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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 13
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 13פרק ב משנה יג
They [each] said three things: Rabbi Eliezer said: Let the honor of your fellow be as cherished to you as your own, and do not be easy to anger. Repent one day before your death. Warm yourself by the fire of the sages, but beware of their coals lest you be burned; for their bite is the bite of a fox, their sting is the sting of a scorpion, and their hiss is the hiss of a serpent, and all their words are like fiery coals. הֵם אָמְרוּ שְׁלשָׁה דְבָרִים. רַבִּי אֱלִיעֶזֶר אוֹמֵר, יְהִי כְבוֹד חֲבֵרְךָ חָבִיב עָלֶיךָ כְּשֶׁלָּךְ, וְאַל תְּהִי נוֹחַ לִכְעֹס. וְשׁוּב יוֹם אֶחָד לִפְנֵי מִיתָתְךָ. וֶהֱוֵי מִתְחַמֵּם כְּנֶגֶד אוּרָן שֶׁל חֲכָמִים, וֶהֱוֵי זָהִיר בְּגַחַלְתָּן שֶׁלֹּא תִכָּוֶה, שֶׁנְּשִׁיכָתָן נְשִׁיכַת שׁוּעָל, וַעֲקִיצָתָן עֲקִיצַת עַקְרָב, וּלְחִישָׁתָן לְחִישַׁת שָׂרָף, וְכָל דִּבְרֵיהֶם כְּגַחֲלֵי אֵשׁ.

Bartenura - "let the honor of your fellow be as dear to you as your own.." - when will this be? when you are not easily angered. But if you are easily angered, it is impossible for you to not demean the honor of your fellow.
Yavetz - since you are obligated on guarding the honor of your fellow, then do not become angry on him. Because if you get angry on him easily, this itself is not proper honor towards him. For a person will not get angry on someone he is obligated to honor.
Tiferet Yisrael - "Let the honor of your fellow.." - he brought three things that it is proper for one to become whole in. One, good character traits (middot), two, guarding the mitzvot, and three, torah study.

Regarding good character traits (middot) he exhorted strongly against anger. For many bad traits stem from anger. And since most of the time anger is due to one person slighting the honor of his fellow, and then the fellow answers back with a little more, and then he too answers back with even more, and so forth in a (vicious) cycle.. Thus, the Sage said if you want to guard from anger which destroys body and soul, "let the honor of your fellow be as dear.., etc."

Just like you don't like it when someone slights your honor even just hintingly, so too guard from saying to your fellow something that will slight his honor even if it is just a little bit.

And just like if you slighted someone, it is not pleasing to you if he slights you back more than you slighted him, so too, if someone slights you, do not slight him back more than he slighted you (as Beitzah 20b).
Rabbi Avraham Azoulai - Ahava b'Taanugim - "let the honor of your fellow be as dear to you as your own.." - since he was praised for being a "cemented pit", that he does not forget anything of his learning, thus he came to exhort people on this. He said one will attain this through having a friend (study partner, chaver). For then each speaks verbally to the other and when they utter the words with their mouths, they will not forget as we mentioned earlier (previous mishna)..

This is the meaning of "let the honor of your fellow, etc". That is to say, in order that his friendship endures, you must be careful of his honor very much. For if you don't do this, the cord of friendship will quickly sever without a doubt.

He gave one general principle to keep the friendship. Namely, to not be easily angered by him. Just like a man is not easily angered on his own words, so too, do not become angry on the words of your fellow. Thus, when you don't get angry and treat him with great honor, the friendship will endure.

Some explain Rabbi Eliezer to be exhorting on anger. Namely, if you want to not be easily angered, strive that "the honor of your fellow be as dear to you as your own". Through this you will not be easily angered. For a man gets angry only when he does not consider important (machshiv) the other person and belittles him. But if he considers him important and honors him like himself, it is impossible to get angry, as before.

Some explain that a man needs to be whole in good character traits and mussars (ethics). Through this, he will come out of the category of a "boor". He will attain this by honoring others. Thus, he said: "let the honor of your fellow, etc." Secondly, one needs to be whole in the mitzvot deeds. Corresponding to this, he said: "repent one day before your death, etc." Third, he needs to be whole in torah. Corresponding to this, he said "warm yourself by the fire of the sages.."
Maharal - "let the honor of your fellow be as cherished to you as your own".. For when a man has [acquired] this trait, he is certainly whole (perfect) with other people in everything...
Daat Zekenim on Pirkei Avot, writings of Rabeinu Yerucham haLevi of Mir - we should know that the honor which we imagine to ourselves is proper and fitting to honor others with and likewise all mental pictures we may have [of honor], even the honor of kings - the foundation of the matter is that all this does not reach the right and true honor [one should give] as befitting and as halacha.

Thus, Rabbi Eliezer said to his students: "be careful (hizaharu) of the honor of your fellows" (Berachot 28b). For extreme carefulness (zehirut) is required in this matter. See the Maharsha there.)

Even the simple among the people feel belittled (mevuze) when they are not honored as befitting them. For when a man walks in the marketplace, he [really] wants that everyone stops his matters and honors him. And if not, he feels lacking and belittled. Does he not think to himself: "do people really know who I am? If they did, certainly they would act differently!"...

How beautiful are Rashi's words on Shemot (20:23): "you shall not ascend with steps upon My altar, so that your nakedness shall not be exposed upon it".

Rashi: "these matters are a kal va'chomer (logical inference), that if [concerning] these stones-which have no intelligence to object to their humiliation - the Torah said that you shall not behave toward them in a humiliating manner (minhag bizayon). [In contrast,] your friend, who is [created] in the likeness of your Creator and who does object to being humiliated, how much more so [must you be careful not to embarrass him]!-(Mechilta)".

It comes out of Rashi's words an amazing matter. There is a concept of "humiliating manner (minhag bizayon)". Not only did the torah forbid "humiliating" itself, but even "humiliating manner (minhag bizayon)" by itself.

On who was this said? On inanimate stones and how much more so on your fellow who is in the likeness of your Maker, etc.

According to this, it is possible that which we imagine to be honoring our fellow the "honor of kings" is in fact just "humiliating manner (minhag bizayon)" and far from true honor [deserved].

Thus when one acts in a "humiliating manner minhag bizayon)" towards his fellow, he transgresses the verse "you shall not ascend with steps upon My altar, so that your nakedness shall not be exposed upon it" - "how much more so for your fellow who is in the likeness of your Maker".

According to this, is it not evident (pashut) that it is difficult to speak even one word to another person?
Alei Shur Vol.2, 2:8 - every person needs honor and his life depends on it. Rabbi Nosson Tzvi Finkel, the Saba of Slabodka, would say that a person cannot live without honor. If it were possible to take away all of one's honor, he would die.

Scripture says: "kadosh, kadosh, kadosh Ha-Shem Tzeva-ot, the world is full of His honor (kavod)" (Isaiah 6:3). G-d is holy, that is to say, separated and divested of all physicality and corporeality (chomer, v'gashmiut). He is beyond the limits of bodies. How then can we recognize him? By this that "the whole world is full of His honor". With this that He created the whole world, He reveals Himself and this revealing is called honor. Thus, the Holy One, blessed be He, wanted that we be capable of recognizing Him to some extent.

"All that is called by My name, I have created, formed, and made for My Honor" (Isaiah 43:7). From this we understand that in a place where there is holiness, in that place there is honor.

In a man there is also holiness, for a holy soul was placed inside him. And it obligates treating him with honor...

the word honor (kavod) comes from the root "heaviness" (kaved). The opposite extreme is "cursed" (klala), which is from the root "lightness" (kal). When I treat someone with koved rosh, I honor him. But if I am being light with him (mekilim bo) , I am cursing him.

All the while a person looks that others honor him, it becomes difficult for him to honor other. For he sees himself as the center of the world and thus he alone deserves all the honor... Rabeinu Yonah writes in Shaar Haavodah:
"The first gate for the serving (religious) person is to know his own worth and recognize his qualities and the qualities of his forefathers, and their greatness and importance, and their being cherished to the Creator, blessed be He. One should strive and strengthen himself always to stand up to this level and conduct himself therein all the time... And if G-d forbid, a person does not recognize his level and the level of his forefathers, it will be easy in his eyes to go in the way of the heretics (peritzim) and expose himself as one of the disgraceful (nevalim), to fulfill his lusts.."
Thus, the first key in the service of G-d is for one to recognize his level and importance...

The closer a person is to another, the more difficult it is to fulfill one's obligation of honoring the other constantly.

Two friends who meet occasionally can easily honor each other. It is harder for two people who meet daily. likewise for partners and even more difficult for neighbors. Even harder is the members of one's household, and perhaps even harder still is the honor of one's wife..

Honoring one's wife is a very great obligation and necessity! For her eyes are lifted towards him, her tears come easily, and her life is dark if her husband does not give her honor.. the primary shalom bayit (peace in the home) depends on this that the husband knows well how to honor his wife...

Regarding others, we find our sages say that a man is asked at the time of his judgment: "did you crown your fellow.." (Reishit Chachma, Shaar Yirah, ch.12), i.e. to give him honor of kings and be annulled before his will. To such a degree!..

ALL matters of service of G-d literally (mamash) are connected to foregoing one's own honor. Torah and prayer, fulfilling the mitzvot whether one receives honor or the opposite, rebuke and forgiving. The work in this is constant and continues throughout one's life.. and in the Mesilat Yesharim: "it is impossible for one to be a faithful servant of his Maker all the time he is concerned for his own honor"..

As mentioned earlier, honor (kavod) is revealing the inner worth of a person or something. And honor of G-d is revealing His holiness which is above all grasp...

We learned in Pirkei Avot: "Everything that G-d created in His world, He did not create but for His Honor (glory). As is stated (Isaiah 43:7): "All that is called by My name and for My Honor, I created it, formed it, also I made it." And it says (Exodus 15:1): "G-d shall reign forever and ever" (Avot 6:11).

According to our way, we will translate this Beraitha in our words: "all that the Holy One, blessed be He, created in His world was only to be revealed through it". This is the truth. All of the entire creation, from the highest creations to the lowest, the entire creation generally and in all its details - it is all only a revelation! There is nothing which does not have a place and no man without a time whereby a spark of this revelation is ignited. On this king David sang the song of honor: "A song of David. Prepare for the L-ord, [you] sons of the mighty; prepare for the L-ord honor and might.. the L-ord of honor thunders.." (Tehilim 29).
Translator - honor is the soul of a person. There are verses on this such as "Awaken, my honor (Ura Kevodi)" (Tehilim 57:9) - which refers to the soul (Metzudot). The soul comes from the "Kisei HaKavod" (G-d's "Throne of Honor"). A person must know that if he harms the honor of his fellow, he is harming his soul. Without a doubt, it will be extremely difficult for the person to bear this and most likely he will not be able to bear it. Thus one needs to be very careful when interacting with people to be mindly not to slight the person's honor in any way, to have one thought in one's mind - "try not to harm this person's honor". This is a difficult work which requires constant awareness. See for yourself how most psychological pain is related to one's honor being attacked in some way. The talmud even compares embarrassing someone to murder. For as before harming the honor of someone is akin to harming his soul which is his deepest essence.
Midrash Raba (21:22) - "let the honor.." - even for a talmid chacham, if his eye is narrow (Tzar) towards his fellow in this world (i.e. he does not like to see other people's success), then his eyes will be full of smoke (i.e. blurry) in the World to Come.
Beit Levi, Beit Yisrael, Avot - there are some people that when he sees his fellow being honored by others, he gets goose bumps over his whole body. For this honor is not also being done to him too. Likewise, when he sees the fellow has wealth or sons or blessings, and he himself does not, his hearts becomes [bitter] against his fellow. For he thinks the honor, wealth, and sons his fellow has should be his. On this, the Tanna says: "let the honor of your fellow be as dear to you..,etc.", i.e. if they honor your fellow, or he gets blessings and sons, let this be as dear to you as if this honor and wealth were bestowed to you.
Tiferet Yehoshua - by nature a person always judges himself favorably. When he errs or loses or damages, he always finds a reason to exonerate himself. We never find people getting angry with themselves even if they committed great sins. On the other hand, a person gets angry on others who err or sin even for the slightest misdeed and he does not strive to exonerate them and understand them like he strives to understand himself. Thus the Tanna says strive that "Let the honor of your fellow be as dear to you as your own". Just like you don't get angry on yourself when you cause a loss or damage, so too don't get angry on your fellow if he sinned or caused loss or damage to yourself or others.
Chasdei David - when the Baal Haflaah was accepted as Rabbi of Frankfurt and the time of inauguration has arrived, he secluded himself alone in a room. They heard from outside the door that he was speaking to himself saying: "welcome the Gaon and Tzadik, Rabbi, etc."

When he was asked afterwards on this, he replied according to the mishna "Let the honor of your fellow be as dear to you as your own". Namely, that the honor which your fellow honors you should be as important in your eyes as if you honor yourself. And just like when one honors himself, it is worth nothing and he does not feel any feeling of arrogance on this, so too should be in your eyes when other people honor you." This explanation is sweeter than honey.
** Do Not Be Easy to Anger **
Yismach Moshe, Nasso - "do not be easy to anger" - for if the anger is not l'Shem Shamayim, then it is as if one worships idols. And if you say it is l'Shem Shamayim, if so, it is a matter of holiness and holiness requires preparation and a settled mind (hachana v'yishuv daat). Therefore, do not be easy to anger. Understand this.
Daat Zekenim on Pirkei Avot, writings of Rabeinu Yerucham haLevi of Mir - scripture says: "a man is born as a wild donkey" (Iyov 11:12), and there is no greater animal wildness than the trait of anger.
Sfas Emes on Avot - the Kedushas Levi would say that these two things are one. For when a person gets angry, his neshama leaves him. This is "do not be easily angered", for if you get angry, then your neshama leaves, etc. and this is death and you need to repent.
Kedushat Levi, Avot - the zohar states that when a person gets angry, his soul flees from him and this is a matter of death. Therefore, when a man would like to get angry, he should think immediately that he needs to repent before G-d. For this is a matter of death.
Avodat Yisrael, Avot - Rabbi Levi Yitzchak would explain that anger is similar to death. For one's soul leaves him. And he said: "repent one day, etc." Thus, before you get angry you must do vidui (confession) and repent. For through this you are going to die. And certainly, when you confess first, you will no longer get angry.
Beit Levi, Beit Yisrael, Avot - "your death" - if one wants to get angry, he should see to it that he repents first because it is like the day of death. For the Zohar writes (2:182) on the verse "who rips his soul in his anger" (Iyov 18:4) that for every sin, one needs to rectify only that sin he transgressed. But for anger, he must repent so much so that the holy soul returns back after leaving him during his anger. Therefore, anger is the most severe sin of all. For his soul left him and he is left with only an animal soul (nefesh behemit), and this is like death. Thus he must repent before this.. Hence, he wrote "your death", specifically "your death". For he is committing suicide. For the day of actual death is not called "your death" since it is not in your ability. Through this advice you will be able to be saved from anger.
Rabeinu Yonah - "do not be easy to anger" - it is known that anger is a very bad trait. But nevertheless, it is human nature to be drawn after it. Therefore, they said that since one should get angry sometimes, therefore he must be careful not to be easily angered. If you wish to get angry, weigh on the scales of your intellect if it is proper to get angry for that thing. If you find any argument to remove the anger from your heart, annul it from your heart. But for something which is proper to get angry on, let your anger be with you (in control)...
** Repent One Day Before Your Death **
Bartenura - "repent one day before your death" - for one does not know when he will die. Thus he should repent today since maybe he will die tomorrow.
Tiferet Yisrael - "Repent one day before your death" - here he exhorts on guarding the mitzvot. For a man's heart tends more towards sinning than towards being righteous. Because in sinning he will attain the pleasure quickly, while the punishment and reward for the sin and mitzvah is on the [faraway] day of the Throne (of justice)...

Therefore, retract from your outlook and look at it as if today is one day before your death and the day of G-d (judgment) is near.

He did not say: "lest you die today". For one can save himself saying that he does not feel any weakness or illness yet. But much can happen between today and tomorrow.
Rabbi Avraham Azoulai - Ahava b'Taanugim - "Repent one day before your death" - i.e. even if you were wicked all your days, do not abandon hope of (G-d's) mercy, and don't think He will not accept you. For even if one is on his deathbed (gossess), if he repents, the Holy One, blessed be He, receives him (Yerushalmi Chagigah 2:1, Shaarei Teshuva 1:9)...
Tiferet Yehoshua - "Repent one day before your death" - a person has no conception of death itself. But he has a conception of "the day of death". For this is a concept of time and which he can grasp. For he can see how swiftly each day passes and he is already ten, twenty, forty.. he was a child then a teenager and then married, first child, etc..

Why does a person not feel that he is going to die and leave this world? Man was created a composite of body and soul. The body is mortal and disintegrates after death. But the soul is immortal and lives forever. For it is "a portion of G-d from above" (chelek Eloka mimaal), so to speak, as our sages said: "there are three partners in man.. mother.. father.., and the Holy One, blessed be He, gives him a spirit and soul" (Nidah 31a).

The soul is "a portion of G-d" and remains alive forever and passes on to the Afterlife, as our sages said: "the souls of the righteous are hidden under the throne of glory" (Shab.152b), and likewise the Rambam writes: "the soul lives on forever and ever" (Yesod Hatorah 4:9). We learned from here that the soul is a "portion of G-d" and thus man has a part which death has no power over. Due to this, he has no awareness or expectation of death. For that is permanent inexistence.

We find this concept of the eternity of the soul expressed in our day to day lives. When a man hears about the death of someone, even if it is someone he recognizes him, nevertheless, his heart is not so moved by it. Even though it is proper to be moved when facing the death of a living man. For each person is an "entire world" (Olam Maleh) and if he dies, an entire world was destroyed. Likewise, scripture says: "The righteous man has died, but no one takes it to heart" (Yeshaya 57:1).

Rather, the reason for the matter is because a man does not disappear completely. Rather, he moves on to another world, and his soul continues to live forever and ever. It is due to this that a person does not quake as he should upon hearing of a death.
Daat Zekenim in name of the Saba of Kelm - - "repent one day before your death" - for in the eyes of the intelligent person, even when he is healthy, the closeness of death stands before his eyes. And the Zohar says: "fortunate are those who imagine in their hearts as if this day they are leaving the world".

In truth, many doctors already said that it is the way of the world for people to be surprised when they hear sometimes about a perfectly healthy person who went to lie down on his bed at night and died suddenly, never waking up from his sleep.

But it would have been more fitting to wonder on a human being who walks and is alive for even one second. For when one learns of how many mishaps are liable to occur each and every second, if not that the hand of G-d did this to guard him and sustain him..
Daat Chachma U'Mussar 1:38,40 - "repent one day before your death (Avot 2:10)" - Rabbi Eliezer taught us that the way to come to arousal (hitpaalut) of the body is not through intellectual and wise thoughts. For wisdom is not the language of the body. One needs to speak to the body in a different language altogether, namely, superficial ideas which are not at all connected to wisdom. Thus he said: "repent one day before your death", i.e. repent today for perhaps you will die tomorrow. Namely, that one thinks and reviews this thought always on his tongue. For who is so wicked and a sinner as to not want to repent in the final moments of his life? Who would not be roused to repent when death hovers over him? This is the only way and means to affect the body and reach the desired purpose, namely, repentance and good deeds.
Daat Zekenim on Pirkei Avot 2:10 in name of Rabbi Naftali Amsterdam - the way and order of mussar study according to what I heard from the mouth of Rabbi Yisrael Salanter zt'l is to divide one's learning time into two parts. For example, if a person fixes one hour for mussar study, he should divide it into two half hours.

One half hour to learn in books of mussar in the same way one learns other books. Namely, to contemplate them and their thoughts such as the Mesilat Yesharim or Chovot Halevavot or the like.

The second half for learning with (emotional) arousal (hitpa'alut). Namely, to learn sayings of our sages and review it many times. Whatever saying it is, whether in "Duties of the Heart" or "Reishit Chachma", or in "Pirkei Avot", or the like.
Daat Zekenim on Pirkei Avot (Rabeinu Yerucham) in name of the Saba of Kelm - "repent one day before your death" - i.e. repent today for perhaps you wil die tomorrow, as explained in the talmud (Shab.153a).

(There Rabbi Eliezer first said: "repent one day before your death". His disciples asked him: "but does a man know which day he will die?" He replied: "all the more so should you repent today perhaps you will die tomorrow. Thus all your days will be in repentance."

The explanation is that he first spoke to them in the way of shock arousal (hitpa'alut): "repent one day before your death" in order to open their hearts quickly. Afterwards, he spoke to them in the way of the intellect: "repent today for perhaps you will die tomorrow".. For the feeling of shock arousal lasts only a short time. But the intellect can maintain a thought..)

Thus, the way to arouse the body is not through wise intellectual thoughts. For wisdom is not the language of the body. One needs to speak to the body with merely superficial thoughts which are not at all connected to wisdom. For who is so wicked and a sinner that he does not want to repent in the final moments of his life?

Likewise the Saba of Kelm wrote in his letters: "a man must know that if he has a foolish student, he needs to learn with him according to his level of little understanding and weak intellect. For if a man tries to learn lofty wisdoms which are beyond his intellect, the foolish student will remain foolish.

So too regarding a man with himself. One should not think he will conquer his will with great and lofty concepts. For we can see that "a man is born as a wild donkey" (Iyov 11:12)... Rather one needs to break himself with simple ideas such as thinking of the day of one's death.

Thus, our sages brought: "It is related that a certain pious man gave a dinar (gold coin) to a poor man on the eve of Rosh Hashana in a year of drought. His wife scolded him. Then he went and passed the night in the cemetery" (Berachot 18b).

My teacher (Rabbi Yisrael Salanter) explained that after the pious man had stumbled in anger, he went to remind himself of the day of death. It is good to remind oneself in a cemetary for the seeing breaks the heart. Thus, know with whom you are dealing with. For to break the heart, one needs to employ simple thoughts.
Chachma U'Mussar 1:35 - in the talmud: "Rabbi Eliezer said to his disciples..". Behold, the disciples of Rabbi Eliezer were the great Tannaim such as Rabbi Yishmael and Rabbi Akiva. Did they not already know the Midrash " 'behold it was very good' (Gen.1:31) - this refers to death" (Ber.Rabba 9:5). For it is good to submit (humble) the soul., as Rabeinu Yonah wrote (Shaarei Teshuva 2:25)?

Rather the whole novelty (chidush) of Rabbi Eliezer was to teach them to bring the remembrance of day of death as close as possible. It is not enough to just know it superficially. For that will not bring one to action. Only when one draws it close to the senses (hitkarvut lachush) and this is impossible without much mental effort in this..
Chachma U'Mussar 1:87 - another explanation, repent today for perhaps you will die tomorrow - do not procrastinate your time until tomorrow like the way of every disgraceful lazy person. For besides the plain meaning, we also learn that it is good advice for a man to think as if only one day and one daf is before him. Likewise for tomorrow and for the second daf, and so on. Do not push yourself off for later on.
Ye'arot Devash 11 - "Repent one day before your death" - in truth, when one sees how many people died suddenly without having made preparations for the journey, he should repent for maybe his time has come, and what will he answer on the day of reckoning?
Pirkei Moshe - "Repent one day before your death" - our sages said: "fortunate is he who comes here with his learning in his hand" (Pesachim 50a). For that which is of use for Olam Haba is to have in one's hand and memory what he learned. If he forgot it, it won't help so much like it helps for one who has it in his hands.. Thus it is proper for one to think at all times that it is one day before his death.. so that he strives every day that his learning is in his hands...
** Warm Yourself by the Fire.. **
Bartenura - "warm yourself by the fire of the sages, but beware of their coals lest you be burned" - do not conduct yourself lightheadedly (kalut rosh) with them so that you will not be punished on account of them.

"bite of a fox" - it is difficult to heal. For its teeth are thin, curved, and arched. Thus the doctor needs to cut the flesh with a knife and open the wound.

"sting of a scorpion" - this is worse than a snake bite.

"hiss of a serpent (saraf)" - like the burning "breath" that goes out of the Saraf when it speaks. Alternatively, just like the Saraf does not listen to the voices of the charmers like other snakes, so too for a talmid chacham. If you offend him and come afterwards to appease him, he will not accept appeasement.
Rambam - do not think that if he bites you with words, you can come back and appease him. For he will not listen just like the Saraf.. You can know this from the story of Gechazi who went against Elisha his Rabbi and fell into a horrible illness (leprosy)...
Tosfot Yom Tov - the Rambam writes: "when you join the sages (Chachamim) and men of high virtue (anshei maakot), do not act frivolously with them and do not be haughty over them. Rather, let them be aware that you will draw close to them only when they draw you close. And do not draw close to them more than they draw you close so that you will not lose their intention towards you (to help you) and their love transforms to hatred, whereby you will not attain the virtues you hoped for.

He compared this to one who warms himself by a fire. If he sits far away, he will benefit from the heat. But if he draws too close,he will be burned.
Tiferet Yisrael - "Warm yourself by the fire of the sages" - he said this corresponding to torah study, which is called light, as written: "torah is light" (Mishlei 6:23). Although one can receive the [benefit of] light from far away, but he cannot "warm himself" from the light [of fire] if he is far away. Thus, he said: "warm yourself, etc.", i.e. do not be satisfied to be illuminated from the study from afar. Rather see to it that you draw close to them and you warm your emotions when seeing their deeds of holy fire. For "Shimush (service of) Chachamim (Torah sages) is greater than learning Torah" (Berachot 7b).

"but beware of their coals lest you be burned" - be careful not to slight their honor by being always around them. For even if they seem to you like dim coals without blazing power to harm you, nevertheless, be fearful of them lest you be burned.

"their hiss is the hiss of a serpent (saraf)" - a "saraf" is an extremely venomous snake.. even if they don't curse you, but they merely speak and pour out their souls to G-d to have pity on them.. G-d will claim (revenge of) their honor (from you).
Rabeinu Yosef ben Shushan on Avot - "all their words are like fiery coals" - for they are the word of G-d and scripture says: "is not My word like fire?" (Yirmiyahu 23:29).
Darchei Chaim - "all of their words are like fiery coals" - even if it seems to you that it is their own words and not words of torah, i.e. that they reprimand you for themselves and not for torah, nevertheless, know that it is like fiery coals. Namely, just like coals have no benefit from burning things, so too the talmidei chachamim (torah scholars) do not at all have intent for their own benefit. Rather, they are merely doing the emissary work (shlichut) of G-d. (Likewise for the analogy of the snake which [often] does not bite for any benefit).
Rabeinu Avraham Pritzel on Avot - "warm yourself..." - just like the warmth of the body is the life (kiyum) of the body, so too the warmth of the torah is the life (kiyum) of the soul. And even if you habituate yourself to warm yourself from their torah and to toil with them, nevertheless, be careful of their coal to not make light of their honor and joke on them, lest you be burned.. for one who makes light of the honor of the sages, who does not respect their torah, will be burned.. Our sages already said: "wherever the sages set their eye against one, [the result was] either death or poverty" (Moed Katan 17b), and "he gazed at him and the man died" (Shab.34a), and "he gazed at him and the man turned into a pile of bones" (ibid). All this due to their great might in G-d's torah and the great levels reached to those who are worthy. On this he ended off: "all their words are like coals of fire", because they are the word of G-d, as written: "is not My word like fire, says the L-ord" (Yirmiyahu 23:29). Thus one who disrespects will be burned. But one who warms himself rightly and properly will benefit and live forever.
Ne'edar baKodesh - for the torah has two parts, an elixir of life and a death potion. As our sages said: "if he merits, it becomes an elixir of life, but if he does not, it becomes a death potion" (Yomah 72b).. Just like fire can be either beneficial or destructive.. so too one who learns torah improperly (not to fulfill).. he ignites within himself the fire of the yetzer hara which is compared to a serpent... (see there for more)
Ben Ish Chai - Zechut Avot - "Warm yourself by the fire of the sages" - he hints in this, that if you did not merit to torah, strive to support (machzik) those who learn torah..

"by the fire (literally:opposite-keneged)" as Rebbi said, the reason I attained more wisdom than my peers is because I saw Rebbi Meir from behind. If I had seen him from the front, I would have been wiser. Thus he said opposite (keneged), i.e. from their faces. For a man's wisdom lights up his face (Kohelet 8:1).
Lev Avot - "by the fire (literally:opposite-keneged)" - to warm yourself opposite them (kenegdam) - for if you want to do repentance (teshuva), contemplate those who stood kenegdam (against them), i.e. who did the opposite of their words and consider how much trouble they caused themselves. Since those who transgress the words of the sages are sentenced to the Gehinom of snow. By contemplating this, you will warm yourself and not wind up like them. But nevertheless, be careful not to be burned by their coal. For one who comes too close to them (dishonors them) is sentenced to the Gehinom of fire.
Ben Ish Chai - Birkat Avot - "all of their words are like burning coals" - for coals sometimes appear to be [extinguished] ashes but in truth they are fiery, only they are enclothed in ashes. So too the words of our sages and especially agadah, they seem to the eye like stories but in truth they contain lofty secrets and hints. Only that they are enclothed in subtle hints so that not every person can understand them.
Tiferet Yehoshua - Why is a talmid chacham (torah scholar) like a coal? Because its exterior does not testify on its interior. Externally, it looks dark but it has light and warmth which heat and illuminate its surroundings. So too, for a talmid chacham, even though he is a body, comprised of gross physicality, but nevertheless, due to his toil in torah, he purifies even his physical body until his entire being is pure and clean, illuminating and shining the whole world with his torah.

On this our sages said: "even though talmidei chachamim (torah sages) appear ugly and dark in this world, but in the future, their appearance will be like flames (lapidim)" (Midrash Shir Hashirim Rabba 5:9).
Rabeinu Yonah - "beware of their coals lest you be burned" - like one who warms himself from a fire. If he stands at a distance as is proper, he will benefit and won't be burned. But if he draws too close, he will be burned. So too one who warms himself by the fire of the sages and benefits from their wisdom, he must stand before them out of awe, fear, and heavy-headedness. He should not act light-headedly before them nor draw closer than they draw him. For this trait obligates him severe punishment. And it goes without saying when one stumbles in sin (not to do so before them).
Rashi - "but beware of their coals lest you be burned" - that you are not punished due to transgressing their words.
Chida - Petach Einayim - "all their words are like fiery coals" - for in the biblical prohibitions, the punishment is according to the severity of the sin he committed. Some incur lashes, some death by Heaven, some death by Beit Din. But one who transgresses the Rabbinical prohibitions incurs death (Berachot), even for something light. Thus, "all their words are like fiery coals". For there is no distinction in the words of the sages betwen severe and light (transgresion).
Rabbi Avraham Azoulai - Ahava b'Taanugim - "beware of their coals lest you be burned" - i.e. do not argue on the words of our sages, saying something which is the opposite of their words. For "one who breaches a fence will be bitten by a snake" (Kohelet 10:8).

"their bite is the bite of a fox.." - for the words of our sages are divided into three categories. One, Midrash which has no (halachic) differences. Two, monetary laws. Three, forbidden and permitted (issur v'heter). Corresponding to the first, he said: "bite of a fox" which does not have deadly poison, just pain only. So too one who argues on the Midrashim which have no Halachic difference will have punishment and pain for arguing against the words of our sages.

Corresponding to the second category he said "sting of a scorpion" which has deadly poison. For he exempted the guilty and obligated the innocent (to pay). This is a sin but it has a healing like the venom of a scorpion. Namely, the money can be returned.

Corresponding to the third whereby "the crooked can no longer be straightened" (Kohelet 1:15), he said: "hiss of a saraf (extremely venomous snake)", which has no remedy.
Binyan Avot (by Kabbalist Tzemach haKohen, Jerba) - if you examine, you will find that these three things are included in the trait of "good eye" which he said previously. For one with a good eye will always be careful of the honor of his fellow like his own, and even more. Likewise, he is not easily angered and due to his good eye, he will choose to sit with torah scholars and all the more so be careful of their coals.. Likewise for the other disciples of Rabban Yochanan ben Zokkai, each said three things which stem from the trait (middah) he chose.
Maharal - you should know that each of these sages chose to say three things. This is because they are words of mussar which a person should "inscribe on the board of his heart" (Mishlei 7:3), always and never remove them.

Normally, a person can remember three things. But for more than three things, he will forget some of them.

Therefore our sages said: "one should always teach his students in a concise manner" (Pesachim 3b). Thus here they each chose three things. Likewise, you will find most of the mussar in this tractate is given in three teachings.

For three things can be of one matter and connected to each other. This is the special quality of three which connects them when they are two extremes and the middle one between them. Thus the special quality of three is that they all have a connection together and when a person remembers any one of the three, it reminds him of the other two.

But if one says many things (more than three), it is impossible for them to be connected together and be one matter and then there is no remembrance of them and forgetfulness comes in. Therefore, each one said three mussar teachings which are of one matter and one thing.

"Rabbi Eliezer said: let the honor of your fellow be as cherished to you as your own" - we already mentioned in the beginning of this tractate that man needs three things to become whole.

One, that he is whole with G-d, as we explained there..
Two, that he is whole with other people.
Three, that he is whole with himself.

If he is not whole with himself, he is a "lacking person" (baal chisaron), as we explained.

Thus, Rabbi Eliezer began: "let the honor of your fellow be as cherished to you as your own". For when a man has [acquired] this trait, he is certainly whole (perfect) with other people in everything..

Corresponding that he not be a "person of lacking" with himself, he said: "do not be easily angered". For anger is evil within man himself, as the verse says: "remove anger from your heart, and you will remove evil away from your flesh" (Kohelet 11:10). And in Nedarim (22a): "Rabbi Yochanan says: "whoever gets angry has all sorts of Gehinom ruling over him, as written: 'remove anger from your heart and evil from your flesh'..." (Nedarim 22a).

Likewise there, "whoever gets angry, even the Shechina is not important before him, as written: 'The wicked, through the pride of his countenance, will not seek G-d' Tehilim (10:4)."

Likewise there: "Rabbi Nachman says it is certain that his sins out number his merits". End quote.

And there is no greater lacking in himself than this that he said "forgets his learning and increases foolishness", and all the other things mentioned there.

Afterwards, he said "repent one day before your death". Our sages explained this to mean that he repents all his days for one does not know the day of his death" (Shab.153a).. This is so man will be good towards Heaven. For if he sinned against G-d, he should repent to Him with all his heart and soul... (see there)

Thus, Rabbi Eliezer gave mussar to a man to make himself whole in all three areas..

Afterwards he said three further matters which pertain to the intellect (sechel)..

"Warm yourself by the fire of the sages" - i.e. cling to the sages. This is called "warming oneself", for when one warms himself, he receives benefit through this..

"but be careful of their coals lest you be burned" - be careful that this closeness not cause you to be too habitual with them and sin against them..

Then he explained for "their bite..their sting, etc.".. This is due to the great power of the intellect of torah sages. For the power of intellect is not like the power of the physical. It is vastly greater since the intellect "acts" completely (but the physical merely reacts).. (see there for more).