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Pirkei Avot / Ethics of the Fathers
with a select treasury of commentaries on all levels of Torah interpretation
Chapter 1 Mishna 2
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 1 Mishna 2פרק א משנה ב
Shimon HaTzadik (the Righteous) was from the remnants of the Great Assembly. He would say, "On three things the world stands: on the Torah, on the service (Avodah) and on acts of kindness." שִׁמְעוֹן הַצַּדִּיק הָיָה מִשְּׁיָרֵי כְנֶסֶת הַגְּדוֹלָה. הוּא הָיָה אוֹמֵר: עַל שְׁלשָׁה דְבָרִים הָעוֹלָם עוֹמֵד, עַל הַתּוֹרָה וְעַל הָעֲבוֹדָה וְעַל גְּמִילוּת חֲסָדִים

Bartenura - remnant after all of them died, the Tradition remained in his hand, and he was the Kohen Gadol (high priest) after Ezra.

He would say - i.e. this was an expression on his tongue always. So too for all the times in this tractate when it says Rabbi so and so would say. The explanation is that he was used to saying this always.

the world stands - it was created for these three things.
Rabeinu Yonah - For these three things the world stands. The explanation of "stands" is that the world was created for these things because they are the will of the Holy One, blessed be He. That is to say, He created the world because His creations would in the future find favor before Him through doing these things... For them the world was created, in order to do them.
Tiferet Yisrael - i.e. one who is careful in these three things will have his world stand. His life will endure in this world and in the next.
Mili D'Avot: "on three things the world stands" - the kiyum (continuance) and Shelemut (perfection) of man who is called a "miniature world", depends on three things: "torah, Avodah, and Acts of Kindness".

Torah - aren't the Avodah and acts of kindness a part of torah? Rather, torah here refers to torah study (not torah commandments). Likewise in the Talmud: "torah is greater than deeds for it leads to deeds" (Kidushin 40b). This is the first and foremost Shelemut (perfection) of man.

Avodah (service) - what is between man and G-d such as the korbanot, prayer, tefilin, sabbath, holidays, etc. It is called Avodah for G-d does not receive any benefit from this. Nor is it a kindness to G-d. It is only "avodah". To teach that G-d's intent is only that man subjugate himself (sheyishtabed) (the word "subjugate" has the same root as "avodah"), and fufill His will.

This is as our sages taught: "what does G-d care if an animal is slaughtered from the throat or the back of the neck? Rather, the mitzvot were given only to purify human beings" (Ber. Rabba 44). Namely, to remove from them wickedness (zadon) and arrogance. These are like the impurities in silver. This is so that man will serve his Creator and subjugate himself to Him.
Daat Sofer, Lech Lecha - "on three things... acts of kindness" - all of them need to be joined with "kindness". In "torah", one needs to do kindness to also teach others, as our sages expounded: "Torah studied in order to teach it to others that is a 'Torah of kindness'" (Sukkah 49b). A person should not hold torah for himself alone.. Rather, let him learn with others and grant them merit also with his torah. Likewise for Avodah, one needs to do kindness. For example, to pray for his fellow and join together (ex. in prayer) with the troubles of the public. All Yisrael is like one man and one body. Each person needs to feel the pain of his fellow, as our sages said: " 'Israel are scattered sheep' (Jeremiah 50:17) - why are Israel likened to a sheep? Just as a sheep, when hurt on its head or some other body part, all of its body parts feel it. So it is with Israel when one of them sins, everyone feels it..." (Vayikra Rabba 4). Thus, we see Torah and Avodah (prayer) need to be intertwined with the trait of kindness.
Ketav Sofer Avot - the [Jewish] people of the world are divided ino three levels: those who sit and toil in torah always, day and night. These are the pillars of torah and their great merit shelds on the rest of the world. The second level is those who are not bnei torah but they are found in the synagogues always, two or three times a day, at the prayer times. They are the pillars of service, in the way of "let us render [for] bulls [the offering of] our lips" (Hoshea 14:3). The third group are the businessmen who travel always around the world. Most of the year, they travel to the marketplaces to profit and amass much money. Due to this they have great ability to bestow kindness to the pillars of torah and service. This is the pillar of kindness...
Ruach Chaim - "three things" - this hints to three levels of soul. Torah is the level of speech. Avodah which is the Korbanot (temple offerings) is thought. For it depends on the thoughts of the Kohen. He can invalidate it with the wrong thought (pigul). His main thought needs to be to elevate the Nefesh Behemit (animal soul) above. So too in our times, the service of prayer is in place of the Korbanot as our sages expounded on "to serve Him with all your heart" (Shema). "What is the service of the heart? Prayer."

For the matter of prayer is giving one's life (Mesirut Nefesh) to HaKadosh Baruch Hu (G-d) similar to a korban (temple offering). Since in every word one utters out of his mouth, there is a part of his soul [that comes out]. And as our sages taught: "moving one's lips is considered an act" (Keritut 4a).

Prayer needs to be primarily with heart and soul, not body alone, as written: "praise G-d, my soul" (Tehilim 146). For the soul also praises.

"Acts of kindness" - is with one's body and money. The reason he preceded speech (torah) before thought (Avodah) is in order to precede Torah. For Torah is the primary thing and on it depends the shefa (divine flow) of life to all the worlds. If the whole world were to be idle from torah study for one second (no one learning torah on our planet), then all the worlds would literally collapse to utter emptiness. Their continuance of existence is from the torah.
Rabbi Avraham Azoulai - Ahava b'Taanugim - (kabalistic)
Torah - because through toil in torah one pulls down shefa (divine flow) from above, the Source of blessings, to imbue life in this world. On this it is written: "you shall contemplate it day and night" (Yehoshua 1:8). For this bottom world is the world of the klipot (shells, i.e. forces of evil), far from holiness, the life-force of the worlds. It has no life or kiyum (continued existence) except through continual toil in the spiritual torah. Through toil in torah, shefa descends from above to the person toiling in it and then all the worlds receive life and shefa through him. This is why uninterrupted toil in torah is necessary always. For if the toil in torah is intterupted, the shefa which is mekayim (sustains) the world also interrupts (and all the worlds collapse).

Avodah - this is the work of the temple offerings when the temple existed. Today, it is the "avodah of the heart", namely, prayer. For the kavana (in them) was to stir up a rousing from below to above (lehaalot hitorerut mimata lemaala) in the Sod (secret) of mayim nukvim as explained in the Zohar. Through this, the shefa descends to all the worlds to sustain and bestow life to them.

Acts of Kindness - i.e. the yichud elyon shemashpia tzadik b'tzedek, and they bestow kindness to each other. This occurs through the power of acts of kindness, as known to the kabalists. We may also say that through word, thought, and deed, the divisions of the creation endure. For through toil and words in the toil in torah, the world of yetzira endures. Through the avodah of the heart, namely, thought in prayer, the world of Beriah endures.. and through action, namely, acts of kindness, the world of Asiyah endures. This is the meaning of "on three things the world stands.." (see the book Shaarei Kedusha for an intro to the mystical worlds).
Chida - Roshei Avot - he chose torah first because torah includes all three. For when one toils in torah, it is as if he brings an offering (menachot 110a). And it is said: "torah of kindness was on his tongue", for he bestows kindness to the whole world.. (as before since he pulls down shefa to all the worlds).

Chida - Marit Haayin - "the world stands" - it is referring to man who is a miniature world. There is no kiyum (existence) for man to annul the evil inclination except through torah, as the talmud brings: "I created the evil inclination and I created the torah as its antidote". From there he will ascend to fulfill the mitzvot. This is the meaning of "on three things the world (i.e. the miniature world, i.e. man) stands. On torah (to nullify the yetzer hara, and after nullifying him,) on avodah (positive mitzvot between man and G-d) and acts of kindness (mitzvot between man and his fellow).

Perhaps also, these three hint to (the sefirot) chesed (kindness), gevurah (might), and tiferet (splendor). The avodah hints to gevurah, that one mitgaber (strengthen himself) to do the service of G-d against the yetzer hara which wages war with him always. Torah corresponds to tiferet (as known) and acts of kindness corresponds to chesed.
Maharal - It is proper to ask: why was it necessary to say he was "a remnant of the men of the great assembly", and not just that he was "of the men of the great assembly"?

This demonstrates the explanation we said (last mishna), that the mussar rebuke is according to the generation. Thus, we do not find mussar before the men of the great assembly, as we said (last mishna). Only from after the men of the great assembly. For they were all together a holy assembly. And certainly the generation was on a higher level before these men departed to their eternal abode and then only Shimon Hatzadik was left as a remnant.

When he alone remained alive, the state of the generation was already like the next generation, for there was no longer all the men of the great assembly except for this single sage. Thus, the generation was similar to the next one, whereby only singular sages were found who were fathers of the generation. Hence, next mishna it continues "Antigonus.. who was after Shimon Hatzadik", and likewise the pairs of sages after Antigonus..

"He would say on three things the world stands" - such an exhortation is before everything. For one must first build the foundation. Therefore, Shimon Hatzadik who was the remnant of the men of the great assembly would exhort them to be careful on the things which are the foundation and pillars of the world upon which everything is built.

According to our explanation, the words of the men of the great assembly come even before this. They said: "be deliberate in judgment, raise up many disciples and make a fence for the Torah".

Those things stated by the men of the great assembly are the rectifications and inherent lackings in a man in his being human. It is human nature to err in these things, namely, the torah, and wholeness (shelemut) is necessary there. And since it is the rectification of torah and torah is first and foremost over everything, the men of the great assembly rectified that first.

Afterwards, Shimon Hatzadik exhorted on that which is the foundation of the world. This is after torah..

It is proper to ask on what he said: "Torah, Service (Avodah), and acts of kindness". Why on these things and not on others? On the Brit Mila (covenant of the circumcision), for examples, it says: "If you break My covenant (Brit)..." (Yirmiya 33). Similarly for other things that are fitting for being what the world stands on.

(the Maharal will now bring several explanations. The following first explanation will also answer why it says "on three things the world stands" instead of "on three things man stands", as they seem to be things to rectify man, not the world.)

FIRST EXPLANATION - man must be whole in three areas
    Summary of First Explanation
  • Only that which has good is worthy of being created and enduring

  • The world was created for man.

  • Man has 3 relations which he needs to be whole in: between man and himself (Torah), between man and G-d (Service), between man and his fellow (Kindness). When man corrupts these three and turns to their opposite, the world has no longer any foundation and destruction comes, as indeed happened during the generation of the flood.
The background for explaining this mishna is as follows. The creations were created because they have good. If they did not have good, they would not have been created. For a thing which is not itself good, it is not proper for it to be granted existence. It is more proper for it to not exist than to exist. Thus, existence of something is because of the good it contains. And just like its creation is because of the good it has, so too, and how much more so, that the whole world and all its creatures are granted existence and continuance because they contain good. If the creations did not have any good, it would not be proper for them to exist. Each creation's existence is only due to the particular good it contains.

It is because of this that G-d sealed each stage of creation with "and G-d saw that it was good" (Genesis ch.1). This was stated for each and every detail by itself, and likewise for the totality of the whole creation: "and G-d saw all that He had made, and behold it was very good" (Gen.1:31). For when a thing is good, it is worthy of being created and of existing, and likewise a thing only has continuance (kiyum) due to its good aspect.

In all the six days of creation, the torah says: "it is good" except for the second day. Our sages said: "because dispute (machloket) was created" (Midrash Gen.Rabba 1). This is what our sages said: "any dispute which is not for the sake of Heaven will not endure" (Avot 5:17). For "it is good" was not said on this. And even though the dispute which broke out on the second day was for the sake of Heaven and it was needed for the world, but nevertheless, since in and of itself dispute has no continuance, only from G-d's side it endures when it is for the sake of Heaven, therefore, it was not proper to say there "it is good". For that is only for something which endures in and of itself.

We have clarified that a thing has continuance only due to the good it contains. Thus, when a created thing has a lacking (evil), thereby becoming not good, it draws nearer to total non-existence. But that which is good, without evil and lacking, is far from non-existence and it is proper for it to be created and have continuance of existence.

G-d testified on the general things that they contain good, even though there may exist lackings in their individual particulars (one particular individual), and thus, those particular individuals are certainly subject to non-existence (destruction). But the general things stand, and on them G-d testified that the creation is good. For each species created has good. Likewise for the totality of creation as a whole, the torah also testified on it saying "and G-d saw all that He had made, and behold it was very good" (Gen 1:31).

There is no need to elaborate further on this. For they are clear matters which everything testifies on, namely, the non-existence (destruction) a created being is subject to is due to the lacking it has, that is to say, the evil which attaches to it subjects it to non-existence (destruction).

When this has become clear to you, you should know that all the creations depend on man. For they were created for man. Thus, if man is not as he should be, everything becomes useless. This is as written regarding the generation of the flood: "for all flesh had corrupted its way on the earth" (Gen:6), and in the Midrash:
"An analogy to this is of one who made a wedding for his son. He built a canopy with elaborate decorations, etc. for his son. But afterwards, he became furious on his son and smashed what he built. The king explained: "Did I not build all this only for my son. Now that he is gone what need have I for all this?" Thus, "behold I am bringing the flood.. to destroy all flesh with spirit of life.. all that is upon the earth will perish".
Thus, all the creations were created for man. Hence, when man is no longer worthy of existence, everything becomes useless and the world ceases to have a reason to exist. Our sages have expressed this concept in many places - that everything was created for man.

When it is clear to you that the world exists for man, it follows that man must contain good. For then it is proper for him to be granted existence. And when it is proper to grant him existence, then it is also proper to grant existence to the whole world. For everything depends on man.

The torah does not explicitly say "good" by [the creation] of man. It hints only "[and G-d saw all that He had made, and behold] it was very good", and the Midrash (Gen.Rabba ch.9) teaches "very" (meod - mem-aleph-dalet) - these letters spell "Adam" (aleph-dalet-mem). This is tangibly visible because human [nature] is lacking and a "man is born as wild donkey" (Iyov 11:12).

Afterwards, man ascends to the level of good. Thus, man needs to acquire for himself the level of "good". This "good" is on three levels:

One, when he is good in and of himself, from his own intrinsic aspect.. (between man and himself)

Two, it is proper for him to be good towards G-d who created him. Namely, that he serves G-d and does His will.

Three, it is proper for him to be good towards other human beings around him. For a man does not exist by himself. Rather, he exists alongside other people.

A man needs to be good in all these three aspects with which he is tested.

(1) He needs to be good in and of himself. For after the creation of the world, the torah immediately says regarding the world that it is good. Thus, we see from this that the world needs to be good in and of itself.

(2) Likewise, man needs to be good with respect to the Cause whom he owes his existence.

(3) Thirdly, he needs to be good with respect to other human beings.

The general principle: he needs to be good in all these three aspects, and each one is not like the other two as we explained in the introduction to this book.

In the talmud (Kidushin 40a):
"'A good Tzadik (righteous man)... will eat the fruits (dividends) of his deeds' (Isaiah 3:10) - are there Tzadikim who are not good?! Rather, a Tzadik who is good to G-d and people is a good Tzadik. A Tzadik who is good to G-d but bad to people is not a good Tzadik" (Kidushin 40a).
And certainly, and all the more so, that a man needs to be shalem (whole) with himself (the first of the three levels). Since otherwise he is not a tzadik at all. For it would have been superfluous to say on him ("a good tzadik"), since every creature itself has good (at creation as explained earlier).

Thus, the tzadik needs to be good from all sides. Therefore, this Tanna (sage) opened his words saying: "on three things the world stands, on torah...". For when a man has torah, in and of himself he is considered good in his having the torah intellect (hatorah hasichlit).

But if he does not have torah, he is not considered good in and of himself. For he lacks the torah which is the completion (hashlama) of man's being, and he is like an animal. Such a man is not considered a proper creature and is not worthy of existence. On this, our sages said:
"there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day" (Gen.1:31) - What is the purpose of the additional word 'the'? This teaches that the Holy One, blessed be He, stipulated with the Works of Creation and said: 'If Israel accepts the Torah, you shall exist; but if not, I will turn you back into emptiness and formlessness.'" (Shabbat 88b).
Why man must have torah

The explanation of this is as follows. All the creatures that were created do not have the supernal divine wisdom (chachma Elokit elyona). Even though man possesses an intellect, but this is merely human intellect which is associated with physicality. The world is not worthy of existence just for this [small] good. For mere human intellect is lowly and deficient. Rather, only for the torah which is the divine, transcendent intellect. It is the complete good.

Then the world has a virtue, for it contains the divine torah intellect, and this is not human knowledge and human intellect. Therefore, the shelemut (completion) of man himself, such that he is considered the important creature which has the good, this is through torah. Namely, when one can say on the man that he is a baal torah (possessor of torah).

This matter does not need a proof. For without a doubt, the creation of man is lowly when he turns to become like an animal. Rather, man's loftiness is when he is separate from the animals. This is only through the torah intellect. Through possessing this transcendent intellect, he is considered a good, whole creature, possessing virtue in and of himself. There is nothing else in the world besides torah through which a man can be considered possessing virtue (baal maala) in and of himself. This is explicit. For the torah is called good, as written "For I gave you good teaching" (Mishlei 4:2). And in the Talmud (Menachot 53b):
" 'Let the good come and receive the good from the Good for the good' - 'Let the good come' — that refers to, Moses, as it is written, 'And she saw that he was good' (Shemot 2:2); 'And receive the good' — that is the Torah, as it is written, 'For I give you good doctrine' (Mishlei 4:2)..."
Thus torah is called "good". This is entirely because it is completely [transcendent] intellect, not human intellect, like other wisdoms.

This is as we explained at length elsewhere, that [in general] a thing which is intellect (sichli) is separate from the physical completely, and is complete good. Therefore, the torah is the complete good in particular. Conversely, a thing which is physical is complete evil. We have already explained this in several places already. Here is not the place to elaborate. For it is clear that evil attaches to the physical, as we explained in the introduction. Thus, that which is far from the physical, like the torah, which is clear divine intellect (sechel Elokei habarur) - it is complete good.

Therefore, the torah intellect is what elevates man beyond the animalistic and above the status of lowly creature. Through the torah, man attains transcendent intellect (sichli), separated from the physical, and then he becomes a whole creature, worthy of existence. Therefore, the wholeness (shelemut) of man in and of himself is only through the torah and nothing else. Thus, the holy Tanna (sage) said that the torah is one pillar upon which the world stands. For the torah is what completes man such that he is a whole creature in and of himself.

Man Between G-d - Avodah (service of G-d)

Afterwards, he said "Avodah". For the Avodah (service of G-d) which is Avodah (service) foremost and in essence is the service of the Korbanot (temple offerings). There is nothing more "foremost" than this. But all the other things whereby one performs mitzvot (commandments) to fulfill the will of G-d are all included in the term "Avodah".

Thus, the Avodah is a pillar of the world. For from this, a man will be considered shalem (whole) and good to He who created him. This is when man serves G-d. For man needs to be whole and good towards his Creator.

THIRD LEVEL - Man with other people
Corresponding to man's need to be good towards other human beings, this is through "acts of kindness". When a man does kindness to his fellow for free, there is no doubt that in this he is good towards his fellow. [In this area,] there is nothing more good than this, namely, doing good to his fellow for free. For then, he is completely good.

We have clarified that it is proper for these three things to be pillars of the world. For they complete a man so that he is good in all three levels we mentioned.

For nothing exists besides G-d, blessed be He, since He is the mechuyiv hametziot (Necessary Existence, First Cause) and also the existing beings which He brought into existence. Thus, certainly a man has a relationship with his Creator in that G-d created man and man is created by G-d. Hence, it is proper for man to guard this relationship. For if he does not guard this relationship, his creation is for nothing.

Furthermore, a man was created by himself. And if he himself is corrupt and unimportant, then he is a shallow, insignificant creature.

Thirdly, this man is not alone in the world. Rather, G-d created him with other human beings. Therefore, he needs to guard this relationship he has with other people. Thus, he said: "acts of kindness".

To summarize: through the "torah", a man himself is not an empty insignificant creature. But rather, an important creature. And through the Avodah (serving G-d), he guards his relationship towards his Creator who granted him existence. And through "acts of kindness" the man has a connection to other people. For a man was not at all created by himself, but rather, with other people. And when a man does kindness to his fellow, he has a connection to his fellow. Through this a man is [just] as G-d created him. For man was not created to be alone in the world. This becomes apparent when he does acts of kindness to others. Man should not tell himself: "I have no business with other people". These things are evident.

With this explanation, we have already clarified why the mishna used the expression "the world stands" instead of "a man stands". For man is the foundation and pillar of the whole world, as we explained...

In the generation of the flood, the world was not destroyed until they sinned in all three things the world stands upon and came to their opposite. When they turned to the opposite, the world, from man to beast, was destroyed. They sinned in idolatry, which is the opposite of the pillar of Avodah, as our sages said:

" 'And the earth was corrupt before G-d' (Genesis 6:11)' - anywhere that the term 'corrupt' is stated, it is referring to licentiousness and idol worship " (Sanhedrin 57a).

These two things are the opposite of the two pillars the world stands on, namely, Avodah and Torah. They also had theft as written "and the earth became full of robbery" (Gen.6:11). Theft is the opposite of "acts of kindness". For it is stealing of his instead of giving him. These three things are the complete opposite of the three things upon which the world stands. Thus, when they uprooted the three pillars and they tended to the complete opposite, that generation did not have a foundation and pillar to support them and destruction came to the world.

From this, you will understand what our sages said: "if a man is commanded: 'transgress and you won't die' he may transgress and not suffer death, except for idolatry, forbidden relations (ex.adultery) and murder" (Sanhedrin 74a). Although they gave a logical explanation for murder, namely, "who knows that your blood is more red? Perhaps his blood is more red". But for "lewd relations",they did not give a reason. We only learn it from the verse, as explained there. Nevertheless there is a logical reason. For those three cardinal sins are the opposite of these three things upon which the world stands.

For example, without a doubt, idolatry is the opposite of Avodah which is to G-d. Murder is the opposite of acts of kindness. For the latter is bestowing good to another and doing to him something he is not obligated to do, while murder destroys him completely.

"Forbidden relations" is the opposite of torah. For we already explained above that the quality of torah is that it is transcendent intellect, completely separated from the physical, and that only through torah can a person become separated from physicality.. The opposite of this is "forbidden relations" which is going after zenut (lewdness). In this he is going after the physical until he is considered completely like an animal and a donkey.

Likewise, our sages taught that the act of zenut (lewd relations) is an animal act. And in tractate Sotah (15a) "just as her actions were the actions of an animal, so too, her offering is animal food".

No proof is needed for this. An act of zenut (lewd relations) is an animal act of base physicality. They also said there:

" 'if a man's wife go astray (lit.folly)' (Bamidbar 5:12) - this teaches the adulterer does not commit the transgression unless a spirit of folly enters into him " (Sotah 3a).

We learned from here that a man goes after zenut only after a ruach shtut (spirit of folly) enters him. He becomes like a base physical animal, and then there is adultery. Therefore, the zenut (lewdness) of forbidden relations is the opposite of the level of torah. The latter is torah intellect, while the former is an act of physicality.

Thus, for these it is proper to give up one's life rather than transgress them, since the continued existence (kiyum) of man depends on these three things taught here, which the world stands on. And if he wants to transgress and not give up his life, then nevertheless it is as if he has no existence whatsoever. Better that he die meritorious (zakai) than live guilty (chayiv). For when he is the opposite of good, it is as if he has no existence at all. And even in the case where he is forced (to transgress), but nevertheless, since these things turn away from existence completely, it is not relevant to say "you shall live by them [and not die]". For in these sins is the essence of death and non-existence. They don't have any existence at all, and existence is life.

SECOND EXPLANATION - three ways the world receives standing from G-d
Summary of Second Explanation
•In three ways the world receives continued existence from G-d

•Torah - without torah, the world is petty and not worth creating.

Avodah - without service of G-d, the world would not be worthy of creation, since it is outside G-d.

•Acts of Kindness - through acts of kindness between human being, G-d sustains the world in kindness, measure for measure.

You must understand another explanation of this mishna. One who understands the root and truth of the matter will grasp that it is all one matter.

Just so that the language [of the mishna] should be clearer, that which he said: "On three things the world stands: on the Torah, on the service (Avodah) and on acts of kindness". You should know that this world G-d created cannot possibly stand on its own. Rather, [it stands] only through G-d. For everything is from Him.

Three things are needed for the world for it to receive existence (kiyum) and standing from G-d.

(1) (acts of kindness) - (after creation) the world still needs His goodness and kindness, namely, His influence (hashpa). For after it was created, the world still needs its maintenance and continued existence from Him.

(2) (Avodah) - Furthermore, it is a continuance of existence (kiyum) to the world when it is created for serving G-d. For if it were not created for the honor of G-d, and it were not entirely dedicated to G-d, then it would not have been worthy of being created... But in this that it was created to serve G-d, it is all entirely dedicated to G-d. Through this, it has existence. For through this, it does not go outside of G-d, since it was created to serve Him.

(3) (Torah) - Another thing which is a continuance of existence (kiyum) to the world is the wholeness (shelemut) of the world. Namely, that it not be a tohu (formless, insignificant) existence and one deficient. For then, it would not at all have been worthy of existence.

Through these three things the world stands. Namely, it was created to serve G-d (Avodah). It is a whole creation and not deficient (Torah). And when G-d bestows His kindness and goodness (which happens measure for measure when humans do kindness to each other)...

Torah: the wholeness (shelemut/perfection) of the world is for the torah. This was hinted in the verse "Yom HaShishi.." ("the sixth day..." Gen.1:). Our sages said:

"there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day" (Gen.1:31) - What is the purpose of the additional word 'the'? This teaches that the Holy One, blessed be He, stipulated with the Works of Creation and said: 'If Israel accepts the Torah, you shall exist; but if not, I will turn you back into emptiness and formlessness'" (Shab.88b).

This is because if the world did not have the torah, it would not have any significance whatsoever due to its pettiness. For why would G-d busy Himself with such a petty world? Without torah, the world would have been "emptiness and formlessness", without any substance. Therefore, the world would have completely gone back to "emptiness and formlessness", if not for the torah which is the importance and supernal virtue in the world. Through this, the world is worthy of creation. Thus, the torah is a pillar of the world as we explained.

Avodah: also for this the world was created - to serve G-d. This is what they said: "without the ma'amadoth (part of the temple service), the heaven and earth could not have endured" (Megilah 31b).

The explanation is that Avraham knew that the world was created only for G-d, as written: "the L-ord made everything for His praise" (Mishlei 16:4). For nothing is worthy of existence unless it is for G-d. Thus, everything is for G-d. This was explained by the sages:

"Everything that the Holy One, Blessed be He, created in this world, He created only for His honor, as it says (Isaiah 43:7): 'Every one that is called by My name, and whom I have created for My honor, I have formed him, I have made him'" (Avot 6:11).

For if it is for itself, then ch''v, there is something besides G-d. But if it exists for G-d's glory, i.e., to serve Him, in this it is "for His praise".

Thus they said "Avodah". For in this serving of G-d, the world is not something by itself, whereby we would say there is something else besides G-d. For a servant has no existence by himself. The servant's existence is entirely for his master. When one is a servant to someone, he has no name of his own. Therefore, Avodah is the second pillar. Thus, automatically when people do not serve G-d and they veer from Him, they are deserving of destruction and annihilation from the world. For they were created only for His honor, to serve Him.

When G-d answered Avraham that He will not destroy them. Avraham replied: "with what will I know" (Gen.15:8). For it is not at all conceivable that they should sin and not be destroyed, since from the beginning, the world was created only to serve Him. On this G-d answered that He enacted for them the Korbanot (temple offerings) through which they will receive atonement for their sins and which are also service of G-d that the world was created for.

He also stated "acts of kindness". Because besides all this, without the kindness of G-d, the world could not endure at all. For they need His kindness and all the more so for their livelihood. In His kindness, G-d provides for all and bestows to all. Therefore, the mishna says: "acts of kindess". For when human beings do acts of kindness in this world, G-d also directs the world with kindness and bestows kindness to them. Thus, if there is no kindness in the world, it cannot endure...

THIRD EXPLANATION - the three forefathers
    Summary of Third Explanation
  • The three forefathers are fathers of the world, thus they are pillars for each of these three things

  • Kindness - Avraham, Avodah - Yitzchak, Torah - Yaakov

Know that for these three things, torah, Avodah, and acts of kindness, just like they are pillars of the world, so too, they were granted to the three forefathers, Avraham, Yitzchak, and Yaakov, who are also foundations and fathers of the world. Thus, it is proper for them to have these three things which are foundations and pillars of the world.

You will find "acts of kindness" was the trait of Avraham, as written in the torah. He would perform all acts of kindness with great zeal, namely, receiving guests...

Yitzchak merited the trait of Avodah. For he offered himself up on the altar. And in the midrash:

"the day Avraham placed his son on the altar, G-d enacted the two daily offerings in the temple. Why all this? When the Jewish people offer the daily tamid offerings on the altar and read the verses, G-d recalls the binding of Yitzchak, son of Avraham.." (Vayikra Rabba 2). We learn from here that the temple service to G-d was due to the binding of Yitzchak...

Yaakov had the trait of torah as written: "an innocent man who sits in tents" (Gen.25:27), and as our sages said "I dwelled with (the wicked) Lavan and nevertheless guarded the 613 commandments". Thus, Yaakov had the trait of torah.

If you ask: "Avraham also guarded the torah as written: 'because Abraham hearkened to My voice, and kept My charge, My commandments, My statutes, and My torahs' (Gen.26:5), and our sages expounded this (Yoma 28b): 'that Avraham fulfilled even the (small) mitzvah of eiruv tavshilin'".

Answer: there is a difference. For Avraham guarded the torah in deed. But torah study was specially to Yaakov. For specifically regarding him, it was written: "sits in tents", which refers to torah study. Furthermore, although Avraham guarded the torah, we don't find it was given to the Jewish people in his merit, as we find by Yaakov, as written: "And He established testimony in Jacob, and He set down a Torah in Israel" (Tehilim 78:5) - for Yaakov and Yisrael the torah was given. You can understand this also from: "give truth to Yaakov, kindness to Avraham" (Micha 7:20), and "torah of truth was on his mouth" (Malachi 2:6). Thus, the torah was specifically to Yaakov...

FOURTH EXPLANATION - the three foundations stand on these three things
Translator: note that in Midrashic literature, the world is viewed as being constructed of four basic elements: earth, water, air and fire (Bamidbar Raba end of 14:12; Zohar 1:27a, 2:23b-24b; Tikunei Zohar intro; Sefer Yetzirah Ch. 3; Ramban Bereishit 1:1; Etz Chaim kitzur aby'a ch.10.

Modern science has combined everything with E=mc2 but this is because the scientists focus only on physical phenomena they can measure with physical instruments. But the earth, water, air, fire system incorporates the spiritual roots as well. This is why there are four types of creations in our world (inanimate, plant, animal, human), four dimensions 3D+time, four levels of soul in humans, and many other interesting things. Ultimately, they are aligned with the four mystical worlds and ultimately rooted in the four letter Name of G-d. Back to the Maharal...
These explanations we presented go out and branch out from the true explanation in this mishna from the depths of wisdom. You already know that the foundations of the world are three. They are called "Emesh" (aleph-mem-shin) in the Sefer Yetzira, namely, water, air, and fire.

The foundations are always three. The fourth one, earth, is not mentioned, for a reason known to the understanding person. These three foundations mentioned by the Sefer Yetzira are the supernal foundations, called "Emesh", which are the foundations of everything. From them, everything was created as explained there.

These three foundations connect to G-d through these three things in the mishna. He is the foundation of all, and through this, the world stands on its existence through G-d.

For the torah is a ruach chachma u'binah (a spirit/wind of wisdom and understanding). The Avodah is fire. Thus it is called everywhere, such as "My offerings, My bread for My fires" (Bamidbar 28:2), and "a fire offering, a pleasing fragrance to the L-ord" (Vayikra 1:9). This is well known. The shechita (slaughtering) of the animals is specifically in the north. For from there is the trait of fire (in kabala).

Acts of kindness is the trait of water, as written: "Send forth your bread upon the surface of the water" (Kohelet 11:1), and "Fortunate are you who sow by all waters" (Isaiah 32:20), which our sages taught refers to acts of kindness (Bava Kama 17a).. and it is known that a kind man bestows to another like water bestows (to the soil).

Therefore, they said: "on three things the world stands". For this world which is founded on the three foundations we mentioned connects to Him, blessed be He, through these three things.

The foundation of ruach (wind) is connected to torah, which is a ruach (spirit). The foundation of water is connected to acts of kindness, the trait of water. The foundation of fire is connected to the Avodah which is fire. Through these three things [in the mishna] each of which connects to one foundation, together, they connect to G-d, blessed be He. For the torah, Avodah, and acts of kindness have a connection to G-d, so that everything is connected to G-d. Thus, without a doubt, these three things are the pillars of the world.

The verse hints at this: "G-d (E-l), G-d (Elokim) the L-ord (Hash-em), spoke and called to the earth" (Tehilim 50:1), i.e. He called the earth to stand before Him, as written: "Even My hand laid the foundation of the earth, and My right hand measured the heavens with handbreadths; I call them, they stand together" (Isaiah 48:13). For this world which has the 3 foundations is connected to these three holy Names through these three things mentioned in the mishna, namely, torah, avodah, and acts of kindness. The verse stated two holy Names (E-l, Elokim) before the special Name (Ha-Shem, the Yud-Heh-Vav-Heh). The reason being in order to put it next to the [word] earth. For this Name stands up the earth first.

The verse stated the Name E-l, which is the attribute of kindness, as our sages said "E-l, this is the attribute of kindness, as written: 'E-li, E-li why did you abandon me' (Tehilim 22:1), i.e. to the attribute of justice".

The foundation of water connects to this Name through acts of kindness. We already said that kindness is the trait of water.

The verse stated the Name Elokim. The foundation of fire connects to this Name through the Avodah. For the Avodah is from the side of Din (justice), which is the Name Elokim. The Korbanot (offerings) are called "Ishai" (My fires) in the torah..

The verse stated the Name of Ha-Shem (Yud-Heh-Vav-Heh). For the foundation of Ruach (wind/spirit) connects to this Name through Torah, which was given through this Name. It was made known to Moshe the receiver of the torah.

Thus it has been explained what the mishna stated that the world stands on three things.. Understand these things very well. For everything we stated is the explanation of the mishna. It all goes to one place and comes from the same root.

You should understand that the words of Shimon Hatzadik, who was the remnant of the men of the great assemby, are connected with the words of the men of the great assembly (previous mishna). For they came to rectify the torah (study/clarity), mishpatim (laws), and mitzvot, all of which are relevant to the torah, so that it won't fall, as we explained earlier. On the other hand, Shimon Hatzadik came to rectify the world so it won't fall, as he said 'on three things the world stands..'. And the level of torah is above and precedes the level of the world.

When you understand the words of Shimon Hatzadik, you will know and understand that these things he said are similar to the words of the men of the great assembly. For he was also a remnant of them. They said three things: "be deliberate in judgment, raise up many disciples and make a fence for the Torah". Corresponding to "be deliberate in judgment", Shimon Hatzadik said "on the Avodah". Because Avodah and Din are connected to each other. This is what they said: "to teach that the Sanhedrin must be placed next to the Altar [of the temple in Jerusalem]" (Sanhedrin 7b).

Shimon Hatzadik said "torah" corresponding to "raise up many disciples", and "acts of kindness" corresponding to "make a fence for the torah". For the fence one accepts on himself to do is beyond what the letter of the law obligates. Likewise they said:

"The ministering angels said before the Holy One, Blessed be He: Master of the Universe, in Your Torah it is written: "The great, mighty and awesome G-d who favors no one and takes no bribe" (Deuteronomy 10:17), yet You, nevertheless, show favor to Israel, as it is written: "The L-ord shall show favor to you and give you peace" (Numbers 6:26). He replied to them: And how can I not show favor to Israel, as I wrote for them in the Torah: "And you shall eat and be satisfied, and bless the L-ord your G-d" (Devarim 8:10), meaning that there is no obligation to bless the L-ord until one is satiated; yet they are exacting with themselves to recite Grace after Meals even if they have eaten as much as an olive-bulk or an egg-bulk. Since they go beyond the requirements of the law, they are worthy of favor" (Berachot 20a).

That is to say: because they enter and go beyond what the letter of the law obligates, therefore I too will enter and go with them beyond what justice obligates. For a person should make a fence for the torah even though he is not obligated according to the letter of the law.

We explained earlier that the men of the great assembly included in their mussar teaching a thing, namely, Din ("be deliberate in judgment"), and the thing which is its opposite, namely, "make a fence for the Torah", and a thing which is intermediate between them, namely, "raise up many disciples".

Everything was to rectify man in all, whether from the side of Din or its opposite, or the intermediate between them. Thus are most of the mussar in this tractate. So too for the words of Shimon HaTzadik when you understand the explanation above. For these things Shimon HaTzadik stated correspond to the foundations Alef-Mem-Shin, whereby water is opposite to fire and air is intermediate between them, and there is very great wisdom in this. So too for the other explanations we brought... Understand this very well for it is the true explanation of the words of the men of the great assembly and of Shimon HaTzadik.