Pirkei Avot -- Chapter 3

Quotes, as indicated by number at end after author's name, are from:
(1) In the Paths of Our Fathers by Eliyahu Tauger (Kehot)
(2) Fathers and Sons by Tuvia Kaplan (Targum Press)
(3) Pirkei Avos in the Light of Chassidus by Yekutiel Green (Author)
(4) Tzava'at Harivash by Jacob Immanuel Schochet (Kehot)
(5) The Baal Shem Tov on Pirkey Avot by
Charles Wengrov (Inst. for Mishnah Research)
(6) Pirkei Avos by the Sfas Emes and other Gerer Rabbis by Rabbi Y. Stern(Artscroll)

(7) Midrash Shmuel by Rabbi Shmuel ? of 16th century Tsfat, as translated in (3) above
(8) Maharal of Prague: Pirkei Avos by Tuvia Basser (Mesorah)

New Insight

Mishnah 2

But if two sit together and words of Torah are uttered between him, the Shechina abides between them.

When two people meet, it is by the plan of Heaven's watchful care and regulation. Then the intention (of Heaven) is that the encounter should be utilized for the purpose of Torah learning and mitzvot. In the encounter lies an intimation that each of the two needs to learn something from the other, and he is equally obligated to exert some effect or influence on the other in regard to Torah learning and mitzvot, and not merely with charity or deeds of kindness.

Sefer haMa'amarim, 1949, p.45 (5)

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Previous Insights on Chapter 3

 Mishnah 1

"..And before whom you are destined to give an accounting.."

This is to be taken literally, and the reason that the verdict precedes the accounting is simply that all is known and foreseen by G-d. Therefore, He gives the verdict before an accounting is made. If a person makes an appeal against his sentence, the Holy One, blessed is He, will show him a detailed accounting of all that he did in this world.

Midrash Shmuel (3)

"Know from where you came, and to where you are going, and before Whom you are destined to give an accounting…"

Three things cause a person to sin: 1. Arrogance and disdain for others. 2. Indulgence in pleasures and worldly acquisitions. 3. Imagining that there is no ultimate judgment and accounting. Hence, when a person reflects upon the three things written in our Mishnah, he will uproot the causes of sin from his soul.

Midrash Shmuel (7)

 

"Consider three things and you will not come into the grip of sin…"

By simply reflecting on these questions, we have our life's mission. G-d dispatched man's soul from its sacred heavenly origins into this mundane world knowing that we can maintain its purity, even while it is encased in the body, by never losing sight of the fundamental beliefs stated in our mishna.

Maggidei HaEmes in the name of Imrei Emes (6)

 

"Reflect upon three things and you will not come to sin...."

Reflection in this sense is indicative of the deepest levels of meditation. When a person takes the mission for which his soul descended to this world seriously, he will reflect upon the ultimate elevation of his soul which comes about through his being in this world, and he knows that eventually he is destined to give an accounting. By reflecting on these things, he will certainly not come near sin - he will not transgress inadvertently, and he will fulfill his mission in life fully.

Rabbi Yosef Yitschak of Lubavitch, Ma'amarim 5705, p. 217 (3)


"Know from where you came…"

Me-ayin, the Hebrew for "from where, can also be interpreted as "from nothingness." Thus the phrase can be interpreted "Know that you came from nothingness," i.e. the source of the soul is transcendent G-dliness, above the limits of our mortal conception.
Moreover, this source exerts a constant influence on the soul as it exists in our world, propelling it to selfless conduct. A persons awareness of this fact heightens the effectiveness of this influence, and takes the person further from sin.

The Lubavitcher Rebbe (1)

 


Mishnah 2

"Were it not for the fear of it (the government), men would swallow one another alive."

Men are like fish - the bigger ones swallow the smaller ones. And were it not for the fear of the government, men would swallow one another alive. (Bartenura)

Some say that men are even worse than fish, for a fish swallows only one that is smaller than it, but not one that is its equal, whereas a man is prepared to try and swallow even one who is his colleague (re'ah, here translated as "one another," literally means colleague or friend).
(Midrash Shmuel)

"…Then the G-d-fearing conversed..."

The Hebrew word here for "conversed" - nedabru -- rather than dibru, indicates that they conversed with one another, i.e. each of them was interested in the other's view. Unlike those who argue only in order to express their own views.

Midrash Shmuel (7)

 

But if two sit together and words of Torah are uttered between him, the Shechina abides between them.

When two people meet, it is by the plan of Heaven's watchful care and regulation. Then the intention (of Heaven) is that the encounter should be utilized for the purpose of Torah learning and mitzvot. In the encounter lies an intimation that each of the two needs to learn something from the other, and he is equally obligated to exert some effect or influence on the other in regard to Torah learning and mitzvot, and not merely with charity or deeds of kindness.

Sefer haMa'amarim, 1949, p.45 (5)

 

"The Divine Presence rests between them…allots a reward for him"

When two individuals study together, the Divine Presence — a level of revelation beyond the grasp of mortals — is drawn down. In contrast, when an individual studies alone, he receives a reward, for he has done a worthy act, but the reward is limited.
What is the difference? When a person communicates with others, he extends himself beyond his individual limits. Therefore, study in such a setting evokes a transcendent revelation of G-dliness. When, by contrast, a person studies alone, his understanding cannot grow beyond the limits of his own thought. Therefore, the reward is also limited.

The Lubavitcher Rebbe (1)

 

"Pray for the welfare of the [ruling] kingdom, for were it not for the fear of it men would swallow one another alive."

Pirkei Avot is not wont to speak in metaphors. If the intent is merely to say that people would wantonly kill each other were it not for the rule of law, the mishnah would have said just that. Moreover, the purpose of Pirkei Avot is to teach pious behavior, i.e. conduct beyond the measure of the law. Seemingly, Rabbi Chanina'a advice and the situation it wishes to forestall are basic matters - relevant to people at even a rudimentary spiritual level.

So we should look for a much deeper message. "Swallow[ing] one another alive" implies the subsuming of another person within one's own desires. The other person is alive - he thinks and feels - but one has "swallowed" him within one's self; i.e. one thinks of him only inasmuch as he can further one's own purpose. Instead of appreciating who that person is, what he wants and needs, one thinks only of one's own self and the benefit the other person will bring him.

On this basis, we can appreciate the connection between this teaching and the one which follows:

"If two sit together and….exchange words of Torah.."

This teaching emphasizes the importance of communication, of two people sitting together as equals and sharing words of Torah.

The Lubavitcher Rebbe (1)



Mishnah 3

"...it is as if they had eaten of sacrifices to the dead…."

A person who does not incorporate Torah into his meal shows clearly that his entire life is motivated by material concerns only. A person who pays attention to his physical needs only, while disregarding his soul - his eating is comparable to a sacrifice to a dead person - who also has a body, but no soul.

Midrash Shmuel (3)

 

"...Three who ate at one table and did not speak words of Torah there, it is as if they had eaten of sacrifices to the dead…."

Three together can recite nevarech -- "Let us bless," the opening phrase of the zimun, and in this way they form a bricha -- a pool of blessing -- so that each person partaking of the meal can draw off water according to his needs. But this must be preceded by words of Torah which enable them to form this pool of blessing.

Tzemach Tzedek's Or HaTorah, Eikev, pp. 538, 544 (3)


"Sacrifices to the dead"

When one realizes clearly, without doubt, that his sustenance comes only from G-d, his G-dly soul derives as much pleasure from his eating as G-d Himself does from a sacrifice. When one eats only to satisfy his hunger, however. his eating is comparable to a sacrifice to his animalistic soul, which is like an offering to the dead, To avoid this 'idol worship' the mishnah urges us to say words of Torah at a meal. For the light of the Torah clarifies that G-d is the source of everything. This clarity was also the Sages' intent in mandating a blessing before eating.

Rav Tzsadok HaKohen (2)

 

"G-d's table"

I wish I did not have to eat, but what can I do? My Creator, may He be blessed, created me with this need. And since G-d created His world only to serve Him, eating, too, must be a form  of Divine service.

Rav Zushya of Annipoli (2)

 

"Three who ate at one table…"

When three men ate together at one table and did not discuss Torah, i.e. the table was without G-d, and no sanctity was drawn into the food which they consumed, then the energy which the three derive from their meal was merely waste and refuse.

Tzemach Tzedek's Or HaTorah, Shlach, p. 631 (3)

 

"If three have eaten at one table and they have spoken no words of Torah over it, etc."

Woe to sons who have banished from the table of their father. In the name of the Maggid of Mezritch I heard an account of the way in which the Baal Shem Tov explained this text, which declares that it is as though these three ate of sacrifices to dead idols. The Hebrew, though, means literally, "as though they ate of the sacrifices of the dead." The esoteric meaning is that a dead person may be reincarnated into an animal that will serve as food for humans, in order that they should say words of Torah over it at their meal table -- and through this the dead person that was reincarnated will be given new life in the heavenly realm. But if no words of Torah are said, the dead person reincarnated into the source of that food is simply "sacrificed" and cast off to remain an inanimate entity.

This is why the text speaks of "the sacrifices of the dead," And this is why we find in the Talmud (Berachot 3a), "Woe to sons who have banished from the table"; whom have they banished? -- "their father"! For it is possible that it was the father of the man who is dining, that was reincarnated into the creature that provided the food…

Be'er Mayin Chaim on the Passover Haggada; L'shon Chassidim; Midrash Rivash Tov (5)

 


Mishnah 4

"He who stays awake at night, travels on the road alone or turns his heart to nothingness, obligates his soul (i.e., commits a deadly sin).”

The mishnah is describing the habits of the righteous: A righteous person stays awake throughout the bitter “night” of exile, constantly praying for the Jewish people. He walks the path of truth alone, modestly, without displaying his piety for all to see. And he turns his heart away from all his personal matters and seeks only to reduce the decrees against Israel to nothingness. Yet such a righteous person still fears that he has committed some deadly sin. Ever mindful of imperfections in his Divine service, he imagines that he has not even begun to truly serve G-d.
Rav Elimelech of Lizensk (2)

To transcend oneself, one must “turn his heart to nothingness”. That is. he must annul his ego and become a “nothing”. Since self-transcendence requires undisturbed, solitary contemplation, it is best achieved by one “who stays awake at night,” when others are sleeping and unlike to bother him, and by one who “travels on the road alone”, where he will not be disrupted by passersby.
Once one has transcended his ego, he unites with the Oneness of G-d and becomes a “necessary existence”, just as G-d is a necessary existence. For the existence of everything in the world is contingent — that is, it is possible but not necessary. But when one unites with the Oneness of G-d, he leaves the realm of the contingent and enters the realm of the necessary. Thus, he “obligates his soul”, i.e., he makes the existence of his soul obligatory.

Rav Nachman of Breslav (2)

 

“He who..travels on the road alone"

The mishnah is speaking of one who seeks only to prefect himself while ignoring the welfare of others. He “turns his heart to nothingness” by reasoning, “What can I do for others? Surely any reproof I could offer would be worth nothing for no one would take it to heart.” Such a person obligates his soul.

Rav Baruch of Kosov (2)


Mishnah 5

" The yoke of government.."

The yoke of government and the yoke of worldly cares mentioned in the Mishnah have parallels in our world, even according to the Torah, such as the Talmudic ruling that "the law of the land is law" [where it does not oppose the law of the Torah], and the requirement that a person earn a living and support himself, etc.

However, when a Jew goes against his nature in order to serve G-d, and, although he experiences delight in his Torah learning, he accepts upon himself the yoke of Torah as his primary motivation, and he is willing to surrender his delight in learning, then the Holy One, blessed is He, reciprocates in like measure, in a way that transcends and even opposes the natural limitations of this world (which are also according to Torah).

Conversely, "whoever rejects the yoke of Torah" and continues to be motivated to learn chiefly by the delight he experiences, will be burdened with "the yoke of the government and the yoke of worldly cares," which are part of the natural order of this world.
Hisva'aduyos 5745, vol. 5 p. 2706 (3)


Mishnah 6

"The Shechinah rests among them"

Regarding the difference between that statement of our Mishnah and the statement of our Sages elsewhere, "On every group of ten [Jewish men] the Shechinah rests" (Sanhedrin 39b), the Rebbe, the Tzemach Tzedek, explained that the former teaches that the Shechinah dwells within them, i.e. within their innermost being and essence, whereas the latter statement means only that the Shechinah rests upon them.

Sefer HaSichos 5704 p. 29 (3)

 

"…If ten people sit together etc."

The Torah is given from Above, and comprises two aspects:
1. "The Holy One, blessed is He, sits and occupies Himself with Torah" - that is, He saturates the Torah with Himself for the benefit of the entire Jewish people. The extent to which He "saturates" the Torah with His Divine Presence and holiness is independent of the degree of willingness and eagerness that the Jewish people have to absorb this holiness.
In technical terms, it is independent of issarusa d'l'tata ("the arousal from below").
2. The response from Above - issarusa d'l'eila - is indeed dependent on the degree to which man seeks attachment to G-d (issarusa d'l'tata). As regards this latter aspect, there is a difference between a group of ten, five, three, two or one.

Maamarim 5627 p.429 (3)

 


Mishna 7

“Give to Him of that which is His, for you and whatever is yours are His”

In many instances, although a person is willing to fulfill the obligations the Torah places upon him, it is natural for him to attach a certain degree of self-importance to his deeds. Take for example the mitzvah of giving tzedakah. We are obligated to tithe. Most people feel proud when they choose to give their money away for such a purpose.
Our mishna teaches us to perform such deeds with humility, for the very opportunity to possess property is granted by G-d. Therefore we should perform deeds of charity as a matter of course, without attaching great importance to them. As proof, the mishna cites the verse — “from Your own we have given You”, which speaks of the donations given to construct the Beit HaMikdash, the ultimate expression of human activity, the building of a dwelling for G-d. Yet even these donations were given in a spirit of humility.

The Lubavitcher Rebbe (1)


Mishna 8

"If someone is walking on the road and reviewing the Torah he has learned, and he breaks off his study and says, "How lovely is that tree; how beautiful is this meadow," Scripture regards him as though guilty to pay with his life."

It means that he acquires grandeur and pride because of his Torah study, thinking this learning is his own acquisition, thus severing his bond with the blessed Lord. So he says, "How lovely is that tree" - that is, he says about himself in his heart that symbolically he is a great and sturdy tree. As Scripture says, "For a man is [as] the tree of the field" (Deut. 20:19).
Then he says further, "How beautiful is this meadow." It means that he thus savors the thought that he is preparing himself a portion in the world-to-come through his Torah study. As Scripture says, "Plow for yourselves a meadow" (Jer. 4:3). Therefore "Scripture regards him" in violation of the verse of Scripture, "You shall be wholehearted with the Lord your
G-d," and thus, as though guilty to pay with his life (since it applies even if one learns the entire Torah).

Kether Shem Tov, II; Likkutim Y'karim (5)


"Whoever forgets even one thing out of his Torah learning, etc."

Remembering (in this connection) means the observance of the entire Torah; and the opposite of that constitutes "forgetting"… And as this holds for an individual person, so it applies to the community of Jewry. The exile drags on because of "forgetting," whereas "remembering" would bring the final redemption.

Tzofnath Paane'ah, Teruma (5)



Mishnah 9

"Rabbi Chanina ben Dosa said: Anyone whose fear of sin precedes his wisdom, his wisdom will endure; but anyone whose wisdom precedes his fear of sin, his wisdom will not endure."

The Jewish people have two types of spiritual guides: Shepherds: those who inspire and guide through their Torah teachings; and a higher sort, Princes: those who inspire through their piety and devotion to G-d.
R. Chanina is the latter sort. Although no Torah law is cited in his name in the Mishnah, it was he that the great Torah teacher Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai called upon to pray for his sick son. When people beheld R. Chanina's saintliness and attachment to G-d, they were inspired to follow in his pious ways

Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Chabad (from "Weekly Insights from Kehot")

"…Anyone whose fear of sin precedes his wisdom, his wisdom will endure…"

When performing a mitzvah, we receive an infusion of fear of Heaven. Those individuals whose perspective on life is defined solely by intellect, unseasoned by fear of Heaven, frequently experience a conflict with this incremental dose of fear of Heaven. As a result of this clash, the individual becomes confused and is unable to retain his wisdom. On the other hand, the individual whose fear of sin precedes his wisdom is able to integrate the fear of Heaven that he receives from performing mitzvot with his intellect.

Maggidei HaEmes (6)

"All those whose fear of sin is greater than their wisdom, their wisdom is retained"

One who fears sin is more praiseworthy than one who fears punishment. For one who fears punishment is like a person who takes care of his health only because he hates the medicine he must take when he is sick. One who fears sin however is like one who fears the sickness itself; he fears the sin itself and the imperfection it causes. Such fear of sin stems from a great love of G-d, for he knows that with each sin, his love ceases. True love includes the fear of falling out of love.

The Tzemach Tzedek (2)



Fear as a Key to the Outer Gates

The fear of sin which must come before wisdom is the lower level of fear. A person fears to rebel against the Holy One, blessed is He, and cause a blemish in his thought, speech, or power of action. Such fear is the key to the outer gates of Torah, and in this way his wisdom will endure. This is what Rabbah bar Rav Huna said: Any man who has Torah learning but not awe of heaven is comparable to a treasurer who was given the keys to the inner sanctum but not the keys to the outer courtyard. Hence, how can he enter at all?

Tzemach Tzedek, Or HaTorah Pinchas vol. 1 p. 219 (3)


Fear of sin and Torah

Our Mishnah refers to a person who embodies two special qualities: 1) He is wise - he himself learns Torah, and he teaches it to others; 2) He fears sin - he loves mitzvos and hates sin.
Regarding both of these, the Mishnah informs us that not only must the fear of sin come before the acquisition of wisdom, but that fear of sin is directly connected with fulfilling and reinforcing the Torah.
The reason for this: The Torah relates to the faculties of intellect, whereas fear of sin is an emotional quality. There is a fundamental difference between the nature of emotions and the nature of intellect. A person does not always live an intellectual concept, nor is the concept always absorbed into his essence. A person of broad understanding can generally live with ideas which are abhorrent to him. In contrast, when a person embraces a certain emotional quality, he hates with a passion whatever opposes it.
When a person learns Torah and he does not place the fear of sin before the acquisition of wisdom and knowledge, there is no guarantee that he and the Torah will become fully wed. On the contrary, at times the Torah could turn into an elixir of death for him. Only when his fear of sin comes before his wisdom will he live the Torah and wed himself to it, so that it becomes an elixir of life, and in this way it will endure.

Sefer HaMa'amarim Yiddish p. 167 (3)


Mishna 10

Rabbi Chanina ben Dosa used to say: ..."Anyone whose good deeds exceed his wisdom, his wisdom will endure; but anyone whose wisdom exceeds his good deeds, his wisdom will not endure."

Through study a person learns how to do a mitzva. Nevertheless, the final deed is the main thing, for the deed causes an additional measure of spiritual light to infuse the level of wisdom. In this way, a person's wisdom will not merely survive, but also endure.

(Rabbi Shalom DovBer Shneersohn--the Rebbe Reshab)

 

The words of the Mishna can also be rendered as, "whose good deeds exceed (or literally, are many) because of his wisdom. His wisdom induces him to do more and more good deeds, until even material objects become part of what he does for the glory of G-d's name, and thus his wisdom endures. However, anyone whose wisdom exceeds his goods deeds, does not have this wisdom, and even if he understands what he learns, his wisdom will not endure. This applies to all Torah which is learned without love and fear.

Rav Dov Ber, the Maggid of Mezritch (3)

 

"He used to say: If the spirit of one's fellows is pleased with him, the spirit of the Omnipresent is pleased with him; but if the spirit of one's fellows is not pleased with him, the spirit of the Omnipresent is not pleased with him."

We may deduce from our mishna that popularity is not related to our ability to influence people but rather is contingent upon divine assistance which is provided to those who observe the Torah. If so, the best remedy for unpopularity is doing teshuva. By doing teshuva, one can be assured of securing Divine assistance in order to win popular acclaim.

Sfas Emes (6)

 

One whose wisdom exceeds his deeds...:

The mishnah does not say, "One whose deeds are too few for his [considerable] wisdom," for if one's wisdom exceeds his deeds, he must not be that wise.  Hence the literal meaning of "his wisdom will not endure" in Hebrew: "his wisdom does not exist."

Rav Yisrael of Ruzhin (2)


Mishnah 11

“When a person who profanes sacred things….has no share in the World to Come”

A Jew has the power to make the mundane holy, to imbue every dimension of worldly experience with G-dliness. In the World to Come, the Era of the Resurrection, the ultimate worth of these efforts will be revealed, for then the barrier separating the spiritual from the physical will be dissolved. All the acts mentioned by the mishnah involve making the sacred profane. A person who conducts himself in this manner acts in direct opposition to the intent of the World to Come. Therefore he will not be granted a share in this revelation. More specifically, the different sacred entities mentioned by the mishnah refer to holiness brought about through man’s efforts.
 “Sacred things” refers to animals or other objects consecrated for the altar. By and large, it is man who consecrates such offerings. “The festivals” are also consecrated through the divine service of the Jewish people. Thus in our holiday prayers, we praise G-d who “sanctifies Israel and the festive seasons.” For as our Sages comment, G-d sanctifies Israel, and Israel in turn consecrates the festive seasons. With regard to one who publicly humiliates his colleague, it can be explained that although all Jews share a fundamental unity, the fact that a person is one’s colleague, i.e., that these inner bonds have been given outward expression, is a result of human activity. By publicly humiliating his colleague, a person betrays the bonds of friendship that have been established. The covenant of our father Avraham was originally established by human activity — Avraham’s act of circumcision — and is renewed by man’s deeds. Similarly, the interpretation of Torah law and its application in our lives in an area in which a person interprets the Torah in a manner contradictory to its true intent: he misuses this potential and profanes the sanctity of a Torah lifestyle.
It must, however, be emphasized that the mishnah’s statement applies only to a person who has not turned to G-d in teshuvah. Teshuvah has the potential not only to erase the negative effects of a person’s conduct, but to actually transform his sins into merits, and assure him a full portion in the World to Come.

The Lubavitcher Rebbe (1)

"…Anyone whose fear of sin precedes his wisdom, his wisdom will endure; but anyone whose wisdom takes priority over his fear of sin, his wisdom will not endure."

When performing a mitzvah, we receive an infusion of fear of Heaven. Those individuals whose perspective on life is defined solely by intellect, unseasoned by hear of Heaven, frequently experience a conflict with this incremental dose of fear of Heaven. As a result of this clash, the individual becomes confused and is unable to retain his wisdom. On the other hand, the individual whose fear of sin precedes his wisdom is able to integrate the fear of Heaven that he receives from performing mitzvot with his intellect.

Maggidei HaEmes (6)


“When a person who profanes sacred things….has no share in the World to Come”

A Jew has the power to make the mundane holy, to imbue every dimension of worldly experience with G-dliness. In the World to Come, the Era of the Resurrection, the ultimate worth of these efforts will be revealed, for then the barrier separating the spiritual from the physical will be dissolved. All the acts mentioned by the mishnah involve making the sacred profane. A person who conducts himself in this manner acts in direct opposition to the intent of the World to Come. Therefore he will not be granted a share in this revelation. More specifically, the different sacred entities mentioned by the mishnah refer to holiness brought about through man’s efforts.
 “Sacred things” refers to animals or other objects consecrated for the altar. By and large, it is man who consecrates such offerings. “The festivals” are also consecrated through the divine service of the Jewish people. Thus in our holiday prayers, we praise G-d who “sanctifies Israel and the festive seasons.” For as our Sages comment, G-d sanctifies Israel, and Israel in turn consecrates the festive seasons. With regard to one who publicly humiliates his colleague, it can be explained that although all Jews share a fundamental unity, the fact that a person is one’s colleague, i.e., that these inner bonds have been given outward expression, is a result of human activity. By publicly humiliating his colleague, a person betrays the bonds of friendship that have been established. The covenant of our father Avraham was originally established by human activity — Avraham’s act of circumcision — and is renewed by man’s deeds. Similarly, the interpretation of Torah law and its application in our lives in an area in which a person interprets the Torah in a manner contradictory to its true intent: he misuses this potential and profanes the sanctity of a Torah lifestyle.
It must, however, be emphasized that the mishnah’s statement applies only to a person who has not turned to G-d in teshuvah. Teshuvah has the potential not only to erase the negative effects of a person’s conduct, but to actually transform his sins into merits, and assure him a full portion in the World to Come.

The Lubavitcher Rebbe (1)

 


Mishna 12


Mishnah 13

"…vows are a [protective] fence for abstinence;.."

The Beis Yisroel emphasized the vital role played by the attribute of abstinence from the material pleasures of This World as a prerequisite for accepting Torah and attaining fear of Heaven. Indeed, the Giving of the Torah at Sinai was preceded by three days of abstinence (cf. Shabbos 86a). While Torah study is certainly potent, it is not enough to totally deflect the lures of the Yetzer Hara. Only by abstaining from worldly pleasures while immersing oneself in Torah can one be assured of respite from the Evil Inclination.

Maggidei HaEmes (6)

"….vows are a fence for abstinence…"

When a person forbids himself something which is in fact permitted in order to make a fence for abstinence, he gains the ability to subdue the side of unholiness and smash its power.

Or HaTorah Matos, Vol. 1, p. 273 (3)

" ..vows are a fence for abstinence…"

Vows are of an extremely elevated status (as if one vows by the life of the King). Therefore, in former times, when the Jewish people were on a higher spiritual level, they were able to make vows to G-d and thereby elevate such mundane matters as eating, etc. to a level of holiness. However, in our days, since the quality of men's hearts and souls is of a lesser stature, we must say bli neder, thus avoiding making a vow. A person must only sanctify himself in that which is permitted -- and abstinence eventually brings to holiness.

Sefer HaLikutim of the Tzemach Tzedek, vol. nun p. 62 (3)

“Rabbi Akiva said:  Laughter and light-headedness accustom a man to lewdness. Tradition forms a fence around the Torah, tithes form a fence around riches, vows form a fence around abstinence, and a fence around wisdom is silence."

“Tithes form a fence around riches”

The first two and last two sentences of this mishnah teach us how to serve G-d.  Why, then, does this middle phrase discuss how to preserve our riches?

Study and prayer are so inherently holy that the evil inclination dare not seek to sabotage them.  Eating and drinking, in contrast, are fertile ground for the evil impulse, and require great self-restraint and sanctification.  Likewise, one must ensure that all his financial dealings are honest and for the sake of Heaven

This is the message of the mishnah:  One must sanctify his business transactions to such an extent that his tithes are only a fence around his riches.  The riches themselves, and the activities surrounding them, should be even holier than the tithes.

Rebbe Elimelech of Lizensk (2)

 

"..A fence the Source of Wisdom."

"And you must remain silent," Moshe told the Jewish people before G-d split the sea. Through silence a person expresses the ultimate degree of self-nullification which characterizes the most elevated aspect of his soul called yechida. In the language of Kabbalah, this aspect of self-nullification stems from the highest of all the Divine emanations, the sefira of Keser. Now Keser is the source of the next sefira, chochma, (wisdom). Hence, self-nullification, which characterizes Keser, is called a fence for wisdom, since it encompasses it.

Ma'amorim 5666 p. 376 (3)

 


Mishnah 13

"...a fence for wisdom is silence."

This instruction is given to one who has grasped the secrets of Kabbalah and ma'aseh merkava (the secret of the manifestation of the Divine Presence). As our Sages state, "Sages beware of your words." It is proper for a sage to be careful that no one will exceed the limits permitted by the Torah, and so he will not transmit his Divine wisdom to one who is unfit for it. However, other aspects of Torah may not remain concealed, for this is like withholding food and sustenance from others.

(Midrash Shmuel)


 

Mishna 14

"Rabbi Akiva used to say: 'Beloved is man, for he was created in the image of G-d; and it is a special love that he was informed that he was created in the image of G-d.'"

G-d created man in His image, charging him, by virtue of his intellect, with dominance over the rest of creation. This is reflected in the fact that human beings walk erect with head held high, whereas all other creatures, whose source is earthly, walk on all fours looking down.

(Midrash Shmuel)

"A precious article was given to them, etc."

The Torah is referred to as being longer than the earth and wider than the sea so that a person can never comprehend it in its entirety. Nevertheless, what he can comprehend in Torah brings him to cherish (lachmod) it more and more. The love of Torah constantly grows so that a person will yearn (yachmod) to grasp it more and more. For this reason it is called a kli chemda.

(Midrash Shmuel)

"…Beloved is man, for he was created in the image [of G-d].."

In the image: the Holy One, blessed is He, created man and gave him mastery over animals by virtue of the power of intellect which He placed within him. Man has an upright stature to show that his source and origin is Above. Animals, however, walk on all fours to indicate that their root is down below on earth. The Divine Image with which man was created comprises all the wisdom which it is possible to acquire. The community of Israel shares this with other nations of the world. However, we have a special status, for the Shechinah dwells upon us, and we were found worthy of the Divine Torah, which does not fall into the realm of intellectual inquiry because it is superior to it, and completely transcends it.

Midrash Shmuel in the name of Rabbi Yehuda HaChossid (3)

 

"….Beloved are [the people of] Israel, for a precious vessel was given to them [the Torah];…."

Our holy Torah is called both a "precious vessel" and a "Torah of light" (Prov. 6:23), for it is both light and the vessel that contains the light. This is why the righteous study Torah immediately after prayer and after Shabbos: to place the light and inspiration of both in their proper vessel. The dark forces antithetical to holiness in the word have no vitality of their own - they live off the vitality of the holiness they seek to destroy. Consequently, whenever G-d-d enlightens and inspires a person, they seek to rejuvenate themselves through his newfound light. Therefore, one must immediately guard this light by placing it in its precious and proper vessel, the Torah.

Rav Shmuel of Slonim (2)

 

"Beloved is Man"

The two aspects of the Divine Image mentioned in the Mishnah refer to two different types of people. Beloved is man who was created in the Image refers to the intellectual soul which is the inheritance of all mankind. However, "specially beloved" speaks about the intellectual soul of the Jewish people, whose intellectual soul is particularly sensitive to spiritual matters and can absorb such matters easily.
Ma'amorim 5702 Chaviv Adam (3)

 

"Children of G-d"

Here too there is a double aspect of love: Beloved are the people Israel who are called sons of G-d - this refers to the physical bodies of the Jewish people. It is even a greater love that it was made known to them that they are called children of G-d - this refers to the Divine soul.

Ma'amorim 5702, p. 108 (3)


Mishna 15

"Everything is foreseen, yet freedom of choice is granted…"

A person's conduct is determined by the free choice which he is granted. That G-d foresees everything does not affect a person's decisions. The Holy One, blessed is He, is omnipotent. Just as He can create a thing if He so desires by thinking of it, He can also prevent His foreknowledge from affecting His creatures. And it is G-d's will that His foreknowledge does not affect man's free choice.

Tzemach Tzedek, Sefer Halikutim s.v. Bechira p. 73 (3)

"Everything is Foreseen"

This statement can be interpreted as a support for the Baal Shem Tov's teaching that everything - not only the events that involve man, but even those which influence inanimate matter, plants, and animals - comes about with Divine knowledge. Everything, even the most seemingly insignificant aspects of creation, such as a leaf fluttering in the wind, is foreseen by G-d and controlled by His providence.

Alternatively, this phrase can be interpreted within the context of the mishna at hand. By saying "everything," the mishna teaches that all of a person's potentials and the challenges that he will encounter are "foreseen." G-d knows His creations and does not confront them with unfair demands. Every person is granted a mission that he has the potential to fulfill. Yet Freedom of Choice is Granted - Every person has the potential to fulfill his personal destiny, but the choice to fulfill that destiny is his alone. No one can stand in his way, nor is there anyone compelling him.

The Lubavitcher Rebbe (1)

 

How is this possible? G-d is omnipotent. By mere knowledge or thought, He can create whatever He "desires." So where is there room for free choice. Rather, it is simply G-d's will that His foreknowledge not preclude man's freedom of choice.

The Tzemach Tzedek (2)

 


Mishna 16

"Everything is given on collateral and a net is spread over all the living…"

A net is spread: A net is spread by the yetzer hara over all the living. Even when a person makes a firm decision to fulfill all of the mitzvot, and he even gives collateral for this, he must nevertheless take care that he will not fall into the net of the yetzer hara.

Midrash Shmuel (7)

 

"…a net is spread over all the living..."

The Baal Shem Tov (of blessed memory) said that in this teaching, the word prusa (is spread) can be linked with the word pras (reward), which occurs in the earlier teaching. (Av.1:3) in the phrase "for the sake of receiving a reward." This word, pras, is to be linked in turn with the word parnasa (a living, a livelihood). It thus means that a net of parnasa, the need to earn one's means of support, is over all those who live. For a person seeks his livelihood, and so is greatly burdened and distracted; and his heart is thus not free and clear for the service of
G-d.

Bat Ayin, Bamidbar (5)

"..a net is spread for all the living..."

Said the Ba'al Shem Tov, of blessed memory: The Hebrew word for "spread" is related to the word for "livelihood." For the net, or trap, of making a living is spread over all the living, distracting them from serving G-d.

Rav Avraham Dov of Avritch (2)

 

"And you shall love your neighbor as yourself; I am G-d."
When two Jews love each other, then "I am G-d": The numerical equivalent of the Hebrew word for love, ahava, when doubled, is the same as G-d's ineffable four-letter Name.
Rabbi Chaim Vital (2)

"You shall love your fellow as yourself."
How can a person love another Jew as much as himself? We have to understand that we all consist of two parts, a body and a soul. While our bodies are separate from each other, all of our souls are a part of G-d. Realizing this, it is easier to love another Jew as oneself, because through our souls we are all one.
Tanya (2)

 

"They exact payment from a man, whether he is aware of it or not."

I heard in the name of the Baal Shem Tov that before any decree of fate is issued by Heaven against anyone in the world, everybody in the world is assembled to indicate if all agree to that verdict. So too the very man against whom this sentence has been passed -- he is asked if he agrees; and when he does, then the verdict is given (may Heaven spare us).

Now, of course, if he is asked explicitly about himself, he will certainly deny his guilt and protest that it is not a right verdict. He is deceived, though: He is asked about another case, similar to his, and he pronounces judgment about that -- and then that verdict is rendered against him. [see II Samuel 12:16]

In this way "they exact payment from a man with his knowledge," with his awareness (as the Hebrew text can alternatively be translated): it means that his opinion is asked; he is consulted; and still and all it is "without his knowledge" or awareness -- because he does not know that the judgment in question is really about himself.

Likkutey Maharan, 113 (5)

 


Mishna 17

"Where there is no flour, there is no Torah; where there is no Torah, there is no flour."

Flour (bread) is food for the body; Torah is sustenance for the soul; both are necessary to sustain the Jew properly. Each type of nourishment complements
the other, for when one is lacking, the other suffers as well.

(Maharal of Prague)

"…If there is no wisdom, there is no fear [of G-d]; if there is no fear [of G-d], there is no wisdom…"

1. Something which is completely evil, for example something which is forbidden, even if only by our Sages. In order to avoid this type of evil one does not need any special wisdom. Fear of sin, which precedes wisdom, is sufficient.
2. The evil which lurks within permissible matters. Regarding this our Sages state, "Sanctify yourself in that which is permissible to you," so that you do not become a boor with the Torah's permission. In order to avoid this type of evil, a person needs wisdom. This will enable him to draw down G-dliness into the world through the Torah.

Likkutei Torah, Bamidbar 88a (3)

"If there is no flour, there is no Torah; if there is no Torah, there is no flour"

Which comes first, Torah or food? One should not say, "First I'll learn Torah and then I'll earn a living," for the Torah is endless. Rather, the Holy One, blessed be He, must first bestow on His people Israel a bountiful livelihood. Then we can learn Torah in security.

Rav Yisrael of Vishnitz (2)

 

"If there is no flour [sustenance], there is no Torah etc."

If there is no flour - if a person does not have sustenance, he cannot learn Torah, for his life is dependent on sustenance.
But if there is no Torah, there is no flour, for of the Torah it is written, "Long life is at its right hand, and wealth at its left."
From this, one can understand what follows when there is no Torah.

Machzor Vitri (3)

 

"..If there is no flour there is no Torah.."
Regarding a man's wife, the Torah states, if he is worthy, she will be his helper, but if he is unworthy, she will oppose him." The same is true of a person's livelihood - if he is worthy, his parnosso helps him in serving G-d; and if he is not worthy, his parnosso is a hindrance to his Divine service.
If there is no flour, there is no Torah, and in order that a person's livelihood help his Torah, it must be completely permissible and above board, without any trace of anything forbidden. A person must know that his parnosso is nothing other than a vessel for G-d's blessing.
If there is no Torah, there is no flour: If a person's parnosso is forbidden by the Torah, he will receive his sustenance from the sitra achra - from the opposite of holiness, which is called husks and chaff, not flour.
Ma'amarei Admor Hazaken, Bereishis p.54 (3)


Mishna 18


 


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