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ANSHE EMES - PIRKE AVOS by Fred Toczek
INTRODUCTION

CHAPTER ONE

  • 1:1. Moshe received Torah from Sinai, and transmitted it to Joshua, Joshua to the Elders, the Elders to the Prophets, and the Prophets transmitted it to the Men of the Great Assembly. They said three things: Be deliberate in judgment; raise up many disciples; and make a fence for the Torah
  • 1:2. Simon the Just was of the remnants of the Great Assembly. He used to say: On three things the world stands: on the Torah, on the (Temple) Service, and on Deeds of Loving-Kindness.
  • 1.3: Antignos of Sokho received (Torah) from Simon the Just. He used to say: Be not like the servants who serve the master for the sake of receiving a reward, but be like the servants who serve the master not for the sake of receiving a reward; and let the fear of Heaven be upon you.
  • 1.4: Yose ben Yoezer of Tzeredah and Yose ben Yohanan of Jerusalem received (Torah) from them. Yose ben Yoezer said: Let your house be a meeting place for Sages, and sit amid the dust of their feet, and drink in their words with thirst.
  • 1:5: Yose ben Yohanan of Jerusalem said: Let your house be wide open and let the needy be members of your household, and do not engage in too much idle talk with a woman. They said this of a man’s own wife, how much more so of his fellow’s wife. Hence the Sages said: Whoever engages in too much idle talk with a woman brings evil upon himself, and neglects the study of the Torah, and ultimately will inherit Gehinom.
  • 1:6: Yehoshua ben Perahyah and Nitai the Arbelite received (Torah) from them. Yehoshua ben Perahyah said: Provide yourself with a teacher; acquire a companion; and judge every person in the scale of merit.
  • 1:7: Nittai the Arbelite said: Distance yourself from a bad neighbor; do not associate with a wicked person; and do not despair of retribution.
  • 1:8.  Yehudah ben Tabbai and Shimon ben Shatach received the tradition from them.  Yehudah ben Tabbai says: “[When serving as a judge,] do not act as a lawyer; while the litigants stand before you, consider them both as guilty; but when they are dismissed from you, consider them both as innocent, provided they have accepted the judgment.  
  • 1:9:  Shimon ben Shatach says: Interrogate the witnesses extensively; yet be cautious with your words, lest they learn from them to lie.  
  • 1:10: Shemayah and Avtalyon received the tradition from them: Shemayah says: Love work; despise positions of power; and do not become overly familiar with the government.  
  • 1:11: Avtalyon says: Scholars, be cautious with your words, for you may incur the penalty of exile and be banished to a place of evil waters [heresy].  The disciples who follow you there may drink and die and, consequently, the Name of Heaven may be desecrated.
  • 1:12: Hillel and Shammai received the tradition from them.  Hillel says: Be among the disciples of Aaron, loving peace and pursuing peace, loving people and bringing them closer to the Torah.
  • 1:13: He used to say: He who seeks renown loses his reputation; he who does not increase [his Torah learning] decreases it; he who refuses to teach [Torah] deserves death; and he who exploits the crown [of Torah] shall fade away.
  • 1:14: He used to say: If I am not for myself, who will be for me? And if I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?

[avos-menu.htm]

INTRODUCTION

Overview

Pirkei Avos is the 39th of 63 tractates of the Mishnah given to Moshe at Mt. Sinai and codified at the end of Second Century CE by Rabbi Judah HaNassi. (37 of the tractates of the Mishnah are accompanied by the Gemorah’s analysis and commentary; the Mishnah and the Gemorah are collectively referred to as the Talmud.) Unlike the other tractates, it does not deal with halakhah (law), but with mussar (moral precepts and ethical conduct). Pirkei Avos consists of five chapters (the sixth chapter was added at a later stage when it became customary to read Pirkei Avos on the six Shabbosim between Pesach and Shavuos).

As the Lubavitcher Rebbe, z’tl wrote, Pirkei Avos deals not with law (din), but with an area defined as "lifnim mishurat ha-din" ("beyond the line of the law") or, in the more literal translation of the word "lifnim," within the line of the law. What does this mean?

On the most basic level, it means going beyond the law’s minimum requirements. Thus, Pirkei Avos deals not with what is mandatory under Torah law, but offers a wealth of ethical maxims for the individual who aspires to a higher standard of morality and piety. For example, the Torah may forbid slandering or cursing another, but it does not legislate smiles and "good mornings" as dictated by Pirkei Avos.

On a deeper level, these words mean to go within the parameters of the law: to enter "the body" of the deed and inculcate oneself with its essence and soul. That is, one must not merely conform one’s behavior to the Torah’s directives; rather, one’s outlook, desires, feelings -- indeed, one’s very essence -- must be permeated with the vision contained in the Divine blueprint for life, thereby translating the externalizes of Torah-mandated conduct into a Torah-true self. (The Lubavitcher Rebbe, z’tl)

Sources: This outline contains commentaries gleaned from the following sources: "Artscroll Pirkei Avos"; "Artscroll Pirkei Avos Treasury"; Kehati; Sforno; "Fathers and Sons (The Chassidic Masters on Pirkei Avos)"; "In the Path of our Fathers" (The Lubavitcher Rebbe, z’tl); "Beyond the Letter of the Law" (The Lubavitcher Rebbe, z’tl); The Maharal; Rambam; "Avos" (by Rabbi Shlomo Toperoff); "Me’Am Lo’ez" (translated by R’ Aryeh Kaplan); and Midrash Shmuel.

Two (quick) personal notes (as I embark on this project):

I am very blessed with many role models in my life of the ideals emulated in Pirkei Avos: my mother (z’tl) and father, my wife Susie (who, among many wonderful attributes, always encourages me in my Torah studies), my sister and her family, my in-laws, my extended family and friends and my Rabbaim. They have helped. and continue to help, to bring the pages of Pirkei Avos "alive" daily.

Susie and I are most blessed to have Jacob Aaron in our life. It is my hope that this journey will allow me to share with him the richness of Pirkei Avos and his heritage.

[avos-menu.htm]

Why is this tractate called "Avos"?

The Sages who composed this tractate teach us the Torah and thus enable us to earn a portion in the World-To-Come. More than any tractate, Pirkei Avos contains lessons that allow us to earn a portion in the World-To-Come. By bringing someone into the World-to-Come, the Sages are our (spiritual) "avos" ("fathers"). (Kehati)

The Sages are the one who form the chain of tradition from Moshe and are thus our spiritual "fathers". (Kehati)

The word "avos" also denotes "general principles". All lessons in ethics and morals can be found in the words of the Sages mentioned in this tractate. (Kehati)

Eitz Avos and Binah L’Itim understand the word "Avos" to suggest that the tractate is addressed primarily to parents, for it is meant as a guide for them. Every parent must master and internalize its principles, in order to inculcate moral values into their children. (Artscroll Pirkei Avos Treasury)

The Order of Nezikin

Pirkei Avos is part of the Order of Nezikin (i.e., one of the six Orders of the Mishnah), which deals with torts and civil law. R’ Judah teaches that in addition to the outward mitzvos (e.g., Tefillin, Mezuzah, Talit, etc.), G-d seeks mans’ heart and soul; inner convictions and outward behavior should be consistent. (Rabbi Shlomo Toperoff) Nezikin also focuses on injury to the person and property of others; adherence to the maxims in Pirkei Avos helps prevent emotional and spiritual injury to others as well. (Artscroll) According to Rambam, Pirkei Avos is a logical conclusion to the tractate dealing with the laws of judges and justice, because the court must be permeated with a sense of ethics and morality.

[avos-menu.htm]

The Introductory Passage

Each of the chapters of Pirkei Avos is preceded with the following Mishnah from the tractate of Sanhedrin (the tractate dealing with the judiciary): "All Israel has a portion in the World-To-Come, as it is said ‘and your people are all righteous, they shall inherit the land forever, the branch of My planting, the work of My hands in which to take pride.’" There are a number of commentaries as to why this Mishnah precedes each Chapter of Pirkei Avos, including:

One can not undertake a job with enthusiasm unless he is aware of the benefits it will bring. This Mishnah reminds us that the goal of keeping the Torah and obeying the commandments is to bring a person into the World-To-Come. (Me’am Lo’ez).

When reading the multitude of admonitions in Pirkei Avos, once might lose hope for the World-To-Come, since it may feel impossible to fulfill all of these teachings. This Mishnah inspires us to remain hopeful, for every Jew has a portion in the World-To-Come. (Kehati)

When the Mishnah says that all Israel has a portion in the World to Come, it means that every Jew has a share in the Torah and in Divine Service, each according to his level and capabilities. (Rav Yisrael, the Maggid of Koznitz)

The Mishnah literally says a share "towards" the World-To-Come. The World-To-Come is not a pre-existing place in which one’s share awaits him, commensurate with his good deeds. Rather, it is something that we create for ourselves by the way we live in the world. We gain the World-To-Come through working towards it, by performing good deeds. (Ruach Chaim)

A call to unity is reflected in the first two words of the Mishnah. The word "kol" ("all") consists of two letters, "kaph" and "lamed," which stand for Kohenim and Levi’im and are followed by the next word, Yisrael. These words form the three constituent sections of the Jewish People. When Jews are joined together by unity and brotherhood, they conjointly enjoy a share in the World-To-Come. The concept of the oneness of the Jewish people is a very appropriate introduction into Jewish ethics. (Rabbi Shlomo Toperoff)

"Inherit the land." The land is the "land of the living" (Psalms 142:6), an allegory for the spiritual rewards of the World-To-Come. (Rambam)

"In which to take pride". Since every Jew’s soul is an actual part of G-d, each Jew praises G-d by his/her very existence. When one becomes aware of his/her G-dly core, one appreciates: (a) the necessity of refining oneself so that this essential quality can be expressed; and (b) that each individual, regardless of his/her present level of development, has the potential to achieve such refinement. (The Lubavitcher Rebbe, z’tl)

[avos-menu.htm]

CHAPTER ONE

1:1. Moshe received Torah from Sinai, and transmitted it to Joshua, Joshua to the Elders, the Elders to the Prophets, and the Prophets transmitted it to the Men of the Great Assembly. They said three things: Be deliberate in judgment; raise up many disciples; and make a fence for the Torah

"Moshe received Torah from Sinai"

This opening statement teaches us that every word cited in this tractate (as indeed the entire Oral Law) can be traced back to Moshe and, in turn, to G-d Himself. (Kehati). The other tractates deal with ritual obligations, which are obviously Divine in origin. Pirkei Avos, on the other hand, deals with ethics. It is extremely important to emphasize that the source of these teachings is also Divine Revelation, and not mere human wisdom. (The Lubavitcher Rebbe, z’tl)

In many areas (e.g., the Holiday of Shavuos), emphasis is placed on the "giving" of the Torah. In regard to ethics, it is the "receiving" of the Torah -- how the Torah is internalized in one’s being -- which is highlighted. For in this realm it is not abstract knowledge which is important, but rather how the Torah is applied in life. (The Lubavitcher Rebbe, z’tl)

The Talmud teaches that Moshe’s vast well of knowledge did not remain in tact. "The face of Moshe was like the sun, while the face of Joshua like the moon." (Bava Basra 75a). This conveys that a measure of Divine knowledge was somehow lost in the transfer from Moshe from Joshua. Nevertheless, Mesorah (the transmission of knowledge) did take place. And although it is undeniably true that the knowledge of Moshe originally imparted to Joshua became more and more diluted with each passing generation, vast amounts of wisdom were still being transmitted from teacher to student, and we are all the beneficiaries of these teachings. (Sforno)

The Greatness of Moshe. Rabbi David Moshe of Tchortkov said with tears in his eyes: it is written that Moshe was meek above all men. How are we to interpret this? He with whom G-d spoke and whose work was so mighty -- how could he think himself less than others? The reason is this: in those 40 days which Moshe spent on Mt. Sinai, his body became pure like that of the angels. After that time he said to himself, "of what importance is it, if I, whose body is purified, give service to G-d? But if a Jew who is stuck in his turbid flesh serves G-d -- how much greater is he?!

"The Torah". R’ Yonah stresses that Torah includes the Written Law (i.e., 5 Books of Moshe) and accompanying Oral Law, the interpretation of the Text. R’ Aharon Kotler likened the relationship of the two to the difference between a world map and street map. On a huge map, New York City appears as a small black dot. Using only that map, one could never find a particular location within the city. Only with a detailed map can one locate his/her destination. Similarly, the basic map -- the Written Law -- needs the Oral Law to fill out its details.

"From Sinai". Why does it say "from Sinai," rather than "from G-d"? Sinai underscores two important character traits. On the one hand, Sinai is a mountain, reminding us to stand tall in the face of any and all challenges. Nevertheless, Mt. Sinai is "lower than all the mountains," emphasizing that this pride must be tempered with humility. (The Lubavitcher Rebbe, z’tl). "Sinai" refers not only to the location, but to the historical event that took place there (i.e., the giving of the Torah in the sight and hearing of the entire Jewish people). It is the directness of this Divine Revelation that the term "Sinai" brings to mind. (R’ S.R. Hirsch)

"They said three things". The maxims cited enhance and strengthen the three most important foundations in the life of the Jewish people: justice, education and Torah (the observance of mitzvot). (Kehati) The retention of Torah and wisdom can only be achieved by one who fears sin and acts ethically. It was this exalted state that enabled Moshe, Joshua and the Elders to receive and transmit the Torah. (Midrash Shmuel)

"Be deliberate in judgment". This was a lesson for judges and Rabbis -- do not rush to render a decision. Study the case well, so that you will not render a wrong verdict. (However, when the case is clear-cut and requires little analysis, it is correct and proper to render a decision quickly.) (Me’Am Lo’ez) This maxim can be extended to all people, for each of us is a "judge" of people and situations daily.

"Raise up many disciples". Be not like the School of Shammai who taught "teach only him who is wise, humble and of good stock." Rather, heed the words of the School of Hillel and "teach every man, for many sinners of Israel were drawn to Torah, and righteous, pious and worthy men emerged from among them." (Kehati) The words "raise up" is calling upon us to support Torah scholars. (Midrash Shmuel)

"A Fence For the Torah". One must create preventive safeguards against potential violations of the Torah. This concept is familiar in many areas. For example, the government will enact a margin of safety in the dosage of potentially harmful drugs, weight limits on airplanes, etc. (Artscroll Pirkei Avos Treasury)

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1:2. Simon the Just was of the remnants of the Great Assembly. He used to say: On three things the world stands: on the Torah, on the (Temple) Service, and on Deeds of Loving-Kindness.

"On three things" The Torah shows a person how to conduct his life. Service (prayer) enables one to internalize the Torah’s teachings, and deeds of kindness express these teachings in the world at large. (The Lubavitcher Rebbe, z’tl) The purpose of creation of the world was so that humans would find favor with G-d through the pursuit of these three things. (R’ Yonah and Rav)

"On the Torah" As our Sages said, "Great is the Torah; were it not for Torah, heaven and earth would not exist."

"On the Service". Following the destruction of the Temple, prayer (which is worship of the heart) was substituted for sacrificial service. Another interpretation is that "service" refers to the general observance of mitzvos. Still others interpret "service" as physical work such as plowing, sowing, reaping, etc. though which man becomes a partner with G-d in the work of creation. (Kehati)

"On Deeds of Loving-Kindness."

As our Sages taught, acts of loving-kindness are greater than charity since: (a) while charity is performed with property, such acts are performed with both our possessions and ourselves; (b) charity is given only to the poor, whereas such acts are extended to the poor as well as the rich; and (c) charity relates only to the living, whereas such acts can be practiced towards both the living and dead. (Sukkah 49b)

Whenever we move, our shadow moves with us. Likewise, G-d is man’s shadow (Tehillim 121:5) and moves as we move, so to speak. For example, if we are kind to others, G-d is kind to us. How important is it, then, to act with kindness at all times in order to draw down Divine Kindness upon oneself. (The Baal Shem Tov)

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1.3: Antignos of Sokho received (Torah) from Simon the Just. He used to say: Be not like the servants who serve the master for the sake of receiving a reward, but be like the servants who serve the master not for the sake of receiving a reward; and let the fear of Heaven be upon you.

"Be not like servants . . . "

A servant who requested payment from his master would be told that it was his duty to serve his master and that his master is under no obligation to give him any gift. The same is true of our relation to G-d. We have an obligation to keep the Torah; G-d, on the other hand, is under no obligation to repay us. Merely for His giving us existence, we should serve Him day and night without fail. When one expects a reward from G-d, it shows that he doesn’t recognize the kindness that G-d does for him constantly. (Me’am Lo’ez)

A servant who does his master’s work is entitled to compensation. However, if the master does all the work and the servant merely assists, what reward can the servant expect? G-d is the Master and Ruler; His servant, the Jew fulfilling mitzvos, is only an assistant. A Jew should rejoice in the privilege of assisting in the work of the Creator, but to request a reward for this?! What foolishness. (The Baal Shem Tov)

According to Rashi, this directive applies only to physical reward -- it is perfectly in order, however, to perform mitzvos expecting spiritual reward. (Midrash Shmuel)

This Mishnah appears to be inconsistent with other Mishnahs (e.g., Chapter 2:1, which tells us to "calculate the cost of [not fulfilling] a mitzvah against its reward."). This Mishnah is not telling us that it is impermissible to seek a reward; rather, it teaches that the finest way to serve G-d is out of pure love for Him. (Tosafos Yom Tov).

The Sages teach us that this verse refers to a reward today -- the reward will come tomorrow (i.e., in the World-To-Come). Antignos means to say that if man longs for a reward for his Divine service, he should not be disappointed if it is not forthcoming. One should never feel that all his toil was in vain. Often, G-d holds back even basic necessities to test one’s level of commitment to G-d. Therefore, teaches Antignos, be not like servants who serve the master for the sake of receiving a reward in this world. (Artscroll Pirkei Avos Treasury)

At first glance, the second clause appears to merely be the mirror image of the first clause. However, this is not the case. Instead, the Mishnah is teaching us that there are three basic attributes that people can adopt concerning the service of G-d: (a) to serve G-d on condition that a reward is forthcoming; (b) to serve G-d unconditionally, yet nevertheless hoping to receive a reward; and (c) to serve G-d without any ulterior motives whatsoever. Clause (a) is addressed by the first clause. Without the second clause, one could infer that (b) is ideal. However, the second clause teaches us that (c) is the ideal state of service. (Midrash Shmuel)

"Let the Fear of Heaven be upon you."

Even while we serve G-d out of love, we must also serve Him out of fear as well. Whereas love of G-d leads to diligence in the performance of positive commandments, the fear of G-d leads to diligence in the performance of the negative commandments, and both are necessary for the perfect compliance with the Will of G-d. (Kehati)

Antignos explains that there are two kinds of fear. One is the plain, visceral fear of punishment which deters one from displeasing G-d. The second is on a much higher level. It is a sense of awe and reverence engendered by one’s recognition of the superiority and greatness of Hashem. Antignos urges us to develop the latter kind of fear. (Sfrono)

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1.4: Yose ben Yoezer of Tzeredah and Yose ben Yohanan of Jerusalem received (Torah) from them. Yose ben Yoezer said: Let your house be a meeting place for Sages, and sit amid the dust of their feet, and drink in their words with thirst.

"Let your house . . . " Structure your house [environment] so that it will be a place where Sages frequently gather. (Rambam) Sforno interprets this verse as "let your house be in the meeting place of Sages" (i.e., in the House of Study). That is, spend the majority of your time in the House of Study, reminiscent of David’s request, "one thing I have asked of Hashem that I seek: That I dwell in the House of Hashem all the days of my life (Psalms 27:4)."

"Sit amid the dust of their feet".

One must follow them everywhere even if he is covered with the dust raised by their footsteps. Other explain that this is in accordance with the prevalent custom whereby the Sage would sit on a stool while his disciples sat at his feet on the ground.

Even those who are incapable of comprehending a Torah scholar’s Torah dissertation can learn Derech Eretz (proper ethical conduct) and worthy personality traits from a Torah scholar. (Rabbi Menachem of Beit Meir, cited in Midrash Shmuel)

One will always gain from the presence of Torah scholars in one’s house, since it is impossible not to assimilate wisdom from them. This is analogous to one who enters a perfumery; merely by entering, he absorbs some of the sweet scent. (Rav)

"Drink in their words with thirst".

Sfrono interprets "their words" to mean not their words of Torah, but their informal, seemingly ordinary speech."

Rabbi Yitzchak Hunter explains the analogy of Torah to water. One is obligated to recite a blessing before drinking any beverage, even if he is not thirsty. An exception to this rule is water. Only if one is thirsty for water must he recite a blessing, because one derives enjoyment and blessing only if one is thirsty for it. It is the same with Torah learning; in order to get the proper and maximum benefit from it, one must be thirsty for it. (Artscroll Pirkei Avos Treasury)

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1:5: Yose ben Yohanan of Jerusalem said: Let your house be wide open and let the needy be members of your household, and do not engage in too much idle talk with a woman. They said this of a man’s own wife, how much more so of his fellow’s wife. Hence the Sages said: Whoever engages in too much idle talk with a woman brings evil upon himself, and neglects the study of the Torah, and ultimately will inherit Gehinom.

"Let your house be wide open." It is possible that the Mishnah teaches that a person who gives generously to the poor will be blessed by Hashem with wealth and plenty. That is, as a reward for being generous, your house becomes an open receptacle to receive Hashem’s blessing. (Midrash Shmuel) Your household should be as accessible as the tent of Abraham, which had entrances from all four directions in order to provide easy access. (Rav; R’ Yonah) Anyone who needs help of any kind -- physical comfort, money, sound advice -- should be able to find it in your home. (Tiferes Yisrael)

"Let the needy be members of your household." You should treat the poor like members of your own household. When you give charity, it should be with a cheerful countenance and kind words, just as if you were giving it to your own family. (Me’am Lo’ez)

"Do not engage . . . "

Out of concern that one might misinterpret this Mishnah as a degradation of women’s intelligence and judgment, the Sforno reminds us that the Sages have always encouraged consulting with one’s wife. Rabbi Yose’s only concern is that excessive idle conversation robs one of precious time which could be used more productively.

A man who truly respects his wife will have more to offer her than idle chatter. He will want to discuss with her the serious concerns of life and will derive enjoyment from the resulting exchange of views and counsel. (R’ S.R. Hirsch).

A letter written by R’ Akiva Eiger after his wife’s death sheds light on the true meaning of this Mishnah and marriage. He wrote to his children in response to a proposal for him to remarry: "Do you consider me so insensitive and heartless as to rush to accept a marriage proposal while still in mourning? Am I to forget the love of the beloved wife of my youth, with whom G-d allowed me to raise upstanding, blessed children? The little bit of Torah in me is only due to her help -- she carefully kept watch over my health and bore all the financial worries of our home, so that I would not be distracted from the service of G-d. Now that she is gone, I am bereft and emotionally like a broken vessel. Who will pasture our young sheep (children); with whom shall I share my worries and find some respite? Who will care for me? Which person knows better than I of her righteousness and modesty? (Igros Soferim)

A marital relationship based on frivolity will eventually deteriorate. While it initially seems exciting, the thrill soon wears off, and all that is left is disrespect for the other partner. (Artscroll Pirkei Avos Treasury)

Excessive idle chatter can induce an improper environment, but any necessary conversation is permitted with any woman. (Binyan Yehoshua to Avos d’Rabbi Nosson).

The Chazon Ish wrote that this dictum refers only to frivolous talk meant to incite improper behavior, but one who seeks to calm, soothe and reassure one’s mate or to express affection is permitted, and even encouraged, to engage in small talk.

This Mishnah must be understood in context, not in isolation. The Mishnah encourages us to open our homes and entertain the stranger and wayfarer. However, we must draw a clear line between hospitality and idle chatter which can lead to promiscuity. Furthermore, we are to find time to spend with the poor; this is a mitzvah, but time is precious and should not be frittered away in unnecessary conversation with one’s own wife and certainly not another’s wife. The Rabbis were not adverse to conversations which are essential and conducive to friendship and a good relationship. (Rabbi Toperoff)

"Idle Talk"

Avot de Rabbi Natan comments that this means that if one has been treated disrespectfully or has had an disagreement with a friend, he should not go home and tell his wife what transpired. If he does, he embarrasses both his wife and the other party.

Man is distinguished from plants and animals by our ability to talk. Why is speech singled out over intellect or emotion to define man’s uniqueness? Because speech gives him the ability to transcend his own being and relate to others. While conversation is the purpose of man’s creation, this Mishnah reminds us that the goal of man’s creative efforts should be Torah study, not idle talk. (The Lubavitcher Rebbe, z’tl)

Idle talk may seem to be an innocent pastime, but in the end it grows on people. Instead of cultivating the art of being a good listener, one can become a compulsive talker, draining one of time to study Torah. (Rabbi Toperoff)

"One’s wife".

The letters of the Hebrew words meaning "one’s wife" correspond to the opening letters of the first four words of Tehillim 51:19, with which we begin our prayers: "L-rd, open my lips and my mouth will declare your praise." The Mishnah is thus telling us that our prayers must not be idle talk. One must not speak boastfully in prayers; rather, one must pray with humility and submission, pouring out his soul. This is said even concerning one who merits such closeness to G-d that he is likened to a husband and the Divine Presence to his wife. Regarding one who is as far removed from the Divine Presence as he is from the wife of another, how much more so must he pray with great humility. (Rav Yitzchak Isaac of Komarna)

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1:6: Yehoshua ben Perahyah and Nitai the Arbelite received (Torah) from them. Yehoshua ben Perahyah said: Provide yourself with a teacher; acquire a companion; and judge every person in the scale of merit.

From here we learn that one must not isolate himself, for solitude breeds error, failure and despair. To avoid this, one requires three things: (a) a teacher, to teach Torah, deepen his understanding, resolve his doubts, and guide him to a sound method of reasoning; (b) a honest and faithful companion, to sharpen his intellect in the study of Torah, encourage him during difficult times and lend him assistance in times of needs; and (c) a positive attitude towards every person, avoiding suspicion and blame of others, so as to integrate with people and appreciate their merits. (Kehati)

"Provide yourself with a teacher".

Make yourself a teacher, and share your Torah knowledge with others even if you don’t consider yourself to be a "Rav".

Rabbi Chaim Soloveichik used to say, "from books, one can learn what to say; a Rebbe teaches him what not to say."

"Acquire a companion".

Usually, friends are "free." However, there are times when in order to keep a friend one must support him. One must do so, for study with a companion allows one’s mind to be sharpened and one to gain much Torah knowledge.

As Rabbi Chanina said, "much have I learned from my teachers, more from my colleagues and most from my students." Some commentators maintain that "acquire" does not relate only to Torah study, but to all practical matters. A person should do everything in his power to earn the friendship of a good person, for it is impossible to survive without a friend to serve as a guide and counsel in all his/her endeavors. As Ecclesiastes says, "two are better than one . . . for if they fall, one will lift the other." Every person must have a companion with whom to study Torah, bare his soul and seek advice. (Me’am Lo’ez)

Rashi suggests that this means that one should acquire Jewish books -- they are great companions and essential for acquiring Torah knowledge.

Sforno explains the link between "acquire a companion" and "judge every person in the scale of merit" -- unless one judges others favorably, he will find himself isolated and alone, for it will be difficult to find friends.

A good friend can serve three functions: (a) a catalyst for increased success at Torah study; (b) ensuring one’s mitzvos fulfillment; and (c) providing good advice in all areas and acting as a discreet confidant who does not reveal one’s secrets to others. (Artscroll Pirkei Avos Treasury)

"Judge every person in the scale of merit"

As it is stated, "one who judges his fellow man in the scale of merit is similarly judged favorably by others." (Kehati)

Judging one favorably involves an honest appreciation of the challenges which the person faces and this awareness should also lead to the understanding that G-d has surely given that person the ability to overcome these challenges. This, in turn, should heighten the sensitivity with which we regard this individual, for he is a person to whom G-d has entrusted this formidable power necessary to overcome such challenges. When the manner in which we relate to that person reflects such respect, this will inspire the individual to bring these potentials to the surface. (The Lubavitcher Rebbe, z’tl)

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

Literally, the Mishnah says to judge "all the person" favorably. Even if one does something improper, look at the totality of the person. Surely his good deeds and virtues outweigh this misconduct. Judge the "whole person." (Rav Yehudah Leib of Gur, the Sefas Emes, z’tl)

"Scale of merit". Kiddushin 40a-b teaches us that we should regard ourselves half guilty and half meritorious. If we perform one good deed, the scales are tipped toward merit; if we perform one transgression, the scales are tipped toward the side of guilt.

When Natan the Prophet came to offer rebuke to King David, he began with a parable of two citizens, one wealthy and another poor. The rich man owned much cattle, while the poor man owned only one small sheep; but the rich man stole the poor man’s sheep. When David heard this story, he was appalled. "Let the man who did this die," he declared passionately. Only then did Natan explain that this was but a parallel to David’s own situation, since he had taken Bas-sheva from Uriah the Hittite. In this way, David indicted himself. So, taught the Baal Shem Tov, does man decide his own punishment for his transgressions. He is given the opportunity to view someone else doing exactly what he did, in a slightly camouflaged form, and in a fit of righteous indignation he passes sentence. The fashion in which man judges his friend is in reality the way he is judged from Heaven. It is for this reason (among others) that we are taught to judge others favorably.

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1:7: Nittai the Arbelite said: Distance yourself from a bad neighbor; do not associate with a wicked person; and do not despair of retribution.

"Distance Yourself From A Bad Neighbor".

Arbel says one should stay away from a bad neighbor, so as not to learn from his actions. Alternatively, one should stay away from him so as not to be caught in the path of retribution that will befall him.

Tiferes Yisrael views these words more practically -- distance yourself from an angry, jealous or arrogant neighbor, for you are bound to be damaged by his company.

R’ Yonah sees this verse as advice as to how to pick a place to live -- one’s inquiry about the neighbors is as important as one’s inquiry about the living conditions themselves.

The Ben Ish Chai interprets this Mishnah as "distance [the evil] from a bad neighbor" -- rather than distancing yourself from him, help him repent, for one who can bring his friend to repentance but fails to do so bear some of his guilt. A famous Talmudic story illustrates this approach: In Rav Meir’s neighborhood, there were ruffians who constantly tormented him. He wanted to pray that they die, but his wise wife Beruriah said, "rather than praying for their death, you should pray that they repent." He did so, and they in fact repented. (Berachos 10a)

The word for "neighbor" is derived from the word "dweller". The Mishnah therefore teaches us to distance ourselves from evil for the sake of the "One Who [Hashem] dwells within us". When one invites a king into his house, he cleanses it thoroughly first. All the more so must one cleanse himself before Hashem will dwell within him. (R’ Meir of Vramyslan)

"Do Not Associate With A Wicked Person"

Any association is detrimental, even if one does not learn to imitate him. Mere exposure can cause the negative influence to rub off. (Rav, based upon Pirkei d’Rabbi Eliezer).

What is the difference between a "bad neighbor" and a "wicked person"? A "wicked person" is one who sins but does not induce others to do so; therefore, one must only refrain from actively associating with him. A "bad neighbor," on the other hand, is one who is remiss in his duties to G-d and bad towards his fellow man; such a person not only sins himself but seeks to involves others in sin. Thus, we are enjoined to keep a distance from him. (Tiferes Yisrael)

The Mishnah does not say to "distance oneself" from the wicked, but only not to associate with them. Even to the wicked one must show love and concern, in hopes of returning his goodness. However, one must be careful not to associate with him -- i.e., not to become like him -- but rather to turn him into a righteous person. (The Lubavitcher Rebbe, z’tl)

"Do Not Despair of Retribution"

One should not despair -- ignore the possibility -- that retribution will suddenly befall the evil one, for eventually his time will come. (Rav and R’ Yonah).

Do not be deluded into believing that retribution will only occur in the World-To-Come, for retribution may be enacted even in this world. Therefore, do not give up on the certainty of retribution. (Rambam)

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1:8.  Yehudah ben Tabbai and Shimon ben Shatach received the tradition from them.  Yehudah ben Tabbai says: “[When serving as a judge,] do not act as a lawyer; while the litigants stand before you, consider them both as guilty; but when they are dismissed from you, consider them both as innocent, provided they have accepted the judgment.

“Do Not Act As A Lawyer”

A judge must always remain an impartial arbiter. Even if he is convinced that one of the parties is right, he should not advise that litigant on how to prepare his case.  (Rav; Rashi, et al.)  In certain extraordinary instances, when a particular piece of evidence has not been properly stressed by one of litigants due to ignorance, weakness or awkwardness, the judge is required to intercede and “open the mouth of speechless,” presenting queries and claims on their behalf.  (See Shulchan Aruch Chosen Mishpat 17:9; Gittin 37b; Ketubot 36a) (Artscroll Pirkei Avos Treasury)

Rashi views this verse as further instructing judges not to offer their opinion of a case prior to trial, nor to announce the verdict unless both of the parties (or their representatives) are present.

Mei Marom offers an insight into the dual characteristics necessary to ensure true judgment.  Human judges, we learn, must follow the Divine model in administering justice.  G-d is involved in the most intimate of human affairs and is, simultaneously, totally separated from them.  So, too, must the human judge be intellectually fully empathetic to the litigants yet at the same time must remain totally impartial. 

Chida in Zeroa Yemin extends this verse to self-judgment: we tend to employ complex arguments to justify our shortcomings, often rivaling the sharpest lawyer.  Thus, when judging ourselves, we should not act as our “lawyer,” unwilling to admit the guilt of his client.  We can not improve ourselves unless we face the reality of our shortcomings. 

The Mishnah is perhaps alluding to our relationship with the Supreme Judge, Hashem.  Just as we should not furnish litigants with spurious arguments, so too we should not assist our fellow Jew (and ourselves) in finding excuses for his (our) deficiencies.  Rather, it would be far more prudent to encourage our peers (and ourselves) to confess their (our) errors and improve themselves (ourselves).  (S’fas Emes)

 “While The Litigants Stand Before You, Consider Them Both As Guilty”.

 While the trial is in process, the judge must be skeptical of both parties; this allows him to remain objective and ferret out the truth (Rav; Tosafos Yomin Tov). 

“When They Are Dismissed From You, Consider Them Both As Innocent, Provided They Have Accepted the Judgment“

Once they have accepted the judgment, the judge must not carry with him into his civilian life any adverse impressions.  (R’ S.R. Hirsch).

Our Sages say that “everyone who renders true judgment becomes a partner with Hashem in creation.”  (Shabbos 10a).  The judge transforms the guilty parties into righteous parties and they depart innocent.  This act entitles him to be considered a partner with Hashem.  (Rav Chaim Kosov)

The Mishnah teaches one not to act as a legal expert who merely delineates the scope of halachah (law), but rather to speak words of such warmth and inspiration that by the time the person leaves your presence his life has been totally changed.  Kozhnitzer Maggid

[avos-menu.htm] 1:9:  Shimon ben Shatach says: Interrogate the witnesses extensively; yet be cautious with your words, lest they learn from them to lie.

“Interrogate the witnesses extensively”

Questioning should be conducted at a rapid-fire pace, never leaving the witnesses time to tailor their answers to meet the expectations of the interrogator.  Midrash Shmuel.

Shimon ben Shatach issued this call in response to a personal tragedy -- the Sadducees primed false witnesses to testify against Shimon’s own sons.  Shimon’s own court accepted their testimony, and erroneously imposed the death penalty against him. Rashbam; see Rashi, Sanhedrin 44b)

The S’fas Emes views this as an allegory for the great trial of life.  We must consider our actions carefully, sitting on any course of action before proceeding.  The evil and good inclinations are the witnesses, each testifying for the purpose of its vested interest.  We must thoroughly and intensively interrogate each of these “witnesses” in order the path of truth.

There is also homiletic dimension to this teaching: Our Sages say that “the wall of a person’s home testify regarding his [character]”.  On the most simple level, it is possible to “examine the witnesses” by studying the walls of their house -- which books, pictures, etc. do they feature.  (The Lubavitcher Rebbe, z’tl)

“Yet Be Cautious With Your Words, Lest They Learn From Them To Lie”

Not only the witnesses, but also the litigants, will learn to lie.  (Tosafos Tom Tov, cited in Artscroll)

What does “lying” mean?  When interrogating witnesses or litigants, one must take care not to give them any indication of the direction of one’s probing (i.e., so that they do not like in order to accommodate the questioner).  (Artscroll)

When issuing a verdict, do not elaborate more than necessary on the reasons for the ruling, lest people may study the case in order to learn how to deceive the court in the future.  (HaChassid Yaavetz, cited in Artscroll)

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1:10: Shemayah and Avtalyon received the tradition from them: Shemayah says: Love work; despise positions of power; and do not become overly familiar with the government.

“Love Work”

An occupation is beneficial beyond producing income: it keeps one occupied and prevents mental deterioration.  Tosafos Yom Tov.

Not all occupations are equally desirable from a Torah viewpoint.  As R’ Meir teaches, “one should always teach his child a clean and easy trade” -- “clean” in that it does not lend itself to dishonesty, and “easy” in that it does not require excessive involvement, so that he/she is not prevented from studying Torah.  Artscroll

As R’Meir further teaches, “and should pray to Him to Whom all wealth and possessions belong, because there is no trade that does not include both want and wealth” [in every trade there are wealthy men and poor men; thus, no matter what his trade, he must rely on G-d”.  Artscroll. 

When the 39 categories of work prohibited on the Shabbos are performed during the weekdays, they purify and rectify the world.  For example, work leads to production of the food we eat.  When we say a blessing before and after eating food, we sanctify it.  When we are nurtured and strengthened by it, and harness such sustenance to study Torah and perform mitzvos, we elevate the food within us.  Rav Schneur Zalman of Liadi 

The Midrash recounts that the emperor Hadrian was passing along the lanes near Tiberias and saw an old man breaking up the soil to plant trees.  He said to him, “Old man, if you worked early, there would be no need for you to work so late in your life.”  The old man replied, “I have toiled both early and late, and what was pleasing to the L-rd of Heaven he has done with me.”  Hadrian asked him his age.  When the answer was 100 years old, Hadrian exclaimed, “you are 100 years old and stand breaking up the trees in order to plant soil!  Do you expect to eat of their fruit?!”  He replied, “if I am worthy, I shall eat. But, if not, as my father labored for me, I labor for my children.”  (Schlomo Toperoff)

“Despise Positions of Power”

Positions of power shorten one’s life.  (Rashi). 

Seats of authority are precarious, for jealousy abounds and one may be forced to react in a spiritually inappropriate manner in order to protect one’s power. Rambam

“Do Not Become Overly Familiar With The Government”. 

Government officials show favor to people solely for their own purposes.  The moment they no longer stand to gain from their relationship with you, the relationship is summarily terminated.  (Rashi)

Maintaining this relationship demands an overwhelming degree of servitude and allegiance, and may cause one to compromise one’s moral and spiritual principles in order to remain in favor.  (Rambam)

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1:11: Avtalyon says: Scholars, be cautious with your words, for you may incur the penalty of exile and be banished to a place of evil waters [heresy].  The disciples who follow you there may drink and die and, consequently, the Name of Heaven may be desecrated.

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1:12: Hillel and Shammai received the tradition from them.  Hillel says: Be among the disciples of Aaron, loving peace and pursuing peace, loving people and bringing them closer to the Torah.

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1:13: He used to say: He who seeks renown loses his reputation; he who does not increase [his Torah learning] decreases it; he who refuses to teach [Torah] deserves death; and he who exploits the crown [of Torah] shall fade away.

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1:14: He used to say: If I am not for myself, who will be for me? And if I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?

Introduction  [NOTE: ADD ARTSCROLL]

We must transcend our physical limitations and rise above our individual existence in this world.  Thus, if we are neither concerned with or aware of ourselves, who can stand before us?  I need fear nothing, for no foreign thoughts will disturb me.  But, if I am only concerned with my own importance and significance, what am I?  How truly important I am and how significant is my worship of G-d (interrupted as it is by foreign thoughts)?  (The Baal Shem Tov)

This Misnah awakens us to do mitzvos and good deeds, because: (a) there is no one else to rely on for spiritual achievement; (b) even one’s fullest efforts fall short of the spiritual needs and potential of the soul; and (c) one must act now, for one’s days are short.  These statements have been placed together for they each reflect Hillel’s humility.  (The Maharal of Prague)

This teaching can be interpreted within the context of Misnah 12’s charge to reach out to others.  That is, if we do not take an active role in these efforts, what merit will we have?  Whether or not we involve ourselves, the task for which were are destined will be accomplished for the good destined in our world will not be decreased.  Nevertheless, when we do not shoulder the task destined for us, we will lack the merit we were fated to acquire.  Furthermore, if we are only willing to apply ourselves to the task before us but “only for ourselves”, without seeking advise or help from others, what are we -- we fall beneath the level of humanity.  Finally, we must be aware of the urgency aware and not postpone our efforts.  (The Lubavitcher Rebbe, z’tl)

“If I Am Not For Myself”

If I do not arouse my soul to higher things, who will arouse it? If I do fulfill the commandments, who will fulfill them for me? (Artscroll)

Even if I grow spiritually, there is still much more for me to do; consequently, I can never be fully satisfied with myself. 

Every person has a task in this world that only he/she can perform.  For this task, he/she was created and no one else can accomplish it for him/her.  (S’fas Emes)

One can not acquire a portion in the World-To-Come through an envoy.  (Unlike material possessions, which one can at times acquire through one’s personal representatives.)  S’forno.

“If I Am For Myself, What Am I?”

If I make an effort only to respect myself, but do not try to teach others to try to fulfill the word of Hashem, what am I? (S’forno)

“If Not Now, When?”

There is no excuse for refraining from increasing one’s Torah knowledge, or from teaching others, by claiming that one will do it at some future time for the time one squanders can never be replaced, as life is short and never long enough to complete G-d’s work.  (S’forno)  

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