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Pirkei Avot / Ethics of the Fathers
with a select treasury of commentaries on all levels of Torah interpretation
Chapter 5 Mishna 1
with select commentaries

Abbreviations used in this translation:
RSHI - Rashi Commentary (1040-1105)
RMBM - Rambam (1135-1204)
BRTN - Rabbi Ovadiah of Bartenura Commentary (1445-1515)
TFRT - Tiferet Yisrael commentary (1782–1860)
YONA - Rabeinu Yonah (1180-1263)
MHRL - Derech Chaim - Maharal of Prague (1525-1609) (from hebrewbooks.org/14193)
VLNA - Biur HaGra of Rabbi Eliyahu of Vilna - (1720-1797)

Commentary Legend:
- for basic commentaries as relating to the plain meaning (Pshat).
- elaborates more into the theme.
- deeper in, Maharal of Prague.
- more themes in the text.

Chapter 5 Mishna 1פרק ה משנה א
With 10 sayings the world was created. And what does this teach us? For surely it could have been created with only one saying? Rather, this was in order to pay back the wicked who destroy the world that was created by 10 sayings, and to grant good reward to the righteous who sustain the world that was created with 10 sayings.
בַּעֲשָׂרָה מַאֲמָרוֹת נִבְרָא הָעוֹלָם. וּמַה תַּלְמוּד לוֹמַר, וַהֲלֹא בְמַאֲמָר אֶחָד יָכוֹל לְהִבָּרְאוֹת, אֶלָּא לְהִפָּרַע מִן הָרְשָׁעִים שֶׁמְּאַבְּדִין אֶת הָעוֹלָם שֶׁנִּבְרָא בַעֲשָׂרָה מַאֲמָרוֹת, וְלִתֵּן שָׂכָר טוֹב לַצַּדִּיקִים שֶׁמְּקַיְּמִין אֶת הָעוֹלָם שֶׁנִּבְרָא בַעֲשָׂרָה מַאֲמָרוֹת:

Bartenura - "with 10 sayings the world was created" - it is written nine times "G-d said", the tenth: "Bereisheit" (in the beginning [G-d created heaven and earth] - Gen.1:1) was also a saying, as written: "by the word of G-d were the heavens made, and all the host of them by the breath of His mouth" (Tehilim 33).
Tiferet Yisrael - "with 10 sayings the world was created" - ie the world and everything in it was created with 10 commands. Namely, the 9 times "G-d said" is written in the first chapter of the Torah.

The (first) word "Bereisheit" (in the beginning G-d created) was also a saying. For without a doubt, the heavens and earth were created intentionally by G-d, just that it is not written: "and G-d said" there. For since they were created from nothing, if so, it is not possible for G-d to command the nonexistent to be created. But for the other creations, once Heavens and Earth were already created, it is conceivable to command them to create something from something..
Tiferet Yisrael - "surely it could have been created with one saying" - ie if it were so that G-d was not capable of creating the world with one saying and that this great and awesome act required many sayings, then it is understood why the torah teaches us that the world was created with only ten sayings.

But we know that our Master is great and of immense power, capable of creating the world with only one saying. If so, that which He created the world world with ten sayings is for some hidden reason known to Him.

Thus, why did the torah make known to us that the world was created with ten sayings? For the true reason why it was created thus is beyond our grasp and it appears as if to reduce G-d's glory (to create it with 10 sayings if He can do so with only one).

Perforce the torah informs us this for our good, so that we may learn something from this. Therefore, we must contemplate what matter to deduce from this?

The torah taught us that the world and everything in it was created with ten sayings so that we may know how much G-d cherishes the world and its components. For it was created with ten sayings similar to the mystical world which was created with ten sefirot.. This is the reason for all the "tens" in this chapter.
Bartenura - "the wicked who destroy the world" - for "whoever destroys a Jew, it is as if he destroyed the whole world". Through their sins, the wicked destroy their own souls and thus it is as if they destroy the world. Alternatively, they destroy the world. For they incline the whole world to the side of guilt. Thus the world is destroyed because of them.

"who destroy the world that was created by 10 sayings.. - destroying a handiwork that was completed in one day is not like destroying a handiwork completed in many days.
Rabeinu Yosef ben Shushan - "pay back the wicked who destroy the world that was created by 10 sayings" - this is faithful testimony that the wicked indeed destroy the world.

We must know that the world is very very precious and that by our transgressing the will of G-d who created us, we are destroying it. Likewise, we must know that by doing the will of G-d, we are sustaining the world and our reward is very very great.
Rabeinu Yonah - "to grant good reward to the righteous who sustain the world that was created with 10 sayings" - for the world was created only for doing what is just in G-d's eyes. Those who do so uphold the world.
Ben Ish Chai, Chasdei Avot - "wicked/righteous.." - for the righteous, besides the reward they will receive for guarding the world from the natural filth and corrosion, they are also rectifying and rebuilding all the destruction in the world inflicted by the wicked through their evil deeds.

On this he said the world was created through ten sayings. Even though G-d could have created it with one saying, but nevertheless, He created it with 10 sayings to increase its worth. For through this the wicked are payed back for destroying the world which was created with ten sayings.

But the purpose and intent of increasing the punishment of the wicked who destroy the world is in order to increase the reward of the righteous who uphold the world and rectify it from the harm of the wicked. Through this, their reward will increase a hundred fold. For the reward of a guardian of a palace who merely did not let harm inside is not like the reward of a guardian who rebuilt and fixed the damage inflicted by bad people.
Daat Zekenim - "to grant good reward to the righteous who sustain the world that was created with 10 sayings" - because the world was created for the man who is completely whole in everything (Adam Hashalem Bakol vekol). Every righteous person upholds the world by himself (see Yomah 38b). For the whole world is worth creating just for him alone (kol habriah kedai lo). This matter is explicit in the words of our sages. In Berachot 58b:

"Ben Zoma saw a huge crowd.. he said: 'blessed is He who created all these people to serve me..' He would say: 'what does a good guest say? How much efforts did the host toil for me.. and all this toil was only for me'.."

Likewise in Yoma 38b: "even for one righteous person the world was created.."
And in Sanhedrin 37a: "every person is obligated to say: 'the world was created for me'".

This is what our sages said: "the Holy One, blessed be He, sought to return the world to emptiness and void due to the generation of Tzidkiyahu (who were wicked). But after He gazed at Tzidkiyahu (who was righteous), His spirit calmed down (so to speak), and He refrained from destroying the world).

For it is worth creating the whole word for one whole (righteous) man. Thus, through each and every righteous man, the world is upheld (Kochvei Ohr maamar 79).
Yachel Yisrael - "reward/punishment" - the world is given under the responsibility of man. It is in his hands to be the crown of creation and to elevate the whole world or to destroy and corrupt himself and drag down the whole world with him.

In order for man to recognize the responsibility placed on him, the torah depicts in detail the order of creation. This is to teach us how important the world is in the eyes of the Creator and how great is the responsibility placed on man..

Man was created last in the "6 days of creation". He came to the world when it was already completed and perfected like a groom who enters the wedding hall when everything is ready and the guests have arrived.

The talmud expounds the verse: "it is all of man" (Kohelet 12:13) - "says the Holy One, blessed be He, 'the whole world was created only for him.. it was all created to be his company'" ie to be together with him...

Since man's actions determine the fate of the world, he must be careful of every deed and consider before making every step. This watchfulness needs to be such that he sees himself as in the middle of a great balance - fifty percent mitzvot and merits and fifty percent sins and demerits. Thus he should also view the whole world.

Hence from now, every act he does has the power to tilt the fate of the whole world. If this moment he does even a small mitzvah - he inclines the scales to good. For now there are more than fifty percent merits to him and the whole world. Likewise for the opposite, G-d forbid.

If a man were to remember this always and strive always to tilt the world to the side of good and not evil, the whole world would change for the good.
Maharal Tzintz - "surely it could have been created with one saying? But, this was in order to take retribution on the wicked who destroy the world that was created by 10 sayings" - the commentators asked on this: if it is possible to create the world with one saying, why should the wicked pay [more] just because it was created with ten sayings?

For a person who buys an object worth one gold coin for ten gold coins and afterwards another man destroys his object, the latter will be obligated to pay damages of only one gold coin (not ten).

The answer is that as known, through ten sayings, the world came to physicality (through a chain of transition from divine to spiritual to physical).. As known, man is "a ladder fixed on the ground whose end reaches the heavens". For every mitzvah like tefilin, tzitzit, lulav, etc., although in the physical world it appears to be a light matter, but according to the drawing of light to the spiritual roots in the mystical worlds, it is extremely lofty...

Thus since G-d desires kindness, He gives reward according to the lofty effects in the mystical worlds and pays punishment according to the [small] effects in the lowly physical world.. Thus both are a kindness.

This is the meaning of "by 10 sayings the world was created". For if it were created with one saying, it would be extremely difficult to hold the upper end due to its extreme holiness and sublime spirituality. But after it has come down one saying after another until it has come to the realm of physicality due to countless chains of descent - then the righteous man can grasp the mitzvot in his manner in the physical world and move all the upper mystical worlds.

This is the meaning of "to give reward to the righteous, etc." For due to the chain effect of the ten sayings, the righteous man can fulfill mitzvot in the physical world and rouse the upper mystical worlds. Thus his reward is very great.

Similarly for the damage caused by the wicked. He is judged according to the level of the bottom saying. This is the meaning of "to pay the wicked". For if one were to measure the punishment according to the destruction in the upper mystical worlds, there is no end to his punishment and it is impossible for him to ever repay.

But G-d desires kindness, "He does not desire the death of the wicked" (Yechezkel 18:23) so "He devises means so that the banished one will not remain an outcast" (lbal yidach mimenu nidach) (Shmuel II 14:14) after receiving his punishment.

This is a kindness of G-d, that the punishment can be measured according to this lowly world. Without this, there would be no hope for the wicked to rise up.

But now that we measure the punishment according to its perspective in the lower world, then it is possible to pay back even the wicked man. And after payment, he will go out a free man and have a portion in the land of the living, so that his soul be bound in the cord of [eternal] life..

And for the righteous, the opposite - they are given reward generously according to the perspective of the highest lofty saying of creation.

Thus both reasons are along the same lines (i.e. a kindness), whether for the righteous or the wicked.
Maharal - that which the world was created with ten sayings and not one saying, this teaches that this world has a supernal quality (maalah elyona). For G-d's Shechina (divine presence) is in this world. The number ten teaches on this. For the Shechina (divine presence) is always with ten and no less, as we explained earlier in the mishna "ten who sit and study torah, the Shechina resides among them" (Avot 3:6).

Know that which the number ten receives the glory of the Shechina, this is because ten has holiness. Thus, if the world were created with one saying (instead of ten), it would not have this supernal quality. But now that the world was created with ten sayings, it has this holy supernal quality. For we have already explained that ten has holiness and thus every matter of holiness requires ten [people] (ex. to recite the kadish prayer).
(and as the torah writes: "the tenth shall be holy" Vayikra 27:32)..

Thus the world was created specifically with ten sayings. For if it were not created with ten sayings, it would have a lower level. But now that it was created with ten sayings, this teaches on the lofty holy level the world has.

Thus the wicked who destroy the world which has this level of holiness - they are destined to give a judgment on this..

For there is a big difference between one who steals a coin to one who steals the crown of the king..

And likewise, for the righteous who uphold the world, their reward is very great...

If you ask, even though the wicked man destroys the world which was created with ten sayings, but nevertheless, there are other righteous men who uphold the world. Thus the result is that the world is not destroyed.

This is not difficult. For since from the perspective of this wicked man, the world receives destruction, if so, there is a judgment on him that he is destroying the world. We have already explained in the mishna "pray for the welfare of the government" (Avot 3:2) that the world was created for each and every individual, as explained there.

"to give good reward.. to pay [retribution] from the wicked" - he did not say: "to PAY good reward" like he wrote by the wicked "to PAY from the wicked". For it is not proper respect [towards G-d] since it implies that G-d has a debt to pay reward to the righteous that He must pay.

But really even if a righteous man serves his Creator, G-d is not obligated to pay him anything. Rather it is only a kindness of G-d. For a creation has no claim of payment from his Creator.. Thus he wrote "to GIVE reward". The reward G-d gives is in the way of divine grace, purely a kindness and not a payment..

But for the punishment to the wicked, it is applicable to use the term "pay" since the payment is certainly from the attribute of justice. However, the giving of reward is not from the attribute of justice (since on the contrary man owes G-d for granting him life and other countless favors).
Ruach Chaim - "by 10 sayings the world was created. And what does this teach us?..." - who will go after the King to examine what He has done, to contemplate the reason and intent of the Creator, blessed be He?

Nevertheless, we have been granted permission to contemplate what has already been explained in the holy Zohar and the words of the kabbalists.

Namely, G-d wanted to create countless worlds. He also created within them a power of evil - that knows its Master and intends to rebel against Him.

When the creations do the will of G-d, this evil is submitted and put down, becoming null and void.

This evil is not recognizable in all the worlds except for this world, in those who dwell in clay [physical bodies]. But in the upper lofty worlds, there is no trace of evil at all. Below them the existence of evil begins to appear. Below them still, the power of evil begins to appear but it is still a trace of a trace - not in actuality.

In the worlds lower still, evil begins to dawn until in the lower world (our world) it is almost all evil.

If not for the kindness of the Creator on His creations, to create man from the dust and breathe into his nostrils the soul of life - a spiritual power which includes all the worlds. From the lower (physical) world until the loftiest (spiritual) world, a power which collects all the angels, Serafim, Ofanim, Holy Chayot, and the firmament above the Chayot. This man will contend and wage war with the power of evil and through his deeds he will overpower it and reduce it more and more until he removes wickedness from the land.

The entire existence of evil is only for the purpose of being annulled and to give reward to those who annul it..

Since man includes all the worlds, therefore in truth everything depends on man. Man should not tell himself "G-d has left me", "I am just a barren tree", "and if I become righteous, what effect does this have?","and if I become wicked what harm is there?".

But really man is like the center point. Although it is tiny, but nevertheless all the lines [of a circle] are drawn from it. A slight deviation in the center point will warp the whole circle.

So too for man. Every good matter he does weakens the power of evil from his body. Through this, evil is reduced from the world and all the worlds become rectified. Likewise for the opposite, G-d forbid, he damages all the worlds and increases evil in them. (see there for more)
Matanat Avot - "by 10 sayings the world was created.." - as many commentaries explained, the 10 sayings hint to something called the "10 Sefirot" (in Kaballah). What are these 10 Sefirot?

As known, one of the fundamentals of Judaism is that G-d is absolutely One (yachid pashut). That is to say, it is not at all applicable to attribute to Him any sort of plurality or parts.

This is not like one city which is comprised of many neighborhoods, nor like one machine which is comprised of many parts, nor like one human being of many limbs.

Rather, G-d is One, without any sort of division whatsoever.

When G-d wanted to create all the worlds, His end goal was to create man possessing free will and the ability to change the state of all the worlds according to his free choice of good or evil. Thus, G-d created a system of conduct which can be changed according to man's free will. And since G-d is absolute (Pashut) and thus never changes and likewise His will also never changes (for He knows everything that was, is, and will be), thus in order to create a system of will that can change according to man's free will and deeds, He created an immense system made up of 10 parts. Through them passes the conduct of all the worlds.

The state of each part by itself as well as all of them together and the exchange and connection between them is capable of changing, to increase or decrease - according to the free will of man.

Of course, it is G-d's pure will which drives these 10 Sefirot which are comprised of countless details and details of details. He grants them life and power to move and guide the whole world according to their current state which depends on man's free will.

For according to the order and state that man fixes in the Sefirot on high, correspondingly will be the power and influence from G-d to conduct the world.

Even though G-d conducts the world and not the Sefirot, but nevertheless since all of His conduct and influence passes solely though the Sefirot, therefore, the situation and order of conduct in the world is given to change according to the state of the Sefirot which are determined by the actions of man.

An analogy to this is electricity which flows through all electronic machines. The electricity is exactly the same in all machines, but according to the machine it is connected to will be the resulting effect - cold for a refrigerator and heat for an oven, etc.

And since "G-d looked into the torah and created the world" (Genesis Rabba 1:1), ie all the worlds were created according to the torah, therefore it was ordained in the nature of the sefirot that the laws of the torah alone are what causes good or bad changes in their states.

That is to say, when a man does everything that is written in the torah according to Halacha (Jewish law), then he arranges the Sefirot in good proper order and the divine influence flows through them abundantly and without problems.

(as known, the Sefirot have countless details and parts connected to the 613 commandments. Every mitzvah or detail of mitzvah corresponds to the state of some part of the sefirot. Furthermore, every Jew and every second of his life is connected to one area in the ten sefirot. By using his time properly, he rectifies what no one else can do).

But when a man transgresses what is written in the torah, through this he inflicts damages in the proper order of the sefirot and the work there breaks down, whether a little or a lot. Then, the flow of divine influences corrupts a bit and it becomes partially disconnected according to the severity and quantity of sins.

Thus, that which the Tanna asked: "but the world could have been created with one saying (instead of ten)".

The intent is why didn't G-d create a world without Sefirot and without intermediary, rather the will of G-d and the flow of divine influence will flow constantly and steadily without connection to the acts of human beings?

He answers: since G-d wanted that man have free will in order that he receives reward in Olam Haba through merit and not as an unearned free gift, therefore He created the world with ten sefirot in order that there be room for change in the conduct of the world through man's free will. Thus, it will be considered a righteousness for him that through his good deeds, he caused the flow of divine influence through the Sefirot. Hence, now that there exists this system of Sefirot, there is also the system of reward and punishment.