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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 9
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 9פרק ב משנה ט
Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai received [the tradition] from Hillel and Shammai. He would say: If you have learned much Torah, do not claim merit for yourself, because it was for this that you were created. רַבָּן יוֹחָנָן בֶּן זַכַּאי קִבֵּל מֵהִלֵּל וּמִשַּׁמָּאי. הוּא הָיָה אוֹמֵר, אִם לָמַדְתָּ תוֹרָה הַרְבֵּה, אַל תַּחֲזִיק טוֹבָה לְעַצְמְךָ, כִּי לְכָךְ נוֹצָרְתָּ.
Vilna Gaon - "for this you were created" - as written "man is born for toil" (Job 5:7) and our sages said (Sanhedrin 99b):
"R. Eleazar said: Every man is born for toil, as it is written, 'man is born for toil' (Job 5:7). Now, I do not know whether for toil by mouth or by labor, but when it is said, 'for his mouth presses upon him' (Mishlei 16:26), I may deduce that toil by mouth is meant. Yet I still do not know whether for toil in the Torah or in [secular] conversation, but when it is said, 'this book of the Torah shall not depart out of your mouth' (Yehoshua 1:8), I conclude that one was created to labor in the Torah."
Rabeinu Yonah - "if you learned much torah, do not claim merit for yourself.." - for you are still at just the beginning. When will you reach half or all of it? For regarding the torah: "longer than the earth is its measure, and wider than the sea" (Iyov 11:9). And it is beyond the ability of the human mind to grasp its limits. How much is a man far from it! Thus, how could he possibly "claim merit for himself" when he has not grasped even one thousandth of what there is to do.

Furthermore, "for this you were created". The Holy One, blessed be He, brought you into existence from nothing only to fulfill His torah. Also for this reason you should not "claim merit for yourself" if you did much torah, since you were created for this. This is similar to a debtor who payed his debt. Does one claim merit for this? This applies also to one who fulfilled much mitzvot. If you did many mitzvot, do not claim merit for yourself since for this you were created.
Tosfot Chadashim - "for this you were created (literally:formed)" - he did not say "for this you were created", but rather "for this you were formed". Because the term "formed" refers to when he was in his mother's womb and did not yet come out to the world. It is known from our sages that the fetus is taught the whole torah while in his mother's womb. Afterwards when he comes out, he forgets everything. Thus for one who learns much torah, it is enough that he will reach the level he was at when he was being formed and not yet finished (nivra). Therefore, he should not claim merit for himself if he learned much torah. Because for this he was formed, i.e. at the time of formation to learn the whole torah.
Rabeinu Yosef ben Shushan on Avot - "for this you were created" - there is nothing in nature which sways from the path its Creator commanded it except for man alone.. Every species, every creature under the sun, the foundations of the world, everything does not go out even a hairsbreadth from the intent it was created, not animals nor plants, nor mineral mines, nor rivers, nor seas... Thus if all the creatures, plants, seas etc. do the will of their Maker with absolute precision by nature, how much more so should man do the will of his Maker who has graced him with understanding and free will and obligated him by reason. Why then should he "claim credit for himself" more than other creations who always do the will of their Maker. Rather you are under duty to praise, exult and thank His great and awesome Name for anointing you king on all the other creations and placing them under your feet. Why did He do this? Because He graced you with understanding to recognize His greatness and serve Him out of free will...
Rabbi Avraham Azoulai - Ahava b'Taanugim - "if you learned much torah..", day and night, "do not claim merit for yourself", that you tell yourself that you did beyond the letter of the law (asita lifnim mishurat hadin), i.e. that you learned more than what you are obligated. The truth is not so because "for this you were created", ie all that you did is not enough to pay back even one single kindness G-d did to you. The first kindness is that he brought you into existence. This is what he wrote: "for this you were created (formed)". Therefore, with everything you did, you did not pay back even one kindness. And all the other countless kindnesses He did for you are still a debt on you..

Some explain if you learned much torah, do not claim merit for yourself, i.e. do not hold (machzik) this good for yourself alone. Rather, teach torah to others, since for this you were created, to learn and to teach to others.
Daat Zekenim on Pirkei Avot, writings of Rabeinu Yerucham haLevi of Mir - for the mitzvah of talmud torah is different from all other mitzvot. There is almost no patur (exemption) of oneiss (unable). Rather, even with the greatest burdens and most intense difficulties, or the like, there is an obligation of talmud torah.

On the contrary, in these cases is the mitzvah and obligation of talmud torah in truth - when the learning is against man's nature (see our words there on Avot 6:4 - "this is the way of the torah..").

It seems this is the intent of what the Tanna is teaching us here: "if you learned much torah", ie you learned even with all the difficulties and troubles which a man gets caught up with in this world, nevertheless, "do not claim credit for yourself since for this you were created". For this is the mitzvah of talmud torah from the ikar halacha (main law). There is not in this any middat chasidut (beyond the letter of the law), for you to claim credit for yourself.
Ketav Sofer Hachadash al hatorah, Avot - "for this you were created" - for without torah study which shields a man from the evil inclination, the Holy One, blessed be He, would not have created man..
Chida - Zeroa Yamin - "for this you were created" - perhaps the intent is that for this is your portion which you received at Sinai. For no one else can bring it out to actuality besides you. Alternatively, perhaps as our sages said on "and He formed (vayitzer)" (Gen.2:7) with two yuds, to teach that man was created with two inclinations (Berachot 61a). And from the time the evil inclination was created with him, he became obligated to learn torah constantly to annul it. For there is no way to annul it besides torah, as our sages said ("I have created the evil inclination, and I have created the Torah as its antidote" - Kidushin 30b). This is what he said: "if you learned much Torah, do not claim merit for yourself, because it was for this that you were formed" from the time of your formation with a yetzer hara.
Avot Hasoferim - margela b'pi maran the Gaon Chatam Sofer (he was wont) to explain that if a talmid chacham toils only to learn torah and not le'chadesh anything of the holy torah (deduce novel insights), then "do not claim merit for yourself". This is what Raban Yochanan ben Zakai said: "if you [only] learned much torah" [without lechadesh chidushim], "do not claim merit for yourself" because for this torah you were already formed since you did not mechadesh anything.
Ketav Sofer, petichah l'mesechet Gitin - "if you learned much torah" [from those before you] "do not claim merit for yourself, because it was for this that you were created", i.e. before you came to the world. Rather, toil in the torah, and G-d will "reveal to you wonders of His torah", that which was hidden from other people in the divine torah. This is their intent: "prepare yourself for the study of Torah, for it is not an inheritance to you" (Avot 2:12). For it is not enough to just learn what one inherited from his forefathers. Rather, let him mechadesh chidushin (derive novelties) and rejoice in his portion which G-d graced him with.

This matter requires great preparation in torah, to not be satisfied to learn without iyun and pilpul (in-depth). Rather to strain oneself.. and spend much time to delve deeply in one matter and clarify every matter there completely until halacha.. (see there for more).
Shevet Sofer chelek beit, Reeh - "It is not good that man is alone; I shall make him a helpmate opposite him" (Bereishit 2:18). For it seems to me that the primary purpose of man is to also help others become whole, and not to look and watch over only on himself. And the mechkarim (investigators) already investigated this and said that this is the primary reason why man came to this world and for this he was created', as our sages said: "If you have learned much Torah, do not claim merit for yourself, because it was for this that you were created". Rather teach also others. "Because it was for this that you were created". For this is the main intent of creating man...
Orot HaMussar on daat chachma u'mussar II 132 - our sages said: "Rebbi Eliezer said: 'every man was created to toil, as written: "For man is born to toil" (Job 5:7). Rabbi Yerucham wrote that the explanation is not like people think. Namely, that one must toil in order to attain through toil. Rather, it is literal. This is the purpose: "man is born to toil" - specifically to toil. This is man's whole existence, only toil and nothing else.

For this is the foundation of: "the Holy One, blessed be He, wanted to create the world with the attribute of justice" - the Sod (secret) is specifically what one earns with his own handiwork (dafka yegia kapav). Only toil. The talmud there continues (Sanhedrin 99): "I do not know whether for toil by mouth or by labor, etc".

Thus, there was a hav amina (initial understanding) in the gemorah that with toil in work, everything is already done. So great is the foundation of toil, "the attribute of justice". The final conclusion (maskana) of the talmud is not like this. But from the hav amina (initial understanding) the talmud had that toil in secular work is sufficient, it is enough for us to know the greatness of the matter of toil. The talmud continues there:

"All human bodies are toilers; fortunate are they who are worthy of being receptacles of the Torah", Rashi explains: "toilers: to toil, i.e. all [human] bodies were created to toil". end quote.

The main thing is toil. This matter of "man is born to toil", and "benefit from the work of his hand" is so great that the attribute of creation is the attribute of justice (as before).
Tiferet Yehoshua - Rabban Yochanan ben Zakai saved Yavneh and its sages. He saved Raban Gamliel of the royal line of king David and the grandfather of Rebbi. He laid down the foundation so that the oral law will not be forgotten from Israel. The talmud says on him (Sukkah 28a):

"He did not leave [unstudied] Scripture, Mishnah, Gemara, Halachot, Aggadot, minutia of the torah, minutia of the scribes, inferences and analogies, gematriot, the conversation of ministering angels, the conversation of demons, conversation of palm trees, .. great matter and small matter, a great matter is that of the Divine chariot, a small matter is the disputes of Abaye and Rava.."
Despite all this he did not "claim merit for himself". So too you, even if you merited to increase torah and "do" torah so that it will not be forgotten from Israel, "do not claim merit for yourself since for this you were created", to do so the torah will not be forgotten in Israel.
Tiferet Yehoshua - Rabbi Dovid of Lulob would explain what our sages said: "the way of the land preceded torah (derech eretz kadma l'torah)" as follows. Our sages' intent in the term "way of the land (derech eretz)" is to the trait of humility, which is like the land itself which everyone treads upon. Thus, it precedes the torah because this is the purpose (tachlit) of torah study, namely that the torah study be accompanied with humility.

For only one who is humble and lowly merits the hidden light in the torah and draws from the good hidden in it. But one who is haughty and pats his belly saying: "how much torah I learned, how much wisdom is in me". Such a person wi not see the great good hidden in the torah. Since he sways from the intended purpose, he will not merit the light of torah.

This is what the Tanna (sage) says: "if you learned much torah" - if you walk and adorn yourself before people that you learned much torah and you pride in this that you are wise and know more than others, behold, you are bringing evil on yourself. For the good hidden in the torah will not stay by you and you will not merit it, since you swayed from the path of truth of the torah, namely, humility.
Chida - Chasdei Avot - I saw fit to write here what I found in a letter to Rabeinu Chaim Sargusi, a descendant of the holy gaon Yosef Sargusi, author of "Haness Megurash" and Rebbi of the Ridbaz. Here is a quote:
The early ones explained the mishna: "if you learned much torah, etc.", i.e. do not claim merit for yourself saying "for this you were created and you have already fulfilled your obligation in fulfilling the divine intent in creating and forming you".

Do not say this. Know that people do not realize the extent of the service of G-d and that it is without limit.

I heard from torah scholars who heard from others in a direct chain till the mouth of the Rambam the following story. A certain great man did not want to read the Yom Kipur vidui (confession) because he knew on himself that he did not commit any sin. So, he thought, why should he speak lies before G-d, blessed be He, "whose seal is truth"?

The Rambam answered him: "if you, the kindhearted, only realized how severe is the service of G-d and how much one needs to serve this G-d and you were to grasp the scope of what is fitting and obligatory to this Master, you would realize that there is not a single day which you do not commit every single thing written in that vidui (confession) and much more other things.

Every man is judged by the extent of his wisdom. We find by king David that the sin of adultery was inscribed on his name despite that she was divorced from Uryah (her husband), and likewise the sin of his murder, despite that he incurred the death penalty, and the sin of the tzitzit of Saul despite that Saul was chasing David to kill him and David was permitted to kill him [in self-defense].. Likewise for many other cases. According to how much one is a man will be his judgment. And you will be taken to justice even on this which you spoke now". end quote...
Maharam Shik, Avot - "do not claim credit (good) for yourself, because it was for this that you were formed.." - we will explain the intent according to Rashi's explanation on the verse in Bereishit 1:7. On the second day of creation, the torah does not say "and G-d saw that it was good". Rashi explains that this is because the work of that day was not yet completed and on something whose work is not completed, it is not called "good".

Likewise the torah has no end and no limit. On the contrary, the more one increases study in it, the more he will sense that he still did not even reach to begin to understand it and it is as if he were formed now and did not yet learn anything. The deeper he delves in the torah, the more he will see and feel his own lacking.

Regarding creation, there are 3 terms used: beriah (creation), yetzira (formation), and asiyah (done action).

"Beriah" implies creation of something from nothing. "Yetzira" applies on something which is already existing but it still needs finishing. The completion itself is called "asiyah".

Since a man can never reach the end of the torah, thus it is as if he is formed just now and he cannot call it good since good is only said on the completion.

This seems to be the intent of Raban Yochan ben Zakai: "if you learned much torah", then you will see your lacking even more than you thought before you learned and automatically "do not claim credit (good) for yourself". For "good" does not apply on something incomplete.

"because for this", ie for torah, "you were formed". It is always as if you were just formed now and not completed regarding the torah. For you will never come to finish [knowing] it.
Maharal - "if you have learned much Torah, do not claim merit for yourself" - when a man toils in torah, it is not proper for him to think that he did a chasidut (piety). Chasidut is when one does something not necessary according to strict justice. On this he said that the matter is not so. For man was created from the beginning in order to learn torah. And all the creations were created with justice and law (Din and mishpat), as written: "everything that G-d (Elokim) made shall be forever; nothing can be added to it nor substracted from it" (Kohelet 3:14).

The explanation is that which G-d created, He did so with the attribute of justice. Thus in all the genesis account (maaase bereishit) the Name, Elokim, which is the attribute of justice, was used. And everything He created with justice "nothing can be added to it nor substracted from it".

Therefore, he said it is not proper for man to "claim merit for himself" that he did something which is good, namely, something that is not from the aspect of creation itself. Rather, for this man was created, just like man was created to eat and drink and this is in the nature of his creation. So too, man was created to learn torah with toil.

We find this matter in the words of our sages in Sanhedrin 99a:

"R. Eleazar said: Every man is born for toil, as it is written, 'man is born for toil' (Job 5:7). Now, I do not know whether for toil by mouth or by labor, but when it is said, 'for his mouth presses upon him' (Mishlei 16:26), I may deduce that toil by mouth is meant. Yet I still do not know whether for toil in the Torah or in [secular] conversation, but when it is said, 'this book of the Torah shall not depart out of your mouth' (Yehoshua 1:8), I conclude that one was created to labor in the Torah."
The explanation of this is that it is impossible for man to be a creature of rest. For that which is whole/perfect (shalem) is of rest (hanacha). For it is already whole and then it rests.

But man is not so. He is not whole and since he is not whole, he is not of rest. Rather, he moves always towards his wholeness/perfection (hashlamato), despite that it is impossible to ever actualize this perfection fully. But nevertheless, it is impossible for him to be a creature of rest. For that applies to things which are perfected. But it is not so for man...

Thus he said man was created to toil, to not at all be a "creature of rest". Rather, that he always bring out his perfection to actuality without rest. For this is proper from the aspect of creation.

All the creations were created in their perfection, without lacking. But for this man, it is impossible for him to come to perfection until he will be at complete rest (death). This is why in the creation of man it is not written: "and it was good", like it was written by the other creations. For all the other creations were created in their perfection unlike man who was not created with his perfection.

For this itself is his perfection - that he moves always towards actualizing this perfection. This is his perfection. Because if he does not at all bring out his perfection to actuality, then he has no perfection at all. Therefore he must always be bringing out his perfection to actuality...

This is what the verse says: "A [good] name is better than good oil, and the day of death than the day of one's birth" (Kohelet 7:1). For on the day he is born, he does not have the [actualized] wholeness (shelemut) of his creation, and he is always actualizing it. But on the day of death, he is then in his perfection (shelemut). For he cannot at all become anything more. Thus he is then a creature of rest (baal hanacha).

Therefore, he said: "I do not know whether for toil by mouth or by labor". For work is only for the nefesh (life soul of the body), not for the nefesh sichli (spiritual intellect), since animals also can work.

Therefore, there is room for doubt the meaning of "man was born to toil". Does it mean toil of work which relates to the nefesh chiyunit (life soul)? Thus he brought the second verse: "all a man's labor is for his mouth" (Kohelet 6:7).. "For his mouth" is not the nefesh chiyunit since it does not depend on the mouth (speech depends on intellect).

"Yet I still do not know whether for toil in the Torah or in [secular] conversation". For perhaps the perfection of man is in the speaking soul (nefesh medaberet). Therefore, he brings the third verse "this book of the Torah shall not depart out of your mouth", thus torah study. For this is the perfection of man and for toiling in this he was created.

Due to this the torah was given on the Sabbath. For otherwise one may think that just like on the Sabbath there is rest from work, so too there is rest from Torah...

In any case, we have clarified that it is impossible other than that man was created to toil in torah. For man cannot at all be a creature of rest (baal hanacha). And even "the Heavens were not meritorious in His eyes" (Iyov 15:15), namely, to be a baal hanacha (despite their being the highest level of physical - R.Hartman). For they move always without rest. All this is because hanacha (rest) is hashlama (wholeness/perfection). And this is not proper for the physical. For the physical is not at al of hashlama (perfection).

And in sanhedrin (58b): "Reish Lekish says: 'a gentile who keeps a day of rest, deserves death, for it is written: 'day and night they shall not rest'" (Gen.8:22)

Thus, for the gentile rest is not proper at all. For it is not of man's boundary to be a creature of rest (baal shevita).

And even though a Jew has rest (of the Sabbath), this is due to his soul being completely separated from the physical. Thus, the Jew has no [physical] work on the Sabbath. But since "man was created for toil", therefore, the toil a Jew has on the Sabbath is toil in torah.

This toil is from the aspect of intellect (Sechel). And just like the gentile was created for toil of the nefesh (life soul), namely, work, and if he does not toil always, he incurs death, so too the Jew was created for toil of the intellect (sechel), namely, toil in torah, as written: "you shall contemplate in it day and night" (Yehoshua 1:8).

For from the aspect of intellect, a man cannot arrive at perfection (hashlama), since his sechel was not created with hashlama.

And the law of the Jew with respect to his intellectual soul (nefesh maskelet) is as that of the gentile regarding his soul. For the soul of the gentile does not have completion (hashlama), and likewise, the sechel nivdal (transcendent intellect) of a Jew does not have hashlama. Thus, because there is no hashlama here, he must toil without repose at all. (translator: otherwise the Jew also incurs death. see Avot 1:13).

Now we have clarified to you what Raban Yochanan ben Zakai said: "If you have learned much Torah, do not claim merit for yourself, because it was for this that you were created".

One should understand these things. For they are very very much clear and true and there is no doubt in them.
Tosfot Beitza 23a (Telisar) - "Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai received.." - Raban Yochanan ben Zakai was appointed Nassi (chief Rabbi) in place of Raban Gamliel the son of Raban Shimon ben Gamliel because Raban Gamliel was too young when his father was killed [by the Romans]. Furthermore, the Romans decreed death on the entire family of Raban Shimon ben Gamliel but Raban Yochanan ben Zakai successfully intervened with the Roman emperor to save them. Thus, Raban Gamliel could not be Nassi.
Bnei Yissachar, Devarim Nechmadim - (kabalistic) - as known from the talmud (Berachot 28b), at the time of his death, Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakai said: "prepare a chair for Chizkiyahu, king of Judah". The kabbalists explain (Shaar Hagilgulim hakdama 32) that this was because he had in him the neshama (soul) of Chizkiyahu.

Thus it seems the soul of a king of the Davidic lineage was reincarnated in Rabanan Yochanan ben Zakai since the Davidic lineage of Nessiim (rulers) was annulled in his time and Rabban Gamliel who was of the seed of the royal lineage of David was still too young.. Thus, Raban Yochanan ben Zakai assumed the position of Nassi until Raban Gamliel grew up and then the Nassiut returned to the seed of David. Therefore, in order to fulfill the verse: "The scepter shall not depart from Judah" (Bereishit 49:10), the soul of a Davidic king was nitgalgel (reincarnated) in Raban Yochanan ben Zakai..

It is known that Chizkiyahu greatly increased the study and teaching of torah in Israel. Our sages said that in his time they could not find an am haaretz in all of Israel (Sanhedrin 94b). And on the verse: "the yoke [of king Sancheriv] shall be destroyed because of oil" (Yeshaya 10:27) - "due to the oil in the study halls of torah".

Thus, he would speak on himself: "if you learned much torah", for you did not do this of your own free wil. Rather, "for this you were formed", for the soul of Chizkiyahu was reincarnated in you for the needs of the generation.

Thus it did not say "for this you were created" which would imply a first creation. But rather it used the term yetzira (formed) which implies a second time.