishment there is a changing of what is commonly known. The person swearing is proclaiming that what everyone knows to be wood is stone, and to an attacking animal, the person whom everyone knows as a man appears as an animal.

(מגן אבות)

"שבועת שוא"
“Swearing in vain.” (5:9)

QUESTION: The Gemara (Shavu’ot 39a) says the entire world trembled when Hashem said “You shall not take the Name of G‑d, your G‑d, in vain.” What message was the Torah conveying that caused the entire world to tremble?

ANSWER: A story is told of a group of brothers who came to America and went into business together. A few years later they arranged for their parents to emigrate. The father was a pious, G‑d fearing Jew, with a beard, peiyot, and Chassidicgarb. After a short time, the father shaved off his beard and peiyot and traded his Chassidic garb for modern attire. Puzzled by their father’s behavior, the brothers consulted his Rabbi.

When the Rabbi asked the father why he changed so drastically, he told him the following, “My sons have a large meat market. They had me sit at a table in the market, and when people saw me, it encouraged them to make their purchases with confidence that everything is kosher. However, I soon realized that the meat they were selling was not kosher and that they were using me to deceive the public. Therefore, I decided to shave off my beard and peiyot, so that my beard, i.e. Yiddishkeit, should not help them sell non-kosher meat.”

Unfortunately, throughout history, the nations of the world have persecuted and tortured the Jew, with the excuse that they were doing it for the “sake of Heaven (G‑d).” They have claimed that Jews are to be blamed for society’s problems and deserve oppression. Also, among Jews themselves, it is common for one to hurt another while claiming that it is a “mitzvah.”

Hashem’s command “Do not mention My Name in vain,” in a sense means “Do not exploit My ‘Name’ — Torah and religion — as a means of justification for your iniquities. Do not attempt to cover them up with a veil of righteousness and virtue.”

This poignant Divine message put a shiver through everyone, and the entire world trembled in fear.

(מצאתי בכתבי אבי הרב שמואל פסח ז"ל באגאמילסקי)

"האומר שלי שלך, ושלך שלי, עם הארץ"
“He who says, ‘What is mine is yours, and what is yours is mine’ is an ignoramus.” (5:10)

QUESTION: What illiteracy is demonstrated by this approach?

ANSWER: Once when Rabbi Yaakov of Lisa, who authored the Chavat Da’at on Shulchan Aruch Choshen Mishpat, approached a rich man in the community for a donation for one on whom the wheel of fortune took a downward turn, the prospective donor told him the following: “The Gemara (Bava Batra 9b) says that one who gives a donation to a poor man is blessed with six blessings, and the one who says soothing and comforting words is blessed with eleven blessings. If so, I will suffice with appeasing words and not give anything.”

The Rabbi told him, “The prophet Habakuk (2:8) says in the name of Hashem, ‘Mine is the silver and Mine is the gold.’ It also says, ‘For all things are from You, and from Your own we have given you’ (I Chronicles 29:14). Thus, the donor actually does not give anything from his own possessions when he gives charity. If so, the only thing one gives of his own is the cheerful countenance he shows the recipient and some comforting words. However, one who says, ‘What is mine is yours’ i.e. I am ready and willing to give you my good words, but what is yours, i.e. your money, which Hashem entrusted with me to eventually give to you, ‘is mine’ — i.e. I want to keep it for myself — is an ‘am ha’aretz’ since he does not know what the Torah says about who is really the owner of the money.”

(פניני אבות)

* * *

Alternatively, according to Torah law ribit — usury — is forbidden. The rabbis have gone a step further and have forbidden not only monetary payments for a loan, but also anything that can entail a benefit for the lender. Therefore, according to halachah (Yoreh Dei’ah 160) it is forbidden to give someone a loan with the condition that he will reciprocate with a loan when you will need one.

Thus, when one says “What is mine is yours” i.e. I will gladly help you out with a loan and I would like that, “What is yours should be mine,” i.e. when I need a loan you should readily provide it, such a person is an “am ha’aretz” because he does not know that he is violating one of the laws of usury.

(חלק יעקב)

* * *

Alternatively, Zevulun and Yissachar established a partnership. Zevulun engaged in business endeavors and supported Yissachar, who devoted his time entirely to Torah study (Devarim 33:18, Rashi). Yissachar became the prototype of the Torah scholar, and Zevulun the paradigm of the person engaged in financial pursuits. The tradition of this partnership has been continued throughout the years. Wealthy people have undertaken the support of Torah scholars, on the condition that the merit of their Torah study be shared by both.

This arrangement can only be made with the Torah scholar in regards to what he will be studying in the future. However, the Torah that he has studied and acquired previously cannot be conveyed in a partnership agreement. Thus, the Mishnah is saying that if one approaches a scholar and says to him, “What is mine is yours,” i.e. I will generously provide you with your financial needs on the condition that “What is yours,” i.e. the Torah that you already studied, should become mine, he is an ignoramus since the arrangement only applies to the future and not to the past.

(מעשה ידי יוצר לרש"ק ז"ל)

"האומר שלי שלי, ושלך שלך, זו מדה בינונית, ויש אומרים זו מדת סדום"
“He who says: ‘What is mine is mine and what is yours is yours’ — this is an average characteristic; and some say this is the characteristic of the people of Sodom.” (5:10)

QUESTION: Why such diverse opinions?

ANSWER: Some people have a “pet charity” and neglect the others. When they are approached for help they respond, “sheli sheli, veshelach shelach” — “I devote all my contributions to my favorite charity and you should do the same with yours.” This approach is not so praiseworthy because a truly benevolent person should help every cause.

Unfortunately, some people are “yeish omrim” — “sayers.” Whenever they are approached for a charitable cause, they excuse themselves saying, “I have my own charities,” while in reality they do not give at all. Such people are practicing “midat Sodom” — the ways of the people of Sodom.

(דורש לפרקים)

Alternatively, when in a community there is Ha’omer — an individual who says — he does not want to receive help from anybody nor give to anybody, such a person exhibits an average characteristic and hopefully the one who is in need will find many people in the community to whom to turn. However, when “veyeish omrim — “there are many who say” — i.e. not said just by one individual, but the community members, it is obvious that the community is conducting themselves like the people of Sodom, because the poor will not find anyone to turn to for assistance.

(ילקוט הגרשוני)

"שלי שלך, ושלך שלך, חסיד. שלי שלי, ושלך שלי, רשע"
“ ‘What is mine is yours, and what is yours is yours,’ is a Chassid. ‘What is mine is mine, and what is yours is mine’ is a rasha.” (5:10)

QUESTION: What does the Chassid mean with “shelach, shelach” — “yours is yours” — and what does the rasha mean with “shelach sheli” — “yours is mine”?

ANSWER: A person of refined character always shows thanks and appreciation and never holds a grudge. A gross person is unappreciative and does not reciprocate a favor. The philosophy of a Chassid is “What is mine is yours,” and he gives and helps indiscriminately even to those of whom he could say, “What is yours is yours” — they refuse to part with their money to help anyone, including him — the present day giver — when he was once in need.

On the other hand, the one who lives with the attitude that “What is mine is mine” and refused to help anyone, even a person of whom he can say “What is yours is mine,” i.e. at one time I benefited from your benevolence — is a rasha — wicked.

(ברכת אבות)

"ארבע מדות בדעות: נוח לכעוס ונוח לרצות..."
“There are four types of temperaments: Easily angered and easily pacified....” (5:11)

QUESTION: In each of the four cases, the person’s nature is to be easily angered or hard to anger. Why doesn’t it also list another category — the one who never becomes angry?

ANSWER: The Mishnah is enumerating different temperaments in people. To never become angry is not human; only an angel can have such a quality. Even Moshe, about whom the Torah testifies that he was more humble than any person on the face of the earth (Bamidbar 12:3), once became angry. When he saw that the women of Midian were spared, the Torah says, “Moshe was angry with the commanders of the army” (for allowing their troops to spare the women who were known to have participated in adulterous activities with the Jews) (Bamidbar 31:14).

Moreover, there are instances when being a zealot and expressing anger is a virtue and when reacting with complacency is a fault, particularly when one observes a chillul Hashem — desecration of Hashem’s Name. As the Torah relates, when Pinchas saw rampant immorality in the Jewish community, he laudably showed anger and acted zealously.

Often, in dealing with children, it is wise to make at least a pretense of being angry. The expression of impatience, annoyance or rage has its place. The important thing is that, like a Chassid, we should use anger infrequently, and only if it is clearly called for.

(מדרש שמואל — רבינו יונה)

"קשה לכעוס ונוח לרצות חסיד, נוח לכעוס וקשה לרצות רשע"
“Hard to anger and easy to pacify is a Chassid; easily angered and hard to pacify — wicked.” (5:11)

QUESTION: Instead of “leiratzot” — “to pacify” — which is the active form of the verb, it should have said “leheiratzot,” which means “to be pacified”?

ANSWER: “Leheiratzot,” means “to be pacified” — by others. When people speak to him and calm him, he is easily pacified.

The Mishnah is listing as the quality of the Chassid that even when with much difficulty he becomes angry, he does not wait leheiratzot — to be pacified by others; rather he is noach leiratzot — he pacifies himself and promptly takes the initiative to make overtures for reconciliation.

The wicked person, on the other hand, easily becomes angry, and even when he comes to his senses and realizes that he was wrong and overreacted, he is not pacified and takes no action to make amends. Only much later does he half-heartedly show some signs of pacification.

* * *

The mili d’chasiduta of our Mishnah is that proneness to anger is not an inborn or incorrigible character trait. Otherwise, the Mishnah would not judge, calling one pious and another wicked.

Often when a youngster bursts forth with a ferocious display of temper, a relative will comment, “He has his father’s (or uncle’s, or grandfather’s) temper,” meaning that the readiness to anger is inborn, and it must remain part of him. Our Mishnah differs. A child may be influenced to display outbursts of temper because he lives with an adult who reacts with rage, until it seems something biologically inherited. Such a temperament is likely to persist, but with the discipline of wisdom he can gradually free himself from it until his heart changes into something new.

(מגן אבות ועי' Ethics of Sinai, מר' אוירווינג ז"ל בונים)

"ארבע מדות בתלמידים..."
“There are four types of students....” (5:12)

QUESTION: What is the point of this teaching? Seemingly, it is an obvious observation which any teacher could make. Moreover, what connection does it share with Pirkei Avot, which teaches pious conduct?

ANSWER: Generally, we think of a teacher as a person who imparts knowledge. The Mishnah informs us that the approach of mili dechassiduta — words of piety — obligates teachers to accept a more encompassing task.

They should see themselves as being responsible for their students’ conceptual development. This necessitates a careful appreciation of their capacities and conscientious efforts to offset their weaknesses and accentuate their strengths.

When a teacher sees that a student is quick to grasp, he must keep observing to determine the student’s powers of retention. If the student is by nature quick to forget, the teacher must emphasize the importance of repeatedly reviewing the subject matter.

If he sees that a student is by nature slow to grasp the material being taught, the teacher should not give up and direct his attention to other students. It is possible that the student is also slow to forget, and then “his loss is overridden by his gain.”

When a teacher has a student who is quick to grasp and slow to forget and therefore succeeds in his studies, the teacher should not become overly proud and seek credit for himself. Instead, he should realize that the student has been given “cheilek tov” — “a good portion” — and he should be thankful to Hashem for meriting to be able to nurture this potential.

Even if the student is slow to grasp and quick to forget, the teacher should not despair. Although such a student has been given a bad portion, this merely reflects his natural tendencies. Everyone has the potential to apply himself and through much effort overcome natural disabilities and succeed in his studies.

(ביאורים לפרקי אבות)

* * *

Alternatively, this Mishnah can also be explained as referring to call to wake up and do Teshuvah.

There are those who are apt to hear the wake-up call to do Teshuvah. They quickly become aroused, but the excitement wears off just as quickly and they are back to their own ways.

Some people do not get inspired very quickly, and it takes a long time to convince them. However, once they make a decision to change, they are very firm about it, and it is very difficult for any one to convince them to go back to their old patterns.

The most worthy group are those who quickly become aroused to do Teshuvah and stick steadfastly to their new Torah lifestyle. Others have the opposite temperament, and they are very slow at becoming inspired and even when they finally decide to alter their ways, their resolution is short-lived and fades quickly.

(נוצר חסד)

"ארבע מדות בנותני צדקה... יתן ויתנו אחרים, חסיד. לא יתן ולא יתנו אחרים, רשע"
“There are four types amongst those who give charity ... he gives and others should give, is a Chassid. That he should not give and that others should not give, is a rasha.” (5:13)

QUESTION: 1) A Chassid is one who goes beyond the call of duty (see Niddah17a, Tosafot). Why does one who merely gives while encouraging others to give earn this title? 2) Why is the person who neither gives nor allows others to give counted among the four givers?

ANSWER: Often, when tzedakah is being collected for an important cause, a person may give above his means in order to encourage others to give generously. Since he is only required to give according to his means, but gives more, he is called a “Chassid” because he is doing lifnim mishurat hadin — beyond the strict requirements of the law.

Unfortunately, at times the reverse is the case. A wealthy man gives much less than he can, and as a result others give less than they are able to, some even giving nothing at all. Thus, the rich man who is “giving” but not according to his means is called a rasha due to the results of his conduct.

* * *

Alternatively, according to halachah one who possesses two hundred zuz (Talmudic currency equivalent to dollars) may not take any charity. But should he lack one dinar (Talmudic currency equivalent to a twenty-five cent piece) of the two hundred zuz, he may accept a single gift of charity even in the amount of thousands of dollars. The Gemara (Sotah 21b) says that one who gives a poor man a dinar to bring his possessions to the total of two hundred zuz so that he will be prevented from taking any more charity is called a “rasha arum” — “cunning rogue.”

The Mishnah is talking of such a person who gives but gives a small amount so that “lo yitein” — he will no longer have to give charity to this poor person — “velo yitnu acheirim” — nor will others be required to give to him, and therefore he is both a giver of charity and a rasha.

(ילקוט הגרשוני בשם מהר"ש אלגזי ז"ל)

* * *

The reason the Sages declare one with less than two hundred zuz eligible to receive tzedakah is that the word “tzedakah” (צדקה) has the numerical value of one hundred and ninety-nine, which teaches that as long as one has no more than one hundred and ninety-nine, one may be a recipient.


"הרוצה שיתן ולא יתנו אחרים"
“One who wishes to give but that others should not.” (5:13)

QUESTION: Who are the “others” the Mishnah is referring to?

ANSWER: Unfortunately, there are some very wealthy people who are generous during their lifetime and bequeath everything to their children without leaving them any instructions concerning giving tzedakah. This is the category of “yitein” — he will give but “lo yitnu acheirim” — the heirs do not give. He has a “bad eye” about “acheirim” — the others who have his money. On the other hand there are people who are very stingy during their lifetime, but leave a will that “yitnu acheirim” — the children should give a part of the estate to tzedakah. Such a person is “eino ra’ah beshelo” — as long as the money is his, he has a bad eye about giving his money for charity.

The one who gives and leaves instructions that afterwards his heirs should continue to give is a Chassid. The one who does not give nor instructs his children to give obviously has no interest in the merit of the mitzvah of tzedakah and is therefore a rasha.

(עצי יער)

* * *

About giving tzedakah the prophet says, “Vehalach lefanecha tzidekecha” — “Your righteous deeds will proceed you [and the glory of Hashem will gather you in]” (Isaiah 58:8). The Abarbanel explains that this means that your good deeds will be a source of merit throughout your life and also when you are gathered in, i.e. when you die. When one gives tzedakah during his lifetime, the charity is actually going before him and when he comes to Gan Eden he finds his place already prepared, so to speak. But the one who does not give during his lifetime, and who only bequeaths it in his will, will find that he is coming first and that the tzedakah will be following after him.

(כנסת ישראל)

"ארבע מדות בהולכי בית המדרש: הולך ואינו עושה"
“There are four types among those who attend the House of Study: One who attends but does not engage [in study].” (5:14)

QUESTION: What is meant by “oseh”?

ANSWER: It cannot mean that he learns but does not do mitzvot, because such a person is a rasha — wicked — and his learning, too, is repugnant, as it says, “To the wicked G‑d said, ‘To what purpose do you recount My decrees and bear My covenant upon your lips’ ” (Psalms 50:16).

It can be explained that “oseh” means supporting and helping to maintain. Some use the Beit Midrash to study but do not contribute to its maintenance. Some give generous contributions, but do not come personally to learn. Some do both, and there are some who are unaffiliated and do neither.

However, it should be pointed out, that the fourth category is not one who, unfortunately, knows nothing about Judaism. Such a person is considered a “tinok shenishbah” — “a child who was in captivity” — who never had an opportunity to know of his golden heritage, and he cannot in anyway be held liable or labeled a “rasha” — “wicked.” The Mishnah is talking of one who is a “shanah upireish” — at one time in his life he studied and still remembers, but he chose to have no further connection with the Beit Midrash.

"ארבע מדות בהולכי בית המדרש..."
“There are four types among those who attend the House of Study....” (5:14)

QUESTION: Why is “oseh ve’aino holeich” — “one who studies [at home] but does not attend” — or “one who does not go and does not study” counted among the four types of those who go to the House of Study?

ANSWER: In reality all four actually go to the Beit Midrash. The distinctions among them lie in why they go and what they do there.

There are people who go to the Beit Midrash with the intention of studying there. However, when they arrive they get drawn into conversation and leave without studying anything. These people are “holeich ve’aino oseh” — they went with a good intention, but accomplished nothing constructive.

Other people go to the Beit Midrash, not for the purpose of learning, but because they want to meet someone and know that at a certain hour he can be found in the Beit Midrash. While there, though they did not plan on it, they decide to learn something. Such people are “oseh ve’eino holeich” — they ended up doing something constructive though their intention in going to the Beit Midrash was not proper.

The third category is the most laudable: one who goes to the Beit Midrash to learn, and actually learns there. The fourth also goes to theBeitMidrash, but not for the purpose of learning, which is what a Beit Midrash is for, but to meet someone — and when he is there he does not learn anything or say any words of Torah. Such a person belongs to the worst of the categories because it is forbidden to go into a Beit Midrash for personal benefit, and even when one must do so, according tohalachah he is obligated to learn something or at least ask a child to quote some words of Torah. (See Shulchan Aruch Orach Chaim 151:1.)

(משיבת נפש)

* * *

The Gemara (Megillah 27b) relates that when Rabbi Elazar ben Shamua was asked “In virtue of what did you merit longevity?” he replied, “Never in my life have I made the Beit Midrash or synagogue a thoroughfare to get from one place to another” (Megillah 27b, Rambam, Tefillah 11:8).

This can be explained as an allegory: In life man goes through many stages. As the person moves on from one stage to the next, the previous one becomes history. Rabbi Elazar ben Shamua meant that he merited longevity because he did not consider the Beit Midrash where he learned Torah as a stage in his life which he passed through to graduate and go on to another stage in life. The Torah that he learned in the Beit Midrash became the way of life which he followed and ‘lived’ throughout all his years.

(מצאתי בכתבי אבי הרב שמואל פסח ז"ל באגאמילסקי)

"ארבע מדות ביושבים לפני חכמים"
“There are four types among those who sit before the Sages.” (5:15)

QUESTION: Pirkei Avot is not a psychology book which discusses the mental faculties of people. What message of piety is this Mishnah conveying?

ANSWER: People’s understanding and grasp of a subject may vary in many ways. This is also true of the human capability to retain information. Mental capabilities are a gift, and there is not much one can do about it.

However, theMishnah is telling us that though the categories of people who listen to a lecture and what they retain differs, there can be a common denominator among all of them, and everyone should strive for this regardless of what category he falls under. The commonality is “Yoshvim lifnei chachamim” — “They are sitting before the Sages” — i.e. they all have the unique benefit of seeing the holy countenance of the Sage.

This is something of great value, as Rebbe said, “The reason that I am sharper than my colleagues is that I saw Rabbi Meir from behind” (Eiruvin 13b), i.e. I attended his lectures and was seated behind him where I was unable to see his face. However, if I had seen him from his front, i.e. if I had been seated in a position where I could have seen his face, I would have been even sharper, as it is written, “And your eyes shall behold your teachers” (Isaiah 30:20).

(מלי דאבות)

"זו אהבת דוד ויהונתן"
“The love of David and Yehonatan.” (5:16)

QUESTION: In his eulogy for Yehonatan, David said, “Your love was more wondrous to me than the love of women” (II Samuel 1:26). Which women was David referring to?

ANSWER: When young David slew Galiat the Philistine, “The rejoicing women called out, ‘Shaul has slain his thousands and David his ten thousands’ “ (I Samuel 18:7-9). This angered Saul very much and he eyed him with suspicion from that day on. At that time Yehonatan, however, did not forsake David. Moreover, his soul became attached to him and he and loved him as himself. And it was Yehonatan who literally saved David from being killed by his father, Shaul.

David was saying, “From the fact that your father hated me when the women proclaimed their love for me, and you did not let it cause any animosity between us but continued to be attached to me, I can see that your love was wondrous.”

(הר"ם אלשקר)

"איזו היא מחלקת שהיא לשם שמים, זו מחלקת הלל ושמאי, ושאינה לשם שמים, זו מחלקת קרח וכל עדתו"
“Which is a controversy for the sake of Heaven? The controversy between Hillel and Shammai. And which is not for the sake of Heaven? The controversy of Korach and all his faction.” (5:17)

QUESTION: Why were these particular two examples cited?

ANSWER: In the Torah the Korach episode follows immediately after the mitzvah of tzitzit. The two are juxtaposed because Korach’s insurrection began with an issue pertaining to tzitzit. He confronted Moshe with the question “A four cornered garment requires tzitzit — fringes — and one string must be of techeilet — blue wool; does a garment made entirely of blue wool require a blue string or is it exempt?” (Bamidbar 16:1).

In the Gemara (Menachot 41b) there is a dispute between the school of Shammai and the school of Hillel as to how many strings have to be put into each corner of the garment. Thus, the Mishnah cited these two disputes which had to do with tzitzit as an example because the dispute between Hillel and Shammai in the issue of tzitzit was lesheim shamayim, but Korach’s dispute in the subject of tzitzit was not lesheim shamayim.

(עבודת יששכר)

"כל מחלקת שהיא לשם שמים...ושאינה לשם שמים, זו מחלקת קרח וכל עדתו"
“Any controversy which is for the sake of Heaven...And which is not for the sake of Heaven? The controversy of Korach and all his faction.” (5:17)

QUESTION: How is it evident that Korach’s controversy was not for the sake of Heaven?

ANSWER: The Mishnah, in describing a machloket shelo lesheim shamayim” — “a controversy not for the sake of Heaven” — does not say “machloket Korachve’adatoimMoshe” — “the controversy of Korach and his followers with Moshe” — but “machloket Korach vechol adato” — “the controversy of Korach and all his followers” (with no mention of Moshe).

This indicates that, in addition to the rebellion against Moshe, there was also quarreling and disagreement among Korach and his seeming allies. The phrase “Vayikach Korach” — “And Korah took” — is singular, as opposed to “Vayikechu” — “And they took” — because each of Korach’s allies had his own ambitions and desire for personal gain, and they did not see ‘eye to eye’ among themselves. When unity is lacking among the people on one side of a dispute, our Sages in their wisdom teach us that such a controversy is not for the sake of Heaven.

(יערות דבש - פון אונזער אלטען אוצר)

* * *

Alternatively, Korach was upset that his cousin Elitzafan was appointed in charge of the Kohathite family (Bamidbar 3:30). According to his calculations, since his father was older than Elitzafan’s, the post belonged to him.

He challenged Moshe about this and also questioned if a house filled with Sifrei Torah requires a mezuzah, and whether a garment entirely of techeilet wool requires a single string of techeilet in its tzitzit.

These questions were totally irrelevant to the issue at hand. They were derisive questions through which he intended to ridicule and embarrass Moshe in the eyes of the community.

When two parties enter into a debate and adhere to the issues, it is a “dispute for the sake of Heaven.” When Shamai and Hillel, for instance, had a dispute over a halachic issue, they would only argue the issue at hand and not bring in irrelevant matters in the course of their debate.

However, when one digresses and introduces unrelated matters, it is a sign of weakness and a smoke-screen meant to distract attention in lieu of admitting default. When this occurs, it becomes apparent that the dispute is not lesheim shamayim — for the sake of Heaven.

(שמעתי מדודי הרב ברוך הכהן ז"ל כהן מח"ס קול תודה)

"וכל המחטיא את הרבים, אין מספיקין בידו לעשות תשובה"
“But the one who causes the many to sin shall not be granted the opportunity to repent.” (5:18)

QUESTION: Why are we so harsh to him?

ANSWER: When the one who causes others to sin repents, the iniquity that the others committed through him is not erased. Consequently, due to the gravity of his sin, he is not granted the opportunity to do teshuvah. This does not mean, however, that the gates of teshuvah will be closed before him. Instead, the intent is that people at large are constantly being encouraged to do teshuvah by Hashem, and this positive influence will be withheld from such an individual. But should he make an effort on his own, the gates of heaven are open for him and every Jew to enter.

(ביאורים לפרקי אבות, תניא ר"פ כ"ה)

"ירבעם בן נבט חטא והחטיא את הרבים"
“Yeravam ben Nevat himself sinned and caused the many to sin.” (5:18)

QUESTION: Why is Yeravam cited as the example for one who is not granted the opportunity to repent because he sinned and caused others to sin?

ANSWER: The Gemara (Sanhedrin 102a) says of Yeravam, that he was one of the most outstanding Torah scholars who ever lived. The pasuk “And the prophet Achiya the Shilonite found him on the way, and he was cloaked in a new robe and the two of them were alone in the field” (I Kings 11:29) is explained as a metaphor for his greatness in Torah knowledge. Just as a new robe has no defect, so too, Yeravam’s Torah knowledge had no defect (There was no unclarity or confusion, Rashi). Also, the two of them originated Torah insights which no ear had ever before heard, and all reasons for the commandments of Torah were as revealed to them as an open field is to an onlooker.

The message intended by citing Yeravam ben Nevat as an example is that the one who sinned and caused others to sin is not granted the opportunity to repent regardless of how great he is in Torah knowledge.

"מה בין תלמידיו של אברהם אבינו לתלמידיו של בלעם הרשע"
“What is the difference between the disciples of Avraham our father and the disciples of the wicked Bilaam?” (5:19)

QUESTION: Why does the Mishnah discuss only the difference between the disciples and not Avraham and Bilaam themselves?”

ANSWER: Avraham was a great tzaddik, and Bilaam was given great spiritual powers so that the nations of the world could not complain that they lacked a prophet equal to Moshe Rabbeinu (Sifri, Devarim 34:10). Bilaam, however, was vain and evil although he endeavored to impress people that he was a tzaddik. He told King Balak’s messengers, for instance, “I cannot do anything against the will of Hashem.” Though he ended up blessing the Jewish people, it was definitely not wholeheartedly, for his true intentions were to curse them.

Therefore, it may not be easy to see any external difference between Avraham and Bilaam. However, a tremendous difference is evident between those under the evil influence of Bilaam and those exposed to the holiness and goodness of Avraham.

"תלמידיו של בלעם הרשע יורשים גיהנום...דכתיב, 'אנשי דמים ומרמה לא יחצו ימיהם' "
“The disciples of the wicked Bilaam inherit Geihinom...As it is stated, ‘Bloodthirsty and treacherous men shall not live out half their days.’ ” (5:19)

QUESTION: According to Bartenura (see also Tosafot Yom Tov) the Mishnah is interpreting the pasuk as a reference to Bilaam who caused 24,000 Jews to die. If so, it should have said in singular, “Ish damim umirmah lo yechatzeh yamav” — “A bloodthirsty and deceitful man shall not live out half of his days”?

ANSWER: According to the Gemara (Sanhedrin 105a) Bilaam was a reincarnation of Lavan, who was known as “Lavan ha’Arami” — “Lavan the Aramean” with a pun on “haramai” — “the swindler.” Not only did he fool his own son-in-law, Yaakov, but he also cheated the entire city he lived in (See Vedibarta Bam, Bereishit 29:22.)

In addition, he was a murderer, as is evident from what is said of him, “An Aramean tried to destroy my forefather” (Devarim 26:5), and his father Betuel died from eating the poisonous food with which he planned to kill Eliezer (Bereishit 24:55, Midrash). Consequently, the pasuk is in plural most appropriately, since it is not only talking of Bilaam, but also his predecessor Lavan.

According to the Gemara (ibid. 106b) Bilaam was thirty-two years old when Pinchas killed him. Thus, it appropriately says, “They shall not live out half of their days,” because King David says, “The average lifespan of man is seventy years” (Psalms 90:10).

(ברכת אבות)

"אנשי דמים ומרמה לא יחצו ימיהם"
“Bloodthirsty and treacherous men shall not live out half their days.” (5:19)

QUESTION: Aren’t their many criminals who live to a ripe old age?

ANSWER: The Gemara (Shabbat 89a) says that when Hashem will say to Yitzchak, “Your children have sinned against Me,” he will come to their defense and say, “How much have they sinned? How many are a man’s years? Seventy years. Take away the first twenty years since You do not punish a person for them. There are fifty years left. Take away twenty-five years of nights because while sleeping people do not do aveirot. Take away twelve and one-half years which are spent praying, eating, or in the bathroom, which leaves only twelve and one-half years of potential sin. If you will shoulder them all, fine, and if not, then half should be on me and half on You.”

The argument that there are twenty-five years which are nights and one does not sin during that time would not apply, however, to someone who is unrightfully holding another person’s money, because every minute that it is in his possession illegally, he is committing a sin. Nor does it apply to a murderer since his hands are always bloodied with the blood of the person’s life he extinguished.

Bilaam was guilty of both such crimes. He caused blood to be shed through the plague that befell twenty-four thousand people, which was an outcome of his advice to Balak (Bamidbar 25:9). He was also dishonest in money matters. To the messengers Balak sent to invite him to come curse the Jews, he said, “If Balak would give me his house full of silver and gold, I cannot transgress the word of Hashem (ibid. 22:18). Rashi explains that by saying this he revealed his greed for money. (In fact, at the end Balak said to him, “Flee to your place” [ibid. 24:11]. The reason he told him to flee, was that in anticipation of a hefty remuneration, he “lived it up” lavishly in the city of Moav, and did not pay the bills.)

The word “damim” can mean “blood” or “money.” The followers of Bilaam will end up in Geihinom because “Anshei damim umirmah” — “people who shed blood and dishonestly and stealthily take money” — “lo yechetzu yemeihem” — “the years of their lives cannot be divided in half.” Thus, they sin the entire fifty year of their lives between the ages of twenty and seventy. Lacking the defense presented by Yitzchak, they have no other alternative but to end up in Geihinom.

(שארית מנחם)

"הוי עז כנמר"
“Be bold as a leopard.” (5:20)

QUESTION: What lesson can be learned from the boldness of the leopard?

ANSWER: The leopard is not as strong as many other beasts, but it is very bold and fearless, and it frequently seems to exceed its apparent strength and agility. Likewise man should not hesitate undertaking spiritual endeavors that seem beyond his capabilities. Rather, a person should be bold and fearless like a leopard and assume spiritual duties beyond his perceived capabilities. When a sincere effort is made, Hashem will grant the strength to make the seeming impossibility a reality.

(תפארת ישראל)

"קל כנשר"
“Light as an eagle.” (5:20)

QUESTION: Why is the eagle called “nesher” in Hebrew?

ANSWER: King David says of Hashem, “Who satisfies your mouth with goodness so that your health is renewed like the eagle’s” (Psalms 103:5). Rashi explains that this is a reference to the fact that the eagle sheds its feathers annually and replaces them with new ones, which is an example of renewed youth.

The Radak (Rabbi David Kimchi) sees this as an allusion to the legendary eagle which flies higher than all other birds and comes close to the solar fire, which generates tremendous heat. Because of the great heat, the eagle plunges into the sea and dies, whereupon it is renewed of limb, returning to its youthful vigor. This rite of renewal occurs once every ten years throughout the eagle’s lifespan of one hundred years. When the eagle reaches one hundred years of age, it soars to the sun and hurls itself into the sea for the last time.

The Hebrew word for eagle is “nesher,” which means “shedding off” (see Eiruvin 39b) The Hebrew name is very appropriate because of the eagle’s characteristic of shedding feathers and also of shedding its old age and returning to its youth.

In light of the above, it can be argued that the one hundred year lifespan of the eagle, which is broken up in ten year cycles, is a metaphor for the one hundred year life span of man, which is also divided into ten cycles later in this chapter of Pirkei Avot (5:23). The idea of shedding the feathers and renewing its strength is an allusion to the concept of teshuvah — repentance. Hashem has given every Jew the method of repentance, through which he sheds and detaches himself from his past and emerges, so to speak, spiritually reborn. Thus, the message of the Mishnah to be “light as an eagle” is to return to Hashem and soar to new spiritual heights.

"קל כנשר"
“Light as an eagle.” (5:20)

QUESTION: What message can be learned from the eagle?

ANSWER: Regardless of its weight, the eagle soars very high thanks to its powerful wings. From this one can learn an important lesson. It is the mission of every Jew to fly high, i.e. reach spiritual heights. This is accomplished through the performance of mitzvot. Generally, mitzvot are divided into two categories: bein adam lachaveiro — between man and his fellow — and bein adam lamakom — between man and Hashem.

For an eagle to fly with the force and precision for which it is known, it has to have powerful, finely developed wings. And to get the most mileage out of those two wings, they need to be of equal strength.

The two types of mitzvot which we have been given are also regarded as wings. By observing both kinds of mitzvot, we can soar to great heights.

However, Jewish teachings discourage us from favoring one “wing” over the other. We cannot neglect those mitzvot between ourselves and Hashem in favor of the interpersonal mitzvot, nor the reverse, for then we would be like a bird with only one wing.

"רץ כצבי"
“Swift as a deer.” (5:20)

QUESTION: What lessons should be learnt from the deer?

ANSWER: A deer runs swiftly and does not tire. Likewise, a Jew should not claim that he is too tired to do a mitzvah.

(רבינו יונה)

* * *

Alternatively, a deer runs to flee the hunter, likewise, one should run from the endeavors of the yeitzer hara — evil inclination — to capture him in his net.

(תפארת ישראל)

* * *

Alternatively, according to the Midrash (Song of Songs 8:14, Targum) when a deer runs, it constantly looks backward to see if anyone is chasing after him. From this one should learn that although it is human nature to endeavor to go forward and make progress in life, a Jew must always look back and constantly check if he is properly attached to our source — Torah and mitzvot. Unfortunately, there are those who, while running forward, run so far away that they lose their entire connection to our beautiful heritage. However blessed one may be, he must always “look back,” i.e. see to it that his life and all his business activities are in the spirit of the authentic Torah tradition.

* * *

Alternatively, the analogy to a swift deer, whose nature is to look behind him while he runs, is a message to parents. There are many parents who themselves are immersed in Torah andmitzvot. Many are immersed totally in acts of kindness helping worthy institutions and individuals.

These parents may be swift in their progress and accomplishment, but they must also look back and see what is happening with their own children. The Mishnah is thus saying, “Do not suffice with just improving yourself, but take your children along with you and inculcate in them the same love as you have for Torah andmitzvot.”

(אבות על בנים)

"עז פנים לגיהנום ובושת פנים לגן עדן"
“The brazen is headed for Geihinom, but the shamefaced for Gan Eden.” (5:20)

QUESTION: Why did he single out brazenness and shamefacedness; any aveirah can lead one to Geihinom, and any mitzvah can earn one Gan Eden?

ANSWER: Unfortunately, many who violate Torah do it boldly and without any shame, while there are fine Jews who follow a Torah way of life but are bashful and apologetic about it. Though they do mitzvot, they are ashamed to do them publicly out of fear that they will be labeled as antiquated or fanatic Jews.

The Mishnah is lamenting this common phenomenon by saying, “Az panim leGeihinom” — the things which lead one to Geihinom — i.e. aveirot — transgressions — are done blatantly with boldness and much audacity. “Uboshet panim leGan Eden” — the things which earns one Gan Eden — i.e.mitzvot — are done with shamefacedness, bashfulness, and apologetically.

The Mishnah is thus urging the righteous to learn from the wicked’s enthusiasm to serve Hashem proudly and vigorously.

(כנסת ישראל)

King David says, “Mei’ovai techakmeini mitzvotecha” — “Your mitzvot made me wiser than my enemies” (Psalms 119:98). The Ba’al Shem Tov explains this to mean “From the ways of the wicked, who are my enemies, I gained wisdom in how to do Your mitzvot. From observing the excitement and joy they have when doing an aveirah — I learnt how to do Your will.”

* * *

Yaakov, in preparation to meet his brother Eisav, dispatched messengers to tell him, “Im Lavan garti” — “I have sojourned with Lavan” (Bereishit 32:5). Rashi comments: “The letters of ‘garti’ (גרתי) correspond numerically to 613, that is, ‘I sojourned (גרתי) with Lavan the wicked, but I observed the 613 (תרי"ג) Commandments, and I did not learn from his evil deeds.’ ”

Rashi’s words, “I did not learn from his evil deeds,” are seemingly redundant. If he observed 613 mitzvot, is it not obvious that Lavan had no influence over him?

Yaakov was not expressing satisfaction for not learning from Lavan’s evil deeds. On the contrary, he was expressing his dissatisfaction with himself and frustration.

Yaakov sent a message to Eisav: “I lived in the home of Lavan for twenty years, during which I observed how enthusiastically he performed his sins. Now, though I fulfilled 613 mitzvot, I did not apply his level of excitement to my Torah and mitzvot.” Thus, Yaakov was humbly saying “If only I would have performed mitzvot with the excitement and vigor with which he performed his sins!”

* * *

The Chiddushei HaRim (the first Rebbeof Ger) once said concerning missionaries: “If we were to work for the emet (spreading Torah and Yiddishkeit) with an emet (sincerity), as they work for the sheker (falsehood) with an emet, we would experience immense success.”

(הרב מאיר ז"ל שאפירא מלובלין)

"יהי רצון מלפניך"
“May it be Your will.” (5:20)

QUESTION: Pirkei Avot is not a prayer book. Why was this tefillah placed here?

ANSWER: Yehudah ben Teima taught that at times a Jew should be bold as a leopard and fight with the ferocity of a lion. Then the Mishnah goes on to warn that unbridled boldness can be very dangerous, and ferociousness, too, may not be used indiscriminately.

Therefore he concludes with a short prayer that the Beit Hamikdash be rebuilt. When that happens, the Holy Presence will again dwell within the midst of the Jewish people. This spiritual influence will remove the evil inclination from us, making it unnecessary for us to acquire these potentially destructive traits.

(מדרש שמואל)

* * *

Alternatively, the Gemara (Sotah 49b) provides signs to identify the period prior to Mashiach’s arrival. One of them is, chutzpah yasgeh” — “insolence will increase.” It is likely that Yehudah ben Teima spoke about “az panim” because it was rampant then.

Consequently, he prayed for the speedy rebuilding of the Beit Hamikdash, since in view of the abundance of brazenness, it was high time for Mashiach to come.

(פון אונזער אלטען אוצר, בנויות ברמה)

* * *

We also pray, “And grant us our portion in Torah,” so that we should use our boldness solely for the study of Torah; we must be bold to ask our teachers questions when we do not fully comprehend and request that the lesson be repeated if we do not understand.

(עי' רש"י)

"בן בג בג אומר, 'הפך בה והפך בה דכולא בה'... בן הא הא אומר, 'לפום צערא אגרא''"
“Ben Bag Bag says, ‘Learn it and learn it [the Torah], for everything is in it...Ben Hei Hei says, ‘Commensurate with the painstaking effort is the reward.’ ” (5:21)

QUESTION: Who were Ben Bag Bag and Ben Hei Hei?

ANSWER: There is an opinion that these two Sages were really the same person. He was a proselyte (geir) who at some time in his life joined the Jewish people and who so excelled in his Torah studies that he became one of the Sages who compiled the Mishnah.

Avraham and Sarah are considered the parents of all geirim (Bereishit 17:5, Rambam, Bikkurim 4:3). A unique thing that happened to them was that Hashem added a “hei” to their names. “Avram” (אברם) was changed to “Avraham” (אברהם), and “Sarai” (שרי) was changed to “Sarah” (שרה).

The letter “hei” (ה) has the numerical value of five, and also the word “Bag” (בג) has the numerical value of five. Thus, he was called “Ben Bag Bag” to allude that he was the son of Avraham and Sarah to whose names a “hei” was added. He was also called “Ben Hei Hei” to allude that he was the son of Avraham and Sarah, whose names were both given an additional “hei.”

There is an opinion that his parents were proselytes, and thus “Bag” is an abbreviation for “ben geir” and “ben giyoret” — the son of parents who were proselytes.

Others say that these names were pseudonyms, their name was disguised to protect the authors from informers who would have turned them over to the Romans. It was customary in those years to refer to converts and their descendants as Ben Bag Bag and Ben Hei Hei.

(מדרש שמואל)

According to the first opinion, that he himself was once a non-Jew and familiar with the knowledge of the nations, he was eminently qualified to stress the greatness and uniqueness of Torah, that it encompasses everything.

"בן הא הא אומר 'לפום צערא אגרא'"
“Ben Hei Hei says ‘Commensurate with the painstaking effort is the reward.’ ” (5:21)

QUESTION: What insight is he adding? It is already written in the Torah, “If you will follow my decrees” (Vayikra 26:3) — and Rashi writes that it means, “You will toil in Torah” — then, “I will provide your rains in their time.”

ANSWER: The phrase “painstaking effort” does not just refer to the effort and pain involved in fulfilling mitzvot, such as putting on tefillin or reciting a blessing on the four species during Sukkot, but it is referring to one’s taking upon oneself a voluntary increase in the performance of the mitzvah, which is known as hiddur mitzvah. Examples would be spending additional money for better quality tefillin, or spending money on a nicer etrog, or going to the expense of building a house specifically to be able to fulfill the mitzvah of making a ma’akeh — fence on the roof — etc.

As a convert, he personally went through the pain of “taking upon himself” Torah and mitzvot, which he was not obligated to do. Thus, his message is that every Jew, even one who is not a convert but was born a Jew, should also voluntarily accept upon himself an enhancement in his observances, i.e. do more than he is required for the basic fulfillment of the mitzvah. He may be assured that Hashem appreciates this and acknowledges it with special reward.

(ביאורים לפרקי אבות)

"לפום צערא אגרא"
“Commensurate with the painstaking effort is the reward.” (5:21)

QUESTION: What reward can one anticipate when there is no effort?

ANSWER: This is illustrated with the following parable: A king, wanting to beautify his chamber, enlisted four painters, each to paint a mural on one of the walls. He gave them a month to accomplish this task and told them that upon completion, he would review the paintings and place a sack of gems in front of each wall as a reward. The most beautiful would receive the largest sack, and the others would receive smaller sacks in descending order according to the worth of each painting.

Three of the painters worked diligently, while the fourth wasted his time amusing himself. On the last night before the deadline, when the three painters had each finished their work and had gone home, the fourth arrived in the room. He placed a large mirror on his wall so that it reflected the other three paintings. In the morning the king arrived, and after close inspection of the finished art works, he placed sacks of gems in front of the three painted murals and nothing in front of the mirror. Shocked, the artist who placed the mirror exclaimed to the king, “Where is my reward? My mirror is a composite, merging together the other three paintings!”

The king responded, “Indeed, you have received your reward. Gaze in your mirror and you will see the reflection of the three sacks of gems given to the other artists, who toiled with great effort and sincerity while you have done nothing and have only reflected their initiative.”

The upshot is that for toil there is great reward, and you cannot fool anyone, especially not Hashem.

(מדרש חכמים)

"לפום צערא אגרא"
“Commensurate with the painstaking effort is the reward.” (5:21)

QUESTION: Why doesn’t he say “Agra lefum tza’ara” — “the reward is commensurate with the pain” — which would emphasize that there is reward for Torah and mitzvot?

ANSWER: In Aramaic the word “fum” also means “mouth” (see Daniel 7:8). The Mishnah is teaching that one should be very careful what he utters with his mouth, because “lefum” — through the mouth — “tza’ara” — much pain and suffering can be caused and also [through the mouth] — “agra” — one can acquire much reward. King Shlomo says, “Death and life are in the power of the tongue” (Proverbs 18:21).

When one uses his mouth to speak lashon hara or cunning remarks, he is causing “tza’ara” — pain and suffering for himself and for the person about whom he speaks. On the other hand, when one uses his mouth to speak soothing words to a fellow Jew or talk words of Torah, then he is reaping “agra” — reward — from Hashem.

(מדרש חכמים)

* * *

The Midrash relates that Rabbi Shimon ben Gamliel sent his servant to the market and said, “Bring me the best thing you can find.” The servant came back with a tongue.

Another time, Rabbi Shimon ben Gamliel said to his servant, “Go to the market and bring me the worst thing you can find.” Again, the servant returned with a tongue.

Rabbi Shimon ben Gamliel was startled and asked his servant, “How is it that you brought me a tongue as the best thing you could find, and again a tongue as the worst?” The servant replied, “There is nothing better than a tongue that speaks good and nothing worse than a tongue that speaks evil.”

(מדרש רבה ויקרא ל"ג:א)

"בן שלש עשרה למצות"
“At thirteen [the obligation to observe] the mitzvot.” (5:22)

QUESTION: How do we know that when one becomes thirteen he is obligated to perform mitzvot?

ANSWER: When Shechem the son of Chamor defiled Dinah, the Torah (Bereishit 34:25) says that “vayikchu shnei benei Yaakov Shimon veLevi achei Dinah ish charbo vayavo’u el ha’ir betach vayahargu kol zachor — “two of Yaakov’s sons, Shimon and Levi, Dinah’s brothers each man took his sword and they came upon the city confidentially and killed every male.”

When this episode took place, Shimon and Levi were thirteen years old. The reference to them as “ish” is to teach that at the age of thirteen, one becomes a full-fledged member of Klal Yisrael who is obligated to observe all the mitzvot of the Torah.

(ר"ע מברטנורה, ותוס' יו"ט)

The Rosh in his Responsa (Klal 16a) writes that the age of thirteen for Bar Mitzvah is not based on a Biblical source, but is like all measurements, a Halachah LeMoshe MiSinai — an instruction given to Moshe when he was on Mt. Sinai.

* * *

The difference between the two views of Bar Mitzvah is relevant to Noachides. At what age are they obligated to perform their mitzvot? If it is derived from the case of Shimon and Levi, the number thirteen would apply to a Noachide. However, if it is considered an instruction which was given to Moshe, this would not apply to a Noachide because, things which are learned through Halachah LeMoshe MiSinai are only for Israelites and not Noachides. Therefore, as soon as the Noachide shows signs of understanding and responsibility, he is obligated to perform his mitzvot (Talmudic Encyclopedia, vol. 3, p. 361).

* * *

The fact that a source for Bar Mitzvah is derived from Shimon and Levi imparts another very important lesson: As soon as one becomes thirteen years of age, one is expected to have mesirat nefesh — sacrifice oneself — to defend and protect the integrity and sanctity of Klal Yisrael as well as every Jew.

(לקוטי שיחות ח"ה, ע' 421, ועי' רשימות כ"ק אדמו"ר חכ"א)

"בן שמונה עשרה לחופה"
“At eighteen — marriage.” (5:22)

QUESTION: Where in the Torah is there a hint for this?

ANSWER: Regarding the Kohein Gadol the Torah (Vayikra 21:13) says, “Vehu ishah bivtuleha yikach” — “He shall only marry a woman in her virginity.” The word “vehu” (והוא) is superfluous, and since it has the numerical value of eighteen, it is an illusion that the age of eighteen is a time for man to marry.


"בן תשעים לשוח"
“At ninety the body is stooped.” (5:22)

QUESTION: Pirkei Avot are words of piety and instruction. Of what relevance is a physical deformity in this study?

ANSWER: When Yitzchak met Rivkah for the first time, the Torah says, “Yitzchak went out ‘lasuach basadeh’ — to supplicate in the field [towards evening]” (Bereishit 24:63). In fact, from this description that Yitzchak prayed before nightfall, the Gemara (Berachot 26b) derived that he instituted the Minchah prayer.

The mitzvah of studying Torah applies to every individual regardless of his age. Nevertheless, as a person reaches the ripe old age of ninety, his faculties normally weaken and it becomes difficult for him to study Torah. Therefore theMishnah says that at this age his emphasis should be lasuach — to supplicate and pray to Hashem, i.e., daven and say tehillim.

(רבינו יונה, החסיד יעב"ץ)

"בן מאה כאלו מת ועבר ובטל מן העולם"
“At one hundred it is as if he were dead and had departed and ceased connection with the world.” (5:22)

QUESTION: Why such a derogatory description for one who merited to reach the ripe old age of one hundred?

ANSWER: The expression, “departed and absent from the world” also has a positive connotation. It means the person has risen above all worldly matters. His focus and concern are solely spiritual.

On the pasuk “For man cannot see me and live” (Shemot 33:20) the Sages say that during one’s lifetime he cannot see Hashem, but after death one sees Hashem (Sifri, Bamidbar 12:8). When one reaches the age of one hundred, he is “ke’ilu meit” — “as if he were dead” — and merits to see G‑dliness while his soul is still clothed in a physical body — a spiritual height which others can attain only after death.

(ביאורים לפרקי אבות)

"בן חמש למקרא ... משה קבל תורה מסיני ומסרה ..."
“At five years of age, [one should approach the study of Scripture... Moshe received the Torah from Sinai and passed it on...” (5:22-1:1)

QUESTION: According to the version of Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi, this is the concluding Mishnah of the fifth chapter, (see Hadran al Misechat Avot, Biurim LePirkei Avot, footnote #2). It is the final Mishnah of the tractate since the sixth chapter contains only Bereitot and not Mishnayot. How can the beginning and end of the tractate be linked together?

ANSWER: the name of the tractate is “Avot,” which means “fathers.” The intention is to impress the father that the perpetuation of Torah among the Jewish people is contingent on the parents transmitting it to the generations that will follow.

To sum it all up, the Sages are teaching us that Moshe received the Torah from Hashem and transmitted it to his successor. It was then handed down from one generation to the next until the present day. To assure the perpetuation of Torah every parent must teach Torah to his child, and it is imperative to start from a very early age.

Rabbi Moshe Bogomilsky has been a pulpit rabbi for over thirty years, and is author of more than ten highly acclaimed books on the Parshiot and holidays. His Parshah series, Vedibarta Bam, can be purchased here.
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