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Pirkei Avot / Ethics of the Fathers
with a select treasury of commentaries on all levels of Torah interpretation
Chapter 5 Mishna 20
with select commentaries

Commentaries used in this translation:
Rashi Commentary (1040-1105)
Rambam Commentary (1135-1204)
Rabbi Ovadiah of Bartenura Commentary (1445-1515)
Tiferet Yisrael commentary (1782–1860)
Rabeinu Yonah (1180-1263)
Derech Chaim - Maharal of Prague (1525-1609) (hebrewbooks.org/14193)
Biur HaGra of Rabbi Eliyahu of Vilna - (1720-1797)
Rabbi Avraham Azoulai commentary - (1570-1643)
Rabbi Chayim Yosef David Azoulai (Chida) commentary - (1724-1806)
Chatam Sofer commentary - (1762-1839), along with Ktav Sofer, and others
Ben Ish Chai commentary - (1835-1909)
and many more..

Commentary Level:
  • Min - (level 1) for basic commentaries as relating to the plain meaning (Pshat).
  • Med - (level 2) elaborates more into the theme.
  • Max - (level 3) deeper in, Maharal of Prague.
  • Max+ - (level 4) more themes in the text.
  • ShortMix - (recommended) short version of level 4.
Suggestion: Read once without commentaries (or min). Then a second time with.

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Chapter 5 Mishna 20פרק ה משנה כ
Yehudah ben Teimah says: be brazen as the leopard, light as the eagle, swift as the deer, and mighty as the lion to do the will of your Father in Heaven.

He would say: the brazen-faced [is destined] to Gehinom; the shame-faced to Gan Eden. May it be Your will Hash-em Our G-d that the Temple be rebuilt speedily in our days and grant us our portion in Your Torah.

יְהוּדָה בֶן תֵּימָא אוֹמֵר, הֱוֵי עַז כַּנָּמֵר, וְקַל כַּנֶּשֶׁר, וְרָץ כַּצְּבִי, וְגִבּוֹר כָּאֲרִי, לַעֲשׂוֹת רְצוֹן אָבִיךָ שֶׁבַּשָּׁמָיִם.

הוּא הָיָה אוֹמֵר, עַז פָּנִים לְגֵיהִנֹּם, וּבֹשֶׁת פָּנִים לְגַן עֵדֶן. יְהִי רָצוֹן מִלְּפָנֶיךָ יְיָ אֱלֹהֵינוּ שֶׁתִּבְנֶה עִירְךָ בִּמְהֵרָה בְיָמֵינוּ וְתֵן חֶלְקֵנוּ בְתוֹרָתֶךָ:

Bartenura - "be brazen as the leopard" - so too do not be embarrassed to ask your Rabbi on what you did not understand, similar to what we learned earlier: "a bashful person cannot learn" (Avot 2).

"light as the eagle" - to review your studies and not get tired, as written: "they shall mount up with wings as eagles; [they shall run, and not be weary].." (Isaiah 40:31).

"swift as the deer" - to pursue the mitzvot.

"mighty as the lion" - to conquer your evil inclination from [temptation of] sins.
Rabeinu Yonah - "be brazen as the leopard" - to rebuke the sinners and toil in torah much without becoming weary or tired. Likewise, the prophet Isaiah said: "those who hope to G-d shall renew strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run, and not be weary.." (Isaiah 40:31). For those who hope to G-d will renew strength when tired to continue more.. They run like a deer to do a mitzvah and do not become weary..

"mighty as the lion" - to strengthen in the mitzvot, namely, that all your thoughts and acts be to do the will of your Father in Heaven..
Chida, Devarim Achadim, Drush 16 - "light as an eagle" - if one's heart inspires him to do a mitzvah or rebuke - immediately he should be light as an eagle to do it and not cool down.

"run like a deer" - corresponding to acts of kindness..

"mighty as a lion" - corresponding to pity, to not pity the wicked. Rather, to rise up like a lion and break the shackles of wickedness..
Rabeinu Yosef ben Shushan - "light as the eagle, swift as the deer.." - for the deer runs faster than other (common) animals.. the intent is that one should not engage in the service of G-d in laziness or laxness but rather with great enthusiasm and striving with joy and gladness of heart.

Let one consider that if he were lying in bed in the darkness of night and someone reported to him that there is a golden wallet on the road and no one sees it. How rushed and panicky would he be to rise up fast. In his haste, he would confuse which garment to put on first and dash outside at full speed, unconcerned about the stones and obstacles on the road, not feeling any illness or wound.

All this panic in order to get a wallet that perhaps he will not find and even if he finds it perhaps it is fake and there is nothing inside it.

This is a kal v'chomer (argument) without any answer - how much more so are we under duty to run like a deer and move swiftly like an eagle to do the will of our Father in Heaven whereby all material valuables are worth as nothing and there is no doubt whatsoever.

"mighty as a lion" - just like the lion is the mightiest of the animals and does not run away from any man, so too one should not go back and be lax due to friend or foe in the service of G-d. One should contemplate the reward he stands to gain from the friend versus the reward in doing the will of his Creator.. Likewise, let him consider the loss he may get from his enemy versus the loss he gets from leaving the service of G-d...
Daat Zekenim - likewise we find in other places. In the talmud: "Tanna debei Eliyahu: in order to study the words of the Torah one must cultivate in oneself the [habit of] the ox for bearing a yoke and of the donkey for carrying burdens" (Avodah Zarah 5b). The reason for the analogy to animals and beasts, and the main mussar in this is that by animals and beasts everything is nature.

For example a donkey to carry - the donkey does not need to conquer his evil inclination to bear the burden. For this is its nature and he does not know otherwise. So too man needs to acquire in his nature all the traits. For the powers of man can be conquered and changed - to change one's nature to the good through training and habit.. (R. Yitzchak Blazer).
Matanat Avot - this mishna is one of the most famous in pirkei avot. Fortunate is he who merits to say it every morning in the beginning of the prayer service (in the Sefardi prayer book, the entire mishna is quoted while in the Ashkenazi version only the end is said).

In my humble opinion it was carefully chosen to be said at the beginning of the prayer. For this is exactly what every person needs to know in the morning - that one needs to muster all his physical and mental powers for one purpose only - "to do the will of your Father in Heaven".

It is no coincidence that the Tanna chose animals which were exceedingly blessed with these special powers.

(Translator: "that the temple be rebuilt.." - how does one focus all his powers to "do the will of your Father in Heaven"? Perhaps by remembering constantly that the Temple shall be rebuilt and then all the material pursuit of this world (money, power, etc.), will become null and void. The only lasting good will be to know G-d and His torah.)
Ruach Chaim - "brazen as a leopard" - for sometimes the trait of brazenness is good in the service of G-d. But this refers to internal might in the heart and the brazenness needs to be hidden there, to be aroused only when needed in the service of G-d. On his face the brazenness should not be visible. This is what he said: "the brazen faced to Gehinom", as written: "the wicked man brazens his face" (Mishlei 21:29).

But "shame-faced" means that shame rests on the face while brazenness is hidden in the heart only for the service of G-d - such a person is (destined) to Gan Eden.
Reishit Chachma, shaar ahava ch.11 - and when a man does the matter with zeal and joy, a new spirit and a lofty spirit of life will be added to him such that he will be light as an eagle. This thing depends on removing from his heart the spirit of sadness and laziness. For that is an outside power which weighs down on a man's limbs causing him to not have the strength to arise from his place or learn or do mitzvot, as if all his limbs are dead.

But if a man rouses his heart and removes the external power of laziness from himself through clinging to longing and desire in love of G-d, the Source of life - then his heart will learn [torah] and do mitzvot with zeal and joy to do the will of his Father in Heaven. Then a power will be added to him to be light as an eagle, mighty as a lion etc. On this it is wrtten: "those who hope to G-d they shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run, and not be weary.." (Isaiah 40:31). (Isaiah 40:30).
Mareh Yechezkel, Vayechi - "brazen as a leopard" - for the yetzer (evil inclination) and his cunning is to lure away a man's heart from the service of G-d and distract him with matters of this world or with worry of his sins. The yetzer tells him he is not worthy to have kavana (intent) in his prayers that it should be a crown to G-d.

Therefore, a man must be mighty of heart and brazen faced.. For there is no greater Gehinom than this that a man wants and strengthens himself to serve G-d and pray before Him but the yetzer prevents him. For "better one hour of repentance and good deeds than all the life of the next world" (Avot 4:17)...
Tiferet Yisrael - in two ways it is proper for one to rectify himself in this world:

(1) through deeds and (2) through refraining from deeds.
Each of these subdivides to two: deeds of the body and acts of the soul.

Regarding rectification through deeds of the body, move yourself to do all good deeds and do not tell yourself: "who am I and what am I that I should strive after this mitzvah? This is only fitting for a big tzadik and not a lowly person like me". Rather, I tell you: "be brazen as a leopard" - the leopard does not turn back for anything even though it is not so strong by nature.

Regarding rectification through acts of the soul which rectify it, namely, thinking in torah study which is like the sun which shines on the earth and its inhabitants. When you come to a deep matter that you do not understand at first - do not give up. Rather, be light as an eagle which flies high up towards the light of the sun. So too for you, strive to toil and fly up towards this holy sun. Even if it is deep, turn it around again and again and in the end, G-d will open for you gates of His light and you will understand it well.

Regarding rectification through refraining from acts of the soul, namely, to not think on things beyond the powers of the mind to comprehend, he said run like a deer when the hunter chases it. Through running away like a deer, he will be saved from this. So too distance your ways from heresy. For these views of heresy have caused many to fall. Therefore "do not go near her house" (Mishlei 5:8).

Regarding rectification through refraining from deeds of the body, namely to not remove the muzzle from the evil inclination and to not transgress in deed any of the negative commandments. On this don a spirit of might like a lion to conquer all the lusts of the evil inclination with all your might and do not say: "I am weak". Strengthen yourself and G-d will help you.

"the brazen faced [is destined] to Gehinom" - even though I told you to be brazen as a leopard, this is only in your inner self, against your imaginary smallness. But guard yourself from being brazen towards someone older or wiser than you. For by habituating in this, you will wind up also brazen against the torah, to deny it or its tradition thereby inheriting Gehinom through the trait of brazenness.

This trait is called "brazen-faced" (az panim) because it corrupts the soul to such an extent that it is recognizable on his face..

"the shame faced to Gan Eden" - for whoever is shame faced does not sin so quickly (Nedarim 20a).
Yachel Yisrael - many commentaries ask that the traits in the mishna are not positive. How can the Tanna tell us: "be brazen" when at the end of the mishna he says: "the brazen faced [is destined] to Gehinom"?

Likewise, the comparisons are a wonder: "be brazen as a leopard"? "mighty as a lion"? Aren't leopards and lions symbols of cruelty?, as the prophet says: "therefore I will be as a lion to them; as a leopard by the way I will watch them; I will meet them like a bereaved bear, and will tear the lining of their heart. And there I will devour them like a lion..." (Hosheah 13:7-8)?

Furthermore on the Jewish people it is written: "there are three signs of this people - mercy, shame, and doing acts of kindness" (Yevamot 79a).

These traits are clear indications such that: "whoever has these three traits it is known that he is from the seed of Avraham" (Tractate Kalah, ch.10).

Evidently, pity is the opposite of the nature of the lion. Likewise shame is the opposite of brazenness. If so, how does the Tanna present us: "be brazen as a leopard and mighty as a lion"?

Likewise the rushed running of the deer appears impulsive and superficial. This rushing sometimes leads it to fall in a trap unwittingly due to lack of carefulness.

When we think of a "light" person it implies one who acts superficially and without patience, one who lacks seriousness and peace of mind.

If so, how can the Tanna tell us: "run like a deer.."?

The answer is found at the rest of the mishna - it depends on what is the goal. Every trait can be good if the goal is: "to do the will of your Father in Heaven".

If this is indeed the goal of a man, then all his traits are used for the good. Man's traits are like a utensil in his hand. He can use it for good or evil.

In the Shmonei Perakim (ch.4), the Rambam says that there are no good or bad traits. Every trait can be negative if one is excessive in it and every trait except for arrogance has some positive - provided one uses it in a proper way, for a good purpose, and in measured amount.

Thus character traits ar called "middot" (measures) in Hebrew - everything depends on how they are used and for what purpose.

"be brazen as a leopard" - a certain amount of brazenness is needed to fulfill torah and and mitzvot properly. However, we must remember that brazenness is a negative trait. It needs to be used only for the purpose of "to do the will of your Father in Heaven".

In the Talmud: "why was the torah given to Yisrael? Because they are brazen" (Beitzah 25b).
Rashi there explains: "the torah was given to them so they toil in it thereby weakening their strength and submitting their hearts".

Brazenness is a negative trait to such an extent that in order to submit it alone it was necessary to give the torah!

Therefore, after the mishna mentioned brazenness in a positive way ("be brazen as a leopard.."), the Tanna informs us how severe this trait is when not employed for the sake of Heaven: "the brazen faced to Gehinom".

A man who is brazen faced, chatzuf and of hardened forehead, at first he speaks against those greater than him. Afterwards against his parents, against the upbringing he received, and so on, until he casts off himself all values.

With this reprehensible trait, he amasses for himself many sins. He stumbles from one trouble to another and in the end, he brings himself to Gehinom.

The Meiri explains how deep is the fall of the brazen faced person. At first he is brazen faced against a few mitzvot. When people come to rebuke him, he is brazen faced towards his rebukers. He refuses to hear or accept mussar under any circumstances. As a consequence of this, he develops hatred against his rebukers and sees them as his enemies.

Through this, he is disgusted by their ways - the good and correct way. Instead, he turns to corrupt ways and from there the path goes straight to Gehinom...

Rather, the proper way is as the Tiferet Yisrael said: "regarding your inner self, be brazen as a leopard to overcome the yetzer hara in you. But beware not to be brazen faced towards other people, especially those greater than you".

Brazenness should not be used on the outside. For one who is brazen faced towards one greater than himself will habituate in this until in the end he will also be brazen faced against the holy torah and thus inherit Gehinom.
Chida, Devarim Achadim, Drush 16 - "the shame faced to Gan Eden" - to be abashed of his sins and to be abashed of G-d who gazes at him, to not do against His will.

But it does not mean to refrain from doing a mitzvah out of embarassment or to not rebuke big people who transgress the torah out of embarassment. On that he said: "be brazen as a leopard".. For then [to refrain out of] embarassment is a sin in his hand.
Rabbi Avraham Azoulai - Ahava b'Taanugim - "the shame faced to Gan Eden" - he is embarassed of himself and of others if a bad rumor goes out on him. For even though he sinned, he is destined for Gan Eden since the shame will bring him back to the good.
Meorei Ohr - "the shame faced to Gan Eden" - the Lechem Shamayim brings that through shame-facedness, even for a sinner - he is rectified through this trait and goes to Gan Eden, as the talmud says: "whoever sins and is embarrassed - is forgiven for all his sins" (Berachot 12b). For the shame causes his face to pale and become white and turn towards the ground. This rectifies him. He no longer needs the rectification of Gehinom and it brings him to Gan Eden. For "better to throw oneself in a fiery furnace than to humiliate his fellow in public" (Berachot 43b).. Thus shame is equal to burning. For it burns body and soul together and therefore he no longer needs the fires of Gehinom to purge him since has been purged already.

But this requires intense purging of shame like Gehinom in order to burn out the filthy blood absorbed in the soul. Thus he wrote "shame faced" (boshet panim) and not just "shame face" (bosh panim) or bashful (bayshan). For this refers to an act of feeling of shame.. (and not just passive shame).
Bnei Yisachar, maamarei hashabatot, maamar 8 - "May it be Your will Hash-em Our G-d that the Temple be rebuilt speedily in our days and grant us our portion in Your Torah" - for it would seem proper for a man to be ashamed to pray before G-d for his needs since it is enough that G-d grants him life and food to eat and especially since he knows that he is a sinner. How could he possibly have the audacity to seek from G-d and especially for something so great as this that all the worlds depend on and long for, namely, the rebuilding of the Temple? Is this not a brazenness and a chutzpah of man?

As an analogy, a poor beggar walks with torn and worn out clothing begging for food. Would he have the audacity to come and enter the king's gate to ask for things relating to the kingdom and especially if this poor man is a criminal and committed many crimes against the honor of the king.

Therefore it would seem there is no opening for us to pray for the rebuilding of the temple, especially for one who recognizes how much he sinned against the omnipotent Creator of the universe. How could his heart rise to ask for such a big thing?... (thus the mishna says it is not so, rather "may it be Your will..."
Ben Ish Chai, Chasdei Avot - "May it be Your will Hash-em Our G-d that the Temple be rebuilt speedily in our days and grant us our portion in Your Torah" - for the Temple is a place of prayer, as written: "My house will be called a house of prayer for all nations". And even though we need to ask many things, but when the Temple will be rebuilt speedily in our days, we wil ask only one request, namely, "grant us our portion in Your Torah". Namely, torah lishma (for its own sake).. that You help us to learn torah lishma.
Rabeinu Yosef ben Shushan - "May it be Your will Hash-em Our G-d that the Temple be rebuilt speedily in our days and grant us our portion in Your Torah" - for [part of] our efforts in the service of G-d is to pray to Him that He will teach us His ways and incline our hearts to His statutes and not to the bribes (of the vanities of this world). When we put to heart this prayer and supplication, our minds will straighten out and our aspirations will align to know the truth. This will be fulfilled fully when [the Temple of] Jerusalem will be rebuilt as the prophet said: "then the land will be filled with the knowledge of G-d" (Isaiah 11:9).
Sfas Emes on Avot - "May it be Your will Hash-em Our G-d that the Temple be rebuilt speedily in our days and grant us our portion in Your Torah" - the foundation of the service of man is the yearning (hateshuka), as our sages said: "the service of the heart - this refers to prayer". Namely, yearning and fieriness of the heart to always to cling to G-d, bbh. This is the primary service (ikar haavodah)..

"that the Temple be rebuilt.." - for when the Temple stood, it was easy to acquire these traits (light as an eagle, etc.) But in our exile it needs a lot of work.
Maharal - Rabbi Yehudah wanted to exhort on how a man can come to do a mitzvah. He began by saying that one should be brazen like a leopard. For if one does not have brazenness, he will not come to do anything in the service of G-d since one who is timid will not come to do anything. Therefore be brazen.

Afterwards he exhorted on the beginning. Namely, that he should not be heavy but rather with zeal (energetic) (zariz) at first. On this he said: "be light as an eagle". For on the beginning "be light" applies, namely, that one's nature not weigh down on him to get up from the place he sits. This is the special quality of the eagle. Its nature does not weigh down on it..

Corresponding to what is after the beginning he said: "run like a deer". For after getting up and running on the way, he approaches closer to the act itself. This should be with the greatest zeal.

Afterwards, corresponding to doing the act itself he said "be mighty as a lion".
This is the explanation of Rabbi Yehuda ben Teima's words.

Now open your eyes more and know that Yehuda ben Teima comes to complete a man in the service of his Creator for which he was created. And since man is of physical body, therefore he is like an inanimate stone and does not want [to do] anything whatsoever.

For one who has brazenness is not like an inaminate rock which has no want and no yearning. Rather, he faces everyone due to the brazenness on his face and he does not shy away from anything.

On this he said that one should not be like a sleeping person in the service of G-d but rather to be brazen..

Some people are brazen but they lack the power of rousing themselves. Although they very much want but due to their natural heaviness they are unable to arise. On this he said: "light as an eagle" - that one's nature should not weigh down on him in the service of G-d. But rather he should rouse himself until he is light in the service of G-d.

Afterwards when he has the power to rouse himself he still needs another preparation, namely, to move towards the mitzvah. Then corresponding to doing the mitzvah, he said: "be mighty as a lion to do the will of your Father in Heaven". Namely to do all the things with power/strength and great zeal.

The Tanna exhorted man on all these things - that he strengthens himself over his physicality. For the physicality does not act and thus it obstructs man from the service of G-d...

"the will of your Father in Heaven" - that which he said "to do the will of your Father in Heaven" and not "to do the will of the Holy One, blessed be He", he comes to say that for this purpose man was created from the beginning of creation - to serve G-d. Thus, since He is your Father, ie Creator and He created you for this, therefore you should do it...

"the brazen faced to Gehinom" - but for other things (besides the service of G-d), it is not so. Rather "the brazen faced to Gehinom and the shame faced to Gan Eden"...

"the brazen faced to Gehinom; the shame faced to Gan Eden. May it be Your will Hash-em Our G-d that the Temple be rebuilt speedily in our days and grant us our portion in Your Torah" - there is to wonder. What do these two things "the brazen faced to Gehinom; the shame faced to Gan Eden" have to do with "May it be Your will Hash-em Our G-d that the Temple be rebuilt.."?

The answer is that once he said: "the brazen faced to Gehinom" and thus the punishment of Gehinom is very near. For there are more people who are "brazen faced" than "shame faced", especially in Yisrael, as the Talmud says: "Yisrael is the most brazen of all nations" (Beitzah 25b). Thus there is a concern that Gehinom will rule over the seed of Yisrael.

On this he said: "May it be Your will Hash-em Our G-d that the Temple be rebuilt speedily in our days and grant us our portion in Your Torah". For these two things are especially suited to drive away Gehinom from Yisrael.. . For through the Temple which is the holiness of this world and the torah which ascends on high, both are like a ladder which stands on the ground and reaches above to the Heavens. Thus our sages said: "when Yisrael are engaged in the Temple (prayer) and in the Torah, they are saved from Gehinom". For these two correspond to the heart and the mind which are the primary existence of a man. Thus they are saved from Gehinom which is the place where man is destroyed and is no longer in existence. For it is nothing but darkness and destruction.. (see there for more).
Chasdei David - "the brazen faced to Gehinom; the shame faced to Gan Eden. May it be Your will Hash-em Our G-d that the Temple be rebuilt speedily in our days and grant us our portion in Your Torah" - why did the Tanna add a prayer to this mishna? We don't find such a thing in all the mishnas. Likewise, what is the connection between "the brazen faced.." and this prayer?

We may answer that "the brazen faced to Gehinom" refers to one who is brazen to speak in the synagogue useless chatter when the congregation is praying. While "the shame faced to Gan Eden" refers to one who is careful to not speak in the synagogue... (see there for more).