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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 16
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 16פרק ד משנה טז
Rabbi Yanai would say: it is not in our power [to explain the reason for] the tranquility of the wicked, nor even of the afflictions of the righteous.

Rabbi Matya ben Charash would say: be first to greet every person. And be a tail to lions rather than a head to foxes.
רַבִּי יַנַּאי אוֹמֵר, אֵין בְּיָדֵינוּ לֹא מִשַּׁלְוַת הָרְשָׁעִים וְאַף לֹא מִיִּסּוּרֵי הַצַּדִּיקִים.

רַבִּי מַתְיָא בֶן חָרָשׁ אוֹמֵר, הֱוֵי מַקְדִּים בִּשְׁלוֹם כָּל אָדָם. וֶהֱוֵי זָנָב לָאֲרָיוֹת, וְאַל תְּהִי רֹאשׁ לַשּׁוּעָלִים.

Bartenura - this matter is not known to us, namely, why the wicked prosper and why the righteous are crushed by sufferings.
Rabeinu Yonah - "it is not in our power [to explain the reason for] the tranquility of the wicked, nor even of the afflictions of the righteous" - the righteous do not have tranquility, security, wealth and all the other needs of this world, like the wicked do..

Even though in truth we know that there is a reason for all this, but we are unable to grasp it.
Rabeinu Avraham Pritzel - our minds are unable to grasp why the wicked have it good or the righteous have it bad, just like it was not known to the prophets and all of them complained on this matter. This is what he said: "it is not in our hands", ie it is beyond the powers of our mind. For there are many possible reasons.

Sometimes a person we consider wicked is really perhaps righteous and one who we consider righteous is really perhaps wicked.

Sometimes that which we consider something good for the wicked is really very bad for him. And likewise what we consider bad of the sufferings of the righteous is really a great good in the future.

And in the talmud (Berachot 7a): "a wicked who has it good - is completely wicked. A righteous who has it good - is completely righteous".

This latter case is very rare. For "there is no righteous man in the land who does good and never sins" (Kohelet 7:20).
Maharal Tzintz - "it is not in our power [to explain the reason for] the tranquility of the wicked, nor even of the afflictions of the righteous" - we may explain according to the Sefer Ikarim who says according to STRICT justice, it is proper for reward to be temporary and punishment to be eternal. But G-d, in His mercy, does the opposite - he makes punishment temporary and reward eternal.

Even though G-d has pity on the righteous, but nevertheless, to exempt them completely (from punishment for their sins) - that is not possible.

Only that He conducts with the righteous according to the attribute of mercy to give them a temporary punishment (in this world).

But for the wicked it is the opposite. They cause the attribute of mercy to transform to the attribute of justice. Thus, according to strict justice, they deserve only temporary reward (for the little good deeds they did). But their payment [of punishment] in Olam Haba is complete [strict] justice which is eternal.

Thus, G-d acts kindly to the righteous by giving them temporary punishment instead of eternal punishment. But for the wicked, they are paid eternal punishment and temporary reward.
Bartenura - "be first to greet Shalom to every person" - even a gentile in the marketpace.

"be a tail to lions" - to those bigger than you.
"not a head to foxes" - to those smaller than you.
Rambam - "be a tail to lions rather than a head to foxes" - when a man is a student of one wiser than himself, it is better for him and more proper than being a Rabbi to those less [wise] than himself. For in the former, he will increase [wisdom], while in the latter, he will decrease..
Meiri - "be a tail to lions rather than a head to foxes" - as written: "one who walks with wise people will become wise, But a companion of fools will suffer harm".
Ahava b'Taanugim - "be a tail to lions rather than a head to foxes" - the Chacham (torah sage) is called a lion, as in the talmud: "the lion of the group" (Kidushin 48b). The reason is because he is mighty as a lion to toil and bear the burden of the torah. The merchants are compared to foxes. For they need to devise cunning plans and strategies like a fox. On this it was said: "or a fox as a shopkeeper.." (Kidushin 82b).

Therefore, he said: "be a tail to lions..", ie do not tell yourself: "I see my mind is weak and lacking understanding. I will never become a great chacham and will only merit to be a tail to lions. Thus, it is better for me to toil in business and merchandise and become a head of merchants".

Thus the Tanna said: better to be a tail to lions, even if you attain only a little bit of wisdom. For "whether one does a lot or a little [or a lot - as long as he directs his heart to Heaven]" (Berachot 5b), rather than that you become a head to foxes, i.e. a head to merchants.
Sfas Emes - "fox" - this is a bit difficult. Why did he choose a fox? For there are animals smaller than a fox. Why didn't he choose one of those (ex.a cat). We can answer that it is teaching us that even for a fox who is a bit big and also intelligent/clever, nevertheless, the lion is more important.
Rabeinu Yosef ben Shushan - after exhorting not to be concerned that the righteous need to exile themselves from their place [to a place of torah], he exhorted further so that one will not tell himself: "how can I leave a place where everyone knows me and exile myself to a place where I don't know anyone and the people will not respect me?"

Do not be concerned. For it is better to be the tail of the torah sages (chachamim) than the head of the amei haaretz (torah ignorant)..