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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 22
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 22פרק ה משנה כב
Ben Bag Bag would say [regarding the torah]: turn it over and turn it over for all is contained in it, and you can view all matters through it; become old and worn with it; never move away from it for there is no better pursuit than it. בֶּן בַּג בַּג אוֹמֵר, הֲפֹךְ בָּהּ וַהֲפֹךְ בָּהּ, דְּכֹלָּא בָהּ. וּבָהּ תֶּחֱזֵי, וְסִיב וּבְלֵה בָהּ, וּמִנַּהּ לֹא תָזוּעַ, שֶׁאֵין לְךָ מִדָּה טוֹבָה הֵימֶנָּה.

Bartenura - "turn it over and turn it over" - in the torah.
"for all is contained in it" - you will find everything in it.
"become old and worn with it" - even in old age do not abandon it.

"never move away from it" - do not say: "I studied the wisdom of Yisrael. I will now study greek wisdom". For it is not permitted to study greek wisdom except in places where it is forbidden to study torah, such as in the bathroom or bathhouse.

For Rabbi Yehoshua was asked: "can one teach his son greek wisdom?" He replied: "he may do so when it is neither day nor night. For it is written: "you shall contemplate in it day and night" (Yehoshua 1:8).
Rabeinu Yonah - "turn it over and turn it over" - review the words of torah for all the wisdoms of the world are included in it.
Ruach Chaim - "turn it over and turn it over for all is contained in it" - for example, from a teaching in Sukkah one can deduce a teaching to permit an agunah (woman whose husband disappeared). Even though it appears at first glance that many teachings are unnecessary and not relevant today. But it is not so. For one can deduce one teaching from another. This is familiar to those who study it [in-depth].
Rambam - "you can see all matters through it" - the truth, you will see the truth with your mind's eye.
Ben Ish Chai, Chasdei Avot - "through it you will see" - you will be able to gaze at the radiance of the Shechina in the world of souls. Alternatively, you will see and arrive at the truth in this world, to learn and arrive at the true halacha (leasukei shmaita aliba dehilchata), and as David said: "open my eyes and I will gaze at the wonders in your torah" (Tehilim 119:18).
Tosfot Yom Tov - "there is no better trait than it" - do not think that in studying greek wisdom you will learn from them good culture, conduct and character traits. On this he said "there is no better trait than it". For all the good character traits are found in it.
Rabeinu Yonah - "become old (sav) and worn with it" - "sav" from the term "Seiva" (old age), that one ages with it and toils in it all the days of his life.
Rashi - "turn it over and over" - to turn it over on all sides and all matters.. "turn the torah over and she will elevate you" (Mishlei 4:8). For every time you will find chidushim (new insights) and taamim (new reasons).

"for everything is in it" - everything you want, you will find in it.

"in it you will look" - always always.

"never move away from it" - not day nor night.
Sforno - "turn it over" - in the torah, to understand and gaze wonders in it and you won't need the books of the philosophers and scholars of the gentiles.

"through it you will see" - you will see logical proofs on true outlooks on G-d, life after death, and other things which are the primary investigations proper to [come to] love and fear of G-d. For this is all of man and all the primary intent of the torah.

And since you will not see or find this in the words of the torah without great effort and toil, as written: "if you seek her as silver, and search for her as for hidden treasures, then you shall understand the fear of the L-ord and find the knowledge of G-d. " (Mishlei 2:4-5), thus Ben HaHa said to not hold back at all from this toil. For the more toil and effort, the greater will be the spiritual level in the next world..
Rabbi Avraham Azoulai - Ahava b'Taanugim - "turn it over.." - since in the previous mishna, he arranged an order of study to learn scripture, mishna, and talmud, if so, one might think he already attained the whole torah and he can move on to study other wisdoms for the rest of his life. Thus he said "turn it over", etc. You won't need other foreign wisdoms. For everything is in it. One just needs to strive to toil to examine the torah many times. For then you will reveal and see that all wisdoms are included in it.
Matanat Avot - "Ben Bag Bag.." - Ben Bag Bag was a righteous convert and thus his true name was not mentioned. Rather, only a nickname.. Why did he merit such a nickname? Because every convert is considered as the son of Avraham our forefather, since he is "a father of many nations (av hamon goyim)" (Gen.17:5) and because Avraham was the first convert.

As known, at first his name was Avram and G-d added the letter "Heh" to his name. Likewise for Sarah, she was called Sarai and G-d changed her name to Sarah (with a Heh). "Bag" is Gematria 5 = Heh. (likewise for Ben Heh Heh in next mishna. Both were converts).

"turn it over and turn it over for all is contained in it" - ie immerse yourself good good in torah study and that the torah be in your eyes like a precious diamond which a person gazes at. And due to great wonder, he turns it around and around on all sides. For this is exactly how I (Ben Bag Bag) did when I began to toil in torah.

Why was the torah so precious in my eyes? "for everything is in it". Through it one can understand all the wisdoms of the world from a much better persective.

Furthermore "through it you will see" - through it one can look and attain understanding in all matters in life.

"become old" - through the torah, one can merit to reach sevah tova (ripe old age) with a clear mind.

" and worn with it" - as known, toil in torah can demand from a person great exertion and utilizing every free minute and one who learns all his days does not have much time to exercise and worry about his body's health. Therefore, there is a concern that some people wil not want to immerse their entire life in torah out of worry it will ruin their health in old age.

Thus the Tanna promises that if you "wear yourself out in it", ie immerse all your powers in torah study, then you will receive a clear mind and be blessed in old age. This is worth a lot more than a bit more bodily health but with a ruined soul and lacking desire to live..

"do not move away from it" - for obviously, who is so foolish as to desire to lose the best life possible in this world and the next?!

"Ben Ha Ha" - when Ben Ha Ha was asked how he accepted on himself the yoke of torah with such dedication, for certainly it must have been very difficult for him in the beginning to learn diligently as "all beginnings are difficult"? And how did he find strength to overcome all the difficulties? He answered them "according to the pain/difficulty is the reward"
Misgeret Zahav - "turn it over.. through it you will see" - ie there are three main types of mirrors:

One, a mirror which shrinks the object seen through it, making it appear smaller.

Two, a mirror which magnifies the object, making it appear larger.

Three, a mirror which shows the object in its actual size and quality, as it truly is and according to its true nature.

Behold, the torah is a divine mirror (aspaklia meirah Elokit) which shows a man the essence of his spirit and soul as it truly is, not smaller nor larger.

Our sages taught the torah has 365 negative commandments corresponding to the 365 sinews of a man and 248 positive commandments corresponding to the 248 limbs of a man. As brought in the Kabala, each commandment has a corresponding limb which supports it in a spiritual manner. Likewise for the opposite, each limb is damaged through neglecting the mitzvah.

And just like by a mirror it is necessary for the object observed to be aligned and standing in front of the mirror. He must not stand behind it or to its side. For then the rays of light do not reflect off the metallic coating of the mirror. So too, a man who wants to see himself in his true colors, form, and appearance through this divine mirror of the torah - he must stand aligned with the torah.

This is what the holy Tanna hints in measured words - turn it over and over, to all sides of life, turn this shiny mirror of the torah around in order that the rays of the torah reach your soul and life. And so your life stands before it, aligned before its radiance. Then its rays will not turn away for everything is in it.

Then when you complete this condition, you will find everything appearing visible in the holy torah.

"you can view all matters through it" - ie every human being that ever existed and everything that ever happened in the world since its first day until its old age and final existence and deterioration - it all stands with all its happenings in this great and awesome mirror.

"for there is no better trait than it" - ie than this divine mirror. It does not shrink nor magnify nor distort the things appearing in it. Rather, the pictures are true. It shows things as they truly are and as they should be according to the will of G-d.
Maharal - "turn it over and over for all is contained in it" - this matter needs explanation. How can everything be found in the Torah?

This phenomena was hinted in the Midrash: " (the Torah says:) 'I was with Him, His master craftsman' (Mishlei 8:30) - [from here we learn that] G-d gazed into the torah and created the world" (Genesis Rabba 1:2). end quote.

We already explained that the torah is the spiritual order (seder hasichli) which G-d arranged for man's conduct. Thus it follows that this order (ie the torah) of G-d be [created] first. Due to this, the Torah is called Reisheit (beginning), as written: "G-d acquired me at the beginning of His work, the first of His acts of old" (Mishlei 8:22).

According to the order of the torah, G-d arranged the order of the world such that everything follows from the Torah.

Thus it is proper for man to be higher over the whole world. For everything was created for man. Therefore G-d created the world according to what is needed for man.

This is the meaning of "G-d gazed into the Torah and created the world". For the order of the world stems from the Torah. This is "turn it over and over for all is contained in it", for when one grasps the torah, he grasps the entire order of existence, since the ways of the world come from and are bound to the ways of the torah. Thus, everything stems from the torah which is the order of man.

Even though when one toils in torah, he does not understand these things of how everything stems from the torah. But nevertheless he is toiling in something of sublime level - everything is in it.

We already explained that the importance and level of attainment is according to the level of the subject.

Namely, if a person toils heavily in the science of grinding with a mill, even though it is a wisdom and even though he becomes the greatest ever expert on the subject of mill grinding in world history, nevertheless certainly this is nothing compared to attaining small knowledge in the heavenly legions.

For according to the loftiness of the subject of wisdom will be its importance and the science of mill grinding engineering is not an important subject.

But when one studies the torah which is torah (wisdom/instruction) of man, then even for a small grasp, since everything is in it, it is an important subject..

For the view of our [torah] sages who are the true sages is that man is higher than the heavens and all their legions. We have already explained this at length in several places.

Another explanation of "turn it over and turn it over for all is contained in it" is that since "everything is contained in it", certainly you will find new insights every day. For everything is in it and thus surely there will be new insights. He repeated the term twice to say that even though you turned it over and found an insight, nevertheless turn it over again and you will find another insight. For everything is in it.

"in it you will see (ba techze)" - ie that all your delight (shaahshuav) be in torah. This is the meaning of "ba techze" (there should be your gaze). For man seeks to see the words of the wise and understanding.

some texts have "uba tehevi", ie that one's soul cleave to the torah.

"become old", ie even if you become old and weak do not turn away from the torah.
"for there is no greater pursuit" - the torah is above all. For it, more than anything else is what brings a man to G-d, blessed be He, to cleave to Him alone.
"and worn in it" - and even if your strength has completely waned, do not veer away from the torah.

But it is not so for other wisdoms. If human beings who sit in darkness knew what this sage is hinting to, they would not squander their days studying the books of the gentile wise men and abandoning the torah under whose shadow we live.
Ktav sofer, Avot - "turn it over.." - the commentaries explain that one turns over and examines one matter many times and he will always find more than he found previously. He will see, understand, and many time even refute what he thought was truth in previous years. Then, he will understand its depth more. This is the meaning of "turn it over", that one turns it over always, sometimes this way, sometimes that way until G-d has mercy on him and graces him to arrive on the truth of the torah.
Chatam Sofer, Vaetchanan - know and believe that even though it is just a few handsbreath, nevertheless, "its measure is longer than the earth, and broader than the sea" (Iyov 11:9). And there is no wisdom in the world and even what is above and below, inside and outside (creation), which is not hinted in its words and letters.

Without a doubt, in the verse "this month is to you.." Shemot 12:2) there is hinted all the wisdom of the new month, more than what the Rambam quoted from their books. One who knows how to use this verse will find everything explained there clearly.

See also the Ramban's commentary on the verse: "this is the book of the generations of Adam" (Bereisheit 5:1), that he found a book from Rabeinu Sherra Gaon who extracted from this verse all matters of reading the lines in the palm (palmreading) and the face. For the writing is from G-d.

And why shouldn't it be so? Do we not believe that G-d created the world using the Torah (Midrash Bereisheit Rabba 1:1). If so, perforce all the wisdoms of the world are rooted in the torah. And this is besides the secrets of the torah hinted in it which are beyond the [powers of the] intellect (lemaala min hasechel). We will not speak of those now.
Siftei Daat on Avot (R.Yerucham Levovitz) - "never move away from it" - as Rashi explains: "not day and not night". And as the verse states: "you shall contemplate in it day and night" (Yehoshua 1:8).

And in the Talmud: "May one such as I who have studied the whole of the Torah learn Greek wisdom? He thereupon read to him the verse: 'This book of the Torah shall not depart out of your mouth, but you shall meditate therein day and night' - Go then and find a time that is neither day nor night and learn then Greek wisdom" (Menachot 99b).

For its mitzvah is "always (Tamid)". See Shaarei Teshuva of Rabeinu Yonah who counts those things whose mitzvah is "always" (Tamid).

In the Talmud: " 'he that is crooked cannot be made straight' (Ecc.1:15) - this refers to one who annulled reciting the Shemah in the morning or evening" (Chagigah 9b).

For since its mitzvah is each and every day, then if he annulled it once, it is already called: "he that is crooked cannot be made straight" (Ecc.1:15).

It seems to me the explanation is that the purpose of man's service is to complete (mashlim) his limbs and sinews. Thus in the Torah, there are 248 positive commandments corresponding to the 248 limbs and 365 negative commandments corresponding to the 365 sinews. Thus each limb has a corresponding positive commandment and each sinew has a corresponding negative commandment.

Thus it seems that for those mitzvot which are "always", if one annuls it once, it is not just a one time lacking. Rather, it is a lacking in the completeness of the whole mitzvah. For the mitzvah is to be "always" and thus the intended purpose of the mitzvah already cannot come out to fruition and certainly the limbs of man which depend on and develop from this mitzvah cannot come out properly and complete. Thus this is undoubtedly "he that is crooked cannot be made straight" (Ecc.1:15).

Our sages expounded the verse: " 'he who commits adultery with a woman lacks understanding' (Mishlei 6:32) - this refers to one who learns torah at irregular intervals" (Sanhedrin 99b). Rashi explains there: "he does not learn always, always". For one who does not learn torah always is "lacking heart", ie is lacking a limb. For as mentioned, torah and mitzvot develop and complete man's (spiritual) limbs. And when one does not learn torah always (ie according to his ability and circumstances), he is lacking in the completeness of the mitzvah.

Rather, "do not move away from it".
"you shall speak it in (vedibarta bam)" - "and not in other things".
"make your torah fixed" (Avot 1:15).
For its matter is "always".
Daat Zekenim - "do not move away from it" - ie that one's soul cleaves to the torah, without any interruption. For the essence and existence (metziut vemahut) of torah (study) is "ein od milvada" (there is nothing but it) - that a man cleave to it with all his thoughts and senses to the extent that he has divested of the physical (hitpashtut hagashmiyut), without any distraction or outside thoughts which cause loss of this cleaving.

Without this, ch'v it is not the holy torah. Thus this is what we have been commanded: "you shall contemplate in it day and night" (Yehoshua 1:8).

For this is the essence and existence (metziut vemahut) of the torah, to contemplate it day and night, to "always" be cleaving to it and not part one's thoughts from it. Rather, love and cleaving without any interrupting barrier in existence..

Man was created in the "tzelem Elokim" (image of G-d). The secret of the matter is that the Am Yisrael (Jewish people) merited a higher level in the secret of the "Tzelem Elokim" - namely,that the holy torah planted among us is our Tzelem Elokim, it is the soul of Israel (nishmat yisrael). "For it is your life.." (Devarim 30:20), and "she (the torah) is worth more than fine jewels and nothing you desire has more value" (Mishlei 3:15).

For since the Torah is the Neshama (soul) itself, therefore certainly it is not conceivable to separate from it. For it is not possible to separate from the soul of life since the consequence of separating is death. And if he desires to live, certainly "do not move from it", not day nor night.

This is what we were commanded: "you shall contemplate in it day and night" - that one contemplate and cling to it always, without any interrupting barrier. For it is the soul of your life and without it is death.

And in the Talmud: "whoever guards his torah, his soul is guarded; whoever does not guard the torah, his soul is not guarded" (Menachot 99b).

And in the midrash:
The soul and the torah are compared to a candle, as written "the candle of G-d is the soul of man" (Mishlei 20:27) and "a mitzvah is a candle but torah is light" (Mishlei 6:23) - Says the Holy One, blessed be He: "My candle is in your hand and your candle is in My hand. If you guard My candle (the torah), I will likewise guard yours.. (Yalkut Shimoni Mishlei 938).
This is clearly like our words.

In the Talmud:
Our Rabbis taught: Once the wicked Government issued a decree forbidding the Jews to study and practise the Torah. Pappus b. Judah came and found R. Akiba publicly bringing gatherings together and occupying himself with the Torah. He said to him: Akiba, are you not afraid of the Government? He replied: I will explain to you with a parable. A fox was once walking alongside of a river, and he saw fishes going in swarms from one place to another. He said to them: From what are you fleeing? They replied: From the nets cast for us by men. He said to them: Would you like to come up on to the dry land so that you and I can live together in the way that my ancestors lived with your ancestors? They replied: Aren't you the one that they call the cleverest of animals? You are not clever but foolish. If we are afraid in the place in which we live, how much more in the place in which we would die! So it is with us. If such is our condition when we sit and study the Torah, of which it is written, "For it is your life and the length of your days", if we go and neglect it how much worse off we shall be! (Berachot 61b).
For the Torah is the soul of our life, "the place in which we live" and if we are idle from it, death is a certainty..

This is the explanation of the verse: "fortunate is the man.. but his desire is only in the torah ..he shall be as a tree planted by the river, etc. and all which he does will success.. but the wicked are not so, but are like chaff which the wind blows" (Tehilim 1).

For one who cleaves to the Torah, to his Neshamah (soul), to his Tzelem Elokim - he is always clinging to the root. Every situation cannot budge him from his place. For a root does not budge. He is like a tree planted by a river bank and succeeds in everything he does.

For all his deeds are deeds of the Tzelem Elokim (image of G-d). But it is not so for the wicked. For they have no handle on the root. On the contrary, they are completely cut off from the root, like a kaf hakela (sling), from one end of the world to another, like chaff which the wind blows..

Every Ben Torah needs to have this foundation laid down. Namely, torah study is not a mitzvah like the other mitzvot, as written: "nothing you desire has more value" (Mishlei 8:11), which our sages expounded: "even objects of Heaven (mitzvot)" (Moed Katan 9b).

This is because Torah is life itself. It is not just one of the 613 mitzvot, as written: "for it is your life" (Devarim 30:20).

As an analogy: for the body to survive, a man needs to eat and drink. Otherwise, he will certainly die. But nevertheless he can live for some time even without eating or drinking.

But what would happen if he were without air to breathe? He would die immediately. For life is intertwined with air and breathing. The two are inseparable.

Thus there is to understand the difference between torah and other mitzvot. The other mitzvot are like food to the nefesh (life force/body). Some mitzvot come once every seven years. Some are once a year. Some are once a week or every day.

But torah study does not depend on any specific time. Rather, "this book of the Torah shall not depart out of your mouth, but you shall meditate on it by day and by night" (Yehoshua 1:8). For the foundation of this mitzvah is that the torah is like air to breathe. It is life itself. Thus it is not tied to a specific time. This is what we say in the prayer: "for it is our life and the length of our days and we shall contemplate it day and night". Namely, since it is our life, then perforce we must "contemplate on it day and night".

And in the Talmud (Menachot 99b) there is a dispute whether the bread on the Shulchan (Table in the Temple) needs to be there literally always. The Torah says "always" and the first opinion is that the new bread must be slid onto the table at the same second the old bread is removed. But Rabbi Yossi holds one can remove the old bread in the morning and put the new bread in the afternoon. The table can be without bread for a few hours provided it is not left without bread all night. This also fulfills the verse which commands "always".

The Talmud learns: "from the words of Rabbi Yossi we deduce that even if a man studies one chapter in the morning and one chapter in the evening, he has fulfilled the mitzvah: 'this book of the Torah shall not depart out of your mouth, but you shall meditate on it by day and by night'" (Yehoshua 1:8).

Rashi there explains: "from the words of Rabbi Yossi who said that if the old bread is on the Table a bit in the morning and the new bread is on the table a bit at night - this is called 'always'. We learn from here: even if a man studies only, etc.". end quote.

It is clear from the Talmud that all opinions hold the mitzvah of torah study is "always". The foundation of the matter is as we explained that the torah is like air to breathe. It is life itself. Only that according to Rabbi Yossi, even if one studies one chapter in the morning and one chapter in the evening, this too is called "always".

This means that studying one chapter in the morning and one chapter in the evening is the minimum to be called "always". Through this too a man can survive.

But who is foolish enough to content himself with life of a few moments? As an illustration, let us say that in order to stay alive it is enough to breathe a little bit of air every five seconds.

It is not hard to understand that - yes, but what kind of life is this? Surely it is better for a man to be completely in air.

So too regarding our matter. Since the Torah is life itself, who is foolish enough to content himself with a life of one chapter in the morning and one chapter in the evening when he can find himself all day inside the essence of life itself. This matter is awesome to contemplate.
Ben Ish Chai, Chasdei Avot - "turn it over and turn it over for all is contained in it" - if a man repents and improves his ways to turn over the physical and transform it to form (spiritual) and to turn over his sins and transform them to merits, then all the curses in the torah to the sinner will transform to the good.

On this he said "turn it over", through the torah you will turn over your physicality and transform it to form (spiritual). Then you wil transform the harsh words in the torah from bad to good. For everything is in it, ie all purity, repentance, rectification, etc. - everything is done through toil in torah. This is as our sages said: "just as a river elevates a man from impurity to purity, so too the [study of] torah elevates the soul and purifies it.