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Questions and Answers on Chapter One of Pirkei Avot

Questions and Answers on Chapter One of Pirkei Avot

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"משה קבל תורה מסיני"
Moshe received the Torah from Sinai.” (1:1)

QUESTION: Sinai did not give the Torah; It was the mountain upon which Hashem gave the Torah. It should have said, “Moshe received the Torah from Hashem”?

ANSWER: When Hashem was preparing to give the Torah to the Jewish people, the highest mountains came praising their majestic appearance and said that the Torah should be given upon them. Hashem disregarded them all and selected Sinai, the lowest mountain, thus emphasizing that He preferred humility (see Sotah 5a). If Hashem wanted to accentuate the importance of being humble, why didn’t He give the Torah on level ground?

The difference between the earth and a mountain is that people tread easily upon earth but not on the rocky and steep slopes of a mountain. By giving the Torah on the lowest mountain, Hashem conveyed the lesson that the Torah Jew should be proud of his convictions and not permit himself to be trampled or stepped upon.

Of King Yehoshafat it is said, “And his heart was lifted up in the ways of G‑d” (II Chronicles 17:6). Though he did not permit himself to be impressed by his great wealth and honor, he was proud about the fact that he walked in the path of Hashem.

Torah is not a book of history or a collection of tales. It stems from the word “hora’ah,” which means teaching and guidance (Psalms 19:8, Radak). Moshe is described in the Torah as the most humble person that ever lived. The Mishnah is teaching that Moshe received Torah — a lesson — “miSinai”from the mountain of Sinai. From the fact that Hashem selected a mountain and specifically Sinai, he derived the importance of both humility and pride in his Torah observance. He conveyed this message to his beloved disciple Yehoshua to pass along for posterity.

(ביאורים לפרקי אבות – כ"ק אדמו"ר)


"משה קבל תורה מסיני"
“Moshe received the Torah from Sinai.” (1:1)

QUESTION: Why did Hashem give the Torah while the Jews were still in the wilderness and not wait till after they arrived in their own land,Eretz Yisrael?

ANSWER: The Gemara (Tamid 32a) relates that Alexander the Great put ten questions to the elders of the South. One of the questions was “Were the heavens created first or the earth?” They replied, “Heaven was created first, as the Torah states, ‘In the beginning of G‑d’s creating the heavens and the earth’ ” (Bereishit 1:1).

Why did he want to know the order of creation?

As a great philosopher and student of Aristotle, Alexander was understandably interested in the Jewish view of creation. However, the intent of his question here was much more profound. Alexander was the most powerful king of his times, and his goal of conquering the entire world was almost realized. Heaven represents spirituality, and earth represents material pursuits. He was thus uncertain whether to emphasize physically acquiring as much of the world as possible or spiritually uplifting and enhancing the world already under his control.

Unable to decide on his own, he turned to our Sages for counsel. They responded that when G‑d created the world, He created heaven first, indicating that spiritual values are pre-eminent.

Therefore, Hashem gave the Torah in the wilderness prior to the arrival of the Jews in their own land to emphasize the Torah’s superiority to land. The nations of the world who refused to accept the Torah became extinct with the loss of their lands. The Jews, however, exist forever, even without a land, as long as they keep the Torah.

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


"משה קבל תורה מסיני ומסרה ליהושע"
“Moshe received the Torah from Sinai and passed it on to Yehoshua.” (1:1)

QUESTION: Instead of “umesarah” — “passed it on” — why doesn’t it say “veYehoshua kibel miMoshe” — “and Yehoshua received it from Moshe”?

ANSWER: The Torah is the wisdom of Hashem. Hashem gave the Torah to Moshe, but did not convey to him all His wisdom. As the Gemara (Rosh Hashanah 21b) says, “fifty gates of understanding were created in the world, and all but one (the understanding of Hashem’s very essence) were given to Moshe, as it says: “You made him only slightly wanting in [understanding] Divinity” (Psalms 8:6). Since he received only what was given to him, it says “Moshe kibel” — “he received [whatever was given to him].” However, “umesarah lihoshua” — he conveyed everything that was given to him to Yehoshua.

(תוס' יו"ט)


"הוו מתונים בדין, והעמידו תלמידים הרבה, ועשו סיג לתורה"
“Be deliberate in judgment, raise up many disciples, and make a fence around the Torah.” (1:1)

QUESTION: What is the connection between these three things?

ANSWER: The Anshei Keneset HagedolahMen of the Great Assembly — were concerned about the continuity of Torah for posterity. This, they felt, can only be accomplished when young men study Torah and grow up to be the leaders and teachers of the generation. The need to establish Yeshivot in every Jewish community so that every Jewish child can receive a Torah education was uppermost in their mind.

It is a common tendency among many of the older members of the community to reject the young people and consider them inadequate. In many Yeshivot, unfortunately, Jewish children are rejected or expelled for minor infractions. Thus, the Men of the Great Assembly emphasize being patient in judgment. They are saying, “Do not be judgmental and quick to reject students. Though on the surface they may fall short of your expectations and fail to compare to your peers when you were students, nevertheless, give them a chance.”

With this approach, many students will be raised. Thus, there will be many future leaders to serve the needs of Jewish communities the world over. Hence, thanks to the multitude of students learning Torah, a fence will be erected around the Torah, i.e. the Torah will be protected and safeguarded for all the years to come.

(דבר בעתו)

* * *

The Mishnah carefully says, “Veha’amidu talmidim harbei” — “And raise up many students” — and not “velimdu” — “and teach [many students]” — to imply that one must instruct one’s students until they are able to stand independently. A teacher’s responsibility is not merely to impart knowledge, but rather to give his students a strong foundation of values and principles which will continue to give them strength.

(ביאורים לפרקי אבות – כ"ק אדמו"ר)

* * *

In regard to “Veha’amidu talmidim harbei” the Avot D’Rabbi Natan (2:3) writes, “The School of Shammai says, ‘One should teach only one who is smart, meek, of good ancestry and rich.’ But the school of Hillel says, ‘One should teach every man, for there were many transgressors in Israel who were brought close to Torah, and from them descended righteous, pious, and worthy folk.’ ”


"שמעון הצדיק"
Shimon the Righteous” (1:2)

QUESTION: Why was he called Shimon the Righteous?

ANSWER: Shimon earned the title “HaTzaddik” — “the righteous” — for his great piety, which was evident throughout the forty years he served as Kohen GadolHigh Priest — in the second Beit Hamikdash. The Gemara (Yoma 39a) relates that during the entire period that he served as Kohen Gadol, the crimson colored strap which was tied between the horns of the bullock on Yom Kippur would become white. This signified that Hashem had forgiven the sins of K’lal Yisrael. Also, during all the years he served in the Beit Hamikdash, the neir ma’aravi — westernmost light on the menorah — candelabra – was never extinguished, although in it was put as much oil as in the others and it was the first to be kindled. This miracle was taken as a sign that the Shechinah — Divine Presence — dwells in Israel (see Rashi).

The Gemara (ibid. 69a) relates that when Alexander the Macedonian came to destroy theBeit Hamikdash (upon the request of the Cutheans), Shimon HaTzaddik robed himself in the Priestly garments and went out to meet him. When he saw ShimonHaTzaddik, he descended from his carriage and bowed down before him. The Cutheans said to him, “How can a great king like yourself bow down before this Jew?” He answered, “An image in the likeness of this man gains victory before me on all my battlefields.”

In the year he died, he foretold that he would die. Upon being asked how he knew he replied, “Every Yom Kippur an old man dressed in white would join me entering theKodesh HakadashimHoly of Holies — and leaving it with me. Today I was met by an old man dressed in black, who entered but did not exit with me.” Seven days after Sukkot, he passed away (ibid. 39b). According to the Jerusalem Talmud (5:2), the “old man” was the Shechinah. (See Tosafot, Menachot 109b).


"שמעון הצדיק...אומר, 'על שלשה דברים העולם עומד: על התורה, ועל העבודה, ועל גמילות חסדים' "
“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.’ ” (1:2)

QUESTION: Instead of saying, “The world stands on three things” and then enumerating them, he should have just said “Study Torah, serve Hashem, and do acts of kindness”?

ANSWER: There is no question that over the years the world has progressed immensely. Modern technology has changed our lifestyle so drastically that the previous generation appears antiquated and primitive. Surpassing prior accomplishments, humanity continues to progress and increase in sophistication. With all this progress and advancement, some claim that Torah and the Torah lifestyle should be modified to the contemporary modern age.

Shimon HaTzaddik’s message is that regardless of contemporary progress, 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 acts of kindness. In regard to these the Jews in all generations must maintain their observance in accordance with the old established authentic ways of our rabbis of previous generations.

(כנסת ישראל – ליקוט ע"י ר' ישראל ז"ל גאלדמאנן, סעאיני –רומיניא–, תרפ"ד)


"על התורה ועל העבודה ועל גמילות חסדים"
“On [the study of] Torah, the service [of G‑d], and deeds of kindness.” (1:2)

QUESTION: The three patriarchs were each the prototype of one of the above spiritual qualities. Yaakov represented Torah. He is described as, “A wholesome man, abiding in tents [the Yeshivot of Shem and Eiver]” (Bereishit 25:27, Rashi). Yitzchak represents avodah sacrifice. He allowed himself be brought up as an offering to Hashem. Also, if avodah is interpreted as tefillah — prayer — it says of him, “And Yitzchak went out to supplicate in the field” (ibid. 24:63). Avraham who was renown for his acts of kindness, corresponds to gemilut chassadim (Megaleh Amukot, Bereishit).

If so, why is gemilut chassadim listed last, when Avraham was the first of the patriarchs?

ANSWER: Hashem told Avraham to leave his native land and promised him that “I will make you a great nation: I will bless you, I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing” (ibid. 12:2). Rashi explains that “I will make you a great nation” is a reference to that which they say in the Shemonah Esreih, “Elokei Avraham” — “G‑d of Avraham.” “I will bless you” is a reference to that which they say” in Shemoneh Esreih, “Elokei Yitzchak” — “G‑d of Yitzchok.” I will make your name great” is a reference to that which they say in Shemoneh Esreih, “Elokei Yaakov” — “G‑d of Yaakov.” “But,” Hashem told Avraham, “And you will be a blessing” to imply that “the berachah will be concluded with your name only — Magen Avraham — and not with them.”

Wouldn’t Avraham be happier if Yitzchak and Yaakov were also mentioned in the conclusion of the berachah?

According to Rashi, the pasuk is projecting the history of K’lal Yisrael. There will be a time when the major relationship between the Jews and Hashem will be through the study of Torah (Elokei Yaakov). At other times it will be through tefillah — prayer (Elokei Yitzchak), and there will be a period when it will be through chessedtzedakah (Elokei Avraham).

However, the “concluding phase” of galut and the coming of Mashiach will not be dependent on all three pillars, but will occur in thezechut ofdeeds of kindness alone, which is personified by Avraham.

(שמעתי מזקני הרב צבי הכהן ז"ל קפלן)


"ועל גמילות חסדים"
“And deeds of kindness.” (1:2)

QUESTION: Why does it say “gemilut chassadim — “deeds of kindness” — in plural, and not “gemilut chesed — in singular?

ANSWER: The Gemara (Sukkah 49b) says that gemilut chassadim — deeds of kindness — are greater than tzedakah — charity — for the following reasons:

1) Charity is performed only with one’s property, while deeds of kindness are performed both with one’s person and with one’s property.

2) Charity is performed only for the living. Gemilut chassadim is performed with the living and the deceased, e.g. eulogizing and burying the deceased.

3) Charity is primarily for the poor. Gemilut chassadim is for both the poor and the rich.

Since there are so many different aspects, it says “gemilut chassadim” — “deeds of kindness” — in plural.


"ועל גמילות חסדים"
“And deeds of kindness.” (1:2)

QUESTION: Why doesn’t it simply say chassadim — kindness? Isn’t the word gemilut — bestowing — extra?

ANSWER: The Rambam (MatanotAniyim 10:7) writes that “there are eight forms (levels) of charity, each is one a step above the other, and The highest level which surpasses them all is to help a Jew who is in need by offering him a loan or entering a business partnership or employment or any other form of assistance which will help to prevent him from being poor. This is what the Torah (Vayikra 25:35) meant when it said ‘If your brother becomes impoverished and his means falter in your proximity, you shall strengthen him... — proselyte or resident — so that he can live with you.’ ”

Now the word “gemilut,” which is usually interpreted as “bestowing,” can also be from the same root word as “vayigameil” which means “weaning,” as in the pasuk “The child grew vayigameil — and was weaned [he was no longer dependant on Sarah’s nursing], and Avraham made a great feast on the day higameil et Yitzchok — Yitzchok was weaned” (Bereishit 21:17).

Hence, gemilut chassadim refers to the greatest form of assistance to the needy, to help in such a way that the needy person will be weaned from needing any further assistance.


"אל תהיו כעבדים המשמשין את הרב על מנת לקבל פרס, אלא הוו כעבדים המשמשין את הרב שלא על מנת לקבל פרס, ויהי מורא שמים עליכם"
“Do not be like servants who serve their master for the sake of receiving a reward, but rather be like servants who serve their master without the intent of receiving a reward; and let the fear of Heaven be upon you.” (1:3)

QUESTION: What is the connection between the way we should serve Hashem and fear of Heaven?

ANSWER: The word "פרס" — “peras” — may be derived from the word “prusah” (פרוסה), which means a small portion broken off from a large loaf. As in the pasuk “Halo pharos lara’eiv lachmecha” — “surely you should break your bread for the hungry” (Isaiah 58:7).

In every employer-employee relationship, the worker’s salary is a portion of what he produces. The employer keeps a larger part of the profit for himself and gives a smaller part to the worker. An employee is afraid of his employer, who can terminate his job. On the other hand, the employer is afraid of the employee, who can abruptly quit and leave the business understaffed.

Antigonus ish Socho is teaching that the exception to this rule is our relationship with Hashem. He does not need any part of what we produce, and yet he gives us full credit for all our good deeds. Since He does not need our work, He has no reason to fear us. We, however, must always remember that we are totally dependent on Him and that we must fear Him.

(לקוטי בתר לקוטי – ליקוט ע"י ר' שמואל ז"ל אלטער)


"אלא הוו כעבדים המשמשין את הרב שלא על מנת לקבל פרס"
“But rather be like servants who serve their master without the intent of receiving a reward.” (1:3)

QUESTION: How can this be reconciled with the Gemara (Rosh Hashanah 4a) that the one who says “This coin is to charity so that my son shall live” or “so that I shall merit the World to Come” is a tzaddik gamur — a completely righteous person?

ANSWER: The Gemara (Bava Batra 9b) says that for giving tzedakah to the poor one receives six blessings, and for also saying comforting and encouraging words to the poor, one receives an additional eleven blessings, for more important than the actual giving of tzedakah is the way it is given. The poor and destitute that have to beg for alms are heartbroken and shattered. Instead of making them feel that they are on the receiving end and you are on the giving end, you should convey a sense of gratitude to the poor for giving you the opportunity to do a mitzvah.

Thus, the Gemara could be explained to mean that if while giving charity to a poor man one says “I am giving this because of the benefit in store for me. Through the fulfillment of this mitzvah, my son shall live” (it is possible even that he does not have a son, but is just saying so to make the poor man feel more comfortable), or “I shall meritthe World to Come” — such a person is a tzaddik gamur — a complete tzaddik — because he makes the recipient feel like a giver.


"אנטיגנוס איש סוכו...אומר, 'אל תהיו כעבדים המשמשין את הרב על מנת לקבל פרס...' "
“Antigonus of Socho...He used to say, ‘Do not be like servants who serve their master for the sake of receiving a reward....’ ” (1:3)

QUESTION: What effect did a misunderstanding of this statement have on Jewish history?

ANSWER: Antigonus had two disciples, Tzadok and Boethus, who misinterpreted his teaching and perpetuated this error by teaching it to their disciples, and their disciples to their disciples, etc. “Why,” they said “did our rabbis see fit to say a thing like this? Is it possible, then, that a workman upon completing his day’s work will not receive his wages in the evening? If our rabbis are convinced that there is a future world and that the dead will be resurrected, they would not have said that.” From these two disciples, Tzadok and Boethus, two sects arose, the Sadducees (the Tzedokim) and the Boethusians. All their days they lived in great luxury, using silver and gold utensils, because they became arrogant. The Sadducees used to say, “The Perushim — Pharisees — (the term for the group faitful to the Rabbis and meticulous in their Torah observance, and opponents of the Sadducees) — have a tradition to deny themselves pleasures in this world, and in the World to Come they have nothing [to expect].”

Antigonus really meant that all rewards are in the World to Come and that in this world one prepares himself for it. Man’s service of Hashem should not be for the sake of receiving a reward, but merely out of love for Him in the same way as a child does things for his parents purely out of love. Nevertheless, in addition to loving Hashem, one should also fear Him and stand in awe when considering His greatness, might, and holiness.

(אבות דרבי נתן ה:ב)


"יוסי בן יועזר...ויוסי בן יוחנן"
“Yosi the son of Yo’ezer...and Yosi the son of Yochanan.” (1:4)

QUESTION: This Mishnah and the succeeding four Mishnayot mention statements said by five zugot — pairs. What did they all have in common?

ANSWER: In each of the pairs listed, the first one mentioned was the Nasi leader of the community — and the second was the Av Beit Din — Chief Justice of the Sanhedrin. The leadership of “the pairs” spanned over more than a century.

According to the Mishnah (Chagigah 2:2) each pair in their respective years of leadership disagreed over the same issue: Whether on Yom Tov is it permissible to do semichah — leaning — on the animal offering with both hands with all one’s strength, or if it is forbidden because it is comparable to riding the animal. The Nasi’s opinion was always that it should not be done, and the Av Beit Din always took the opposite position. In the generation of Shammai and Hillel, however, it was the reverse. The Nasi, Hillel, was in favor of it and Shammai, the Av Beit Din, disagreed.

The interesting thing is that regardless of their opposing view on this halachic issue, they all had the greatest respect for each other personally and worked in unison. At no time did they permit their difference on a certain interpretation of halachah to interfere in their united efforts to promote the welfare of the community materially and spiritually.


"יהי ביתך בית ועד לחכמים"
“Let your house be a meeting place for Sages.” (1:4)

QUESTION: How can one who dwells in a very small apartment fulfill this?

ANSWER: This instruction is addressed to everyone regardless of how big his living quarters are. The intent is that “beitecha” — “your primary residence” — should be where the Sages gather, i.e. in the synagogues and halls of Torah study, and the fancy place where you eat and sleep should be your temporary domicile.

(ר' יצחק ז"ל מוואלאזין)


"יהי ביתך בית ועד לחכמים והוי מתאבק בעפר רגליהם"
“Let your house be a meeting place for Sages; sit in the dust of their feet.” (1:4)

QUESTION: Sitting in the dust of their feet is not necessarily when you learn from them in your house; it could apply to anywhere you go to hear them. So what is its connection with the statement “Your house should be a meeting place for the Sages”?

ANSWER: There are people who refrain from giving their home to a study group out of concern that some specks of dust will be dropped on their plush carpets. These people are foolishly more worried about dust on their carpets than dust on their souls.

The Mishnah is teaching that the beauty of a Jewish home is not the carpets and furnishing, but the spiritual atmosphere that prevails. The Sages that assemble there and the Torah they teach enhance a household more than all the expensive decor therein. So make your house a meeting place for the Sages and do not worry about the possibility of some dust on the carpet, because the detriment of a stain or speck of dirt is far outweighed by the spiritual benefit of a Torah atmosphere.

(לקוטי בתר לקוטי)


"והוי שותה בצמא את דבריהם"
“And drink in their words thirstily.” (1:4)

QUESTION: What is the analogy between studying Torah and drinking water thirstily?

ANSWER: To someone who is thirsty, every drop of water is precious. Likewise, every drop of Torah study should be precious and cherished. When one is thirsty, he will turn over every stone to find some water and even walk for miles to reach a well. Similarly, one should make every effort to study Torah and not hesitate even to travel a long distance in order to participate in a Torah study group.

* * *

Alternatively, since water is available in such abundant measure, the cost of a glass of water is very little. However, when one is dying of thirst and is given a glass of water, the value of that glass of water is priceless, and he does not just owe his benefactor the price of the water, but the value of his life since without the water his life might have come to an end, G‑d forbid.

The message is the following: Appreciate the words of Torah and the rabbis who share it with you in the same way as the very thirsty man values the glass of water and is indebted to the one who gave him water to quench his thirst. In both cases the recipient receives an extension of life, one physical and the other spiritual.

* * *

Alternatively, the Mishnah is teaching that one should always be like a thirsty person when learning Torah. A thirsty person keeps on drinking till his thirst is quenched. Likewise, even if one has had an opportunity to learn Torah previously, he should not rest contented but continuously seek to learn more and more.

(ראשי אבות להחיד"א)


"יהי ביתך פתוח לרוחה ויהיו עניים בני ביתך"
“Let your house be wide open [for guests]; treat the poor as members of your household.” (1:5)

QUESTION: What is the connection between these two instructions?

ANSWER: Some people are very selective when it comes tohachnasat orchim — hospitality. They will readily invite a prominent or affluent person to their home, but avoid welcoming in one who is poor or insignificant. The Mishnah is teaching that a person’s home should be opened to the public without any discrimination. In fact, real hospitality is inviting the poor to one’s table. In such an instance one is really giving. In contrast, when one invites prominent or wealthy people, it may be that one is egotistically anticipating gaining prominence and recognition for himself.

* * *

The Biblical prototype for hospitality is Avraham. Why is so much attention devoted to his hospitality while no recognition is given to his nephew Lot, who welcomed the same guests that Avraham did?

In reference to Avraham the Torah refers to his guests as “anashim” — “men” (Bereishit 18:2) — while in reference to Lot it refers to them as “angels” (ibid. 19:2). Avraham was a tzaddik and very great in the mitzvah of hachnasat orchim — hospitality. To him it made absolutely no difference who a guest was. Even if the guest was just an ordinary person, Avraham would take him into his home, treat him with the greatest respect, and give him the best of everything.

Lot was different. When a prominent person would come to town, Lot would take him into his home because it was an honor for him to have important people visiting. If a simple person would come to town and he would stand nothing to gain by taking him in, Lot would not bother with him at all. Therefore, when Lot saw that the visitors were angels and that it would add to his prestige to have such guests, only then did he invite them to his house.

(פרדס יוסף עה"ת, ר' יוסף ז"ל פאצאנאווסקי)

* * *

A story is told that once a great tzaddik who did not want to reveal his identity came to a city dressed unimpressively. When he asked for the opportunity to stay at the home of the head of the community, the person refused because he only catered to prominent guests and not ordinary folk.

Years later, when the tzaddik revealed his identity, again he came to the city and this time he rode in a chariot which was led by six horses. The entire town went out to meet the tzaddik and the head of the community told the tzaddik’s secretary that he would be delighted if the tzaddik would be his guest. The tzaddik instructed his secretary, “Please take the six horses and bring them to the home of the head of the community, and I will eat at the home where I ate a few years ago when I visited this city.”

The head of the community was very surprised and ran to the tzaddik to ask for an explanation. The tzaddik told him, “I am the same person who was here a few years ago and who asked to stay at your home. I have not changed since then. The only difference is that last time I came alone and you were not impressed with me. Today when I came with six horses, you were impressed. Therefore, I sent what impresses you to be your guests for the weekend.”


"ויהיו עניים בני ביתך"
“The poor should be members of your household.” (1:5)

QUESTION: Doesn’t the saying sound like a curse that, G‑d forbid, our household members should be poverty stricken?

ANSWER: Often when a poor man comes into a house, children ridicule him for the shabby and dirty appearance imposed on him by his poverty. They would never taunt their father, however, if he came home dirty from work as a plumber or painter etc. Thus, the saying teaches that we should train our children to accept the poor that come into our homes as members of the family, receiving them with respect, not ridicule.

* * *

Alternatively, the Mishnah is advising parents that even if they can, thank G‑d, afford to open their home to the public and feed many guests, they should train their children to live frugally. Flaunting one’s riches and living extravagantly can arouse the envy and animosity, not only of the gentile communities, but also of the Jewish neighbors.

(אבות על בנים)

* * *

Alternatively, very often when people are solicited to host guests in their homes, they respond “had you called earlier I would have planned it in my shopping, but now it’s already Friday and we’re not prepared for additional guests.”

Now, imagine your son and his family are returning from a trip abroad with the hope to reach their destination before Shabbat and unexpectedly they are forced to land in your city and an hour before Shabbat your son calls about his dilemma and asks if he can come with the family for Shabbat. The answer would indeed be “of course, it’s always a pleasure to have you and your family.”

Treat the poor guest like members of your household, and accept them at all times.

(כנסת ישראל)


"יהי ביתך פתוח לרוחה, ויהיו עניים בני ביתך, ואל תרבה שיחה עם האשה"
“Let your house be wide open [for guests]; treat the poor as members of your household; and do not indulge excessively in conversation with the woman.” (1:5)

QUESTION: What is the connection between not indulging excessively in conversation with a woman and practicing hospitality?

ANSWER: The Gemara (Bava Metzia 87a) says “Women do not have a good attitude towards guests.” This may mean that when guests come to the home, it is the burden of the women to make all the preparations, and thus, due to the bother, they would rather not have the guests at all. Yosei ben Yochanan is indicating that one’s house should be wide open for guests and that one should invite poor people to one’s home and make them comfortable. A person may find it difficult to follow this advice due to his wife’s reluctance to cooperate. Therefore, he advises, “Al tarbeh — do not go out of your way with lavish preparations — sichah im ha’isha — should be the conversation between you and your wife.” Thus, she will cooperate with you to open your home wide for guests.

(דברי אבות)

* * *

There are many people who talk a lot but do little. The Mishnah is teaching, “Do not have lengthy conversations with your wife about the guests, but roll up your sleeves and help her with the preparations, and thus she will happily agree to have guests in the home.”

(שמעתי מדר. זאב שי' רב-נוי, מקאליפארניא)

* * *

It is mentioned in Shulchan Aruch Harav (300:4) that people who were meticulous in mitzvot had a separate tallit for Shabbat, and every Motzai Shabbat they would fold it, in order to be involved in a mitzvah immediately after Shabbat.

Some say that since the woman gives the tallit to the husband as a gift before the wedding, folding it shows his appreciation of her gift and therefore it is a segulah for shalom bayit — harmony in the home. A wise man once added that helping the wife wash the dishes that are left over from Shabbat is an even greater means to preserve harmony in the home.

(טעמי המנהגים ע' ת"ה, ועי' נטעי גבריאל, נישואין ח"א פ"ט סעי' י"ב)


"ואל תרבה שיחה עם האשה באשתו אמרו קל וחמר באשת חבירו"
“And do not indulge excessively in conversation with the woman. This has been said concerning one’s own wife; how much more so does it apply to the wife of another.” (1:5)

QUESTION: It should have just said, “Do not engage in lengthy conversation with strange women.” Why is it necessary to state that this is derived through a kol vechomer — a fortiori argument — from the prohibition not to have lengthy conversations with one’s own wife?

ANSWER: The Mishnah is actually addressing two problems which may cause a hesitancy to extend hospitality. Firstly, guests infringe on a couple’s privacy and limit their freedom to conduct lengthy conversations with each other. Secondly, one may be reluctant to invite male guests to his home out of concern that they will engage in lengthy conversations with his wife, which may ultimately lead to a disruption of hisshalom bayit.

Therefore, theMishnah advises the husband — “Al tarbeh sichah im ha’ishah — train yourself not to engage in overly lengthy conversations with your wife. Thus, you will not find the presence of a guest to be an impediment to your freedom to have extended conversations with your spouse.” Now the Mishnah continues with a message to the guest: “If the husband is advised not to speak excessively with his own wife, how much more, should you, the stranger, refrain from indulging in conversation with another man’s wife — the hostess.” Obeying these directives by both host and guest will ensure the continuity of hachnasat orchim — hospitality.

(מדרש שמואל)


"ואל תרבה שיחה עם האשה, באשתו אמרו, קל וחמר באשת חברו"
“And do not indulge excessively in conversation with the woman. This has been said concerning one’s own wife; how much more so does it apply to the wife of another.” (1:5)

QUESTION: How much is “excessively”?

ANSWER: The Gemara (Chagigah 5b) explains thepasuk “He recounts to a person what his conversation was” (Amos 4:13) to mean that even a superfluous conversation between a man and his wife is counted against a person when he comes before the Heavenly Tribunal.

The Mishnah is saying, “Do not engage in excessive conversation with the woman. [Should you want to know how much is excessive, judge from] be’ishto amru” — our Sages have told us that one will have to account for a superfluous conversation regardless of its length with his own wife. How much more will one have to account for even a brief superfluous conversation that one holds with his friend’s wife.

(מעינם של אבות)


"ואל תרבה שיחה עם האשה"
“And do not indulge excessivelyin conversation with the woman” (1:5)

QUESTION: Why is the Mishnah so adamant about even speaking to one’s own wife?

ANSWER: Instead of “Al tarbeh sichah im ha’ishah”the woman — it could have said just “im ishah” — with a woman? The Mishnah is teaching that when it is necessary for one to engage in conversation with a woman and, for that matter, even his own wife, his thoughts should not be centered on ha’ishah” — the feminine features of the woman — but rather he should consider her as another person with whom he needs to communicate.


"וסופו יורש גיהנם"
“And will in the end inherit Geihinom.” (1:5)

QUESTION: Instead of “yoreish Geihinom” — “inheritsGeihinom” — it should have said “yoreid leGeihinom” — “will go down to Geihinom”?

ANSWER: The Chovot Halevavot in Sha’ar Hachani’ah writes that when a person comes before the Heavenly Tribunal for judgment he may find in his ledger “debits” (aveirot) which are not his own. When he argues, “I never did this,” he will be told, “They were removed from the person about whom you spoke evil and added to your account.”

An inheritance is something which once belonged to a certain person and which was transferred to the possession of a second person upon the first one’s death. Our Sages are cautioning not to indulge excessively in conversation with a woman because ultimately this may lead to lashon hara — slander — for which not only will the offender be punished, but “yoreish Geihinom” — he will be charged with the victim’s wrongdoing and “inherit” the Geihinom due him.

(דברי דניאל מר' דניאל ז"ל פרוסטיץ - פרשבורג)


"יהושע בן פרחיה ונתאי הארבלי קבלו מהם, יהושע בן פרחיה אומר: עשה לך רב, וקנה לך חבר, והוי דן את כל האדם לכף זכות"
“Yehoshua ben Perachyah and Nittai Ha’arbeili received [the oral tradition] from them. Yehoshua ben Perachyah says: ‘Provide yourself with a teacher; acquire for yourself a friend; and judge every person favorably.’” (1:6)

QUESTION: What is the connection between these three things?

ANSWER: Yehoshua ben Perachyah felt that every individual must have someone to whom he looks up to as his Rav. Whenever a person must make a decision, whether halachic or personal, he should turn to his “Rav” since he is objective and will be able to give him his unbiased opinion. The “Rav” will also take an interest in him and guide him from time to time in his efforts to elevate himself in his relationship with Hashem as well as in his inter-personal relationships. While the “Rav” is someone whom he can only approach occasionally, it is also very important that one have a “chaveir” — a friend — someone with whom to have an ongoing relationship.

Yehoshua ben Perachyah realized that the difficulty some have with appointing a “Rav” or acquiring a friend is that they find fault with every prospective candidate and do not see them as qualified to be their “Rav” or “chaveir.” Therefore, he advised that though on the surface one may see faults in the person, one should, judge every person “lekaf zechut” — “favorably” — and thus it will be easy for one to find a “Rav” and a “chaveir.”


"עשה לך רב"
“Make yourself a teacher.” (1:6)

QUESTION: It should have said “asei avurcha Rav” — “provide a teacher for yourself”?

ANSWER: A Chassid of Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi, founder of Chabad Chassidut, once said that, “through conceit he overcame the urge to transgress.” Whenever his yeitzer hara — evil inclination — would approach him, he would exclaim, “Do you know who I am? I am a prominent person, a Chassid of a very great Rebbe; how can you expect me to do this?”

Yehoshua ben Perachyah is advising every Jew: “Make yourself a Rav — declare yourself as a distinguished person, one for whom improper conduct is not befitting. You will thus spare yourself the pitfalls of your evil inclination.”


"יהושע בן פרחיה אומר: ...והוי דן את כל האדם לכף זכות"
“Yehoshua ben Perachyah says: ‘Judge every person favorably.’” (1:6)

QUESTION: Why was this one of Rabbi Yehoshua ben Perachyah’s popular sayings?

ANSWER: According to the uncensored version of the Gemara (Sanhedrin 107b) the infamous “that person” (known as “Yeshu,” which is an acronym for yemach shemo vezichro — may his name and memory be erased — ימח שמו וזכרו) was a student of Yehoshua ben Perachyah. Displeased with his behavior, He excommunicated him. Afterwards, he reconsidered and wanted to accept him back. “That person” replied, “You have taught me that the one who sins and causes many others to sin is not given the opportunity to repent” (Avot 5:18).

Perhaps Yehoshua ben Perachyah felt that he was somewhat quick in being judgmental on “that person,” and had he given him the benefit of the doubt, he would have avoided a students’ becoming corrupt and misleading others.

* * *

Incidentally, according to the secular world, “that man” was born in the year 3760, 68 years prior to the destruction of the second Beit Hamikdash (3828), and their calendar started its first year counting from his birth. Jewish historians have difficulty accepting this thought because his teacher, Rabbi Yehoshua ben Perachyah passed away approximately 125 years before the destruction of the Beit Hamikdash. Therefore, they conclude that there were actually two men called “Yeshu” and the first one was the student of Rabbi Yehoshua ben Perachyah. However, the Naazarite whom Xianity accepted lived before the destruction of the Beit Hamikdash in the days of beit Hillel and beit Shamai.

(סדר הדורות ע' 144)

* * *

According to other Jewish historians there was only one, and he was born in the year 3671, more than one hundred and fifty years before the destruction of the Beit Hamikdash (3828). His mother’s name was Miriam (see Chagigah 4b, Tosafot), and he was fathered by Pandira, a non-Jew. In Gemara he is named “Yeshua (ישוע) ben Stadia,” (Stadia is an abbreviation for “satit da miba’alah” — “this [lady] turned from her husband, i.e. unfaithful) and thus in Eastern Europe he was referred to as “Yoshke Pandrik.” He studied in Egypt under Rabbi Yehoshua ben Perachyah and when Shimon ben Shatach brought back Rabbi Yehoshua ben Perachyah to Eretz Yisrael, he came along.

Egypt was known for sorcery (Kiddushin 49b). There he learned the art and secretly took it with him when he left Egypt. Afterwards, he publicly practiced sorcery and induced people to worship idolatry. He was the one who instituted the celebration of Sunday, and claimed that Hashem spoke to him.

He is also known as “Yeshu the Notzri” because he claimed that the words of the prophet “Veneitzermisharashavyifreh” — “A shoot will sprout from his root” (Isaiah 11:1) are a reference to him. At the age of thirty-six, on Erev Pesach 3707, he was stoned and then hung by the Beit Din for sorcery, and incitement to embrace idolatry. (See Chesronot Hashas to Shabbat 104b, Sotah 47a, Sanhedrin 43.)

Thus, the secular calendar in reality has nothing to do with his birth, and it was actually made some seven hundred years after his death by a Roman priest Dionysius (דיאוניסיוס) who based his calendar on the false birth date publicized by the church fathers (Britannica 1965 Ed. Vol. 12 p. 1016). Contemporary Catholic historians admit that he was really born more than ninety years prior to the two thousand years of the calendar.

They falsified the year of his birth in order to convince the masses that the destruction of the Beit Hamikdash took place shortly after his death and that it was a punishment for our putting him to death.

It is interesting to note that the authentic information they have about him is taken from our sources. The reason is that during his lifetime the world at large knew very little of him and had no regard for him. About one hundred years after his death, certain individuals decided to make him the foundation of their new belief and started fabricating stories of his greatness.

(תולדות עם עולם, ח"ב, ע' שי"ז, מהרב שלמה הכהן ע"ה ראטענבערג)


"והוי דן את כל האדם לכף זכות"
“Judge every person favorably [meritoriously].” (1:6)

QUESTION: The word “lekaf,” whichliterally means the “pan of a balance scale,” seems extra. It could have said “lizechut”?

ANSWER: Often a person’s behavior puzzles us, and even after judging him favorably, we remain with certain doubts. The word chaf (כף) has the numerical value of 100. Yehoshua ben Perachyah is teaching us that we must judge another Jew 100 percent favorably, without any apprehensions or reservations.


"הרחק משכן רע, ואל תתחבר לרשע, ואל תתיאש מן הפורעניות"
“Distance yourself from a bad neighbor; do not connect yourself with a rasha; do not abandon belief in Divine retribution.” (1:7)

QUESTION: 1) The first two statements seem to be repetitious? 2) What is the connection between all three statements?

ANSWER: King Shlomo says, ‘A nearby neighbor is better than a distant brother’ (Proverbs 27:10). Thus, Nittai Ha’arbeili’s statement can be interpreted as follows: “Harcheik mishachein — distancing yourself from your immediate neighbor — ra — is bad. However, though it is important to be friendly and close with neighbors, a person must beware not to attach himself, G‑d forbid, to a neighbor who is wicked.”

Unfortunately, when one is experiencing Divine retribution, in a moment of despair, he may stoop to seek help from the wicked or consider following their ways. In view of this possibility, Nittai Ha’arbeili cautions us not to become despondent and give up hope in difficult times. He is saying, “Be assured that everything Hashem does is for our benefit and eventually the person will see the good in a tangible way.”

(מלי דאבות)


"הרחק משכן רע"
“Distance yourself from a bad neighbor.” (1:7)

QUESTION: What is a bad neighbor?

ANSWER: The Gemara (Berachot 8a) says that if one has a shul in his city and does not go there to pray, he is called “ra” — “wicked.” Thus, the Mishnah is cautioning that a person should distance himself from being labeled “a bad neighbor.” Rather, he should visit theshul to pray daily and participate regularly in the Torah study groups there.

To speak in shul during thedavening is a great iniquity. According to the Zohar (Shemot 131b, see Iggeret Hakodesh, 24) one who does so has no share in the G‑d of Israel. Thus, in addition to attending shul, “Al titchabeir larasha” — be careful next to whom you sit — i.e. do not sit next to one who chatters throughout the entire services.

(עבודת ישראל)

There is a popular slogan, “If you must talk in shul, talk to Hashem.”


"ואל תתיאש מן הפרענות"
“And do not abandon belief in [Divine] retribution.” (1:7)

QUESTION: Hashem is the All-merciful. Why does the Mishnah tell us to dwell on the negative?

ANSWER: Unfortunately, there are people who abandon their faith in Hashem and give up hope when they experience a difficulty. Some unintelligently say, “If He allows this to happen, it proves that there is no G‑d.” In truth, His ways are far above human comprehension. We may probe and try to find an explanation, but we may never conclude that He is wrong. A wise man once said, “For those who have faith there are no questions, and for those who lack faith, there are no answers.”

The Mishnah is teaching: “Al titya’eish — do not abandon [your relationship with Hashem] — min hapuraniyot — because it appears that punishment was meted out. One must not despair, because an apparently negative event will ultimately lead to good.”

(מדרש שמואל)

* * *

In the phrase“darosh darash Moshe” — “Moshe questioned and queried” — (Vayikra 10:16) in manyChumashim, the statement “Half of the words of the Torah” is printed between the words “darosh” and “darash.” Why is the half-way point in words significant?

The ways of Hashem are far above human comprehension. Often we question and try to fathom His actions. It is perfectly all right to seek explanations, but we must always remember that even if we do not find a reason or rationale, we should never conclude that Hashem is, G‑d forbid, wrong.

Moshe, too, had questions and was seeking answers. The Torah’s half-way point is marked in the middle of his questioning to allude that he had realized that he had only reached the middle and that there was much more ahead which he had not yet learnt. Hopefully, as his Torah knowledge increased, his questions would be answered.


"אל תעש עצמך כעורכי הדינים"
“Do not act as a counselor [when sitting as a judge].” (1:8)

QUESTION: What does the counselor do that the judge should not do?

ANSWER: A Beit Din can be either an established tribunal before whom all the litigants bring their issues without having any input as to the identity of the judges or a group of three judges chosen in the following manner: each litigant chooses one judge, and then the two judges together with the litigants select a third (see Aruch HaShulchan, Choshen Mishpat 13:1). The latter system is known as zabla (זבל"א) which is an abbreviation for “zeh boreir lo echad (זה בורר לו אחד) — “this one [litigant] chooses one [judge] for himself.”

A lawyer will work feverishly to have his client vindicated or win, even if he personally knows that his client is guilty. The Mishnah is warning the judge, “Even if you were selected by the litigant, you are prohibited from favoring him if you see that he is wrong. You must rule fairly, and you are not required to assure a win for the litigant who selected you. You may search for halachic merits on his behalf, but under no circumstances may you waive your impartiality and twist the halachah.”

(מדרש שמואל)


"וכשיהיו בעלי הדין עומדים לפניך יהיו בעיניך כרשעים"
“When the litigants stand before you, regard them both as wicked.” (1:8)

QUESTION: The word “omdim” — “standing” — is extra. It could have just said “When the litigants are before you”?

ANSWER: Sometimes, at the end of the Din Torah when the judges make their decision known, the litigants begin to argue with the rabbis in an attempt to prove them wrong. The Mishnah is saying to judges, “In the course of the DinTorah you are to be completely impartial and have no opinion whatsoever regarding the litigants. However, if they are omdim lifanecha — standing up before you — lingering on in argument and not readily accepting your decision, then you may consider them wicked people. But if after hearing your decision they are niftarin milefanecha — leave and have accepted your decision and will comply — then they are zaka’in — people of refined character.”

(לב אבות – ר' גדלי' ז"ל סילווערסטאן – ירושלים תרצ"ב)


"יהיו בעיניך כרשעים"
“Regard them both as wicked.” (1:8)

QUESTION: Why should both of them be looked upon as wicked?

ANSWER: 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 of them need to increase their love for their fellow man.

(לקוטי שיחות חכ"ד ע' 155)

* * *

It says of Devorah the prophetess, “She would sit under the date palm, and the Children of Israel would go up to her for judgment” (Judges 4:5). The Gemara (Megillah 14a) says that the reason she sat under a date palm and not in her home was to avoid yichud being alone with men. The palm is tall, its branches are high up, and it casts no shade.

In every trial there is a plaintiff and a defendant. Thus, should yichud not be a concern because according to halachah (Even Ha’ezer 22:5) a woman is prohibited from being alone with one man, but not with two men?

The difference between being alone with one man or more, applies only when they are respectable and honorable. Since our Mishnah says that the judge should view the litigants with suspicion and consider both as resha’im — wicked — the law of yichud applies even when there is more than one such man in the room (ibid.).

(עיון יעקב על ע"י מס' מגילה)

"שמעון בן שטח אומר הוי מרבה לחקור את העדים"
“Shimon ben Shatach says, ‘Examine the witnesses thoroughly.” (1:9)

QUESTION: Since the Torah says “You shall investigate well and behold it is true, the testimony is correct” (Devarim 17:4), why did Shimon ben Shatach accentuate this advice to the judges?

ANSWER: He was influenced in this respect by a sad experience which he personally encountered and by another incident which he witnessed in his days.

1) It is related that Shimon ben Shatach executed eighty witches in Ashkelon, in accordance with Biblical Law (Shemot 22:17), which ordains, “You shall not allow a witch to live.” The relatives and friends of the witches, seeking revenge for their death, hired false witnesses who testified that Shimon’s son had committed a capital offense. The young man was tried and found guilty and condemned to die.

When the young man was about to be executed, the witnesses confessed that their testimony was false. Shimon ben Shatach nullified the guilty verdict against his son. However, his son said, “Father, let the law have its course at the expense of my life. There is a rule of evidence in Jewish jurisprudence, After a witness has once testified, he is not permitted to retract” (Sanhedrin 44b). According to this rule of law, the son claimed that he must suffer punishment, and he insisted that no exception can can be made as regards the carrying out the mandate of the law. (See Sanhedrin 44b, Rashi, Seder Hadorot).

2) When witnesses offer testimony and other witnesses refute them claiming that they were unable to witness the alleged crime since they were together with them at a different location, the first are called “eidim zomemim” “scheming witnesses” — and they receive whatever punishment they endeavored to have meted out to the one they accused. According to the Gemara (Makkot 5b), this law only applies as long as the alleged perpetrator was not punished already.

The Sadducees, who explain Torah literally and do not accept Rabbinic interpretations, claim that it only applies when the defendant actually received the punishment. To disprove them, Yehudah ben Tabai executed a witness who was found to be aneid zomeim — a scheming witness. When Shimon ben Shatach heard of this, he told him that he had killed an innocent person because according to Torah rule the eidim zomemim are punished only when both of the witnesses are found to be lying (ibid.).

Due to these two episodes, Shimon ben Shatach encouraged the judges to be assiduous in their investigation of testimony because had his Beit Din more thoroughly examined the witnesses against his son, they probably would have found them to be false, and his son would be living. Also, if Yehudah ben Tabai would have been more thorough in his investigation, perhaps he would have found the other witness to also be an eid zomeim and thus he rightfully would have killed the two of them, contrary to the opinion of the Sadducees that they are not liable for the punishment as long as their victim was not punished yet.

(מדרש שמואל ומחקרי אבות – ר' יעקב ז"ל לוינסאן – שיקאגא תרע"ה)


"אהוב את המלאכה ושנא את הרבנות"
“Love work and abhor taking high office.” (1:10)

QUESTION: The word “Rabbanut” literally means “Rabbinate.” How can this be reconciled with the Gemara (Sotah 22a), which explains that the pasuk “For she has felled many victims” (Proverbs 7:26) is a reference to a still-unqualified disciple who decides questions of law and that the conclusion of the pasuk, “The number of her slain is huge,” refers to a disciple who has attained the qualifications but nevertheless does not decide halachic questions? Accordingly, the one who is worthy to enter the Rabbinate and does not do so is committing an iniquity.

ANSWER: The Rabbinate offers two opportunities. The first involves the positive accomplishments one can achieve: Teaching Torah, guiding the community, upholding Torah standards and enhancing the congregants’ observance of Mitzvot. The second involves the power, prominence, and glory which also comes with the position. Unfortunately, some rabbis are blinded by the glory and at times they are too eager to wield their power or to demand honor from the community.

The Mishnah is not against qualified people entering the Rabbinate. On the contrary, they are urgently needed, and promising students should be encouraged to become rabbis. However, the Mishnah is giving some points every rabbi should bear in mind. The rabbi must have his priorities in proper order. The thing one should love and desire foremost in the Rabbinate is “hamelachah” — “the work” — the laborious endeavors to make the community a haven for Torah andmitzvot and to develop the institutions necessary for the enhancement of Yiddishkeit — authentic Judaism. The thing to be despised and hated is “harabanut” — the power and prestige that goes with the position. This must not be the reason why a rabbi chooses to enter the Rabbinate.

A rabbi should always bear in mind what the Gemara (Horiyat 10a) says, “When Rabbi Yehoshua told Rabban Gamliel, on a journey, concerning the Comet that appears once in seventy years, the latter said, ‘You posses so much knowledge and you are journeying on a ship [to seek a livelihood — Rashi]?’ He replied, ‘Rather than wonder at me, wonder at the two disciples whom you have on dry land, Rabbi Eliezer Chisma and Rabbi Yochanan, who can calculate the number of drops contained in the sea, and yet they have no bread to eat and no clothes to wear.’ He sent for them, but they would not come. So he again sent for them saying, ‘You seem to believe that I place rulership upon you by appointing you to office [since you are avoiding honor — Rashi]; I place servitude upon you.’ ”

A good rabbi is not one who seeks glory, but who is there to serve his community by providing them with their spiritual needs.

(מדרש שמואל, ומעינם של אבות בשם ר' מנחם מענדל זצ"ל מקוצק)


"ואל תתודע לרשות"
“Do not seek intimacy with the ruling power.” (1:10)

QUESTION: What is the connection between the Rabbinate and “not seeking intimacy with the ruling power”?

ANSWER: This is an important message for Rabbis. The Mishnah is teaching, “Remember that you are a spiritual leader, and al titvada larashut — do not become involved in the political arena. Through properly maintaining your integrity as the spiritual leader of the Jewish community, you may rest assured that you will not need to chase after the politicians, but rather they will seek you.”


"חכמים הזהרו בדבריכם"
“Sages, be careful with your words.” (1:11)

QUESTION: The difference between a wise person and a foolish person is obvious in their speaking. As long as the fool is quiet, he can be mistaken for a smart person (see Proverbs 17:28). Since the Mishnah is addressing “chachamim” — “wise people” — obviously they are careful with what they say, and otherwise they are not chachamim but fools?

ANSWER: It is the duty of a rabbi or teacher to guide his congregants or students in the right path. To meet this end, such a person gives many lectures on various Torah matters, and especially issues in which he sees a need for improvement. The worst thing possible is for a rabbi or teacher to be a hypocrite. The listener loses respect for him and does not accept anything that he says, even when it happens to be correct and sincere.

Avtalyon’s message is “Chachamim — you people who are looked up to as the wise, i.e. rabbis, teachers, etc., — hizaharu — you yourselves be very careful and observant — bedivreichem — with your own words. By practicing what you preach, your words will definitely enter into the minds and hearts of the listeners.”

* * *

King Shlomo says, “Sof davar hakol nishma et ha’Elokim yira ve’et mitzvotav shemor” — “Ultimately all is known; fear G‑d and observe His commandments” (Ecclesiastes 12:13). His message can also be interpreted as follows: “Sof davar — the bottom line is that hakol nishma — everything you say (about Torah and Yiddishkeit) will be listened to [when]et ha’Elokim yira ve’et mitzvotav shemor — you, the preacher, practices fear of Hashem and observance of His mitzvot.”

(פניני אבות – ליקוט ע"י ר' שלמה יהלומי (ד'אמאנט), תל אביב תש"ט)


"הוי מתלמידיו של אהרן...אוהב את הבריות"
“Be of the disciples of Aharon... loving the created beings” (1:12)

QUESTION: Why does he use the term “beriyot” — “creatures” — and not “anashim” — “people”?

ANSWER: The Gemara (Ta’anit 20b)tells a story of a Sage who once while walking in the street observed a person who was exceptionally ugly and remarked, “How ugly is this person!” The person heard the comment and responded, “Go tell the Craftsman who made me ‘How ugly is this vessel.’ ” Unfortunately, there are people who lack any spiritual beauty whatsoever. The only pedigree that they can claim as Jews is that they were created by Hashem. Aharon loved everyone indiscriminately, even “beriyot” — those whose only good quality was in the fact that they were Hashem’s creatures. Hillel is teaching that everyone should endeavor to emulate Aharon in this respect.

(ביאורים לפרקי אבות)


"ומקרבן לתורה"
“Bringing them near to the Torah.” (1:12)

QUESTION: Why doesn’t it say umelamdan Torahtaught them Torah?

ANSWER: Everyone is obligated to bring estranged Jews closer to Judaism. Unfortunately, some people think that it is necessary to adjust the Torah to the level of the estranged Jew in order to accomplish this. Hillel is teaching that it is forbidden to, G‑d forbid, alter or falsify any part of the Torah. The Torah must remain in its entirety, and our efforts should be umekarvan laTorah — tobring the alienated Jew closer to the authentic Torah and to mitzvot — and not to try to bring the Torah closer to him.

(ביאורים לפרקי אבות)


"נגד שמא אבד שמה"
“He who seeks renown loses his name.” (1:13)

QUESTION: King Shlomo, the wisest of all men, said, “A good name is better than good oil” (Ecclesiastes 7:1). Why is the Mishnah taking a negative view about a good name?

ANSWER: When one spiritually elevates himself to the extent that his achievements and qualities are recognized and acclaimed by all, such a name is indeed better than oil The Mishnah is talking of one who in pursuit of recognition and fame, often resorts to unethical means to attain his end. Such a person not only does not reach his goal, but ultimately loses whatever good name he has already acquired.

Just as oil rises to the top when it is mixed with other liquids, the true possessor of a good name will always be on top — honored and respected by all. The false possessor of a good name, like adulterated oil, will sink down. The upshot is that respect and reputation that is earned is everlasting. If it is bought or fought for, it will ultimately wane.

* * *

The truth of this is apparent from Korach’s rebellion, of which the Torah writes, “vayikach Korach” — “and Korach took” (Bamidbar 16:1). The word “vayikach” — “and he took” — which seems superfluous, is actually a clue to the key reason for Korach’s fatal error.

An impressive looking person once appeared to Rabbi Nachum of Chernobyl, offering to teach him esoteric Torah knowledge. He replied, “Before I can agree to accept your offer, I must consult with my Rebbe, the Maggid of Mezritch.” The Maggid listened attentively and then said, “It was very wise of you not to immediately agree, because the person who approached you was from the realm of evil. Incidentally, tell me, where did you get the intuition to turn down such a seemingly valuable offer?”

Rabbi Nachum told him that when he was a very young boy, his mother passed away. His father remarried and his step-mother treated him very harshly. “Once,” he related, “when I came home from cheider to eat lunch, my step-mother was not home. On the stove were fried eggs. Knowing the size of the portion my step-mother would usually give me, I took somewhat less for myself. She came home while I was eating and slapped me. I asked her, ‘What have I done wrong? You were not home and I took less than what you normally give me.’

“Her reply was ‘Alein nemt men nit’ — ‘You do not take by yourself.’ This episode taught me a lesson which remained with me throughout my entire life: Regardless of all my calculations, ‘Alein nemt men nit.’

Though Korach was a wise person, and according to all his calculations he was right, he unwisely wanted to take something on his own, and “alein nemt men nit.”

Of Korach and those like him the Gemara (Sotah 9b) says, “When one sets his eyes on that which is not meant for him, what he seeks is not granted to him, and what he possesses is taken away from him.”


"אם אין אני לי מי לי וכשאני לעצמי מה אני"
“If I am not for myself who is for me? And if I am only for myself what am I?” (1:14)

QUESTION: Hillel’s statement seems to be contradictory. Why does he first stress the importance of independence and then deride it?

ANSWER: The word “mi” can be a reference to Hashem, as the prophet says, “Raise your eyes on high and see mi bara eileh — who created these” (Isaiah 40:26). Thus, Hillel is saying, “If I am not for myself, i.e. I am not conceited and arrogant and I do not egotistically see only myself and no one else, then mi li — Hashem sees me and is with me. However, when keshe’ani le’atzmi — if I am only for myself — and conceitedly see only myself and regard everyone as insignificant, thenmah ani — what am I — because Hashem will not dwell together with me in the world (Sotah 5a), and without Hashem man is really nothing.”

(כנסת ישראל)

* * *

A Chassid once visited hisRebbe and spoke very arrogantly about himself. TheRebbe took a stern look at the Chassid and said to him, “The prophet says ‘Im yisateir ish bamistarim va’ani lo arenu ne’um Hashem’ — ‘Can any man hide himself in secret places that I shall not see him? says Hashem’ (Jeremiah 23:24). I think the prophet’s message can be read as follows; ‘Im yisateir ish bamistarim va’ani’ — if a person thinks he can hide himself and dwell on ‘ani — ‘I’ — I am a scholar, I am righteous, etc. — then ‘lo arenu ne’um Hashem’ — Hashem says ‘I do not want to see this person.’”

Upon hearing theRebbe’s message, the Chassid fainted. After he was revived, he asked theRebbe how to rectify his improper behavior, and the Rebbe said, “The prophet is also teaching ‘Im yisateir ish bamistarim va’ani lo’ — ‘if a person hides and the “I” does not exist’ — i.e. he is humble and unassuming — then ‘arenu ne’um Hashem’ — ‘Hashem says: This person I want to see.’ ”


"אם אין אני לי מי לי וכשאני לעצמי מה אני"
“If I am not for myself who is for me? And if I am only for myself what am I?” (1:14)

QUESTION: How is it that Hillel, who was such a humble person (see Shabbat 30b), should talk about the importance of being concerned with one’s self?

ANSWER: Hillel is not talking about conceit and arrogance, but discussing the ugliness of selfishness and self-centeredness. He is therefore saying, “Im ein ani li — If when I do a favor to others, I do it altruistically and have no ulterior motives, and I do not calculate what will I ultimately gain from this, then mi li — who can say anything negative about me? However, if when I do a favor for others ani le’atzmi — I think of my selfish interest and benefits and otherwise I will not act, then mah ani — what kind of person am I considered to be? — someone of a little worth.”

(פניני אבות — תפארת ישראל)

Alternatively, Hillel is referring to a Jew’s performance of the 613 mitzvot of the Torah. When Moshe told the Jewish people about the giving of the Torah, they responded yachdav — together — and said, “Everything that Hashem has spoken na’aseh — we shall do” (Shemot 19:8). The Torah emphasizes that they responded yachdav — together — because it is really impossible for every Jew to perform all 613 mitzvot on his own. Some mitzvot can only be performed by a king, some by a Kohen, etc. Nevertheless, when the Jews are united, they are considered one entity. Thus, through togetherness, every Jew can receive credit for the fulfillment of all the 613 mitzvot.

Therefore, Hillel is stating, “If I am not for myself — but united with all of K’lal Yisrael — then mi li — I can anticipate receiving credit for themitzvot I am unable to perform when they will be performed by others capable of doing them. However, keshe’ani le’atzmi — if I am only for myself — and there is no unity, mah ani — what am I? A Jew is required to fulfill all of the 613 mitzvot and I am not doing it.”

(ר' יחיאל מיכל זצ"ל מזלאצוב)


"הוא היה אומר אם אין אני לי מי לי וכשאני לעצמי מה אני ואם לא עכשיו אימתי"
“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?” (1:14)

QUESTION: Why was it Hillel necessarily who said these three things together?

ANSWER: The Gemara (Pesachim 66a) relates that the sons of Beteira, who were preeminent Torah scholars, once forgot the law concerning whether the slaughter of the Pesach-offering overrides the Shabbat restrictions. Upon inquiring if there was anyone who possibly could know, the people said to them, “There is one man who came up from Babylonia, and his name is Hillel the Babylonian. He served the two greats of the generation, Shemayah and Avtalyon, and he knows.”

They sent for him and asked him the question. He answered in the affirmative, for it is no different than the daily communal sacrifice, which is also offered on Shabbat and whose slaughter overrides the Shabbat prohibitions. Immediately, they seated him at the head and appointed him Nasi and he expounded the laws of Pesach all that day.

There are two reasons why the Pesach-offering supersedes the Shabbat restrictions.

1) Though in reality it is a karban yachid — an individual offering — since it is purchased with private funds and it is incumbent on the individual, nevertheless, it is considered a karban tzibur — communal offering — to a certain extent, since each is offered by a large group of people and all were slaughtered in a total of three shifts.

2) Because zemano kavua — it has a specific time when it can be offered.

Thus, in this statement, Hillel is alluding to the reasons that the Pesach offering supersedes Shabbat restrictions, and to his experience with the sons of Beteira, through which he ultimately became the Nasi. He is saying about the Pesach-offering, “If I am not for myself, what am I” — i.e. in essence the sacrifice is a karban yachid — individual offering and emphasizes individuality. However, “If I am only for myself, what am I?” — i.e. it is not strictly individual but also has the quality of a communal offering. Then he goes on to allude to the second reason by saying “If not now, when” — i.e. it must be offered in a specific time and therefore it supersedes the Shabbat.

In the middle statement he was also saying about himself, “Ukeshe’ani le’atzmi” — “Were it only an individual offering and thus not considered a communal offering, it would not supersede the Shabbat prohibitions, so I would not have added any insight and would not have been appointed Nasi, so mah ani — what would I be?”

(ביאורים לפרקי אבות)


"עשה תורתך קבע"
“Set a fixed time for your study of Torah.” (1:15)

QUESTION: If this is referring to study of Torah, instead of just Toratecha — your Torah — it should say, “limud Toratcha” — “your study of Torah”?

ANSWER: There is a story of an American who took his son to London to show him the interesting sights of that historic city. During the tour, the father made sure to take him to Parliament and point out the huge clock on top of the building known as “Big Ben.” The child strained to get a full view of the clock, and so did the others who came to see it. “Daddy, I would like to ask you something,” said the boy. “Why did they put the clock so high and make people strain their necks to look up to it? Couldn’t they have made the clock level with the eyes so that everyone could see it easily, without trouble?” The father thought for a moment and replied, “It is this way: If they had placed the clock low, people would adjust Big Ben to the time on their watches. Now that the clock is high, beyond the reach of all, they cannot try to reset it. If they want to have the correct time, they must set their own watches in accordance with the time shown by Big Ben.”

The same is true about the Torah. We should always regard it as being on a lofty plane so that it will not be changed by mortals. It is the correct “time” for all of us, and we must adjust ourselves to this Divine clock and not tamper with it and endeavor to adjust it to our opinion and convenience.

The word “keva” is from the same root as the word “kavua” — “stationary and affixed strongly.” The Mishnah is instructing that our Torah, which each of us received at Sinai, should be “keva” — “affixed firmly” — we should adjust ourselves and our “times” to it and not the reverse.

* * *

According to the Gemara (Shabbat 31a) when a person comes before the Heavenly Tribunal, he is asked, “Kavataitimlatorah” — “Did you set aside fixed times for Torah study?” In light of the above, the question is did you set your “times” in accordance to the Torah, i.e. live your life the way Torah prescribes, or did you, G‑d forbid, conveniently adjust the Torah to your time?

(חלק יעקב – ר' יעקב ז"ל גרינוואלד, סאיני תרפ"ג)


"עשה תורתך קבע, אמור מעט ועשה הרבה"
“Set a fixed time for your study of Torah, say little and do a lot.” (1:15)

QUESTION: How can these two points enhance one’s Torah study?

ANSWER: The word “keva” can also mean “steal” as in the pasuk, “Hayikba adam Elokim” — “Should a person steal from G‑d” (Malachi 3:8). The Mishnah is teaching us that one should “steal” some time from his preoccupations and engage in the study of Torah.

It is also teaching, “Emor me’at v’asei harbei” — “Say little and do a lot.” This means that if commitment to a long study period of Torah may seem impossible due to a person’s hectic schedule, “Emor me’at” — Commit yourself to a short interval of study, and once you become involved and see the beauty of Torah, you will continue on with your study and reevaluate your priorities.”

(מוסר אבות)

* * *

A story is told of a student who approached one of the Ba’alei Hamusar — figures of the ethics movement — and asked him, “I only have fifteen minutes to study. Should I study Chumash, Gemara, or musar?” The rabbi told him, “Study musar and you will come to the realization that you have much more than fifteen minutes to spare.”


"אמור מעט ועשה הרבה"
“Say little and do much.” (1:15)

QUESTION: Who was the first in the Torah to demonstrate this attribute?

ANSWER: When Avraham noticed the travelers in the desert, he ran towards them and urged them to come to his tent for some food, telling them “I will take a loaf of bread that you may sustain yourselves.” Once they came in, he prepared three calves in order to serve each one a tongue with mustard (Bereishit 18:5, 7, Rashi). Of this behavior the Gemara (Bava Metzia 87a) says, “The righteous say little and do much.”

By serving them specifically tongues with mustard, he intended to impart a message. Mustard is hard to eat in large amounts and a little bit on the tip of one’s tongue is sufficient. The tongue is the main speech organ. When Avraham offered to prepare only some bread, they replied, “Do just as you have said,” implying that his talking and doing should be of equal measure. To justify his extravagance he took the tongue, which represents talking, and served it with mustard, as if to say to them, “Just as the tongue can tolerate only a very limited amount of mustard, likewise the use of the tongue — one’s speaking — should be very limited, while one’s actions should exceed one’s speaking many times over.”

(דרשות שלמות – ר' חנוך זונדל הלוי ז"ל גרינוואלד, נוא יארק תרצ"ו)


"עשה תורתך קבע, אמור מעט ועשה הרבה והוי מקבל את כל האדם בסבר פנים יפות"
“Set a fixed time for your study of Torah, say little and do much, and receive all the men with a cheerful countenance.” (1:15)

QUESTION: Why are these three sayings of Shammai put together?

ANSWER: These three are an elaboration on the three things that, according to Shimon HaTzaddik, maintain the existence of the world (Mishnah 2). Regarding Torah, Shamai says, “Make your Torah study a fixed habit. Regardless how occupied you may be, set aside a fixed time daily to study Torah.”

Regarding “avodah” — “service” — Shammai is advising that one should say little and do much. In regard to “gemilut chassadim” — “acts of kindness” — Shammai says that one should “receive all men with a cheerful countenance.”

(תפארת ישראל)


"והוי מקבל את כל האדם בסבר פנים יפות"
“And receive all the men with a cheerful countenance.” (1:15)

QUESTION: Instead of “kol ha’adam” — “all the men” — he should have just said “kol adam” — “all men”?

ANSWER: Shammai was strict and intolerant while Hillel was extremely patient. The Gemara (Shabbat 31a) relates that, “A gentile who desired to convert to Judaism came to Shammai and said to him: ‘Teach me the whole Torah within the time that I can stand on one leg.’ Shammai, angered at the request, struck him with the builder’s instrument which he had in his hand. Then the gentile went to Hillel and repeated his request. The patient Hillel told him the famous precept: ‘What is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow; this is the entire Torah, the rest is commentary [what precisely is deemed hateful to others and should be avoided]; go study.’ ”

In theGemara (Yevamot 61a) Tosafot writes that though the term “adam” refers only to the Jews, the expression ha’adam” includes non-Jews as well. Realizing the superiority of Hillel’s approach and the inadequacy of his, Shammai is now admitting that one should receive “kol ha’adam” — “all the men” (including gentiles) — with a cheerful countenance. Tolerance and affability accomplishes much more than sternness and impatience. With his change of attitude he was giving credence to the popular adage, “You can catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.

(מחקרי אבות)


"בסבר פנים יפות"
“With a cheerful countenance.” (1:15)

QUESTION: Literally, panim yafot means “a pleasant countenance,” which is obviously a cheerful one, so it could have just said“bepanim yafot” — “with a pleasant countenance.” What does the word “seiver” add?

ANSWER: The word “seiver” is from the same root as the word “sevarah” — “a thought and opinion.” Sometimes one is very busy and does not desire any visitors. Suddenly, the doorbell rings and it is a friend coming to ask for a loan. Though the host may be irritated by the intrusion, he should avoid expressing any negative feelings and make sure that his outward appearance will be such that “beseiver” — the solicitor will have a “sevarah” — a thought — i.e., impression, that the host’s countenance is panim yafot” — an indication of his happiness at the opportunity to help a friend in need.

(מאירי)


"עשה לך רב והסתלק מן הספק"
“Provide yourself with a teacher and free yourself of doubt.” (1:16)

QUESTION: The words “histaleik min hasafeik” — “free yourself of doubt” — are superfluous. If one has a Rav, hewill solve the doubts and obviously one will no longer have them?

ANSWER: Rabban Gamliel’s message is that in selecting a Rav, one must select one whose greatness in Torah and piety are unquestionable. If there are any “sefeikot” — “doubts” — about his calibre, one must stay away from him and pick someone else.

(באר האבות, ר' מנחם מרדכי ז"ל פרנקל תאומים)

* * *

At the Seder table, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the third Rebbe of Lubavitch, the Tzemach Tzedek, once observed that by yachatz — breaking of the middle matzah for the purpose of Afikomen — someone was trying to determine which piece of the middle matzah was bigger. The Tzemach Tzedek remarked, “A gadol vas 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.


"והסתלק מן הספק"
“And free yourself of doubt.” (1:16)

QUESTION: What sort of doubts will one eliminate by selecting a Rav?

ANSWER: When the famous Chassidic Rebbe, Rabbi Schmelke of Nikolsburg, was asked by the great Torah giant Rabbi Yechezkeil Landau, known after his famous work Noda Biyehudah, why he took away time from his studies to travel to Rabbi DovBer, the Maggid of Mezritch, his response was the following:

The Torah portion which discusses Yitro’s visit to Moshe and his resolution to convert and embrace Judaism, starts with the words “And Yitro heard.” Rashi asks, “Ma shemu’a shama uba” — “What did he hear that made him decide to come?” What bothered Rashi, Reb Schmelke said, is not the question of what he heard, but why he made the effort to come. If he had resolved to convert, why was it necessary to make a trip to Moshe? He could have done it while remaining at home.

Rashi’s answer is that he heard of the splitting of the sea and Amalek’s attack against the Jewish people. Yitro wondered how it was possible for Amalek to do such a foolish thing. The entire world witnessed the miracles at the sea which Hashem performed for the Jews (Mechilta Yitro 18). How after such a revelation, could Amalek demonstrate his lack of fear for Hashem so blatantly?

Reb Schmelke concluded that from this it is apparent that the evil inclination is so skillful that he can cast doubts in one’s mind even about things he has virtually witnessed with his own eyes. To prevent such doubts from misleading the person, one must be attached to a true tzaddik, and that is why Yitro traveled to Moshe. The tzaddik helps the person to rid himself of all doubts.

(כנסת ישראל)


"עשה לך רב והסתלק מן הספק ואל תרבה לעשר אמדות"
“Provide yourself with a teacher and free yourself of doubt and do not tithe by guesswork, even if giving in excess of the required amount.” (1:16)

QUESTION: What is wrong if one wants to give in excess of the required amount?

ANSWER: The Gemara (Eiruvin 50a) says that if one exceeds the ten percent required for ma’aseir, his remaining produce becomes fit for consumption, but his ma’aseir is ruined and may not be eaten. Rashi explains that the Torah does not specify what percentage of a crop should be separated as terumah. It does, however, specify that ten percent of the crop be given as ma’aseir. Therefore, any percentage of a crop may be designated as terumah, but no more than ten percent may be designated as ma’aseir.

If more than ten percent is designated, the extra produce does not attain ma’aseir status. This, however, does not prevent the ma’aseir designation from taking effect on that part of it which should have been separated. Thus, the remainder of the crop is no longer tevel (untithed), and it may be eaten. It does, however, mean that the excess “ma’aseir” that did not attain the ma’aseir designation remains untithed and forbidden to eat. Since there is no way of determining which part of the separated portion is the ma’aseir and which the tevel, the Levite may not eat any of it.

Rabban Gamliel is addressing those who claim they do not need a rabbi and that whenever they have a doubt, they will be “machmir” — “act stringently.” In response to them he says that stringency is not always the proper solution and that sometimes it can be improper. In support of this, he cites an example from the laws of tithing, where exceeding the legal requirements is not in compliance with halachah. Likewise, one should not just act stringently when he has a doubt, but consult a rabbi and receive proper guidance.

(תפארת ישראל)

* * *

A “modern” thinking rabbi once moved into a neighborhood and began attracting people away from the authentic Torah-oriented synagogue. The Rav of the shul met with him and asked him what he did when someone asked him a she’eilah in a matter of kashrut. His response was, “I have no problem with that. I take a stringent approach, and I tell the inquirer to discard the food in question.”

Upon hearing this the old Rav said, “Let me tell you a story. There was once a villager that would always come into the city to see the rabbi whenever he had a she’eilah. The poor rabbi’s family enjoyed his coming, since he would always bring produce from his farm. Once, a long time passed, and he no longer came, and it was assumed that he must have passed on. Then one day, he suddenly appeared and somewhat surprised, the rabbi asked him, ‘How is it that for such a long time you did not have any she’eilot?’

The villager told him that one morning when he was getting ready to come in with a she’eilah, a new neighbor told him that it was not necessary for him to go to the rabbi anymore since there was a “do it yourself” method devised by the Torah. It is written, “Meat in the field which is treif you shall not eat; you shall throw it to the dog” (Shemot 22:30). My neighbor told me that this means that when one has a question whether meat is kosher or treif, one should throw it to the dog. If he eats it, it is a sign that it is treif, and if he refuses to eat it, it is a sign that it is kosher. I started doing this whenever I had a she’eilah.’ ‘If so,’ asked the Rav, ‘Why do you come now?’ The villager replied, ‘When I would come to you, sometimes you said the meat was kosher and at other times you said it was not. The dog, however, is a very machmir — stringent — every time I throw him a she’eilah, he decides it is treif and eats it up.’ ”


"שמעון בנו אומר, 'כל ימי גדלתי בין החכמים'"
“Shimon his son says, ‘All my days I grew up among the Sages.’ ” (1:17)

QUESTION: 1) Why does the Mishnah list him as “Shimon his son” and not “Rabban Shimon,” as it does in the following Mishnah? 2) To bring out the importance of silence, why did he first state that “All my days I grew up among the Sages”?

ANSWER: Rabban Shimon’s intent is to emphasize the importance of humility. Usually the son of a leader, through his father, has the opportunity to meet often with important dignitaries. Being the son of a leader, he becomes friendly with them and they admire him.

In this Mishnah Rabban Shimon is saying, “though I was the son of the Prince of the generation, Rabbi Gamliel, and all the Rabbis knew me and I knew them, I never used this to my benefit, but always conducted myself humbly and did not speak in the presence of other great men.”


"שמעון בנו אומר, 'כל ימי גדלתי בין החכמים'"
“Shimon his son says, ‘All my days I grew up among the Sages.’ ” (1:17)

QUESTION: “All my days” superficially means his entire lifetime, even when he was the Nasi. Wasn’t he already grown and great then?

ANSWER: The fundamental purpose of this Mishnah is to teach humility. Rabbi Shimon, even upon ascending the highest rank of leadership, never ceased growing. He considered all the people around him to bechachamim — wise. Regardless of the extent of their intelligence, each possesses a certain spark of wisdom which is worthy to be learned and studied.

Consequently, he said all my days, my entire lifetime, “gadalti” — I constantly grew and became bigger, thanks to my being “bein hachachamim” — among the wise, i.e. learning some wisdom from everyone.

(מדרש שמואל)


"ולא מצאתי לגוף טוב משתיקה"
“And I did not find anything better for one’s person than silence.” (1:17)

QUESTION: Why the emphasis on “guf” — “the body”?

ANSWER: Rabban Shimon is saying that he learned the virtue of silence from the human body. Hashem created a man with two ears and one mouth to teach him that he should spend twice as much time listening as he does speaking.

(פון אונזער אלטען אוצר בשם שירי מדות)


"ולא מצאתי לגוף טוב משתיקה"
“And I did not find anything better for one’s body than silence.” (1:17)

QUESTION: The word “leguf” — “for the body” — is superfluous. It could have just said “I found nothing better than silence”?

ANSWER: Silence is not always a virtue. One should speak words of Torah as much as is physically possible, and one should engage as much as possible in prayer and reciting Psalms. It is not enough to just read the words with one’s eyes; they should be verbalized.

The Gemara (Eiruvin 54a) says that Shmuel told Rabbi Yehudah “Open your mouth and read the Scripture.” He told him to study aloud when learning so that the learning would remain with him, as it says (Proverbs 4:22), “These [the words of Torah] are life to those who find them. Do not read this as it is written, lemotza’eihem — to those who find them — rather read it as if it were written lemotzi’eihem bepeh — to those who express them [the words of Torah] with their mouths.”

However, when Rabbi Shimon says that the best thing for the guf — physical body — is silence, he means that a person’s requests for sustenance and all physical needs should not be merely for the material and physical benefit of the guf — body — per se. Rather he should pray for a strong and healthy body so that he will be able to study Torah and perform mitzvot without any interference or ailments.

(פניני אבות)

This sort of spiritual service is illustrated in the following dialogue which the previous Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn related. When Rabbi Sholom DovBer Schneersohn, the fifth Rebbe of Lubavitch, was a young child he was discussing with his brother Rabbi Zalman the advantage of Jews over non Jews. His brother, who was older, said that Jews are a wise people: they can study much Torah and pray to Hashem with deveikut — devotion and dedication. The young Sholom Ber asked him, “But what advantage do the very simple Jews have, who cannot learn and daven with devotion?”

Their father, Rabbi Shmuel Schneersohn, who was the Rebbe of Lubavitch at the time, noticed his son’s dilemma and inability to answer his younger brother, called them both over, and also called for Ben Tzion, who was a very simple and unlearned Jew who worked as a servant in their house. When he arrived the Rebbe asked him, “Did you eat?” Ben Tzion answered, “Yes.” “Did you eat well?” Ben Tzion answered, “Thank G‑d I am full.” “Why did you eat?” the Rebbe asked him. “In order to live.” “And why do you live?” With a sigh he responded, “So that I can be a Jew and fulfill the will of Hashem.”

The Rebbe them told him to call their gentile wagon driver Ivan, who happened to speakYiddish fluently. The Rebbe asked him, “Did you eat today?” “Yes.” “Did you eat well?” “Yes.” “Why did you eat?” “In order to live.” “And why do you live?” “So that I should be able to have a good drink of whiskey and a morsel (farbaisen).”

The Rebbe then said to his children, “Now you see, inherent in a Jew’s nature is that he eats in order to be a Jew and serve Hashem, and his sigh tells you that he really means it. The Jew eats for the sake of his soul, and the non-Jew eats for the sake of his body.”

(קובץ מכתבים על אמירת תהלים מכ"ק אדמו"ר מהריי"ץ)


"שמעון בנו אומר...ולא המדרש העיקר אלא המעשה"
“Shimon his son said, ‘Not study but practice is the essential thing.’” (1:17)

QUESTION: Why for this statement is the author listed as “Shimon his son [of Rabban Gamliel]” and not as “Rabbi Shimon”?

ANSWER: Shimon was the son of Rabban Gamliel. In this mishnah, he is giving credit for what he is to his father. He is saying that he owes his present stature to being his father’s [Rabban Gamliel] son. From the way his father reared him he learned an important lesson concerning father-son relationships, which he is now conveying.

It is not sufficient to merely instruct your child about Torah and mitzvot. You must first show your own commitment, and then you can endeavor to convince him. You cannot just say to your child “Go to shul to daven or take a sefer and learn.” You must be a living example for the child to emulate.

Thus, Rabbi Shimon is saying, “My father raised me not with lectures, but by serving as a living example. He did not satisfy himself by just Midrash — preaching — and telling me what is right and what is wrong, but by ma’aseh — practice — doing it himself. Seeing him do it, I developed a desire to emulate him.

(צדיק כתמר)

* * *

A non-observant father once sent his child to a Hebrew school. As the child’s Bar-Mitzvah was approaching, he took his son to a Jewish book store and asked the salesman for a Bar-Mitzvah set. The salesman opened the box and the boy saw a pair of tefillin and a tallit in it. Having no knowledge of these strange items, he asked his father with a puzzled expression on his face, “What are these?” The father told him, “My son, this is what every Jew must have after he becomes Bar-Mitzvah.” The young boy looked up to his father inquisitively and asked, “So father, when are you becoming Bar-Mitzvah?”


"וכל המרבה דברים מביא חטא"
“And whoever engages in excessive talk brings on sin.” (1:17)

QUESTION: Instead of “meivi cheit” — “brings on sin” — it should have said that he himself is a “choteh” — “sinner”?

ANSWER: Worse than sinning oneself, is to cause others to sin. Rabbi Shimon’s statement “Not study, but practice is the essential thing” is directed to rabbis and teachers. He is telling them that the way to impress congregants and students is not through lengthy lectures, but showing a live example.

Rabbi Shimon continues; the rabbi or teacher who is a “marbeh devarim” — “a big talker” — but does not practice what he preaches, will “meivi cheit” — “cause sin” — because the congregation and students who observe his hypocrisy will not follow him even when he says the right thing, but do whatever they desire. They will make the popular argument that they do not want to be hypocrites and therefore they do no mitzvot at all.

(אבות על בנים – ר' ישראל ז"ל בראך, סאיני תרפ"ו)


"על שלשה דברים העולם קים: על הדין, ועל האמת, ועל השלום"
“The world endures by virtue of three things: Justice, truth, and peace.” (1:18)

QUESTION: How does this reconcile with what Shimon HaTzaddik said, “The world stands on three things: Torah, avodah, and gemilut chassadim’ “ (1:2)?

ANSWER: Shimon HaTzaddik is discussing why Hashem created the world. Rabbi Shimon ben Gamliel is referring to the way the world Hashem created can endure and successfully flourish and develop. Without these three qualities, there would be self-destruction of the world and society.

(ר"ע מברטנורה)

There is aMidrash pliah — wondrous Midrash — that says that when Moshe saw in the Torah the words “tadeshei ha’aretz desha” — “Let the earth sprout vegetation” (Bereishit 1:12) — he saw the destruction [of the Beit Hamikdash] and cried. What is the connection between this pasuk and the destruction of the Beit Hamikdash?

According to the Jerusalem Talmud (Pei’ah 2:4), Moshe studied the entire Torah, including anything that will be expounded later by the Sages throughout the generations. When he came to Pirkei Avot, he realized an obvious contradiction: Two Sages offer different lists of things which maintain the worlds existence. They can be reconciled, however, by noting that Shimon HaTzaddik is referring to the time when the Beit Hamikdash existed and Rabbi Shimon ben Gamliel is giving three other qualities, which in the time of destruction will replace the pillar of avodah — sacrifice (see Midrash Shemuel).

The acronym for the three things that he mentions, “din” (דין), “shalom” (שלום), and “emet” (אמת), is the word “desha” (דשא). Therefore, when he reflected back on the pasuk “tadeshei ha’aretz desha,” he cried because he saw that there would be a destruction and “desha” — “din, shalom, and emet” would be the thing through which the earth would remain in existence.

(זכות הרבים פ' פקודי, ר' יצחק ז"ל פרחי, קושטא תקפ"ט)

* * *


"רבי חנניה בן עקשיא אומר: רצה הקדוש ברוך הוא לזכות את ישראל לפיכך הרבה להם תורה ומצוה"
“Rabbi Chananyah ben Akashya says: The Holy One, blessed be He, wished to make the people of Israel meritorious; therefore, He gave them Torah and mitzvot in abundant measure.”

QUESTION: Wouldn’t it be more convenient for the Jews if there were less mitzvot?

ANSWER: Adam, the first man, lived nine hundred and thirty years. The Torah relates very little of what he did during all these years. One of the things recorded in the Torah about him, is that on the very day he was created he violated the one and only command which Hashem gave him, not to eat of the fruits of the eitz hada’at — Tree of Knowledge.

Why is it necessary to reveal that Adam violated Hashem’s command?

There are people who claim that 613 mitzvot are too many. If the number were reduced, it would be easier for them to be Torah observant. Adam, on the day of creation had only one mitzvah, which unfortunately he violated. This teaches, that regardless of how many mitzvot a person has to observe, he must be aware of the yeitzer hara, who will always endeavor to find a way to trap him into sinning. Hashem did not overburden us with His mitzvot. He gave us 613, knowing that it is the amount a Jew is capable of handling.

(לקוטי שיחות ח"ג)

* * *

Two people, each carrying a sack weighing 100 pounds, were climbing a mountain. One was extremely happy, the other very sad. Someone yelled up to each of them, asking if he could add to his sack. The happy one said, “of course,” and the other one replied, “oh no!” It turned out that the happy one was carrying valuable gems, and the other a sack full of rocks.

Every Jew is required to “climb the mountain,” i.e., elevate himself spiritually. This is accomplished through studying Torah and performing mitzvot. When a person considers Torah and mitzvot a sack of gems, he “carries” it joyfully, and his yeitzer hara cannot deter him. If he views Torah and mitzvot as a difficult burden, he moans all the way and even one mitzvah would be more than enough.

* * *

Many of the mitzvot are in the category of mishpatim — civil laws — which human intellect also dictates as proper, and many non-Jews and governments adhere to these laws. Likewise, the Torah contains many admonitions which people abstain from them in any case, e.g., eating abominable creatures and crawling things, etc.

However, theGemara (Kiddushin 31a) says that the one who is commanded and observes is greater than the one who is not commanded and performs precepts voluntarily. The reason for this is because, unlike the one who is not obligated, the one who is obligated to perform a precept is more worried and anxious lest he not fulfill. Thus, his reward is greater.

Hence, by making all these human-approved laws mitzvot, Hashem gave us an opportunity to receive extra reward, for now they are mitzvot and not merely something we do to uphold morality.

(ר"ע מברטנורה, תפארת ישראל, סוף מסכת מכות)

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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Ethics of the Fathers is a tractate of the Mishna that details the Torah's views on ethics and interpersonal relationships. Enjoy insights, audio classes and stories on these fascinating topics.
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