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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 21
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 21פרק ד משנה כא
Elisha ben Avuya would say: he who learns torah in his youth to what is he comparable? To ink inscribed on new paper. And he who learns torah when an old man to what is he comparable? To ink inscribed on erased paper.

Rabbi Yossi bar Yehudah of Kfar Bavli would say: he who learns torah from the young to what is he comparable? To one who eats unripe grapes and drinks [unfermented] wine from the vat. But he who learns torah from the old, to what is he comparable? To one who eats ripened grapes and drinks aged wine.

Rabbi Meir would say: look not at the flask, but at what it contains. There may be a new flask filled with aged wine and an old flask that does not even contain new wine.
אֱלִישָׁע בֶּן אֲבוּיָה אוֹמֵר, הַלּוֹמֵד יֶלֶד לְמַה הוּא דוֹמֶה, לִדְיוֹ כְתוּבָה עַל נְיָר חָדָשׁ. וְהַלּוֹמֵד זָקֵן לְמַה הוּא דוֹמֶה, לִדְיוֹ כְתוּבָה עַל נְיָר מָחוּק.

רַבִּי יוֹסֵי בַר יְהוּדָה אִישׁ כְּפַר הַבַּבְלִי אוֹמֵר, הַלּוֹמֵד מִן הַקְּטַנִּים לְמַה הוּא דוֹמֶה, לְאֹכֵל עֲנָבִים קֵהוֹת וְשׁוֹתֶה יַיִן מִגִּתּוֹ. וְהַלּוֹמֵד מִן הַזְּקֵנִים לְמַה הוּא דוֹמֶה, לְאֹכֵל עֲנָבִים בְּשֵׁלוֹת וְשׁוֹתֶה יַיִן יָשָׁן.

רַבִּי אוֹמֵר, אַל תִּסְתַּכֵּל בַּקַּנְקַן, אֶלָּא בְמַה שֶּׁיֶּשׁ בּוֹ. יֵשׁ קַנְקַן חָדָשׁ מָלֵא יָשָׁן, וְיָשָׁן שֶׁאֲפִלּוּ חָדָשׁ אֵין בּוֹ:

Bartenura - "he who learns torah in his youth.. ink inscribed on new paper" - it endures. so too, the learning of one's youth is not forgotten.
Tiferet Yisrael - "new paper" - white and unwritten corresponding to two qualities of the learning of the youth. One, like white paper on which every fine line makes an impression, so too the youth grasps quickly, he grasps fine logic quickly. Two, just like unwritten paper is not blurry due to previous writing, so too the learning of the youth is remembered for a long time.. Thus he wrote regarding the old man "on erased paper" and not "on old paper"...
Rabeinu Avraham Pritzel - for the youth are free from the toil of this world and the distracting thoughts. Thus, their learning is strong and chiseled in their minds, as ink written on new paper whose imprint lasts. But it is the opposite for elders. They are heavily burdened and distracted by their future needs and also their past troubles. Thus, their minds are mixed up and confused from distracting thoughts and thus what they learn in old age will not leave an imprint in their minds and is like ink written on erased paper..
Rabeinu Yosef ben Shushan - "new paper... erased paper" - he should have said "old paper" which is the opposite of "new paper". The reason he said "erased paper" is because the elder already has chiseled in his mind many calculations which are written in his heart. Thus, when he returns to learn torah, he needs to erase those thoughts from his heart so that the considerations do not arise in his mind and confound him. This is like a letter written on erased paper whereby it is impossible for imprints from the previous letter to not remain and mix in the new letter.
Bartenura - "he who learns torah from the young to what is he comparable? To one who eats unripe grapes" - which harm the teeth. So too the wisdom of the young [scholars] did not settle properly and [thus] his words are not accepted and sound to the mind.

"and drinks [unfermented] wine from the vat" - which is mixed with grape pits. So too, the wisdom of young scholars is mixed with doubts he has.
Sforno - "he who learns torah from the young to what is he comparable? To one who eats unripe grapes" - for they did not yet attain whole understanding (iyun shalem) which is clean from errors.
Tosfot Yom Tov - grapes corresponding to the plain meaning in the torah while "wine" refers to the hidden part (kabala). Thus our sages said: "wine has gematria of Sod (secret)".
Bartenura - "Rebbi Meir would say: look not at the flask, but at what it contains. There may be a new flask filled with aged wine, and an old flask that does not even contain new wine" - Rebbi Meir argues with R.Yossi ben Yehuda and says just like there are new jugs filled with old wine, so too there are young scholars with sound knowledge just like old scholars. And likewise, there are old scholars with lower level wisdom than young scholars.
Maharal - "look not at the flask, but at what it contains" - for sometimes G-d grants wisdom to a man, "from His mouth comes wisdom and understanding" (Mishlei 2:6). One should not look at the vessel which is man.

So too for the opposite. Sometimes a man is old and he is an old vessel but nevertheless, there is nothing in him. He does not even have the wisdom of a typical young man. This is because the intellect (sechel) is in G-d's hands and He bestows the intellect to whomever He wishes...
Yachel Yisrael - after teaching us in the previous mishna that the youth is the best student, our mishna comes to teach that the elder is the best teacher. However, not every elder is a good teacher as we will see.

Many commentators explain that there is no argument between Rebbi and Rebbi Yossi. Rebbi Yossi is speaking generally while Rebbi is speaking on specific individuals.

Rebbi Yossi is correct in saying that generally speaking, wisdom is found more by the elders. Rebbi only comes to emphasize that there are exceptions to the general rule. Sometimes one finds young men with the understanding of elders.

This explanation is in line with the change in tense between the words of Rebbi Yossi and the words of Rebbi.

While Rebbi Yossi uses plural tense - "one who learns from young men... from elders", Rebbi uses singular tense - "do not look at the container.." and not "containers".

This indicates Rebbi Yossi is speaking generally and Rebbi comes only to limit the general principle in saying that there are some exceptions.

Due to this, Rebbi says: "do not look at the flask but rather what is in in it." It is possible that the young man standing before you is one of the exceptions who is a new flask containing aged wine", or the opposite the old man is a new flask which does no even contain fresh wine.
Ben Ish Chai, Birkat Avot - "look not at the flask, but at what it contains" (kabalistic) - to hint on what is written in Sifri on "'at all times that we call upon Him' - to Him, and not to His Sefirot, to Him and not to His attributes."

The intent is that one needs to pray and beseech His essence, blessed be He, which fills the Sefirot. On this the Tanna hinted: "do not look at the container", which are the Sefirot, to not have intent to them, "but rather on that which is in them", namely, the light of the Ein Sof (infinite G-d) who fills them. To Him should be your intent in all your prayers and service.
Yachel Yisrael - every youth has more than once the thought in his head: "I have my whole life before me. Right now I will enjoy life and afterwards I will do my responsibilities. I have enough time in the future to fulfill my duties to G-d and people."

The mishna earlier replies (Avot 2:5): "do not say 'when I will be free, I will learn [torah], for perhaps you will never become free'".

Our mishna adds: "even if you are free in the future, you will no longer attain what you are able to attain now. The torah study of an older man is not like the torah study of a young man. Only one who immerses himself in learning during his youth, while his strength is with him and his thoughts are sharp and his mind is clear - only he will merit to reach benefit (high levels) from his learning.

Likewise, only he who utilizes the years of youth will merit to teach others. At older age, a man no longer has the strength and energy to influence others. Would that it were that he succeeds on himself.

The mistake of wasting the years of youth is so great that Shlomo concluded his book Kohelet/Ecclesiastes saying: "remember your Creator in the days of your youth" - do not push off the end. Do not think you have extra time!

The days of youth are the most proper times to fulfill your purpose in the world properly. It is incumbent on you to not waste these days "[Remember your Creator in the days of your youth] before the days of trouble come and the years approach when you will say: life is not pleasant anymore" (Kohelet/Ecclesiastes 12:1)...

One who lived his life free from any yoke, he will not be able to bear on his shoulders in his later years. Such a person may feel superfluous at that time. Life no longer provides him the pleasures he is used to and he no longer has any reason to live.

Looking back he sees that his life passed without his having used his time properly and now he is unable to change this..
Maharal - "he who learns torah from the young to what is he comparable? To one who eats unripe grapes and drinks [unfermented] wine from the vat" - for the unripe grape, its power is still implanted as potential in the body of the fruit. Its taste and power did not yet go out to actuality. Therefore, the grape is bitter until it becomes ripe and its power and taste emerge out to actuality completely. Then, its taste and power is no longer implanted (as potential) in the physicality (body) of the fruit.

Likewise for fresh wine in the pit. It is still mixed with pits and is not removed completely and clear from impurities..

In this the intellect of the youth is comparable. For the youth's intellect is implanted in the physical and did not go out to actuality, to be divested from the body.

During man's youth, the intellect is still implanted in the body and his wisdom is not removed from the imaginary. But the intellect of an elder is completely divested. For then, the body's power is weak and thus the power of the intellect strengthens exceedingly, as our sages said: "for elder torah scholars, the more they age, the more their understanding increases" (Shab.152a).

For the intellect goes out to actuality, divested from the body.

In this, the intellect is compared to a grape which became ripe. The taste emerged from the body of the fruit and came out to actuality completely. The power and taste is no longer just implanted [as potential] in the physical (body) of the fruit.

And just like wine which is removed from pits and has become pure from impurities, so too the intellect of the elder is removed and not mixed with the physicality.

Understand this analogy for it is completely clear. It compares the intellect of the youth which is stuck in the physicality to an unripe grape whose power and taste did not emerge from the body of the fruit. And likewise to fresh wine in the pit which is mixed and implanted with impurities and [thus] not clear.

The intellect of the elder is compared to ripe grapes whereby the [potential] taste and power of the fruit emerged from the grape and likewise the elder is compared to wine which is divested from impurities and mixtures. Understand this.

You should also know regarding these two comparisons mentioned - unripe grapes and fresh wine in the pit.

Namely, a man in his youth has these two things:
One, his intellect is stuck in the physical body. It is not divested as we explained.
Two, due to the bodily hotness in youth and childhood which is not settled, his intellect is mixed (confounded).

Corresponding to the first, that his intellect is not divested from the body, he said he is like unripe grapes whereby, as before, the taste has not come out of the fruit.

Corresponding to the second, that due to the bodily hotness in the youth, their intellect is not quiet and settled and thus their mind is unclear, he wrote that they are like fresh wine in the pit. The fresh wine is mixed and bubbly due to the hotness rising up from inside.

The opposite of this applies to the elders. Their intellect is divested from the physical and their bodily hotness has quieted and settled down. Therefore, their mind is clear..
Translator: "Elisha ben Avouya..." - the story of Elisha ben Avouya and his becoming an apostate Jew was one of the most dramatic events in the lives of the great Tannaim (mishnaic sages). He was a brilliant sage of his time, no less than the teacher of Rebbi Meir. The latter kept a close relationship with him even after his apostasy. The Tannaim refer to him only as "Acher" (the other one).

Why did Rebbi include his name here in Pirkei Avot (given that he became an apostate Jew)?

Many reasons are given. Among them that Rebbi rectified him by including his name in the mishna (Vayikra l'Yitzchak in the name of the kabbalists).

In the Divrei Yoel (Chayei Sarah):
Divrei Yoel - the Yerushalmi brings (Chagigah 2:1) "Rebbi Meir was giving a class in the Beit Midrash (synagogue) of Tiberias. His Rebbi, Elisha ben Avuyah was passing riding a horse on the Sabbath. Rebbi Meir was told his Rabbi is outside. He stopped the class and went outside to greet him.

Elisha ben Avuyah asked Rebbi Meir what he taught today.. "the end of a matter is good from the beginning" (Kohelet 7:8)..

Elisha ben Avyah asked: What did you say on this? Rebbi Meir replied: to a man who had children in his young age who died and later in his older years he had more children who survived. Thus, "the end of the matter is better than the beginning.."

Elisha ben Avuyah said: Akiva your Rabbi did not expound like this. Rather the end of a matter is good from the beginning, ie WHEN it is good from the beginning.

I myself have a story on this. My father Avouya was among the big people of Jerusalem. On the day of my circumcision, he invited all the big (rich) people of Jerusalem and also the sages Rebbi Eliezer and Rabbi Yehoshua.

While the rich people ate, drank, and danced they began to sing greek songs. Rabbi Eliezer said to Rabbi Yehoshua: "while they are occupied in their [way], let us occupy ourselves in our way". The two sat and toiled in words of the torah and from there to the prophets and from the prophets to the holy writings.. they reached very high levels, close to the levels at [the giving of the torah at] Sinai..

Then a fire descended from heaven and surrounded them... My father Avouya said: "if this is the power of torah, if my son survives (the circumcision) I will dedicate him to torah study".

Thus, since his intent was not l'Shem Shamayim (for G-d), therefore the torah did not endure [in me] (ie in the end I became an apostate Jew)... end quote

(Yachel Yisrael: in his youth, Elishah absorbed false ideas. In his father's eyes, torah study was not a lofty matter by itself. His goal was not to fulfill the will of G-d but rather a way to attain status. He saw it only as an honorable wisdom, a means to acquire honor and no more. Elisha's family saw torah as just another science. A supplement to greek wisdom. The young Elisha absorbed these ideas in himself. Our sages report: "while Elisha was in his youth toiling in torah, greek songs never left his mouth" (Chagigah 15b) and likewise "when he would get up to leave the study hall, books of heretics would fall from his lap". The falsehood inscribed in the heart of the young Elisha eventually exploded in his later years.)

Thus, we see from R.Akiva that it is impossible for the end of a matter to be good unless it is good from the beginning. Namely, that the foundation of the beginning be l'Shem Shamayim (for G-d). Then there is divine help to complete and attain a good end. Otherwise, no.

Elisha ben Avuya personally verified the teaching of Rebbi Akiva through his own personal experience since he had a bad foundation. Therefore his end was not good.

From this we can explain why Rebbi included Elisha ben Avuya's name in Pirkei Avot and not just "Acher" as we asked earlier.

For the root of this mishna is built on the teaching of Rebbi Akiva: "the end of a matter is good from the beginning" - everything depends on the quality of the beginning and start. Elisha brought a proof from his own personal story as before.

From here we learn that one must be very careful on the holiness and purity of the days of youth which are the foundation of man's building in torah and service of G-d.

Then he is like "ink written on new paper", and it endures in his hand in his end and old age.

But if he is lazy and wastes his days of youth in emptiness and worthlessness and all the more so if he corrupts himself and soils his soul in sin, G-d forbid, then even if he regrets in his later years, and he wants to repent and rectify his past - it is like ink written on erased paper. The ink does not stick properly.

Even though the Creator fully accepts the repentant, but nevertheless, one who lacks the foundation of the days of youth, it will be difficult for him to reach full repentance.

He lacks the shielding power to overcome the enticements of the evil inclination and the difficult trials.

We learn this from the teaching of Rebbi Akiva and the story of Elisha ben Avuya.
Matanat Avot - as known, Elisha ben Avuya went out to evil ways and transgressed all the sins in the torah. When his disciple Rebbi Meir tried to convince him to repent, Elisha explained to him that it is hopeless since he is blemished from his beginning (Chagigah 15a).

He told Rebbi Meir that at his Brit Mila (circumcision), his father invited all the great men of Jerusalem... and Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Yehoshua sat and spoke words of torah and fire descended from heaven and surrounded them... when my father saw this, he was very impressed from the honor of torah and he said: "if this baby survives, I will dedicate him completely to torah". Since his intent was not l'Shem Shamayim (for G-d), therefore the matter did not succeed.

Likewise, it is brought there that when his mother was pregnant with him, she passed a temple of idolatry and smelled the odor of the cooking sacrifices for the idol. Due to danger (of not eating), she was forced to eat some and the idolatry. The food entered the body of Elisha like the venom of a snake and damaged him.

Of course, all this was just excuses! In truth, Elisha was on the level of a Tanna and he did not remain a simple am haaretz (ignoramus). Certainly, he had tremendous divine help to learn much torah and reach the level of Tanna.

He was even one of the four who entered Pardes (a high spiritual level close to prophecy). That which he afterwards went to evil ways was his own free choice and not the fault of his parents at all. For if he truly did not have free will in this, then he would not have been punished for his sins.

According to this, all his conduct revolved around the verse: "the end of a matter is good from the beginning". He understood from this that the end is good only if the beginning is good. And if the beginning is not good, the end will not be good. This is how he justified continuing to go in his evil ways. He thought that since his beginning is corrupt therefore his end is evil.

Thus it is understood why it is fitting that specifically Elisha ben Avuyah says: "he who learns torah in his youth to what is he comparable? To ink inscribed on new paper".

For in this he explains to every youth what he himself experienced in life. He tells every youth:

"know precious youth that everything you learn in your youth will build your entire foundation. It will stay in your memory always. Do not tell yourself: 'I am only a youth and barely understand what I am learning and cover almost zero ground'.

For everything you learn is like ink on new paper. It is imprinted on the best quality paper. Therefore, do not take lightly all that you learn during your youth. For it will remain in your memory your whole life, much more so than what you will learn in your later years".

"And he who learns torah when an old man to what is he comparable? To ink inscribed on erased paper" - here is great encouragement and support to those who come to learn torah in their later years. For the older people have absorbed in their heads tens of thousands of foolish words and vanities of all types. Thus, this mishna comes so the older person does not tell himself: "since I looked at many foolish things in my life, there is no hope for me to learn torah and remember it well."

Rather, he should know faithfully that even though he is no longer like ink on new paper, but nevertheless, he is at least like ink on erased paper. Even though the ink is not absorbed as well on erased paper than on new paper, but nevertheless the Tanna promises him that if he learns well and strengthens himself and strives to remember what he learns and clings to the holiness of the torah as much as possible - then slowly, slowly the previous material of foolishness will be erased from his mind.

In its place will be written the new material of torah that you learn. Even though certainly this will be only like ink written on erased paper which is of lower quality than on new paper, but nevertheless we are promised that at least your old paper with all the foolishness will be erased in order to make room for you to write the new material.

Do not think that if you have old material in your head it will never be erased and you will never have room to inscribe words of torah on your heart.