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Questions and Answers on Chapter Two of Pirkei Avot

Questions and Answers on Chapter Two of Pirkei Avot

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שאין אתה יודע מתן שכרן של מצות"
Rebbe [Yehudah haNasi] says...Be as careful [in the performance of a seemingly] minor mitzvah as of a major one, for you do not know the reward given for the mitzvot.” (2:1)

QUESTION: It seems as though Rebbe is contradicting himself. If we do not know the reward given for a mitzvah, how can we know what is minor and what is major?

ANSWER: Rebbe does not err when he talks of minor mitzvot and major mitzvot and indeed the reward for the minor mitzvah is not as great as that for a major mitzvah. However, Ben Azai says (4:2) — “one mitzvah brings about another.” Consequently, Rebbe says, “Be as careful [in the performance of a seemingly] minor mitzvah as of a major one” because you do not know what additional mitzvah the minor mitzvah may bring you to do. Possibly through doing a minor mitzvah you will obtain the opportunity to do a major mitzvah for which the reward is very great.

(פניני אבות)


"דע מה למעלה ממך"
“Know what is above you.” (2:1)

QUESTION: The word “mimach” — “from you” — is extra. It should have just said “Know what is above”?

ANSWER: The Mishnah is conveying an insight of great profundity on G‑dliness. The Maggid of Mezritch would say, “Know that everything above — all that transpires in the spiritual realms — is mimach — from you — dependent on your conduct. Each of us has the potential to influence the most elevated spiritual realms.”

(ביאורים לפרקי אבות)

* * *

With this thought the Maggid also explains a seemingly difficult Midrash Rabbah (Vayikra 24:9), which says on the pasuk “You shall be holy for I am holy” (ibid. 19:2) that “Kedushati lema’alah mikedushatchem” — “My holiness is greater than yours.”

Why is it necessary for the Midrash to inform us that Hashem’s holiness is greater than ours? Who would think otherwise?

Indeed, the intent of the Midrash is not simply to inform us of Hashem’s greatness, but to relate an important message to K’lal Yisrael. Every Jew is able to add to Hashem’s holiness by conducting his life in a way which is a Kiddush Hashem — sanctification of Hashem. People impressed with the behavior of the Jewish people ultimately will praise Hashem.

Thus, Hashem is saying, “Kedushati lema’alah” — “My holiness up in heaven” is “mikedushatchem” — “dependent on the holiness of your conduct on earth.”

(מאיר עיני ישרים בשם ר' דובער זצ"ל ממעזריטש)


"עין רואה ואזן שומעת, וכל מעשיך בספר נכתבים"
“An Eye that sees, an Ear that hears, and all your deeds are recorded in a Book.’” (2:1)

QUESTION: In 3:1, Akavya ben Mahalaleil also says, “Reflect upon three things and you will not come to sin”: coming from “a putrid drop,” going to “a place of dust,” and “before Whom you will give an accounting.” Why does Rebbe talk about heavenly matters while Akavya ben Mahalaleil cites earthly ones?

ANSWER: Rebbe was Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi, and he was also known as Rabbeinu Hakadosh — our holy teacher. He received this title because he was totally removed from worldly and mundane matters (see Ketubot 104a). Thus, in his state of exaltation, the things he advises to reflect upon are the lofty eye, ear, and book of record, which are up in heaven.

The etymology of the name “Akavya” is “akeiv” (עָקֵב) — “heel” — and the name “Mahalaleil” is composed of two words “mahallal ei-l” (מהלל א-ל) — “one who praises Hashem.” Thus, “Akavya ben Mahalaleil” means the heel of a person who is totally immersed in the praise of Hashem. This means that through service of Hashem, the person has so elevated his body that even its lowest part — the heel — has come to reflect upon three things which will prevent a person from sinning. Since he was involved in elevating his body and physical matter, among the things he cites are entities of the lowest level among the mundane and earthly.

(עי' ביאורים לפרקי אבות – תשובות וביאורים ע' 401)

* * *

Regarding “an eye that sees,” a story is told of an unlearned coachman who was driving a great tzaddik. Enroute, they passed a beautiful orchard. The poor coachman’s appetite swelled and he said to his passenger, “I will go down and pick some fruit for myself, and you sit here and be on the lookout for me.” As he was about to pick an apple from the tree, he heard the rabbi scream, “Men zet, men zet” — “They see, they see.” Immediately he ran back to the coach, and after looking around, the frightened coachman said, “Who is looking? I do not see, anyone?!” The rabbi said with a soft smile, “Hashem above sees, and He was looking at what you were about to do.”


"רבן גמליאל בנו של ר' יהודה הנשיא אומר, 'יפה תלמוד תורה עם דרך ארץ' "
“Rabban Gamliel the son of Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi says, ‘It is good [to combine] the study of Torah with an occupation’ ” (2:2).

QUESTION: Throughout, when Rabban Gamliel is quoted, his pedigree is not listed. Why is his full pedigree listed here: his father’s name and that his father was the Nasi (leader of the generation)?

ANSWER: Rabbi Yehudah was appointed Nasi due to his greatness in Torah and monetary affluence. Thanks to his wealth he was able to support many Torah scholars, and together with them he compiled the Mishnah (see Rambam, Introduction to Mishneh Torah). Rabban Gamliel succeeded his father as Nasi.

In this mishnah he is emphasizing the importance of having an occupation and working. It is especially convincing when the one who advocates this is a scion of an extremely wealthy family. Though he was born with a “silver spoon in his mouth” and really did not have to work for a livelihood, nevertheless, even he emphasizes that those who engage in Torah study should also have an occupation, since the toil in both of them will keep sin out of the mind.

(פרדס יוסף)


"יפה תלמוד תורה עם דרך ארץ"
“It is good [to combine] the study of Torah with derech eretz.” (2:2)

QUESTION: What exactly is “derech eretz”?

ANSWER: The words “derech eretz” (דרך ארץ) have the numerical value of five hundred and fifteen, as does the word tefillah (תפלה) — “prayer.” The Mishnah is emphasizing that Torah and tefillah must go hand in hand. The effort expended in both these things together on a daily basis will definitely cause one to forget about sinning.

(צפנת פענח)

* * *

Incidentally, the names of our patriarch and matriarch Yitzchak and Rivkah together (יצחק — רבקה) also add up to five hundred and fifteen, as does the word “tefillah” (תפלה) — “prayer.” A reason for this may be that they are the only couple in the Torah who prayed together (see Bereishit 25:21, Rashi). In fact, their only joint activity reported in the Torah is their praying.

* * *

Alternatively, the Mishnah is teaching that derech eretz — business, occupation, and livelihood — should be in accordance with the laws of Torah.

(ר' אהרן זצ"ל מקרלין)


"רבן גמליאל... אומר... וכל תורה שאין עמה מלאכה סופה בטלה"
“All Torah study that is not combined with work will in the end cease.” (2:2)

QUESTION: Why will Torah without employment cease?

ANSWER: When a person accepts employment in a company, he is bound to certain conditions. He must arrive at work promptly and not leave early. On the job he must work diligently and not waste time from work to attend to personal matters, etc.

Rabban Gamliel is giving us valuable advice for success in Torah studies. One should approach Torah study as though it were one’s employment, following the learning schedule punctually and not interrupting to attend to personal matters. One who lacks this total commitment to his “vocation” of Torah study greatly risks failure, but with total dedication and the above-mentioned approach, one will merit Divine blessings for success.


"וכל העוסקים עם הציבור יהיו עוסקים עמהם לשם שמים"
“All who occupy themselves with the affairs of the community shall be engaged with them for the sake of Heaven.” (2:2)

QUESTION: Later it says, “Let all your deeds be for the sake of Heaven” (2:12), so why does Rabban Gamliel single out here those who occupy themselves with communal affairs? Also, why is this mentioned in this Mishnah where the main thought is about Torah together with occupation?

ANSWER: First the Mishnah is addressing itself to the talmid chacham — Torah scholar. It stresses to him the importance of having an occupation so that he will be able to study Torah comfortably and not be a burden on the community or, G‑d forbid, need to rely on “non-kosher” methods to support himself and his family.

Now, the Mishnah is directing a similar message to those who are engaged in communal endeavors. They, too, should have an occupation as a source of income. Their communal work should be “lesheim shamayim” — “for the sake of Heaven” — and not for the sake of income. When one works for the community and receives monetary compensation, he is opening himself up to suspicion and disrespect. Communal workers should be people who can dedicate their time and efforts altruistically and not out of need to earn a livelihood.

(פון אונזער אלטען אוצר)

* * *

When Moshe was distressed by the attitudes of Korach and his contingency, he said, “I have not taken even a single donkey of theirs” (Bamidbar 16:15). The Midrash Rabbah (ibid. 18:10) offers a very interesting interpretation of what Moshe meant.

Employees of charitable organizations usually have expense accounts and some spend lavishly while traveling. When Moshe traveled to Egypt to tell Pharoah to release the Children of Israel, he would have been justified in presenting them with a bill for the expenses incurred on their behalf. Nevertheless, he used his own donkey to transport himself and his family (Shemot 4:20) and did not ask for reimbursement.

Moshe was a truly dedicated leader of K’lal Yisrael and a model for all involved in communal affairs.


"הוי זהירין ברשות"
“Be wary of those in power.” (2:3)

QUESTION: Pirkei Avot is known as “mili dechassiduta” — guidelines for pious conduct beyond the measure of the law (see Bava Kamma 30a). This Mishnah is giving sound advice, but how does this policy enhance piety?

ANSWER: The authors of the previous two mishnayot were Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi, and his son Rabban Gamliel, who succeeded him as Nasi — leader. The term reshut is not limited to the ruling power, i.e. government, but includes any communal position which gives its holder some power and leadership.

Usually, such positions are attained on the basis of popularity and competency. In pursuit of the office, a person tends to make insincere and at times even impossible promises to everyone. Once the desired office is acquired, the people who were given the promises are in total dismay since the person who appeared to love them when he needed them now does not recognize them when they need him.

The Sages are alerting those people who are seeking leadership to beware of the pitfalls and not emulate false ways of the “seasoned politicians.” At all times a person should be careful about giving his word. If he does not mean it, or knows he will not be able to produce, he must not deceive people in his pursuit of personal greatness.

* * *

Aharon was the Kohen GadolHigh Priest — who kindled the menorah for the entire forty years the Jews sojourned in the wilderness. The Torah says of him, “Vaya’as kein Aharon” — “And Aharon did so [as Hashem had commanded Moshe]” (Bamidbar 8:3). Rashi explains that the Torah emphasizes that “Aharon did so” to declare Aharon’s praise — “shelo shinah” — that he did not deviate.

Would anyone suspect that Aharon would depart from Hashem’s command?

Aharon was an “oheiv shalom verodeif shalom” — “lover of peace and pursuer of peace” (Avot 1:12) — and was therefore loved by every Jew. An ordinary citizen is often affable and involved with people and their needs. However, a person who is appointed to a high office may become conceited and distant.

Aharon’s greatness is that even when he became Kohen Gadol, holding the second highest position in the Jewish community, “lo shinah” — he did not change toward his fellow man — he still remained the same “oheiv shalom verodeif shalom” — “lover and pursuer of peace.”

(ר' מאיר זצ"ל מפרעמישלאן)


"עשה רצונו"
“Make His will.” (2:4)

QUESTION: Instead of “asei” — “make” — it should have said “kayeim” — “fulfill”?

ANSWER: This teaching conveys a fundamental lesson: Each of us has the ability to remake Hashem’s will, as it were, to arouse a new desire on His part. To apply this principle, a person might think that since it is Hashem’s will that we are in exile, we should resign ourselves to the situation. Nothing is further from the truth. Hashem is anxiously waiting for us to arouse a new will on His part. He is waiting for us to motivate Him to bring the redemption.

(ביאורים לפרקי אבות)


"עשה רצונו כרצונך"
“Fulfill His will as you would your own will.” (2:4)

QUESTION: The word “kiretzonecha” — “as your will” — is superfluous; why doesn’t he simply say “Do His will”?

ANSWER: The message in this Mishnah is indeed much more profound than just calling on man to do the will of Hashem. The money we spend during our lifetime can be divided into two portions: Some goes to spiritual matters such as tzedakah, mitzvot, and tuition, and the other goes for physical necessities and personal pleasures. In retrospect, we usually see that money spent on pleasures has been wasted. However, the return for money spent on the spiritual is everlasting.

Unfortunately, many people who are blessed with affluence spend freely on personal amenities, yet plead poverty when it comes to spending money on spiritual matters. The Mishnah is advising that a person should fulfill His will as he would his own will, i.e. an equal amount of money should be spent on spiritual matters as on physical ones. If one has money to “throw over the cliff,” one should not plead poverty when it comes to spending for Hashem.

(פון אונזער אלטען אוצר)

* * *

Alternatively, a wealthy father who had an only son whom he loved very much appointed an executor over his estate and instructed him, “When I die, give my son as much as you want from the estate, and keep the rest for yourself.” The greedy executor kept 95% for himself and gave 5% to the son. The son was very upset. Unable to believe that this was really his father’s intention, called the executor to a Din Torah. The rabbi listened carefully and ruled that the executor was to give 95% to the son and keep only 5% for himself, explaining to the executor that the father was indeed a very wise man. “His words were, ‘Give my son as much as you want, and keep the rest for yourself.’ Since you demonstrated that you want 95%, that must be the amount that the father wanted you to give his son.”

The Mishnah in conveying mili d’chassiduta — words of piety — and it is instructing that the ultimate piety is that what you do [for] His will — i.e. the amount you expend for Torah and mitzvot observance — should be kiretzonecha — as you would do for yourself. Since as a mortal you would like the maximum for your pleasures and amenities, suffice for yourself on less and let the majority of your financial resources go for Torah and mitzvot. And just as to achieve your needs you will not spare any effort, likewise exert your best effort for spiritual matters and be subdued when it comes to your material interests and desires.

When one conducts himself in such a manner, he will merit that Hashem will fulfill his will, because such a person is a tzaddik and Hashem listens to him to the extent that even if Hashem makes a decree, a tzaddik is able to cancel it (Mo’eid Kattan 16b).

(לב אבות מהרב גדלי' ז"ל סילווערסטאן)


"כדי שיעשה רצונך כרצונו"
“So that He may fulfill your will as though it were His will.” (2:4)

QUESTION: The word “kiretzono” — “like His will” — is extra. Since he instructs “Make His will your will,” it should have just said “So that He may do your will”?

ANSWER: There is no question that a person loves himself dearly and wants only the best. However, a person may not really know what is in his own interest. At times, what one wants and prays for may actually be harmful.

Since Hashem is good, and the nature of the good is to do good, what Hashem has in His will to do for us is definitely what is best for us. Mortal man, however, does not know what Hashem knows and thus his will may be to have something which is not in his best interest. The Mishnah is saying that when we make His will our will, He will make our will and desire be the same as His will, i.e. he will give us the intuition to ask for the good things which He knows are for our benefit.

(ר' יצחק ז"ל קארו)

* * *

In the Ne’ilah prayer of Yom Kippur, we pray “Ve’otzarcha hatov lanu tiftach” — “Your good treasures open for us.” The previous Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn asks, “From Hashem emanates only good and all that He does is for our good, so why the emphasis ‘otzarcha hatov’ — ‘Your good treasure?’ ”

The Rebbe answers, that the punctuation in the prayers needs adjustment. The comma in the statement has to be moved and placed after the word “lanu” — “for us.” Since man does not know what is really good for him, we implore Hashem that, “Otzarcha hatov lanu — the treasure which is good for us — tiftach — You should open.”


"הלל אומר: אל תפרוש מן הצבור, ואל תאמין בעצמך עד יום מותך, ואל תדין את חברך עד שתגיע למקומו, ואל תאמר דבר שאי אפשר לשמוע שסופו להשמע, ואל תאמר לכשאפנה אשנה, שמא לא תפנה"
Hillel says: Do not separate yourself from the community; do not be sure of yourself until the day you die; do not condemn your fellowman until you have stood in his place; do not make an ambiguous statement which is not readily understood; and do not say, ‘When I have free time I will study, for perhaps you will never have free time.” (2:4)

QUESTION: Why are these five sayings of Hillel placed together in one Mishnah?

ANSWER: In this Mishnah, Hillel actually makes one statement, namely: “Do not separate yourself from the community.” In the additional remarks, he is refuting the popular excuses that people give for violating this principle:

To those who say “I do not need the community and can manage very well on my own,” Hillel says, “Do not be sure of yourself until the day you die.”

Once, a Rabbi noticed that a person who attended the Synagogue regularly was absent for a few weeks, so he decided to pay him a visit. Entering the living room, he noticed the man sitting by the fireplace, seemingly in good health, and sat down next to him. The Rabbi politely inquired as to the reason for his recent absence and the man replied that shul was crowded and noisy. He had decided that his prayers would be more meaningful if he were alone and undisturbed. The Rabbi did not respond, but stared at the fireplace, which was filled with glowing coals. Then he rose from his seat, removed one coal from the fire with the tongs, and placed it on the floor in front of the fireplace, saying: “I hope to see you back in shul shortly.”

At first, the man was puzzled by his Rabbi’s actions, but soon the meaning became clear to him: The Rabbi was showing him that in unity there is strength. When coals are together, one keeps the other glowing. When one coal is taken out and separated from the others, it quickly becomes extinguished.

To people who claim “I do not join the community because some of the members do not meet my standards,” Hillel says, “Do not condemn your fellowman until you have stood in his place.”

To those who say “I avoid the community because whenever I speak up, no one listens and appreciates my insights.” Hillel says, “Possibly the fault is yours. Do not make an ambiguous statement which is not readily understood.”

Many have keen vision in detecting the faults of others, but fail to see their own foibles and shortcomings. A housewife once complained to her maid that the house was not cleaned and dusted properly. The maid was flushed with amazement, for all looked immaculate. Finally, she turned to the housewife and said, “Madam, I think the dust you see is on your own glasses.” The woman removed her glasses and, sure enough, the lenses were covered with dust.

Finally, to those who push off involvement in the community due to lack of time and hope to get involved when they retire, Hillel advises, “Do not wait till later; perhaps later will never arrive.”

(מדרש שמואל)


"אל תדין את חבירך עד שתגיע למקומו"
“Do not condemn your fellowman until you have stood in his place.” (2:4)

QUESTION: Instead of “limekomo” — “his place” — why doesn’t it say “lematzavo” — “his situation”?

ANSWER: “Mekomo” — “his place” — does not mean your friend’s place, but it means Hashem’s place. According to the Midrash Rabbah (Bereishit 68:9) Hashem is referred to as “HaMakom” — “the place” — to emphasize that the world is contained in Him and not He in the world. He is not limited by space and therefore is everywhere.

The Mishnah is teaching that you should judge yourself and not others. The only time when you can judge your friend is when you reach Hashem’s place. Then you will have before you everything of the past, present, and future, and be capable of passing judgment. Till then, however, do not judge your friend.

(ר' נחמן זצ"ל מברסלב)


"אין בור ירא חטא ולא עם הארץ חסיד"
“A boor cannot be sin-fearing, nor can an ignoramus be a Chassid.” (2:5)

QUESTION: What is the difference between a “boor” and an “am ha’aretz”?

ANSWER: A boor is a person who possesses neither intellectual nor moral virtues, that is, neither learning nor moral conduct. He does not even acquire evil vices; he is void, so to speak, of all good and evil. That is why he is called a “boor”; he is like a sadeh boor — fallow field — which can produce nothing (Eiruvin 17b). A person of this type cannot be sin-fearing because he is unable to know what constitutes a wrongful act.

The am ha’aretz is a person who possesses moral, but not intellectual virtues, that is, moral conduct but no learning. He is called an “am ha’aretz” (of the people of the land — a worldly person) since he is valuable for social and civic purposes and he possesses those qualities which benefit the social order.

Such a person can be sin-fearing because he is able to differentiate between good and evil, right and wrong. He cannot attain the level of Chassid because a Chassid is one who conducts himself lifenim mishurat hadin — above the letter of the law — (see Berachot 7a). Since the am ha’aretz possesses no learning and does not know the law, he does not know how to rise above the average behavior and to act in a manner that transcends strict justice.

(רמב"ם)


"הוא היה אומר, 'אין בור ירא חטא ולא הבישן למד...' "
“He used to say, ‘A boor cannot be sin-fearing., a bashful person cannot learn…” (2:5)

QUESTION: What is the connection between these six messages and Hillel?

ANSWER: Hillel is teaching that in order not to be a boor or an am ha’aretz, it is necessary for one to learn Torah, and he brings to our attention some of the things a student or teacher should not do. These are not just based on theory, but from his own personal experience.

That Hillel illustrated that a bashful person cannot learn is evident from what the Gemara (Yoma 35b) relates about him, “Every day he used to work and earn one tropeik (small coin), half of which he would give to the guard at the Beit Midrash, the other half being spent for his food and for that of his family. One day he found nothing to earn, and the guard at the Beit Midrash would not permit him to enter. He climbed up and sat upon the window to hear the words of Torah delivered by Shemayah and Avtalyon.

It was the eve of Shabbat in the winter solstice, and snow fell down upon him. When the sun rose, Shemayah said to Avtalyon, ‘Every day this house is light and today it is dark; is it perhaps a cloudy day?’ They looked up and saw the figure of a man in the window. They went up and found Hillel covered by three cubits (approx. five feet) of snow. They removed him, bathed and anointed him, and placed him opposite the fire, and they said, ‘This man deserves that the Shabbat be profaned on his behalf.’ ”

To eradicate illiteracy, there is a need for teachers. They must be patient with their disciples and make an endeavor to answer their questions no matter how absurd they may sound. Hillel was such a teacher par excellence. The Gemara (Shabbat 31a) relates that once two people made a bet that whoever provoked Hillel to lose his temper would win four hundred zuz as his prize.

The one who undertook to provoke him came to his house on Erev Shabbat while he was busy preparing himself for the Shabbat, and pretending not to know that Hillel was the Nasi, called out as one would call to an ordinary peasant, “Is there a Hillel here?” Hillel came to the door and patiently greeted the person and said, “My son, what do you seek?” The person replied, “I have a question to ask of you.” Hillel said, “Ask, my son.” The person asked, “Why are the heads of the Babylonians round?” Although the question was actually trivial, Hillel nevertheless treated it with deference. In order not to discourage him from asking questions thereafter which might be very important, Hillel told him that he had asked a truly profound question and went on to answer it.

The person left and again returned a few times with more unimportant questions. “Why are the eyes of the Tarmodians round? Why are the feet of the Africans so wide?” Hillel patiently answered all his queries, and told him to feel free to ask him any questions he wished. Finally the person said, “If you are indeed the great Hillel whom the people call ‘Nasi,’ let there not be anymore like you among the Jewish people, because I made a wager and on account of you I lost four hundred zuz.” Hillel then told him, “You may lose a few times four hundredzuz, but Hillel will not take offense.”

That he preferred Torah study in poverty to business opportunities is to be seen from what the Gemara (Sotah 21a) relates. Hillel and Shebna were brothers. Hillel engaged in the study of Torah, and Shebna was occupied in business. Eventually, Shebna said to him, “Come let us become partners and divide the profits.” Hillel declined the offer to barter the merit he earned by devotion to Torah. He lived in poverty and became one of the greatest Talmudic Sages and Nasi of K’lal Yisrael.

The teaching “In a place where there are no men strive to be a man” is illustrated by the story of how he assumed the position of Nasi. As the Gemara (Pesachim 66a) relates, when he came to the city where the sons of Beteira lived and he was the only one who knew the answer to a halachic question regarding the Pesach offering, the people offered him the position of Nasi. He accepted it since there was no one there as qualified as he was.

(דרך אבות)


"ובמקום שאין אנשים השתדל להיות איש"
“And in a place where there are no men, strive to be a man.” (2:5)

QUESTION: In all times and in all places one should strive to be a man. Why the emphasis of “In a place where there are no men?”

ANSWER: Some people act very frum — pious — in the company of their friends, but when they are alone at home with no one watching, there is much to be desired. For example, in shul they daven slowly and with much kavanah, but at home they rush through the davening in a few minutes. When invited to a catered meal they make many inquiries regarding kashrut, but in their home they are very lax and extremely lenient.

To them Hillel says, “When you are in a place where there are no men,” i.e. in the privacy of your home, “strive to be a man.” Be the same man as you are when you are in the company of others. Bear in mind that though no one sees what you are doing, Hashem does.

(מדרש שמואל)


"אף הוא ראה גלגלת אחת שצפה על פני המים, אמר לה: על דאטפת אטפוך, וסוף מטיפיך יטופון"
“He also saw a skull floating on the water; he said to it: ‘Because you drowned others, they drowned you; and ultimately those who drowned you will themselves be drowned.’ ” (2:6)

QUESTION: From whose body was the skull?

ANSWER: After the Jewish people walked through the sea onto dry land, and the waters resumed flowing and drowned the Egyptians, Moshe witnessed Pharaoh’s skull floating on the sea.

Hillel was the reincarnation of Moshe, and therefore resembled him in many ways. He, too, served as Nasi of K’lal Yisrael (Pesachim 66a), exemplified humility (Shabbat 31a), and lived 120 years (Sifri Devarim). Once, Hillel too saw the skull of Pharaoh floating and said to it, “Because you drowned the Jewish children in the Nile River, Hashem has punished you measure for measure.”

Afterwards, Hillel comforted the Jewish people, saying, “Do not despair because of the trials and tribulations confronting you throughout exile. Ultimately, Hashem will come to our salvation and those nations who have been drowning us and afflicting us will be punished by their own methods.”

Thus, Hillel’s message was directed at two separate parties. To the skull he said “because you drowned others you were drowned,” and to K’lal Yisrael he stated that “ultimately those who drown you will themselves be drowned.”

* * *

The above is according to the opinion that Pharoah perished together with the Egyptians. According to another opinion (see Yalkut Shimoni, Jonah 5:50) he survived the ordeal at the sea and went on to become King of Ninveh. It was there that he was later drowned.

(ביאורים לפרקי אבות)

* * *

Alternatively, Hillel lived in the period of history when Herod was the King in Israel and his wife was Miriam, a scion of the Hasmonean family. The Kehunah — Priesthood — was the domain of the Hasmoneans, and the Malchut — kingship — belonged to the descendants of David. Hillel was upset with the Hasmoneans for acquiring kingship, which was not their domain.

Herod denied Chananeil the position of Kohen Gadol and appointed his brother-in-law Aristablus, who was a Hasmonean, instead. Despite his young age of only seventeen, he impressed everyone with his superb performance and became highly acclaimed. This aroused the jealousy of Herod, and he planned a way to be rid of him.

Once Herod scheduled a celebration in Yericho, and he invited his wife, mother-in-law, and brother-in-law to participate. Present also were Hillel the Nasi, and Shammai the Chief Justice. After the King and Aristablus played together and perspired, the King invited his brother-in-law for a swim. The waters were deep and very swift, and the King secretly instructed his servants to drown Aristablus. While in the water, they engaged in horse-play, and then they kept him under the water till he expired. They exited the water pretending that they knew nothing about the whereabouts of Aristablus. Suddenly, his skull floated on the waters and everyone realized what happened and blamed the King for it, but were unable to do him anything.

Upon seeing the skull, Hillel declared that there is an ultimate accounting for all that one does: “Because your family, the Hasmoneans, pushed aside the family of David from kingship, they received their punishment in the form of the drowning of their descendant, and ultimately all those who had a hand in your drowning will drown.” In the end, Herod gave Aristablus a royal funeral in an attempt to remove any suspicion from himself and killed the servants who had a hand in his drowning.

(כנסת ישראל)

* * *

Hillel used the Aramaic, the vernacular, in expressing this important belief in retributive justice, so that it would be understood by the masses. He felt it important for them to know that if for any reason whatsoever a murderer or evil-doer is not brought to justice, he may be certain of receiving his just punishment from Hashem, for He will not permit evil deeds to go unpunished.


"אל דאטפת אטפוך וסוף מטיפיך יטופון"
“Because you drowned others, they drowned you; and ultimately those who drowned you will themselves be drowned.” (2:6)

QUESTION: Since the drowning was due to him for drowning someone else, why is the one who drowned him considered guilty of a crime?

ANSWER: Only a Beit Din is empowered to decide guilt and mete out punishment. However noble the individual’s thoughts may be, he cannot take the law into his own hands. Hashem is the one who gave the Jew his life, and no individual may take it away.

(מדרש שמואל)

* * *

At the Akeidah, when Avraham was about to slaughter Yitzchak, an angel said to him, “Do not stretch out your hand against the lad nor do anything to him” (Bereishit 22:11). Why did the order to bring Yitzchak as a burnt-offering come directly from Hashem (ibid 22:2) while the stop-order came from an angel?

A Jew should never harm another Jew without a direct command from Hashem. To help another Jew, however, one needs no command. Therefore, only on direct command of Hashem could Avraham do harm to Yitzchak, but to let Yitzchak live, the instruction of an angel sufficed.

(דבש השדה ליקוט ע"י ר' דובעריש ז"ל שו"ב בק' רישא, בילגורייא תרס"ט)


"וסוף מטיפיך יטופון"
“And ultimately those who drowned you will themselves be drowned.” (2:6)

QUESTION: The word “vesof” — “and ultimately” — is superfluous. It could have just said, “umetafayich yetufun” — “and those who drowned you will themselves be drowned”?

ANSWER: Hillel is emphasizing that nothing in this world is accidental. There is a reason for everything that occurs. Moreover, when carefully analyzed, one will see that it is midah keneged midah — measure for measure. A difficulty with this theory, to some, is that at times it appears that the no punishment was meted out or that it is not commensurate with the iniquity. In reply, Hillel says that since we Jews believe in gilgulim — reincarnation — it is clear that even when the immediate punishment is not exact, however, “vesof” — “ultimately” — when one will return to earth through reincarnation, he will receive precisely whatever was due to him in a previous lifetime that he did not receive then.

(מדרש שמואל)


"מרבה צדקה מרבה שלום"
“Increasing charity increases peace.” (2:7)

QUESTION: What peace is made by giving charity?

ANSWER: On the pasuk, “Do not glorify a destitute person in his grievance” (Shemot 23:3), the Or Hachaim asks, “What is the grievance of the poor man?” He answers, often the poor man is grieved about his economic situation and may express his frustration and anger against Hashem: “Why does He take care of everyone and forsake me?”

When one extends tzedakah to the needy, he refutes the contention of the poor man. Now that his situation is alleviated, his complaining will cease and he will be at peace with Hashem.

(מדרש שמואל)

* * *

Alternatively, in our prayers we beseech, “He who makes peace in His heights, may He make peace for us.” What is the analogy?

Hashem called the heavens “shamayim” because they consist of two components: eish — fire — and mayim — water. These are two rivals, since water extinguishes fire and fire can evaporate water, and Hashem made peace between them (Chagigah 12a).

The physical body consists of four elements: fire, water, air, and earth. A healthy person’s body must have a specific amount of heat, and the water cools the body. If the body temperature is too high, one can expire due to hyperthermia, and if it is too low, one can expire due to hypothermia. Our prayer to Hashem is that just as He makes peace in the heights — between fire and water so that the heavens can exist, likewise — may He make peace for us so that there will be an equilibrium between the fire and water in our body.

King Shlomo says, “Tzedakah tatzil mimavet” — “Charity saves from death” (Proverbs 10:12). Thus, through tzedakah the peace between the fire and the water in the body is maintained.

(זרע יצחק מר' יצחק ז"ל חיות)


"קנה לו דברי תורה קנה לו חיי עולם הבא"
“One who has acquired for himself Torah knowledge has acquired for himself life in the world to come.” (2:7)

QUESTION: The first “lo” — for himself — seems extra?

ANSWER: A story is told of a great scholar who was unfortunately lacking much in his inter-personal relationships. Once, someone praised him to a Chassidic Rebbe, saying, “He learned the entire shas” (Talmud). The Rebbe retorted, “He may have learned the entire shas, but what did shas teach him?” There are people who learn very much, but unfortunately their learning does not have an effect on their character. With the word “lo” the Sage is emphasizing, “If one has learned Torah and truly internalized it and this has made him into a better person, then he has acquired for himself the world to come.”


"אם למדת תורה הרבה אל תחזיק טובה לעצמך כי לכך נוצרת"
“If you studied much Torah do not ascribe merit to yourself since for that very purpose you were created.” (2:8)

QUESTION: Instead of “Al tachazik tovah le’atzmach” — “donot ascribe merit to yourself’ — why doesn’t it say “Al tehei ba’al ga’avah “ — “Do not be a conceited person”?

ANSWER: Our Sages teach that true good is only Torah, as it is stated (Proverbs 4:2), “Ki lekach tov natati lachem Torati al ta’azovu,” — “I have given you a good teaching; do not forsake My Torah” (Pirkei Avot 6:3).

Unfortunately, there are many who learn much Torah, but do not share their knowledge with others. The saying teaches: “Im lamadeta Torah harbei” — “if you have learned much Torah” — “al tachazik tovah le’atzmach” — “do not keep this good thing, i.e. your Torah knowledge, for yourself but teach and share your learning with others.” This is the very purpose for which a Jew was created — to learn Torah and teach it to others.

(לב אבות)


"כי לכך נוצרת"
“Since for that very purpose you were created [formed]” (2:8)

QUESTION: Instead of “notzarta” — “you were created [formed]” — it should have said “noladeta” — “you were born”?

ANSWER: The Gemara (Niddah 30b) says that during the time that the embryo is being formed in the mother’s womb, an angel teaches him the entire Torah. As he comes out to the world, an angel causes him to forget it all.

The advantage of learning and forgetting over never having learned at all is that the material is learned over again much more easily than material learned for the first time. Thus, the Mishnah is saying, “if you learned much Torah, do not take the credit for yourself since it is not a thing you accomplished on your own. When you were being formed and being prepared to make an entry into the world, the entire Torah was taught to you and this facilitated your present success in study.”

(מהר"ם שיק)

* * *

Alternatively, the Gemara (Niddah 16b) says that prior to the formation of the child, the angel in charge of pregnancy takes the “putrid drop” before Hashem and asks, “Will it be wise or foolish, rich or poor, strong or weak?” A decision for all these things is made in heaven. The only thing which is not predestined is whether it will be righteous or wicked.

Thus, if one becomes wise and learned in Torah, it was predestined prior to the formation of the embryo. Consequently, the Mishnah says that one who has studied much Torah should not take the credit for himself since, “lekach notzarta” — this is how it was decided that he should be “formed,” and thus it is not the person’s doing but a quality with which Hashem endowed him.

(פניני אבות)

"חמשה תלמידים היו לו לר' יוחנן בן זכאי"
“Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai had five students.” (2:9)

QUESTION: The word “lo” — “to him” — is superfluous?

ANSWER: Rabbi Chanina said, “I learned much from my Rabbis, and from my colleagues more than from my rabbis, and from my students more than from them all” (Ta’anit 7a).

Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai had many students, but these five were the greatest and most outstanding. He humbly credited to them the Torah accomplishments he achieved. The challenge they presented to him, thanks to their sharp minds, made him the Torah giant that he was. Thus, these five “hayu lo” — “were to him” — i.e. to his benefit; they made him Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai.

(מדרש שמואל)


"הוא היה מונה שבחם"
“He used to enumerate their praiseworthy qualities.” (2:9)

QUESTION: What mili dechassiduta — guidelines for piety and improved behavior — can be derived from knowing that Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai did this?

ANSWER: Each of these students possessed a quality in which he surpassed all the others. As a teacher, Rabbi Yochanan did not push them all in a single direction. Instead, he appreciated their uniqueness and endeavored to give each the opportunity to develop his own potential. This concept can be applied on a larger scale. Each person possesses a particular virtue in which he surpasses all others. Universal conformity is not a worthwhile goal; each should strive to cultivate his own unique gift.

A parent, teacher, or mentor should not seek uniformity in those whose growth and development he seeks to foster, but strive to cultivate each person’s unique gift and potential. Never say to your child or student who did not get a high mark, “Why could the other child do it?” His response will be that “I am not the other child.” Know the student’s potential and encourage him to achieve his best.

(ביאורים לפרקי אבות)


"רבי יהושע בן חנניא אשרי יולדתו"
“Rabbi Yehoshua ben Chananya — happy is she who bore him.” (2:9)

QUESTION: Instead of “happy is she who bore him,” it should say “happy is his mother”?

ANSWER: According to the Jerusalem Talmud, Rabbi Yehoshua’s mother lived in a city in which there were many batei midrash. When she was pregnant, she would visit them and ask the students to pray that the child should be a talmid chacham — Torah scholar. When the child was born, she brought him to the beit midrash to hear the sound of Torah study.

By praising “yoladeto “ — “the one who bore him” — Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai is emphasizing that if a Jewish mother wants to reap “yiddishe nachas from her child, she should start concerning herself with his education and spiritual well-being even before he is born.

(רש"י, רע"ב, ירושלמי יבמות פ"א ה"ו)


"אם יהיו כל חכמי ישראל בכף מאזנים ואליעזר בן הורקינום בכף שניה, מכריע את כולם. אבא שאול אומר משמו, 'אם יהיו כל חכמי ישראל בכף מאזנים ואליעזר בן הורקנוס אף עמהם, ואלעזר בן ערך בכף שניה, מכריע את כלם' "
“If all the Sages of Israel were on one side of the scale and Eliezer ben Horkenus were on the other, he would outweigh them all. Abba Shaul says in his name, ‘If all the Sages of Israel, including even Eliezer ben Horkenus, were on one side of the scale, and Elazar ben Arach were on the other, he would outweigh them all.’ ” (2:9)

QUESTION: What is the reasoning for the difference of opinion as to whether Rabbi Eliezer ben Horkenus was the greatest or Rabbi Elazar ben Arach?

ANSWER: The Gemara (Horayot 14a) says that Rabbi Yosef was classified as “Sinai” because of the vast amount of knowledge which he retained and which was clear in his mind as on the day it was given at Sinai. Rabbah’s knowledge was not as extensive, but due to his unusually sharp and analytical prowess, he was classified as “okeir harim” — “an uprooter of mountains.” There was a question as to which of them takes precedence.

Rabbi Eliezer ben Horkenus, who is described as “a cemented cistern which does not lose a drop,” is in the category of “Sinai,” and Rabbi Elazar ben Arach who is described as “a fountain which flows with ever-increasing strength” was “okeir harim” — “an uprooter of mountains.” Thus, Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai said that Eliezer ben Horkenus outweighed all his colleagues since he was a “Sinai,” and Abba Shaul said in his name that Elazar ben Arach outweighed them all since he possessed the great quality of being an “okeir harim” — “uprooter of mountains.”

(חיד"א)


"אמר להם: צאו וראו איזו היא דרך טובה שידבק בה האדם, רבי אליעזר אומר: עין טובה. רבי יהושע אומר: חבר טוב, רבי יוסי אומר: שכן טוב. רבי שמעון אומר: הרואה את הנולד. רבי אלעזר אומרת לב טוב. אמר להם: רואה אני את דברי אלעזר בן ערך מדבריכם, שבכלל דבריו דבריכם."
“He [Rabban Yochanan Ben Zakkai] said to them: Go and see which is the good way to which a man should cleave. Rabbi Eliezer says: A good eye; Rabbi Yehoshua says: A good friend; Rabbi Yosei says: a good neighbor; Rabbi Shimon says: One who considers the consequences [of his actions]; Rabbi Elazar says: A good heart. He said to them: I prefer the words of Elazar ben Arach to all of yours, for in his words yours are included.” (2:10)

QUESTION: 1) What Biblical source did each have for his statement? 2) How did Rabbi Elazar’s words include all of theirs?

ANSWER: When Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai told his students, “Go and see,” they all understood that it meant that they should search the Torah for an answer. They all thought of the pasuk “Vaya’ar Elokim et ha’or ki tov, vayavdeil Elokim bein ha’or ubein hachoshech” — “And G‑d saw the light that it was good and G‑d separated between the light and the dark” (Bereishit 1:4), containing the first mention of the word “tov” — good — in the Torah.

Since, together with the word “tov,” the verse reads “vayar” — “He saw” — Rabbi Eliezer concluded that a “good eye” is the ultimate good.

When light was created, it became the companion of the darkness which already prevailed upon the surface of the abyss, and the two served together (ibid. Rashi). Therefore, Rabbi Yehoshua said that true good, is a “good friend” — one who unites and shares with others.

After darkness and light served together, Hashem separated them and made them neighbors — one served at night and the other during the day (ibid.). Therefore, Rabbi Yosei concluded that “the good way to which a man should cleave” is a “good neighbor.”

After Hashem created light, He concluded that not everyone was worthy of enjoying it, and therefore he stored away the original light created on the first day for tzaddikim to enjoy when Mashiach comes (Chagigah 12a). From this, Rabbi Shimon deduced that true good is “seeing the future.”

Rabbi Elazar observed that from the word “bereishit” until the word “tov” there are 32 words, which is the numerical value of “leiv” (לב) — “heart.” Since the first 32 words (leiv)are followed by the word “tov, “ he concluded that true good is a “good heart.” Consequently, whatever they said is included in what he said since they each drew from one word or one thought in the pesukim while he used all the pesukim to arrive at his conclusion.

(בני יששכר מאמר חדש אייר מאמר ג' סעי' א')


"רבי אליעזר אומר עין טובה"
“Rabbi Eliezer said: ‘A good eye.’ ” (2:10)

QUESTION: Since a person has two eyes, why doesn’t it say “einayim tovim” — “good eyes”?

ANSWER: When the previous Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn, was a young boy, he asked his father the following question: “Why did Hashem create me with two eyes? One eye would be sufficient because when I close one eye, I can see just as well?”

His father explained that people have two eyes for a reason. There are certain things at which one should “look with the right eye” — i.e. love and concern — and there are things at which one should “look with the left eye” — i.e. apathy and indifference. When one looks at a Jew, one should always look with the right eye and find his good qualities. The left eye is for worldly matters and things of minor importance. Sometimes one should even close it and not pursue materialistic desires.

When Rabbi Eliezer says “a good eye,” he means that one should use the right eye when viewing another Jew.


"רבי שמעון אומר הרואה את הנולד"
“Rabbi Shimon said, ‘One who sees the consequences [of his actions].” (2:10)

QUESTION: Instead of using the expression “ro’eh et hanolad” — “sees the consequences” — why didn’t he say “meivin et hanolad” — “comprehends the consequences”?

ANSWER: The lures of the yeitzer hara — evil inclination — are very attractive, and sometimes appetite is more powerful than intellect. Moreover, the yeitzer hara is crafty and offers rationalizations that enable a person to feel he is doing the right thing although he is committing a sin. A person whose awareness of the consequences of sin is merely based on intellect and understanding may be swayed by such rationalizations. When, however, a person “sees” the consequences, i.e. when his conception is so powerful that it is as if he sees the consequences with his eyes, he will refuse to allow his connection with Hashem to be weakened at any time.

(ביאורים לפרקי אבות)


"איזו היא דרך טובה...רבי שמעון אומר הרואה את הנולד...איזו היא דרך רעה...רבי שמעון אומר הלוה ואינו משלם"
“Which is the good way...Rabbi Shimon said: ‘One who sees the consequences [of his actions]’...Which is the evil path...Rabbi Shimon said: ‘He who borrows and does not repay.’ ” (2:10)

QUESTION: The other four Sages mention a good path one should follow and its exact opposite for the evil path to avoid. Why doesn’t Rabbi Shimon follow suit?

ANSWER: Rabbi Shimon is telling us that a good way in life is to always consider what the future may entail. One who establishes a good credit rating is trustworthy and will easily receive loans. The opposite of this is someone who borrows but does not repay. Such a person is not taking into consideration the “nolad” — “consequences” — and should he need a loan in the future, no one will extend it to him.

(ר"ע מברטנורה)


"שנאמר לוה רשע ולא ישלם"
“As it is stated: ‘The wicked one borrows and does not repay.’ ” (2:10)

QUESTION: It should have said, “Loveh velo yeshaleim, rasha — “The one who borrows and does not repay is wicked”?

ANSWER: One should not seek a loan till he has an anticipated repayment plan. The wise person is “ro’eh et hanolad” — he considers the consequences that may arise by not repaying and will not ask for a loan if he does not anticipate paying it back. Unfortunately, there are some who are “loveh velo yeshaleim” — they ask for a loan with the intention at the outset not to repay.

The pasuk is imparting that not only is such a person walking in an evil path, but “loveh rasha” — the borrower is a rasha if at the time when he asks for the loan, “velo yeshaleim” — he has no intention to repay.

(חלק יעקב)


"אחד הלוה מן האדם כלוה מן המקום שנאמר לוה רשע ולא ישלם וצדיק חונן ונותן"
“One who borrows from man is as one who borrows from G‑d, as it is stated: ‘The wicked one borrows and does not repay but the righteous is gracious and gives.’ ” (2:10)

QUESTION: According to Rabbi Shimon the bad path one should avoid is to borrow and not pay back. Why is it necessary to tell us that “borrowing from man is as borrowing from G‑d,” and why does he also quote the conclusion of the pasuk, “But the righteous is gracious and gives?”

ANSWER: Rabbi Shimon is also imparting the following additional message: Although he spoke about the possibility of a loan not being paid back; nevertheless, he encourages people to continue giving loans. He makes the lender aware that when one borrows from a person it is as though he borrows from Hashem. Therefore, though the individual may be wicked and not pay, the lender will not suffer any loss because Hashem, who is the Tzaddik — Righteous One — of the world, will graciously give to the lender that which the borrower failed to pay back.

(ר"ע מברטנורה)

Alternatively, the pasuk is not talking of one who borrows money and does not repay afterwards, but of one who originally borrows without any intention of paying (see above). If the lender suspects this to be the case, he may perhaps refrain from helping the borrower, with the rational that he does not want to commit the Torah violation of, “Do not place an obstacle before a blind person” (Vayikra 19:14). If he refrains from lending to him, he will not have the temptation not to repay.

Rabbi Shimon therefore also quotes the second part of the pasuk that “the righteous acts graciously and gives” to tell the lender not to make such calculations. If you are concerned that by your lending him and his not repaying you will be causing him to commit a transgression, do as the righteous do — act graciously and resolve that you are giving the money to him outright as a gift.

(חסדי אבות, להחיד"א)

* * *

Alternatively, Rabbi Shimon also adds, “One who borrows from man is as one who borrows from Hashem,” to imply that this principle not only applies in inter-human relationships, but also in man’s relationship with Hashem. Man exists on this earth thanks to Hashem’s graciousness. He is extending man good life and success on credit, expecting him to reciprocate with studying Torah and doing good deeds. One who uses “the loan” given to him but does not “repay” is not “ro’eh et hanolad” — considering the consequence — and walking in an evil path.

(לקוטי בתר לקוטי)


"ר' אליעזר אומר יהי כבוד חברך חביב עליך כשלך"
“Rabbi Eliezer says, ‘Cherish the honor of colleague as your own honor.” (2:10)

QUESTION: Why didn’t Rabbi Eliezer just say “Honor your colleague very much”?

ANSWER: When the ChassidicRebbe Rabbi Shmelke was invited to Nicholsburg to assume the position as Rabbi, he was greeted with much honor when he arrived. He requested that before addressing the public, he be given a private room where he could lock himself up for two hours. A person who was very curious to know what the Rabbi was doing hid in a closet and in amazement heard Rabbi Shmelke speaking to himself and saying words of praise about himself. “Sholom aleichem Rabbi Shmelke, yasher ko’ach Rabbi Shmelke....”

Afterwards, he went out to meet the public, delivered his lecture, and was unanimously accepted as the Rabbi of Nicholsburg. The individual who had hid in the room apologetically approached Rabbi Shmelke and asked him, “Could you please explain to me the meaning of what I heard you say to yourself while secluded?” Rabbi Shmelke told him, “I assumed that everyone would be greeting me, praising me, and giving me honors. I was concerned that it would affect me and make me become conceited. Therefore, I followed the advice of Rabbi Eliezer in Pirkei Avot that the honor your fellow gives you should be as dear to you, keshelach — as the honor which you give yourself. Believe me, after continuously greeting myself and extensively praising myself I began to despise it, and fortunately I became immune to all the honors the community bestowed upon me.”

(מדרש חכמים, ליקוט ע"י ר' משה חיים ז"ל קליינמאן, מבריסק דליטא)


"שנשיכתן נשיכת שועל, ועקיצתן עקיצת עקרב, ולחישתן לחישת שרף"
“For their bite is the bite of a fox, their sting is the sting of a scorpion, their hiss is the hiss of a serpent.” (2:10)

QUESTION: Why does the Mishnah cite the three powers of the talmid chacham in this order?

ANSWER: As Moshe approached the fiery thornbush in the desert, Hashem said to him “She’al ne’alecha mei’al raglecha” — “Remove your shoes from your feet” (Shemot 3:5). What was Hashem’s message with this instruction?

Hashem was preparing Moshe to become the leader of the Jewish people. The word “na’al” (נעל) — “shoe” — is an acronym for “neshichah” (נשיכה) — “bite” — “akitzah” (עקיצה) — “sting” — and “lechishah” (לחישה) — “hiss.” When a person walks barefoot, he is highly sensitive to anything that comes in contact with his foot. By commanding Moshe to remove his shoes Hashem was impressing him with the importance of being sensitive to the needs of each and every Jew. A Jewish leader must never become angry or upset and have to apply his “na’al”neshichah, akitzah or lechishah — against any Jew.

(ספורי חסידים בשם ר' צבי אלימלך זצ"ל מדינוב)


"וכל דבריהם כגחלי אש"
“All their words were like fiery coals.” (2:10)

QUESTION: What is the analogy between fiery coals and the words of the Sages?

ANSWER: Often a fiery coal appears covered with ash and extinguished while in reality there is a flame inside. The Gemara (Avodah Zara 19b) says that even the mundane talk of Torah scholars needs to be studied. Though on the surface a remark may seem to contain no wisdom, when it is carefully analyzed and studied, its profundity emerges.

In the Gemara there are sections of halachic discussions which contain some very difficult treatises which scholars ponder over. There is also a part which is known as “agaddata” (אגדתא) — “stories and homiletical interpretations of Biblical phrases.” All of these teachings were gathered together in the work known as Ayin Yaakov.” Superficially, many of these appear puzzling and insignificant; however, this part is referred as the penimiyut — inner part — i.e. esoteric teaching of Torah, for most of the secrets of the Torah are concealed in these (Iggeret Hakodesh ch. 23). These teachings are like “fiery coals,” for when the student delves into them, he may manage to comprehend somewhat the profound wisdom and secrets contained in the words of the Sages.

(ברכת אבות, ר' יוסף חיים ב"ר אליהו, ליוורנו תר"ד)


"עין הרע ויצר הרע ושנאת הבריות מוציאין את האדם מן העולם"
“The evil eye, the evil inclination, and hatred of one’s fellow drive a man from the world.” (2:11)

QUESTION: What is the connection between these three?

ANSWER: There are actually two sorts of ayin hara — evil eye. One is aroused by frivolous behavior and the other by commendable activities. When one flaunts his riches, and seeks to dominate because of it, or expects people to honor him and yield to his whims, people in return will look at him and his wealth with an evil eye. The other is evoked when a person conducts himself righteously and gives much charity. It is common that some will be jealous of him.

The difference is that in the first case, the evil eye is one of condemnation and in the latter, it is due to jealousy. Now, in the first case the person brought an ayin hara upon himself through behavior incited by the yeitzer hara — evil inclination — and it also created a situation of sinat habriyot — people hating him for his behavior. In the second, the evil eye is brought about through behavior caused by the yeitzer tov — good inclination — and people who are jealous of him want to emulate him and have no reason to hate him.

The Gemara (Bava Metzia 107b) relates that Rav once went to a cemetery and after investigating, he stated, “Ninety-nine out of a hundred die from an evil eye and only one from natural causes.” In order that this not frighten and deter people from doing good deeds, the Mishnah confirms that it is true that an ayin hara — evil eye — can drive a person out of the physical world, but it is only such an evil eye which was brought about through behavior incited by the yeitzer hara and which is coupled with sinat habriyot — hatred and animosity toward him. But if the ayin hara came because of conduct which one’s good inclination encouraged, there is no reason to fear, and on the contrary, in merit of it one will enjoy longevity.

(דורש לפרקים, ר' מרדכי ז"ל רובינשטיין (מזאלקאווא) קראקא תרמ"ט)


"יצר הרע"
“Evil Inclination.” (2:11)

QUESTION: The Gemara (Berachot 61a) says that the yeitzer hara — evil inclination — resembles a zevuv — fly. What is the analogy?

ANSWER: All efforts to chase a fly away will not deter it from coming back. The same is true of the yeitzer hara. As much as one chases it away and refuses to listen to it, it continuously returns and pesters man.

(ממעינות הנצח ליקוט ע"י ר' אהרן סורסקי, בני ברק תשל"ט)

* * *

Alternatively, when the prophet Elisha visited the home of the Shunamit, she told her husband, “Behold, now I perceive that the G‑dly man kadosh hu — is holy” (II Kings 4:9). According to the Gemara (Berachot 10b) she perceived that he was holy because she did not notice a “zevuv” — “fly” — over his table. How does this prove holiness?

The word “zevuv” (זבוב) — “fly” — is an acronym for "זה בכה וזה בכה" — “This one is here and this one is there.”

The Shunamit was a hospitable person, and many Rabbis would stay at her home when passing through the city of Shu-neim. She would notice that when a prominent person would come to her home and conduct a tish (gathering), some would come and some would not; some would listen attentively while others would walk about the room. However, when Elisha came and conducted his “tish,” she did not see, “This one here and this one there,” but all came to his table and all listened attentively and respectfully. One who is respected and revered by all, and who brings about absolute unity, is undoubtedly a holy person.

When unity and togetherness is lacking between man and his fellow or between man and Hashem and a situation of "זה בכה וזה בכה" — “This one is here and this one is there prevails,” it is a sign that the yeitzer hara is at work and unfortunately, successful.


"רבי יוסי אומר יהי ממון חברך חביב עליך כשלך"
“Let the money of your fellow man be as dear to you as your own.” (2:12)

QUESTION: What love does one have for his own money that he should also have for his friend’s money?

ANSWER: A story is told of a group of people who were discussing the extent of the wealth of a certain Mr. Stein. Each one in turn put it at a figure far above the amount said by the previous one. None of them was aware that sitting nearby was the Mr. Stein whose money they were counting. Hearing their argument, he apologetically said, “I see you seem to know Mr. Stein. Perhaps you can tell me how many sons and daughters he has?” They all laughed at him and said, “Do you expect us to know this information?”

Mr. Stein then said to them, “I do not understand. When people are blessed with a son, they make a brit, which is a big simchah and inform many people of it. When they have a daughter, they make a mi shebeirach in shul to give her a name in the presence of many people. No one keeps the birth of a child a secret. On the other hand, human nature is to keep money in secrecy and people do not go around talking publicly about their wealth. Yet, concerning Mr. Stein’s children, who are not a matter of secrecy, you have no idea, and you know exactly how much money he has although this is his personal secret information?!”

The advice of Rabbi Yosei is that just as your money is dear to you and you do not tell others about it or appreciate their discussing it, likewise, do not count your friend’s money.


"יהי ממון חברך חביב עליך כשלך והתקן עצמך ללמוד תורה שאינה ירושה לך"
“Let the money of your fellowman be as dear to you as your own; prepare yourself for the study of Torah for it does not come to you through inheritance.” (2:12)

QUESTION: What is the connection between these two messages, and why does Rabbi Yosei give the reason that you cannot inherit Torah?

ANSWER: Unfortunately, there are people who are deprived of adequate financial resources and are jealous of those who are blessed. In their misery they would like company. The Mishnah despises such behavior and thus teaches that one should be happy for his friend who is blessed, and though it is he who has the money, one should be happy for him just as he would be happy for himself if he were affluent.

However, the only time when one should be content with his friend’s success is in material matters. When it comes to Torah, then one should make an effort to be spiritually wealthy in one’s Torah knowledge and not just be content with having a friend who is learning Torah. For after all, your friend’s wealth can possibly become yours if he bequeaths it to you, but there is no way for you to inherit his Torah knowledge.

(כנסת ישראל)


"והתקן עצמך ללמד תורה שאינה ירשה לך"
“Prepare yourself for the study of Torah, for it does not come to you through your inheritance.” (2:12)

QUESTION: How can we reconcile this with what the Torah says, “The Torah that Moshe commanded us is the heritage of the Congregation of Yaakov” (Devarim 33:4)?

ANSWER: Torah is indeed the inheritance of the Jewish community at large; however, this does not apply to the individual. He cannot rely on the Torah’s inherited aspect, but must study diligently and make every effort to acquire Torah knowledge.

(תפארת ישראל)


"הוי זהיר בקריאת שמע ובתפלה"
“Be meticulous in reading the Shema and in prayer.” (2:13)

QUESTION: Why did he single out these two mitzvot?

ANSWER: The Shemaand the Amidah prayer (Shemonah Esreih) are to be recited each morning, and there are specific times by which each should be done to properly fulfill the mitzvah. Shema can be recited up to the end of the third hour of the day, and tefillah should be before the end of the fourth hour. These hours are not sixty minute hours, but sha’ot zemaniot — seasonal hours — i.e. the units obtained by dividing the day into twelve equal segments.

There is a question as to what is considered day with regard to determining the twelve hours. According to the Magen Avraham (58:1) the day is counted from amud hashachar — first light of dawn — until tzeit hakochavim — nightfall. The Rav — Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi — and the Vilna Ga’on maintain that the day for this calculation is from neitz hachamah — sunrise — to shekiat hachamah — sunset. Thus, according to the Magen Avraham, the allotted period of time concludes earlier than according to the Rav and Vilna Ga’on, and according to all calculations, the first three hours on a winter day is a shorter period of time than on a long summer day.

In the summer it is difficult to rise out of bed early because the nights are shorter, and in the winter because of the cold weather. Thus, the Mishnah warns, “Be careful in reciting the Shema and Shemonah Esreih, that is, make a special effort to overcome your laziness throughout the year and recite them before the time lapses.”

(מדרש שמואל)

Alternatively, the Gemara (Berachot 9b) says that the vatikin — the devoted ones — people of unusual humility and who held mitzvot in great esteem (Rashi), would take care to complete the recitation of the Shema with sunrise and immediately thereafter say the Shemonah Esreih. They would hasten to say the Shema immediately before sunrise (though it may be recited earlier) and the Shemonah Esreih immediately after sunrise so that they could recite the Shemonah Esreih at the earliest possible time and thereby link the redemption blessing [Ga’al Yisrael — which follows after the Shema] to the prayer. The Gemara praises this custom and says concerning anyone who does it that no harm will befall him all day.

Since this comes out very early in the day, especially during the summer, the Mishnah encourages one to be diligent in the performance of Shema and tefillah — joining the two together as the vatikin did.


"הוי זהיר בקריאת שמע ובתפלה"
“Be meticulous in reading the Shema and in prayer.” (2:13)

QUESTION: What tefillah — prayer — is this referring to?

ANSWER: According to all, the daily recital of Shema is a Biblical obligation, but the practice of praying thrice daily is not. Nevertheless, it has become widely practiced and assumed as an obligation upon each individual to pray three times a day.

In the Gemara (Berachot 6b) the identical expression of “zahir” — “meticulous” — is used in regard to the Minchah — afternoon prayers. Rabbi Chelbo said in the name of Rav Huna that a person should always be diligent with regard to the Minchah prayer, for when the prophet Eliyahu confronted the false prophets of the Ba’al idol and stood on Mount Carmel to demonstrate that Hashem was the true G‑d, his prayers were answered only through the Minchah prayer.

Rav Huna specifies Minchah because it is recited in the afternoon when people are immersed in their work, and they must detach themselves from all their preoccupations in order to pray. This is especially difficult during the winter when the day is very short.

* * *

In the butcher shops, Wednesday and Thursday were the busiest days since most of the women would come then to purchase meat for Shabbat. A butcher once related that sometimes the store was filled with customers, and in order to get away to daven Minchah, he would run into the walk-in refrigerator.


"ואל תהי רשע בפני עצמך"
“And do not consider yourself wicked in your self-estimation.” (2:13)

QUESTION: The words “bifenei atzmecha” — “in your self estimation” — are superfluous. It should have just said “Do not be a rasha — wicked”?

ANSWER: There are many people who conduct themselves very piously when they are in the presence of others, but when they are alone without anyone seeing them, there is much to be desired in their observance of Torah and mitzvot. Therefore the Mishnah is instructing that at all times, even when you are “bifnei atzmecha” — “alone” — behave as a tzaddik.

* * *

Alternatively, when Avraham prayed that Hashem spare the city of Sodom in merit of the tzaddikim, he said, “What if there should be fifty righteous people in the midst of the city?” (Bereishit 18:24). With the seemingly extra words “in the midst of the city” he was alluding that indeed he would know if there were any righteous people in Sodom, but perhaps there were people in Sodom who were not tzaddikim in their own rights but tzaddikim at least in comparison to all the wicked residents of the city.

The Mishnah is saying that it is not sufficient not to be a rasha when you are being measured in comparison to others, but even if you are sized-up “bifenei atzmecha” — all alone — i.e. independently, even then you should not be considered the opposite of a tzaddik.

(כנסת ישראל)


"ואל תהי רשע בפני עצמך"
“And do not consider yourself wicked in your self-estimation.” (2:13)

QUESTION: How can this be reconciled with the statement of the Gemara (Niddah 30b) that before a Jew is born, an oath is administered to him, “Be righteous and not wicked; and even if the whole world tells you that you are righteous, regard yourself as if you are wicked”?

ANSWER: This question is expounded at length by Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi, the founder of Chabad Chassidut, in his classical work, Likkutei Amarim, which is popularly known as Tanya, after the initial word of the book.

The Jews are divided into three categories. tzaddik — righteous — beinoni — intermediate — and rasha — wicked. The popular conception is that one whose deeds and misdeeds are equally balanced is called “beinoni” — while one whose virtues outweigh the sins is called “tzaddik” — and the “rasha” — is the one whose misdeeds outweigh the deeds. However, this involves the figurative use of the terms in regard to reward and punishment. The Heavenly Tribunal judges a person according to the majority of his acts. Hence, one is acquitted when his virtues are in the majority and is deemed “righteous” in his verdict.

However, there is a much more profound definition of the distinct levels and quality of “righteous” and “intermediate.”

Every Jew has a yeitzer tov — good inclination — and a yeitzer hara — evil inclination. The tzaddik is one who is motivated solely by his good inclination. He has rid himself entirely of his evil inclination and is as King David describes himself: “My heart is void within me” (Psalms 109:22); i.e. he has slayed his evil inclination and now he despises and loathes evil with a consummate hatred. Of the beinoni, however, the Gemara (Berachot 11b) says they are “judged by both” [the good and evil inclinations].

In the heart of the beinoni, both inclinations are in full force. Each one is endeavoring to induce man to accept his opinion. The two inclinations are like magistrates who give their opinion in a matter of law while the final verdict rests with the arbitrator, the Holy One, blessed be He. Hashem comes to the aid of the good inclination, enabling it to prevail over the evil inclination.

Now the beinoni, too, has traits similar to those of a rasha, for in both the evil inclination is in its native state, craving after all worldly pleasures. The only difference is that in the rasha it is dominant, and in the beinoni it is dormant at times (during prayer) and later reawakens although the person does not permit it to prevail.

Thus, the oath administered is that even if the entire world tells you that you are righteous, in your own eyes regard yourself “kerasha” — “as if you were wicked” — not as actually wicked. In other words, a person should consider himself to be a beinoni — intermediate — and not accept the world’s opinion that the evil in him has been completely subordinated to the good, as is true of those in the category of a tzaddik. Rather he should think concerning himself that the very essence of the evil is in its full strength, as from birth, and that nothing of it has ceased or departed; on the contrary, with the passing of time it has gained strength, because he has indulged it considerably through eating and drinking and other mundane pursuits.

The rank of beinoni is one that is attainable by every man, and each person should strive after it. Every person can at any time or hour be an “intermediate.” Even when the heart craves and desires a material pleasure, whether permitted or, G‑d forbid, prohibited, he can divert his attention from it altogether, declaring to himself, “I will not be wicked even for a moment because I will not be separated from G‑dliness, heaven forbid!”

The Mishnah however instructs, “Do not consider yourself a rasha — wicked person” — because then a person will be grieved at heart and depressed, and he will not be able to serve Hashem joyfully and with a contented heart. Moreover, if he is not perturbed by this self appraisal, it may lead him to irreverence towards Hashem, G‑d forbid.

(לקוטי אמרים-תניא פרק י"ב-י"ד)


"הוי שקוד ללמוד תורה, ודע מה שתשיב לאפיקורוס"
“Be diligent in the study of Torah; know what to answer an unbeliever.” (2:14)

QUESTION: What is the connection between these two things?

ANSWER: The Mishnah is dispelling a popular myth, that it is important to have a vast knowledge in secular studies in order to be able to debate an unbeliever. Therefore, it states that one should study Torah and that through this one can acquire unlimited knowledge and know all that is needed to answer a non-believer. This was also confirmed by Ben Bag Bag: “Learn it and learn it, for everything is in it” (Avot 5:21).

In addition, the Mishnah is teaching that not everyone should engage in argument with the non-believer. One should first study Torah, and only afterwards should one undertake answering a non-believer.

* * *

The Mishnah carefully says, “Know what to answer” and not “Know what to say” to infer that one should not initiate a debate with an apostate, but only answer him if he verbally attacks the principles and teachings of the Torah. It is an obligation to be sufficiently prepared at all times to win such a debate. Since one cannot foresee when the apostate will confront him or stand in public and lecture concerning his apostate philosophies and psuedo-Torah interpretations in order to convert the unlearned and innocent, one must be sufficiently prepared at all times.

(מדרש שמואל)


"היום קצר, והמלאכה מרובה, והפועלים עצלים, והשכר הרבה, ובעל הבית דוחק"
“The day is short, the work is much, the workmen are lazy, the reward is great, and the Master is pressing.” (2:15)

QUESTION: That the “workmen are lazy” should have been mentioned last? Thus, it would indicate that though there is much to do in a short period of time, and the pay is good, and the Master is present and pushing for production, nevertheless, the workmen are lazy?

ANSWER: Normally workmen are lazy for one of two reasons: Either, the pay is inadequate for the work, or no one is standing over them and observing what they are doing. Rabbi Tarfon is saying that in this case, both reasons do not apply. There is much to be accomplished in a relatively short period of time, and the workmen are lazy [though] the pay is very good, [and though] the Master is personally observing and pushing for production by punishing non-performance of Torah and mitzvot.

(מדרש שמואל)


"ובעל הבית דוחק"
“And the Master is pressing.” (2:15)

QUESTION: What is it that Hashem is pressing the people for?

ANSWER: When the Torah gives the accounting of all the valuables that were donated for the construction of the MishkanTabernacle — it says, “Eileh pekudei haMishkan, Mishkan ha’eidut” — “These are the reckonings of the Tabernacle, the Tabernacle of Testimony” (Shemot 38:21). According to the Midrash (Tanchuma 5, see Rashi) the two words “Mishkan” allude to the two Batei Mikdash — Temples — which were taken from us. The word “Mishkan” has the same letters as the word “mashkon” — “a collateral.” The Torah is hinting that they were taken as collateral for the sins of the Jewish people, and when we do teshuvah — repent — it will be restored to its former position and glory.

It is customary for a lender to request that the borrower put up collateral for a loan, and he will keep it for himself if repayment is not made. In reality, however, the lender is not interested in the collateral, but wants his money back when it is due. The same is true of Hashem, so to speak. He is not interested in keeping the Beit Hamikdash, but wants it restored to its glory. This can be accomplished only through the teshuvah and ma’asimtovim — good deeds — which the Jews will perform. Thus, “the Master is pressing” and demanding that we do our obligation, so that He can get His — the good deeds due Him — and restore to us the Beit Hamikdash, which He is holding as collateral.

(חסדי אבות – חיד"א)


"לא עליך המלאכה לגמור"
“It is not incumbent upon you to complete the work.” (2:16)

QUESTION: The proper Hebrew for “It is not incumbent upon you to complete the work” is “lo alecha ligmor et hamelachah”?

ANSWER: A wise person constantly seeks to acquire more knowledge. The more he knows, the more he realizes how much he has yet to learn and how distant he is from knowing it all. The one who thinks he has finished and knows it all is far from wise.

The profound message of the Mishnah is that one should know that “Lo alecha hamelachah ligmor — it is not your job to be finished; you must accomplish more and more in Torah and mitzvot, but never will you be finished and never are you to consider yourself complete and perfect.”

(פניני אבות)


"ונאמן בעל מלאכתך שישלם לך שכר פעלתך"
“And your employer is trustworthy to pay you the reward for your labor.” (2:16)

QUESTION: The word “pe’ulatecha” — “your labor” — is superfluous. It would be sufficient to say “Your employer is trustworthy to reward you”?

ANSWER: When a laborer runs into difficulty and a task ends up taking much more time than it should, the employer is upset and does not want to pay for the extra time. He argues, “It should not be my problem that it took you longer or that you had to work harder because of your inefficiency or inexperience.” Throughout the world, remuneration is commensurate with accomplishment and not effort or struggle. The Mishnah says, “pe’ulatecha” — “your labor” — to emphasize that Hashem’s ways are an exception to human practice. He rewards effort.

For learning much Torah not only will one receive much reward, but one can be assured that the Employer — Hashem — will reward for “pe’ulatecha” — “your effort” — and He is “ne’aman” — “trustworthy” — that it will be rewarded in the fullest measure.

(מדרש שמואל)

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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