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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 17
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 17פרק ב משנה יז
Rabbi Elazar would say: be diligent/eager in the study of Torah. Know what to answer a heretic (apikorus). Know before Whom you toil and faithful is your Employer that He will pay you the reward for your labor. רַבִּי אֶלְעָזָר אוֹמֵר, הֱוֵי שָׁקוּד לִלְמֹד תּוֹרָה, וְדַע מַה שֶּׁתָּשִׁיב לְאֶפִּיקוֹרוֹס. וְדַע לִפְנֵי מִי אַתָּה עָמֵל. וְנֶאֱמָן הוּא בַעַל מְלַאכְתְּךָ שֶׁיְּשַׁלֶּם לָךְ שְׂכַר פְּעֻלָּתֶךְ

Rambam - "be diligent/eager (shakud)" - shekeida is from the term in scripture: "for I hasten (shaked) My word to perform it" (Yirmiyahu 1:12), i.e. quick and striving. Alternatively, its meaning is habitual and diligence (hergel v'temidut), as in the verse: "to be diligent (lishkod) at my doors day by day" (Mishlei 8:34).
Rabbi Avraham Azoulai - Ahava b'Taanugim - "be diligent/eager in the study of Torah" - since he was praised for being an "an increasingly powerful wellspring" (mayan hamitgaber) and understanding one thing from another, he now explains the path to get there. He said one will obtain this only through diligence in Torah and to review the matter time after time. Through this the secrets of Torah hinted there will be revealed to him, as they said "turn it over again and again for everything is in it" (Avot 5:2). This is the meaning of "be diligent in the study of Torah", i.e. every time you review the matter, let your intent be to learn Torah, i.e. to learn and understand something [new] which you never learned before. You will attain this through shkeida (eagerness).
Meor Yisrael pg.254 (Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef, zt'l) - to become a true talmid chacham requires great shkeida, day and night, not to forego (mevater) on even one second. Even if he walks or travels, he should learn Torah. Even if he rides on a bus from one neighborhood to another, a matter of ten minutes, he should take with him a small book, and during the ride, let him find a quiet corner, a crack in a rock, and open the book and learn, one daf when going and one daf when returning. "Kovetz al yad yarbe". Even one amud is a great treasure. As long as he learns, and reviews and learns, in the end of the matter, he will be among the gedolei hador (greatest of the generation)...
Rabeinu Yonah - "be diligent in the study of Torah and know what to answer a heretic" - to fix oneself to learn Torah so that one will know what to answer the words of the apikoros. For if one does not refute him according to his claims and lies, the world will learn from him and drink bad water thinking he defeated you. and thus the Name of Heaven will be desecrated.
Bartenura - "heretic (apikorus)" - from the term "hefker" (ownerless), that he mocks the Torah and considers it as if it is hefker. Alternatively, he puts himself as hefker and is not concerned for his own soul that perhaps evil will befall him for mocking the Torah or those who study it.
Rambam - "Know what to answer a heretic" - you need to learn things that you can use to answer a gentile apikorus and debate with them and answer them if they ask you. Our sages taught: "this applies only to a gentile apikorus, but for a Jewish one, all the more so, he will become more heretical" (Sanhedrin 38)., i.e. he will increase to mock (and one who answers him will transgress (Vayikra 19:14): "do not put a stumbling block before a blind man" - Meorei Ohr).

Due to this, there is no need to speak to him at all and there is no remedy and no medication for him whatsoever, as written: "none who go to her return, neither do they attain the ways of life" (Mishlei 2:19). They further said: "although you may learn the views of the gentiles to know how to answer them, but guard yourself to not put to heart (i.e. accept) anything of those views and know that He whom you stand before knows the hidden (thoughts) of your heart. Thus, he continued: "know before Whom you toil", i.e. that you align (kavin) your heart with emuna (faith) of G-d.
Rabeinu Yosef ben Shushan on Avot - the reason is that the gentile does not know the fundamentals of Torah nor did he hear of it from his fathers or see its glory himself. Therefore, if he makes claims on it, one should not wonder on him and it is proper to have pity on him and answer him proper answers to refute his view. Perhaps he will listen and heed. But one who knows all these qualities of Torah and tasted its ways and recognized it and nevertheless denied it - this is nothing but rebellion and betrayal (mered u'maal). Whatever you answer him will make him angry and furious and cause him to increase sin. Therefore, it is proper to keep quiet due to "do not put a stumbling block before the blind" (Vayikra 19:14).
Hon Ashir - ... we are not accountable (acharay) for a Jewish apikorus. For one should not answer him, as the Talmud says. And for a gentile apikorus, we are not responsible (arevim) on him. For "the ways of G-d are just; the Righteous walk in them, but the Sinners stumble in them" (Hoshea 14:10), and we don't care, as the midrash says on the verse "we will do and we will hear". Due to this, one may err and refrain from knowing what to answer a heretic. Thus he said examine and see the difference between the light of Torah and the darkness of the false views..

And so a man does not say: "I will first study those false views and afterwards, I will study Torah, just ike the shell is before the fruit". On this Rabbi Eliezer exhorted first: "be diligent to study Torah" and afterwards "know what to answer a heretic".. For if you do the opposite, you will be caught in an evil trap. For you will first accept the first views and afterwards won't believe the words of Torah. Like a man who sat in darkness and afterwards it is very hard for him to look at the light... (see there for more).
Chasdei David - the talmud (Sanhedrin 38b) comments on Rabbi Elazar's words: "Rabbi Yochanan said: 'this applies only to a gentile apikorus, but for a Jewish apikorus, all the more so will he become more hefker (heretical)". end quote...

For if you answer him, the debate will cause him to mafkir himself even more. For he recognized the truth from the beginning and even so, he abandoned it. Thus, you will not be able to answer him something that he will accept.

And in our times, one should not debate even the gentile apikorsim. In the old days, at least they admitted and believed in the existence of some higher power, but they mistakenly attributed to idols or the sun, moon etc. But today people are not interested in any higher power. They just want to be "hefker" (ownerless).
Sforno - through diligence (shkida) in Torah study alone, and only through this, will you find a sufficient answer to the deniers, as written: "if you seek it like silver, and search for it like treasures, then you will understand the fear of the L-ord, and you will find the knowledge of G-d" (Mishlei 2:4-5). Through this you will become an "overpowering wellspring" on every one who argues, as the Rav praised him.
Midrash Shmuel - one might conclude that if a person learned those parts of Torah which would provide an answer to a heretic, but he never met one to defeat, that he learned in vain. This is not so - "know before Whom you toil." G-d desires the heart of man, and He will certainly pay you your reward, just as if you had actually met a heretic and had defeated his spurious arguments (ascentofsafed.com).
Tiferet Yehoshua - if there are apikorsim in the world who mock the word of G-d, they bring a ruach hatumah (spirit of impurity) to the world. This tumah destroys the world and brings destruction to human beings. Only the Torah purifies the world and pumps living waters in man which purifies his soul. Therefore, Rabbi Elazar advises that the most crushing answer to the apikorus is: to study the Torah diligently day and night. Through this alone, the ruach hatumah will depart from the land.

Alternatively, be diligent to learn Torah so you will know what to answer the apikorus in you - this is the yetzer hara who seeks ways how to remove you from your wish and the wish of your Maker.
Yismach Moshe, Vayikra - "Know what to answer a heretic (apikorus)" - this seems difficult. what novel knowledge is needed for this? - Just tell him the truth.

The explanation is that truth is a divine light, as written: "Torah is light" (Mishlei 6:23). And every supernal light needs a vessel fit to receive it, as explained in the Kuzari in many places.

But this apikorus is not prepared to receive and even so, in order to sanctify the Name of Heaven, one needs to answer him something which will appease him even though it is not truth - this needs wisdom and knowledge.
Tiferet Yisrael - three things are necessary for success in learning.
1. Eagerness and Diligence. If he's not diligent to review everyday what he learned the previous day, he will lose before he gains. And the subjects will not be firmly grasped in his mind. Therefore 'Be eager to study the Torah'

2. Thoughtfulness and depth in the subjects learned. One should not move away from anything he learns until he can answer 7 questions. (see the hebrew for details). When you can answer the 7 questions, all difficulties will be clarified for you. Also, you'll understand the background well, and if there's a contradiction to what you already know.

You'll also ask yourself if there are any extra words, and if yes, why this word was written. This way things will become clear like a new garment. Therefore 'know what to respond to a heretic'. i.e. It's not enough to know reasons clearly enough to answer a kosher Jew. Rather, contemplate things so thoroughly that you can even answer a heretic who does not accept our faithful Tradition and only accepts what the human intellect can grasp.

3. Removal of worries and all other thoughts when learning. Therefore 'Know before Whom you toil and who is your employer who shall pay you the reward of your labor.'

a. Know before Whom you toil. Means, be embarassed to think other thoughts while busy doing your Employer's work.

b. faithful is your Employer etc.. Means due to your efforts in Torah study, you will not need big efforts to obtain your livelihood.
Daat Zekenim on Pirkei Avot, writings of Rabeinu Yerucham haLevi of Mir - the Rambam explained:

"The matter of shekeida is from the verse "for I hasten My word to perform it" (Yirmiyahu 1:12), i.e. swift. (i.e., without any pause whatsoever - Daas Torah chelek 3, pg.250). Alternatively, its matter is habit and temidut (constancy)". end quote.

This is explained in Daat Chochma u'Mussar (1:61). Namely, the essence (mahut) of Torah is "love" - clinging and joining (davek v'chibur) of man with the Creator, blessed be He. For "the Holy One, blessed be He, the Torah and Yisrael are one", they cling and join "until becoming one". Thus, since the essence (mahut) of Torah is love and clinging, therefore whoever learns Torah haphazardly (l'perakim) or if he interrupts his study, this is not in the category of Torah. For Torah is eternally joining and clinging. Thus there cannot be any separation (hefsek) whatsoever. This is what our sages said:

" 'He who commits adultery with a woman lacks understanding' (Proverbs 6:32) - this refers to one who studies Torah intermittently" (Sanhedrin 99b).

Furthermore regarding interrupting (hefsek) in Torah study: it is written in the Torah: "I will fill him with a spirit of G-d, with wisdom and understanding.." (Shemot 31:3). What is wisdom (chochma) and what is understanding (tevuna)?

On this our sages said (Sifri Devarim 1, Rashi brings it in Devarim 1:13):

"What is the difference between the wise (chachamim) and the understanding (nevonim)? The wise (Chacham) is like a rich money-changer. When he is brought money, he deals with it. But when money is not brought to him, he sits idle. On the other hand, an understanding person is like a merchant money-changer.

When he is brought money to see, he engages with it. And when he is not brought money, he turns and brings of his own [to do business].

I.e. he understands [and deduces] one thing from another. The explanation is as the Ramchal explained. Namely, that understanding (tevuna) is joining one thing to another and supporting one thing from another.

For through wisdom alone, the things which are in the domain of wisdom but are separate - they don't have a connection to each other. But the secret of understanding (tevuna) connects one thing to another and binds them together.

Perhaps we can say that the word "understanding" (tevuna) comes from the word "building" (binyan). Namely, joining one thing to another and uniting them purposefully.

This is the secret of the Torah. For on the Torah, it is written: "from His mouth comes knowledge (daat) and understanding (tevuna)" (Mishlei 2:6). Because the secret of Torah is in understanding (Tevuna), connecting one matter with another and uniting them, to go from one thing to another and another to another, etc.

This is what our sages said:

"Ben Azai would sit and expound [Torah] and fire would blaze all around him.. Rabbi Akiva asked him: 'perhaps you were toiling in the matters of the divine chariot (kabala)'? Ben Azai answered: "no". Rather, you were sitting and weaving together (chorez) in words of the Torah, and from the Torah to the prophets and from the prophets to the holy writings (ketuvim), and the matters were joyous as they were given at Sinai, etc'". (Shir Hashirim Rabba 1:52).

This needs understanding. Because he would sit and join words of Torah, etc. that this was the reason the [holy] fire would blaze all around him? Such an occurrence due weaving together words of Torah?

Rather, certainly, the reason is that this is the secret of Torah. It is built on tevuna (understanding).To join and combine one thing to another until they are united together.

And then the matters are joyous as they were given at Sinai. For example, when one learns tractate Bava Kama, it appears every sugya is an independent matter. But when one learns it a few times, it appears clear that the whole tractate is all one sugya (subject matter).

From what comes out of our words, we will understand well the matter of "do not interrupt" by Torah (study). For the secret of Torah is joining the matters, to connect one thing to another, and another to another, etc.

Now we will understand well why our sages screamed like cranes on not interrupting Torah [study]. For interrupting is the biggest damager in Torah.

(And in Daas Torah (chelek 3, pg.250), he writes - the Rambam explains the matter of shekida from the verse shoked ani al devaray, i.e. swift, etc. end quote. That is to say, without any interuption whatsoever. For it is already clear by us from other places, that in the middah (way) of G-d, "a full vessel can hold more (wisdom) while an empty vessel cannot hold" (Sukkah 46). And through a slight interruption one is already in the category of: "an empty vessel cannot hold".)
Daat Zekenim on Pirkei Avot - (Rabeinu Yerucham Levovitz) - "Know what to answer a heretic" - knowledge which is in a general manner is not considered and is not called knowledge. Rather the knowledge must penetrate the matter, descending into the details and details of details in all its fine points, to contemplate the subtleties of the matter in all its parts and subparts in finest detail. This kind of knowing is called with the name knowledge (yediah).

This is what the mishna teaches us - be diligent/eager to learn Torah in such a way that you will be able to answer an apikorus. i.e. with the word "daah" (know), that you drill down in all its details and fine points of all its parts. For then you will be able to contend and defeat this reprehensible apikorus with your arguments.

Thus he continued "and know before Whom you toil". For this kind of learning Torah in all its details and distinctions is called "toil" (amelut).
Daat Zekenim - (Saba of Kelm) in Mishlei 16:26 "the soul which toils, toils for him". The explanation is that everywhere things follow the end purpose (tachlit). The tachlit (purpose) of man's toil (in work) is only the money he profits from this. But the toil itself has no purpose. For it is just preparations (for making money).

However, the service of G-d is not like this. For he is rewarded "according to the pain/difficulty" (lefum tzaara agra).

Thus "toils for Him" refers to G-d. For He has no need for the blood of rams. "G-d wants the heart" (Sanhedrin 106b) only. This is the meaning of "the soul which toils - toils for him". For the purpose is the toil itself.

This is what scripture says: "What profit has man in all his toil that he toils under the sun?" (Kohelet 1:3). For the primary [fruit] of the toil in this world is solely the purpose that results from it, namely, the profit (money) he will receive. If he had profited the money without toil and strain it would have been great. Hence, there is nothing extra on the toil.

On the other hand, for the service of G-d it is not so. There the primary [fruit] is the toil for Him, blessed be He. For this is the primary love, as the Ramchal writes (Path of the Just, ch.16):
But those of true understanding do not need even this reason. For they are not to be motivated by their own interests at all. Rather, all of their aim is to increase the honor of His Name, blessed be He, and to bring gratification to Him. The more the impediments against them increase, so that they will require more strength to overcome them, the more they will strengthen their hearts and rejoice to demonstrate the strength of their faith. They are as a military general, distinguished for his bravery, who always chooses the most difficult battle, to demonstrate his prowess in emerging victorious.

This matter is familiar by every lover of flesh and blood who will rejoice when given an opportunity to show the subject of his love just how powerful is the extent of his love to his beloved.
Hence there is an advantage specifically with great toil. See that this matter is wondrous.
Sforno - "know before Whom you toil" - that it is proper for you to increase toil for His Honor.

"and faithful is your Employer that He will pay you the reward for your labor" - even though it is proper for you to not have intent for this, but rather to do His will.
Pirkei Moshe - "Know before Whom you toil" - in order to be diligent in Torah study and to be "diligent (lishkod) at the doors of Torah study day by day" (Mishlei 8:34) - "Know before Whom you toil". When you picture to yourself that you toil before G-d, blessed be He, who watches and observes your toil, the work will not be too much.
Ruach Chaim - "Know before Whom you toil" - i.e. before Him mamash (actually). For He Himself stands over you. Because: "The Holy One, blessed be He, has nothing in this world but the four cubits of Halacha" (Berachot 8a). This is enough to rouse one's ear in the Torah study. For Hash-em Tzevakot (the L-ord of Hosts) dwells there.
Chida - Roshei Avot - "be diligent to learn (lilmod) Torah" - one can ask, it should have said: "be diligent in Torah", or "be diligent in talmud Torah". Perhaps this is to hint that one should be swift and consider in his eyes as if he did not yet learn [anything] and now he wants to learn. Thus he said "to learn Torah", that it be in his eyes as if now he wants to learn [from the beginning]. And with this desire and zeal he will succeed in his learning. And in truth, "its measure is greater than the sea", and also there is [vastly] much more to learn still relative to what one has learned already until it is as if one did not learn [anything].

"before Whom" - to say that one should be like an ox on a yoke and a donkey with a load, i.e. with all one's strength.

"Whom" - who recognizes your thoughts, movements, and toil. For He examines the heart and reins. And due to His humility, even though He made you from the womb, He will pay you reward as if He were obligated, as written: " 'pay' implies out of justice (din)" (Chulin 130b). All this is due to the greatness of His kindness.
Siftei Chaim Moadim chelek 3 - "be eager in the study of Torah and know what to answer a heretic (apikorus)" - through toil in Torah, one merits to stand before Him, mamash. When a man chooses good and turns his heart only to words of Torah, through this, he removes from himself the barriers and separations between himself and the Holy One, blessed be He.

Thus, he merits to stand before Him and receive (lihiyot mushpa) from the mouth of the Holy One, blessed be He, in a direct manner, a divine gift. This is what he said: "be eager in the study of Torah and know what to answer a heretic (apikorus)".

The simple meaning is that through diligence (shkeida) in Torah study, a man acquires much knowledge and he knows what to answer an apikorus.

But we can say that the intent of the Tanna is to say that through diligence and toil in Torah, when he chooses good and empties from his heart other interests of this world, he merits to answer the apikorus.

Namely, the yetzer hara which dwells in a man's own heart and finds for him excuses and rationalizations to distance him from Torah study. Through toil in Torah, one merits to answer and drive him out of his heart through seeing the absolute truth in a clear manner.
Chachma u'Mussar 2:354 - "and faithful is your Employer that He will pay you the reward for your labor" - Rabeinu Yonah writes here: "The sages exhorted one to know this. But it is not in order to serve G-d due to love of reward or fear of punishment. Rather, just like a man is obligated to investigate and know the (absolute) Unity of G-d, and His greatness, ways, and the wonders He performed in order to increase love of Him, so too one is obligated to know that He is faithful to pay reward of deeds and to consider in one's heart the greatness of His kindness.

For even though He is the Master of all deeds and owns everything and all of us are His servants who are obligated to serve Him like a purchased slave without giving us any reward, nevertheless, He will reward us. Thus we should increase love [of Him] over this and serve [Him] out of love and fear.

we have received a tradition [from Sinai] that: "Hash-m's attribute of Tov (to benefit) is greater than His attribute of punishment" (Yomah 76a). We should be astonished by this that G-d's trait of good is not like that of flesh and blood. For, one who honors a king does not deserve any favor. Since, that is how it should be. It is a duty incumbent on him. But one who mocks the king will get very severely punished, since he went against his duty. For it is a man's duty to honor the king.

According to this, reason dictates that so too, one who does the will of G-d does not deserve any reward. For thus it should be and he is obligated to do the will of the King of the world.

Likewise, one who commits a sin and transgresses the will of the King of the world, his punishment should have been much greater, multiplied over many times, than the reward given to one who does his duty and what he is forced to do in truth.

But behold, not only is the reward and punishment not equal, but just the opposite - the reward is much greater than the punishment. For the punishment is on three or four (generations), while the reward is for two thousand generations, and according to Rashi on Makot 23 it is without limit.

One should be moved from here on G-d's trait of goodness.
Chida - Zeroah Yamin - (Kabalistic) - shakud (Shin-Kuf-Vud-Dalet) - this hints that in toil in Torah, one submits the 400 men of Eisav from the Sitra Achra (shin+kuf=400) and he joins the "vuv-dalet" which is Kudsha berich Hu and His Shechina and in the end he will be kadosh which is the letters of shakud. And as written in the book Ohr Hayashar that the author was told in a dream that the word kadosh hints that he joins the daled-vuv and separates the 400 of the sitra achra. For in the word kadosh, the daled-vuv are joined in the middle while the kuf and shin are separated and are on the outside..