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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 23
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 23פרק ה משנה כג
Ben Heh Heh would say: according to the pain/difficulty is the reward. בֶּן הֵא הֵא אוֹמֵר, לְפוּם צַעֲרָא אַגְרָא.

Bartenura - "according to the pain/difficulty is the reward" - according to the greatness of the pain you bear in studying the torah and doing the mitzvot, so too will be the corresponding greatness of your reward.
Tosfot Yom Tov - this is referring to the reward on the pain and effort itself. Namely if the pain and effort is great, his reward is also great. But for the reward of the mitzvot themselves - "one cannot know their reward" (Avot 2:1).
Rambam - according to how much you pain yourself in torah will be your reward. The sages said that wisdom will not endure except from what one learned with exertion, toil, and fear (reverence) of the Rabbi. But readings of pleasure and comfort have no permanence and no benefit. And our sages said on the verse: "even (af) my wisdom stood with me" (Kohelet 2:9) - the torah that I learned with af (difficulty) stood by me. Due to this, they said: "cast bile (fear) unto the students".
Rabeinu Yonah - since in the previous mishna he exhorted on torah study and that even in one's old age he should not move away from it and even if he suffers greatly and that it weakens his stength, etc. Now he comes to console a man and speak to his heart that he should not be concerned on the great pain he feels for "according to the pain is the reward".
Tiferet Yisrael - Rabeinu ended this tractate with this teaching. Namely, whether in torah study, fulfilling mitzvot, or rectifying one's character traits - in all of them the reward is according to the pain you exert yourself to complete yourself in them.

Alternatively, according to the effort and toil you expend to attain wisdom, so too will be the resulting fruits. For "the words of torah endure only in one who slays himself over them" (Berachot 63b). And "in who do you find the butter of torah? In he who vomits the milk he sucked from his mother's breast" (ibid). Then the torah gives him life, wealth, and honor and it becomes like milk and honey on his tongue.
Ben Ish Chai, Zechut Avot - "according to the difficulty is the reward" - this hints to that which some people have in their nature to be murderers or adulterers, etc. Such a person is in constant battle with his evil inclination. If he overcomes it, his reward is many times greater than a man whose nature is pure, without impurities. This is as we find in the Midrash: "the Holy One, blessed be He, said to David: 'if it were not that he is Saul and you are David, I would have pushed off many Davids due to Saul'".

The Arizal asks on this: "but is there favoritism in the matter?". He answers that Saul's soul descended from a holy place. Therefore, his physicality was pure and clean. Due to this, it was not at all proper for him to sin on anything. But David's soul was impure, etc. and this was how it first came to this world. Therefore, he was prone to sin. For all the klipot (forces of evil) plagued him in order to cause him to sin.
Maharal - the Tanna began this tractate with Torah: "the men of the great assembly said three things.. make a fence for the torah" (Avot 1:1), and ended the Tractate with Torah and the reward of Torah. This is because Torah is the beginning of everything and the end purpose of everything. For through Torah man merits to his final purpose and reaches it, namely, the reward of Olam Haba. Understand this very very much...

A man should toil in torah. And even if he will live in this world in suffering, for his reward will be great in the end.

"according to the pain is the reward" - ie according to the greatness of the pain is the reward. It is proper to ask: "how does the sage know this"?

Certainly the explanation is not that all reward is only according to the pain and that only if there is exertion in the mitzvah does the reward increase and besides this all mitzvot are equal (in reward).

It is not so. For he wrote earlier "you do not know the reward of the mitzvot" (Avot 2:1)..

Rather that which he says "according to the pain is the reward" - it refers to within the same mitzvah. Namely, if he did the mitzvah with pain, the reward is greater than if he did the same mitzvah without pain.

But the reward for every mitzvah is known only to G-d..

The reason the reward is greater with pain is as the Talmud brings: "You have set the evil inclination before us only in order that we might be rewarded [for withstanding its allurements]?" (Sanhedrin 64a).

We see from here that because one fulfills the mitzvah with pain of the yetzer hara, his reward is greater.

The explanation is that G-d's reward for those who toil in His commandments and do His will is that one draws closer to Him through this.

For certainly one who serves a [human] king draws closer to the king. And when he draws closer to him, it is proper for the good of the king and of his kingdom to be bestowed on him. But it is not so for those far from the king.

So too, when a man fulfills the will of G-d [despite] pain - he is closer to G-d than someone who fulfills His will without pain.

Through this it is explained that the reward is according to the pain. For when man has a barrier preventing him from drawing closer to someone and he exerts himself and musters his strength and might to overcome the barrier and draw close - through this he shows his strength to cleave there and how close he is to the person he is drawing near. For he overcomes barriers and draws close.

So too when a man fulfills the mitzvot despite pain, he draws close to G-d through his strength and might despite the barriers. This demonstrates the great closeness he has towards G-d. And when he has great closeness to G-d, without a doubt his reward is greater.

For the reward itself is according to the closeness to G-d from which he receives the reward.

This is the meaning of "according to the pain is the reward" - according to the pain is the closeness to G-d. For when he is pained by the mitzvah and does it nevertheless, the reward (closeness) is greater.

But if one wants to do a mitzvah in pain even though he can do it also without pain, then it seems the reward is not greater. For "according to the pain is the reward" refers to pain in having a barrier obstructing him from doing the mitzvah and he nevertheless overcomes this barrier and draws himself close. This matter is clear.
Yachel Yisrael - "Ben Ha Ha" - Ben Hah Hah is called thus because he was a righteous convert. Some explain he was the Tanna Ben Bag Bag mentioned previously.

As known, when a gentile desires to convert. We try to discourage him and inform him of the punishments in the Torah and the difficulties in living as a Jew. Likewise, we explain to him the difficult lot of the Jewish people, the pains and persecutions in the exile. All this is to test his sincerity and to warn him ahead of time to weigh his desire carefully and seriously so that he can retract before it is too late.

Ben Ha Ha also heard all this and his response was "according to the difficulty is the reward".

I realize how difficult it is to be a Jew. But I look at the reward of those who take shelter "under the wings of the Shechina (Divine presence)". Yes it is hard to be a Jew - but it is worth it.

Ben Ha Ha did not say this only for himself. Rather he taught here mussar for all of us, mussar which summarizes and concludes the fifth chapter...

According to the Rambam, the mishna is not referring to reward of mitzvot but rather to matters pertaining to torah study: according to the toil, exertion and effort put into torah study will be the result (wisdom attained).

That which comes easy leaves easy. A man can remember what he learned with great exertion decades later but he does not remember a book he read a year ago. Only what he learned with great exertion remains by him and becomes a part of him. A man who puts his whole being to understand, hear, and learn - he strains and sweats and reviews - the torah becomes a part of him and does not leave him..

The talmud says: "be careful of the sons of the poor for from them will come out torah" (Nedarim 81a). Why? Because they work harder. The children of the rich have no worries and are free from any yoke. They learn in comfort and pampering.

But the son of the poor goes to learn and the family often makes a financial sacrifice. He learns out of hunger and in difficult conditions. His learning is with exertion and effort. Therefore the torah endures by him.

Another explanation is that this is not referring to meriting the torah but rather on the reward promised for effort in learning torah..

This is unlike the way of the world. A tailor or shoemaker cannot claim money for his efforts but rather for the results. No shoes, no money.

But in torah it is not so. This is wondrous but also a great claim. For it means every person has the opportunity to merit the reward of torah study even if he is unable to understand much of what he learns.

This is a great claim on a person. For no man can claim he is exempt from torah study due to not being able to understand anything. For the reward is not according to the understanding but rather according to the efforts.

The torah is given to every Jew, wise or not, busy with work or free. "according to the difficulty is the reward".
Maharal Tzantz - "according to the difficulty/pain is the reward" - regarding mitzvot, a man receives reward for a good thought, and also for toil and pain as written "according to the difficult/pain is the reward". And for any act done "l'shem shamayim" (for G-d), a man receives reward, even if he did acts that are not really mitzvot.

But when a man occupies himself in other vanities of the world, then he does not receive reward according to the toil and pain and certainly not on thoughts.

This is the explanation of the verse: "For what has man from all his labor, and from the troubling of his heart, in which he has labored under the sun?" (Kohelet 2:22). A man does not "have", i.e. a personal acquisition for himself from all matters of the world, not on his great toil nor on his good thoughts.
Yachel Yisrael - these nicknames "Ben Bag Bag" and "Ben Heh Heh" teach that they were converts. Bag Bag is roshei teivot (acronym) ben ger ben giyuret (son of convert, son of female convert). Likewise for Ben Heh Heh where "Heh" is gematria beit-gimel. These names were a kind of code word to shield them from the malshinim (informers).

Some commentaries hold that this mishna was said as a completion of tractate Avot. Therefore, its words refer to what was said in this tractate. "turn it over and over.." - i.e. contemplate always tractate Avot, its chapters and mishnas "for everything is in it" - all possible words of mussar (ethics) are included in tractate Avot.

Whoever wants to rectify his character traits, let him review the words in this tractate over and over again until his old age and on. The words of wisdom in its pages will illuminate the straight path for him and guard him from straying away right or left.