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Pirkei Avot / Ethics of the Fathers
with a select treasury of commentaries on all levels of Torah interpretation
Chapter 4 Mishna 10
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 4 Mishna 10פרק ד משנה י
Rabbi Meir said: reduce work and toil in Torah. Be humble in spirit before all men. If you have been idle from Torah, many causes for being idle from it will present themselves to you; but if you have toiled in Torah then G-d has abundant reward to give you. רַבִּי מֵאִיר אוֹמֵר, הֱוֵי מְמַעֵט בְּעֵסֶק, וַעֲסֹק בַּתּוֹרָה. וֶהֱוֵי שְׁפַל רוּחַ בִּפְנֵי כָל אָדָם. וְאִם בָּטַלְתָּ מִן הַתּוֹרָה, יֶשׁ לְךָ בְטֵלִים הַרְבֵּה כְנֶגְדָּךְ. וְאִם עָמַלְתָּ בַתּוֹרָה, יֶשׁ לוֹ שָׂכָר הַרְבֵּה לִתֶּן לָךְ.

Bartenura - "reduce work.." - minimize your business dealings and let your primary occupation be in torah.
Chida, Chasdei Avot - "reduce work and toil in Torah" - some toil (for livelihood) is necessary as written in Sifri: "..all the work of your hand"

Thus, one must toil in something. For the blessing does not rest on an empty place. But once he works on some work, G-d's blessing rests on it. Thus, R. Meir commanded to minimize the work. For the purpose of the work is so there is something for the blessing to rest on, whether it is a lot or a litte. Then he can turn to toil in torah...
Yachel Yisrael - "reduce your work and toil in torah" - some explain Rebbi Meir's words as a continuation of the previous mishna: "whoever fulfills the torah out of poverty will fulfill it out of wealth".

Thus, wealth and poverty do not depend on the quantity of effort a man invests, but rather on his merits. Hence, there is no reason to squander all of one's days to chase after money.

Therefore Rebbi Meir says: "reduce work" - do not squander all your time in trying to make a livelihood. Rather, reduce your business dealings as much as possible - "and toil in torah". Then your livelihood will increase on its own. This is what was said in chapter 3 "whoever accepts upon himself the yoke of torah, the yoke of earning a livelihood will be removed from him"..

If he accepts the yoke of torah on himself, he will receive divine assistance and the yoke of earning a livelihood will be lightened on him. The little he does will be blessed..

This is what the talmud says: "See what a difference there is between the earlier and the later generations. The earlier generations made the study of the Torah their primary concern and their ordinary work secondary to it, and both prospered in their hands. The later generations made their ordinary work their main concern and their study of the Torah secondary, and neither prospered in their hands" (Berachot 35b).
Yachel Yisrael - "reduce work and toil in Torah" - it was already said: "more possessions, more worries" (Avot 2:7). The more the business dealings grow, the more its distractions grow and the less peace of mind one has to learn [torah] with focus. Even during the little time he designates for torah study, he does not utilize it properly. When he sits with a book, his thoughts move to and fro on the latest problems in his business dealings, to search for solutions, to increase profits, etc.

The pious Yavetz compared the heart of a man to a house. It's purpose is to be filled with spiritual treasures. G-d created man like an empty vessel. It has the ability to store inside it the wisdom of the torah. But the more a man fills his heart with various worries, distractions and useless thoughts - he shrinks the remaining available room to store the true treasures for which the house was created.

"be diminishing work (hevi memaet)" - he said "be diminishing" in present tense and not "diminish (memaet) business dealings!" as a command. The Midrash Shmuel infers that the Tanah (sage) is emphasizing what is the proper path a man should choose to grow in torah study. He should not cut off his business dealings all at once. For he is liable to not withstand the heavy burden he placed on himself. Rather, he should diminish slowly slowly, to suffice with less time for making profits and more time for spiritual pursuits.

Only after some time has passed can he re-evaluate and diminish his business dealings a bit more, and so on. Let him be always aspiring to "be diminishing" more and more.

In his spiritual aspirations, a man needs to be as "a ladder fixed on the ground whose top reaches the Heavens" - to not jump to high levels. For then there would be a danger of falling and breaking. There is a need to climb a ladder, rung after rung, until one reaches the Heaven..
Bartenura - "Be humble in spirit before all men" - to learn even from someone inferior to you in wisdom.
Rambam - "Be humble in spirit before all men" - i.e. do not be lowly of spirit only before great men. Rather when you sit with every man, your talking with him should be as if he is greater than you. This is in order to flee from arrogance.
Sforno - "Be humble in spirit before all men" - so that it be recognizable that your intent in toiling in torah is not in order to receive honor.
Ruach Chaim - "Be humble in spirit before all men" - for sometimes when a person is alone with himself he realizes his lacking and becomes humble. But when he goes out among people, he forgets everything and inflates himself. Therefore, he said: "Be humble in spirit before all men".

Shaarei Teshuva, Rabeinu Yonah, Shaar 1 - furthermore, the baal teshuva (penitent) is obligated to humble himself and fulfill and conduct himself according to the way our sages set: "be humble of spirit before every man". Namely, he should not get angry nor be makpid (demanding) on his fellow. Likewise in all the things he hears, he should put to heart to overlook them (maaviral midotav). Through this, measure for measure his sins will be overlooked, as our sages said: "whoever overlooks [sins against him] is forgiven for all his sins" (Rosh Hashana 17a). This is a very great opening of hope, and likewise scripture says: "Let him put his mouth into the dust; there may yet be hope; Let him offer his cheek to his smiter; let him be filled with reproach" (Eicha 3:29-30).
Bartenura - "If you have been idle from Torah, there are many idlers (betelim) against you" - that will assist to annul you. Alternatively, there are in the world many "betelim", namely, the wicked and harmful animals. Through them, the Holy One, blessed be He, will bring retribution upon you.
Rabeinu Yosef ben Shushan - "if you have been idle from Torah, many causes for being idle from it will present themselves to you" - do not imagine to yourself that if you are idle from torah, then you will enjoy and sit tranquilly. On the contrary, there will arise awesome new things and foreign matters that will occupy you vastly more than the toil you would have had you toiled in torah. These new things will confound your mind and drive you away from your Creator..
Steipler, Binyan Olam - "many idlers against you.." - if you were idle (from torah) when you had free time, then you will be claimed on the other times you were idle in order to attain vanities of the times. For it is apparent that your idleness was not at all for G-d's honor. But if you toiled in torah when you had free time, then he has much reward to give you. Namely, even for all the other [secular] activities you did. For they were all causes to help you fulfill the will of G-d.
Bartenura - "but if you have toiled in Torah then G-d has abundant reward to give you" - He Himself will pay you reward, not through an agent. In this the [divine] attribute of good is greater than the attribute of retribution.
Rabeinu Yonah - "He has abundant reward to give you" - in order to increase reward. The analogy is to a king whereby a craftsman made a beautiful object for him. The king commanded his servants to pay him generously. Certainly, they will pay him less than if the king himself had paid him. For their hearts are less generous than the king's due to the latter's wealth and glory. Certainly what the servants give him will be less. So too here, the Holy One, blessed be He, Himself will pay reward in order to increase it...
Tiferet Yisrael - "abundant reward" - He will lighten your burden of earning a livelihood. For your work will be done by other people.
Ahava b'Taanugim - "be reducing work.." - he did not say "minimize work" but rather "be reducing work". This is to teach that it should be a constant thing. Every day he should strive to reduce the work so that it is less than yesterday.

"and toil in torah" - he did not say: "and increase to toil much in torah". This is to teach that even if a man increases to toil much in torah, it is not "much". For he will never complete his workload.

"If you have been idle from Torah, there are many idlers (betelim) against you" - some explain: malachei chabala (angels of destruction) which are batelim (idle) and hope each day: "when will he die?", so they can go out to greet you (and exact retribution).

some explain: not only will you receive punishment for having wasted time, but also for what others wasted time due to learning from you.

Likewise if you toiled in torah, there is much reward to give you even if others did not learn from you. All the more so, if others learned from you to toil in torah..

Some explain: "many idlers" - i.e. ministering (good) angels. For they join those who toil in torah. But they are also idle due to you. And if you toiled in torah and increased to learn much - "there is much reward to GIVE to you", ie the reward is so great that it is proper to call it a "gift".. Thus he said "to GIVE to you", and not "to pay you".

"if you toiled in Torah" - he did not say: "if you learned". For the reward is according to the toil and effort - not according to the amount learned.. For everything depends on the toil..
Klalei Hamitzvot, Rabbi Giktalia - "many idle things" - he did not say "idling things" (mevatlim, active tense) but rather "idle things" (batelim, passive tense). For it refers to the great hidden reward in the next world for fulfilling that mitzvah. This reward is idle from benefiting you there and you are left poor and destitute without hope for rectifying the loss. This itself is a great punishment.
Binyan Avot - "idle things" - this refers to the descendants of Eisav, "the man of the field", ie the idle man..
Alternatively, as our sages said: "if one does not do the will of G-d, he will do the work of other people" (i.e. they will be idle from work and learning torah and you will work for them and support them). This is "many idle things opposite you", ie idle from work.. (as written in tractate Megilah - "10 batlanim" which refers to people in the synagogue all day).
Chida, Zeroah Yamin - "If you have been idle from Torah, you have many idlers against you" - for in the majority of cases one who is idle from torah speaks useless words. Angels of idleness (malachei batala) are created from each of his words and in the future, he will give a judgment. This is the meaning of: "you have many idlers against you" - these are the angels created who are accusing you.. "you have", ie you acquired them.
Ben Ish Chai, Zechut Avot - "if you have been idle from Torah, you have many idlers against you" - it is known what our sages said on the verse: "when they would stand, they would let down their wings" (Yechezkel 1:24) - when Yisrael is idle from the torah, the Chayot (highest angels) are also silent. On this he said: "If you have been idle from Torah, you have many idlers against you", ie many in quality and quantity. When you hear this, how can you not tremble and muster all your strength, knowing the holy Chayot depend on you?..

"If you have been idle from Torah.. - alternatively, it is known what our sages said: "whoever toils in torah, sufferings depart from him", and conversely, sufferings chase after him (if he forsakes the torah), as written: "[why did the land become desolate?] because they abandoned My torah". This is the meaning of "you have many idlers". This refers to the mazikim (angels of destruction) which drive him out of this world and the next.
Maharal - this teaching requires explanation. What is Rebbi Meir coming to teach us? Is it not obvious that one should reduce his business dealings and toil in torah? For otherwise, when will a person learn torah? And what does this matter of "be of humble spirit before every man" have to do with "minimize your business dealings, etc." and the rest of the mishna "if you were idle.."

We may explain as follows. Sometimes a person reduces his business dealings due to the strain or due to laziness. If he reduces his business dealings due to strain or laziness and toils in torah, then that which he reduces his business dealings is not because of torah.

Rather, one should reduce his business dealings even though the work is not at all a burden on him. Perhaps he even wants and loves to work even more in his business dealings. Even so - reduce your business dealings and toil in torah. Namely, that it is apparent that one leaves his worldly matters and reduces them for the torah.

Through this, a man removes himself from the matter of this world and clings to the level of the divine. Therefore, after he said: "reduce your business dealings and toil in torah", ie that he reduces his business dealings for the torah, not for the other things we mentioned (burden, laziness). Then it appears he desires in the torah. For he puts down his affairs and toils in torah. Such a person is fit to acquire the torah since he divests himself of physical matters and turns to the torah.

Likewise our sages said (Shab.83b): "the torah endures only by one who slays himself over the torah, as written: '[this is the torah] when a man dies in a tent' (Bamidbar 19:14)".

We explained this matter. For man is of physical body and thus not fitting for the level of the (transcendent) intellect (Sechel). But when he divests himself completely of the matter of his body, until his body is not at all important in hs eyes, and he slays his body and divests himself for the torah of transcendent intellect - then he is worthy of the torah..

"be of lowly spirit before every man" - this is also a trait through which one acquires the torah.. Thus, our sages said (Eiruvin 55a): "the torah is not found by the haughty of spirit (gasei haruach)" and "the torah is compared to water. Just like water flows out from the high and goes to the low places, so too the torah endures only by one of lowly spirit.

(Netiv HaAnava ch.8: water leaves a high place and flows to a low place, ie water is not bounded like the dirt. Rather water spreads and is not bound. Therefore it does not stand on a high place, which is separate and distinct by itself (meyuchad l'atzmo).. so too for the sechel (transcendent intellect, ie the torah) which is not bound, but is rather "simple" (pashut) - it departs the haughty who is bound. For the haughty bounds himself with special importance which is a boundary. Therefore, torah is not found by him just like water is not found on a high mountain which is distinct by itself. end quote)

Therefore, he said afterwards: "be of lowly spirit before every man". For through this trait one also divests himself of the trait of physicality.

As we said many times, haughtiness of spirit (gasut haruach) is a trait of physicality.. There is no trait which is divested of the physical except humility. Thus, Moshe Rabeinu (Moses our teacher), who merited torah, attained this only through humility. For he was "extremely humble, more than any person on the face of the earth" (Bamidbar 12:3). We explained this matter many times. Thus, specifically with these two traits (minimize physical and humility), a person can merit torah.

"If you have been idle from Torah, there are many idlers (betelim) against you" - the explanation is that when a man annuls (wastes) his time from torah, then there are things which annul him even more from the good. For through the torah a person becomes whole (complete) and if man does not make himself whole, then he is a lacking existence (metziut chasser). And that which is lacking draws more lacking and inexistence...

"idlers" - these are sufferings which befall him and are an annulment and inexistence to man... (see there for more)