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Pirkei Avot / Ethics of the Fathers
with a select treasury of commentaries on all levels of Torah interpretation
Chapter 2 Mishna 3
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 2 Mishna 3פרק ב משנה ג
Be cautious with the government, for they only bring a person close to them for their own needs. They appear as friends when it benefits them, but they do not stand by a person in his time of difficulty. הֱווּ זְהִירִין בָּרָשׁוּת, שֶׁאֵין מְקָרְבִין לוֹ לָאָדָם אֶלָּא לְצֹרֶךְ עַצְמָן. נִרְאִין כְּאוֹהֲבִין בִּשְׁעַת הֲנָאָתָן, וְאֵין עוֹמְדִין לוֹ לָאָדָם בִּשְׁעַת דָּחְקוֹ

Rabeinu Yosef ben Shushan on Avot - Raban Gamliel's words follow and are drawn after the words of his father who said: "Whatever is harmonious for the one who does it, and harmonious to other people". He came and said: "beautiful is the study of torah with derech eretz". For, to those who do them, these two traits find favor in the eyes of G-d and man. Likewise that one strives to investigate the needs of the congregation and the needs of the whole ruling power, and toiling l'Shem Shamayim. All this is like an explanation of Rebbi's words who said (Avot 2:1): "what is the proper path that one should choose?..."
Bartenura - you who toil for the needs of the public (as mentioned last mishna), even though you need to be "known to the government" (see Avot 1:10) in order to tend to the needs of the public, but nevertheless, "be cautious.."
Tiferet Yisrael - you who toil for the needs of the public, when you need to be known to the authorities of the land who have the ability and power to benefit the public, nevertheless, be careful not to trust their promises, to squander the public money on excess gifts to them. Likewise, do not trust on their friendship to reveal to them matters of the congregation for it is possible that they will use it to harm them.

"when it benefits them" - when they receive gifts.
Sforno - even though they show favor to you and promise good things, do not trust in this at all. For "they only bring you close" and show you favor "for their own needs", to receive a benefit from you.
Meorei Ohr - "they appear as friends" - the love they show you is not true. It is only external and fake. "they do not stand by a person" to support him and help him "in his time of difficulty".
Meiri - "but they do not stand by a person in his time of difficulty
- at his time of trouble they will not remember any kindness he did for them.
Chasdei David - one who draws close to the ruling power and kingdom will in the end remove the yoke of the kingdom of Heaven from himself and annul the mitzvot. He will not be able to do the will of Hash-em. For all his thought is only to find favor in the eyes of his master, the king.

This is what happened to Doeg. He was close to king Saul and in trying to flatter him, he slandered Achimelech and caused the destruction of Nov and the execution of 85 Kohanim wearing the priestly garment (Shmuel I 22).

And even though he was close to "king Saul", who was the "moshiach Hash-em" (ibid 10:1), and a "prophet" (ibid 10:11), and "chosen by G-d" (Shmuel II 21:6). Nevertheless, Doeg was badly harmed by his closeness to the king. How much more so for closeness to other ruling powers.
Ahava b'Taanugim - for those "who toil for the needs of the congregation (tzibur)" of last mishna, who must stand before the king and his ministers on behalf of the congregation. He said "Be careful with the government", i.e. be careful of the honor and fear (respect) of the ruling power (malchut) and do not trust on their friendship.

The reason is because "for they only bring a person close to them for their own needs". For due to their arrogance (gavhut levavam), they don't have any love of people. They are only interested in fulfilling their own will (lemalot retzonam). And even "when it benefits them", they are not really friends, only "they appear as friends".. Therefore do not rely on their friendship.

And likewise do not be proud of being close to them by acting brazenly with the common people. For "they do not stand by a person in his time of difficulty". If you harm some person and that person informs on you to the king, they will not save you.
Chida - Chasdei Avot - since last mishna he greatly praised those who toil for the congregation and the merit of their forefathers helps them, etc., nevertheless, "one cannot rely on a miracle" with the government. Be very careful lest you become trapped by them. For the way of the ruling power is "they only bring a person close to them for their own needs..". Therefore this is the nature and "harm is common" and thus you must be careful and not rely on the merit of the public for a miracle.
Siftei Daat on Avot (R.Yerucham Levovitz) - although without a doubt, our mishna is speaking on the government and ruling power, but nevertheless one should know that so too included in this is for one to be careful and guard oneself to not be in friendship or accompaniment of idolaters at all. For this is indeed the makeup and characteristic of the gentiles. Despite all his outward appearance of friendship and nice facial countenance, his thought and intent is only for himself and his benefit. Despite all the good he may bestow you, in the end he will empty you out and you will be left destitute.

Translator - Rabbi Simcha Zissel of Kelm implies this is true to some extent of every person, even Jews. For only G-d is the true Giver. Here is a quote:
Sefer Zikaron Beis Kelm pg.265 - a great principle in joy of the heart and health of the body, and more for the service of G-d is to search for closeness (kirva) to G-d and not closeness to human beings. Besides being a big headache in many ways, there's no greater burden on a person than seeking closeness from other human beings. And what is a man that you want to search for closeness to him? "He seems like a friend when it is to his benefit, or when he wants to, but they don't stand by a person in his time of difficulty" But as for closeness to G-d, although He's not visible, there is no time that He doesn't want.

Know my precious son, that the main wealth of a person is that which is in a person's hand and no one else can touch. All the more so, it should not depend on other people's whims. And one who seeks closeness to human beings, he is in need of gifts from flesh and blood. There's no difference between seeking physical gifts from others and seeking closeness (emotional gifts) from them. It's all the same. And therefore, there is no greater poor man than one who seeks closeness and love from others, and there is no greater wealth than he who has removed from himself the desire to be loved by other human beings.
Lapid HaEsh lifestory of the Rebbe of Tzants page 185 In a sicha (discussion) Rabbi Yekusiel Halberstam told over in the year 5743 (1982) to students of the Beis Chana seminary in Williamsburg the following true story from those difficult times:

There in the concentration camp, we would sleep at nights on the floor. Forty of us were packed in to sleep in a small room. Within two weeks time, none of us were still alive except for myself and one other person...the rest of the 40 died from starvation, filth...illness. We slept at night on the ground, covered in darkness, when all around us crawled insects and mice...I tried with all my strength to hold together...next to me lied a man from Budapest...

"Are you a Jew?", I asked him. He answered "of course! How else do you think I would have gotten here?".

I proceeded to ask him: "Who are you and what were you doing?"

He answered: "I was the head of the national bank of Hungary".

This was the central bank of Hungary. His job was the highest one in the financial world in Hungary. His face appeared on the bank notes (bills) of the Hungarian currency.

I asked him further: "Are you a Jew?". This time he answered: "No!"

"But you said before that you are a Jew?", I asked in wonder.

The man took the lead and answered the enigma, "I converted to Christianity!"

He had sought to rise up to greatness and turned his back on the faith of his ancestors. Since I was dealing with an apostate Jew, I felt that I had what to say to him, and I prolonged the conversation.

We lied down next to each other on the ground, either way I was unable to sleep. Who could close his eyes in a situation like this? The man gazed at me, and I looked back with an expression of mercy to him.

I asked him: "Tell me, who is your wife?".

"My wife is a christian woman", he answered.

"She did not join you to come here?", I said in wonder. My conversation partner became angry and upset at the very question. "How could you even consider that she would come here, what, to suffer like me!?"

I kept a simple face and said to him: "I don't understand. I know from before that a good and faithful wife is one who follows her husband wherever he goes.. even to Gehinom (hell) she will go with him.. to leave her husband in a situation like this?". After a deep breath, I turned to him as a side question in an interested tone: "please tell me, did you live good together?"

He answered: "What a question?! We lived together for some 30 years I bought for her all the good and beautiful things. I adorned her with all the good of the world!"
I asked: "If so, I am really amazed, is it possible that you were so good and nice to her and she is prepared to share with you only the good and the prosperity? But when this disaster came on you, she abandoned you all alone?!"

At this point, our conversation came to a halt. In the meantime, the hours of the night passed. Morning came. We heard bell rings. We were forced to go outside for hard labor. The next day at night, we met again and restarted our conversation. I opened and asked: "Tell me please, did you do anything for the benefit of the Hungarian country?"

He answered: "when I was appointed to head the national bank, its situation was in all types of trouble, the Forint (hungarian currency) had gone down enormously. For even 1000 Forint, one could buy almost nothing. I made it into real money..a strong currency..the pride of international wealth. Hungary became wealthy due to me and started to make business with the entire world. I made wonders in the business world...didn't you ever hear of me?"

I hunched my shoulders like one trying to save himself, "I'm not around much, I'm not a businessman nor a banker". The man was greatly amazed: "You don't know who I am? Where can you find one person in Hungary even today who did not hear of me?"

I continued: "If things are like what you say, why did they send you here? All of the people were silent and quiet, the Hungarian people did not protest...what is this? After you so did so much for them, you enriched the treasury of the kingdom. How is this possible that an important man with such great merits like yourself would be cast out for no good reason to a concentration camp?"

"Why are you provoking me and talking to me like this?", the man fumed, "maybe you can tell me why you are a prisoner here!"

I answered him, "I am a Rabbi, poor and destitute, I have never done any good to a gentile. All of my days, I have never given one of them, even a sip of water...they hate me...but you, who brought them so much good fortune, you they would hate? I would expect them to carry you on their hands, but not to throw you out and into a concentration camp..."

He said: "Yes, as you can see they did not carry me on their hands..."

"I cannot grasp in my mind", I continued, "you abandoned your religion, took on yourself the Christian faith, you transformed into a complete gentile, everything in order to be like them, and to find favor in their eyes - and what, they did not consider all of this in the least?? What of your children?", I asked further in a matter of fact way, "what do they do?"

"My children? One is a doctor, the other is a lawyer, and the third is a big businessman, a real millionaire".

I continued in a questioning tone "and to them also, you did them good?" He answered: "Of course! I worried for their education, I sent them to places where they would be complete and well educated..."

"Why," I did not let up, "did your children not come to accompany you? Even when a man dies and is gone from the world, his children accompany him until his final resting place, to the grave, and you they left to be thrown out in humiliation for nothing...they did not even accompany you until the boundary. None of them came, to even stand outside of here to see from far where their Dad is and what is happening with him?!"

He answered "you are bothering me tremendously with your questions...you want to aggravate me.."

I answered him, "I am not trying to bother you, I am just trying to understand your bitter fate..."

In this way we continued to talk and to exchange outlooks into the late night. The third night, without any exaggeration, the man came on his own and said to me: "you know, Rabbi, I thought alot about your words throughout the day...I reached the conclusion that you are right!"

During the conversation he expressed his full regret, regret for abandoning his religion, regret for marrying a christian woman. He regretted also on having raised and pampered so much his children. Now, he saw clearly that he has nothing from all of this wasted life...

"I made a mistake...", the man sobbed in a choked voice,"I made a mistake in my choice of life..."

By the fourth night, this banker was no longer among the living. I was very content with the merit which came to me. Where he is now, where he will not be, at least for one day before his death he did some form of repentance. He regretted his deeds, he regretted and wanted to change the direction of his life..."

Alas, that it was already too late.
(Translator: note that this is not to imply that all non-Jews are ingrates, many are fine people. The point is to strive for closeness to G-d and not human beings, as above. For in the end, "they don't stand by a person in his time of need.." )
Sfas Emes on Avot - "government/authorities" - (the Hebrew word for "authorities" (reshut) also means "permitted actions") - i.e. a permitted thing. This needs great carefulness and guarding. For the yetzer hara hides in the lusts of man, namely, eating, drinking, etc., making it appear as if it is associated with the holiness. "They appear as friends", i.e. clinging to the holiness. But in truth, they "draw themselves close" to the holiness only for their own benefit, to steal (holiness) and cleave a man to the physical pleasures...
Divrei Binah (Admor Biala) - besides the plain meaning, the tana is also exhorting that one should be careful on "permitted things" (divrei hareshut), namely "sanctify yourself from what is permitted to you (kadesh atzmecha b'mutar lach)".

What is the sign of such a "permitted thing"? On this he said that which appears to be "friends when it benefits them", namely, the love of the thing is only during the time of pleasure from that thing and afterwards it is disgusting by him (katz ba). As known, for all lusts of this world, the pleasure is only at the time of enjoyment from it, not after this.
Ben Ish Chai - Chasdei Avot - "government (reshut)" - some explain "reshut" to mean the government (malchut), while others explain it on the yetzer hara and its legions. We explained the reason it is called "reshut", namely, because they have permission (reshut) from the Holy One, blessed be He, to entice people to sin, as written in the Zohar regarding the analogy of the prince and the maidservant.

We also explained that reshut is from the term rishut (destitution) and dalut (poverty). For through them (evil inclination and its legions), a man becomes destitute from his acquisitions of torah and mitzvot. In his wickedness they (his torah and mitzvot) go to the portion of the destroyer (mashchit).

In either case, reshut refers to the evil inclination (yetzer hara) and its legions, the powers of the Sitra Achra.

It seems to me to explain, with help from Heaven, as follows. It is known that there are two types of yetzer hara.

The first type hates the soul a clear, open and evident hatred. This one is openly evil. He advises a man to commit a clear and complete sin which has no side to permit.

But in this way he can trap only the fools. For a true Jew will certainly not accept to defile his sou and destroy it with his own hands. Thus certainly he will not accept to openly transgress the mitzvah of Hash-em.

The second type of Yetzer Hara is deceptive. He pretends to show love of his soul and advises him to do a mitzvah for it pleases the soul and adorns it. This Yetzer Hara prtends to be the Yetzer Tov (good inclination), a friend of the soul. But in truth the advice he gives appears only on the surface to be a mitzvah. But under it is leprosy and will lead to evil consequences, severe sins. This matter has many branches.

I will give one to illustrate.
A certain rich man lay on his deathbed. A thought came to him to donate all his money to charities and mitzvot and bypass the inheritance from his sons.

On the surface it appears that he did a big mitzvah to give his money to charity, torah study, visiting the sick, etc.

He wrote a legal document and signed it and afterwards he died. After his death, the gabbai took out the legal document to collect his money. Now, is it conceivable that the sons will silently accept this?

Certainly they will take this to Beit Din and copy the will and send it to another Beit Din in a different city to see if it is correct.. this will lead to disputes between Beit Dins, this one obligates, this one does not, leading to disputes, hatred, jealousy, flattery..etc.

You can see this mitzvah that the yetzer advised the rich man was actually the yetzer hara, in order to bring many stumbing blocks and sins of hatred etc. between the sages of several places... You will find our sages sensed this cunning of the yetzer and Shmuel said to Rav Yehuda: "do not be in a house where inheritance is transferred (away from its rightful heir), even (if it is transferred) from a wicked son to a good son" (Bava Batra 133b).

With this we will understand "be cautious with the reshut" - he is the Satan who is the yetzer hara and its legions. Be careful to guard yourself from them and do not become ensnared by their traps. For they are cunning and "they only bring a person close to them for their own needs", ie they do not advise you to do good etc. "except for their own needs". In order that evil things will result. Therefore be careful to contemplate from the beginning of the matter what consequences will be born out, as they said: "who is wise? he who sees the future"...

"they do not stand by a person in his time of difficulty" - when one stands above for an accounting and judgment, they come and testify against him on these sins in order to destroy him and hurt him. Therefore, guard from them and their advice.
Binyan Avot (by Kabbalist Tzemach haKohen, Jerba) - "be careful with the government (reshut).." - (kabalistic) he is hinting on the Yetzer (evil inclination), who has reshut (permission) from his Creator to entice man to sin..

If you see a Maase Satan mutzlachin (act of Satan succeeding, i.e. bad person with good life), it is only "for their own needs", him and his legions. Or him and his spouse, in the way of: "a time that a man ruled over [another] man for his harm" (Kohelet 8:9).

The Kabbalists said that the Adam belial (satan) comes to rule over man in order to rule on his soul, namely, on the divine light that vivifies his soul, to take from that light. For the klipot do not have life except through the intermediary of the holiness. Therefore, they constantly entice man in order to capture him under their hand to benefit from his holiness.

This is: "they only bring a person close to them", i.e. the man to show him success and good things, "for their own needs" - so that they will grow stronger (yitatzmu) through him. For they have no life except through the power of the holiness. And even "when it benefits them" they only appear as friends, like friends but not actually.

"they appear as friends when it benefits them" - i.e. with slick words of enticement and encouragement at the time of benefit, namely, at the time of sin which is then their benefit.

"but they do not stand by a person in his time of difficulty", we who brought him to sin through slick words of enticement or the like. On the contrary, after enticing below, the Satan ascends and prosecutes him.

Alternatively, come and see the difference between one who clings to the ways of holiness versus one who clings to the ways of the sitra achra (other side). For one who clings to the holiness "the torah guards him, etc.", and it (the torah) will speak on his behalf to save him from the day of judgment and rebuke.

But one who clings to the Sitra Achra abandons his Master and His covenant. For: "who deserts the lord of her youth and forgets the covenant of her G-d.. her paths [lead] to the dead; none who go to her return, neither do they achieve the ways of life" (Mishlei 2:17-19).

This is: "but they do not stand by a person in his time of difficulty". Even though he obeyed all they told him and did not anger them and clinged to them, even so "they do not stand by a person".