Category Archives: Pirkei Avot

Pirkei Avot, Chapter 3:7 Part 4


Rav Shaya Karlinsky Chapter 3: Mishna 7: Part 4

In the first chapter of Berachoth (6a) it is taught “Ravin bar Ada said in the name of Rebbi Yitzchak: What is the source that when ten people pray, the Divine Presence resides among them? As it is written ‘Elokim stands in a Divine gathering…’ (Tehillim 82:1). And what is the source that when three people sit in judgment, the Divine Presence is with them? As it is written ‘In the midst of Elohim(referring to judges) He (referring to G-d) shall judge’ (ibid). And what is the source that when two sit and are involved in Torah [study] that the Divine Presence is with them? As it is written ‘Then those who fear G-d spoke to each other, and G-d listened and He heard; and a book of remembrance was written before Him…’ (Malachi 3:16). And what is the source that even one [person] who sits and is involved in Torah [study] that the Divine Presence is with him? As it is written ‘In every place that I allow my name to be mentioned, I wi ll come to you and bless you’ (Shmoth 20:21). And since it is true of even one, is it necessary to teach me about two? Two have their words recorded in a book of remembrance; one does not have his words recorded. And since it is true of two (who study Torah) is it necessary to teach me about three (who sit in a Torah judgment)? [Had three not been taught explicitly] I would have said that a judgment is simply making peace (conflict resolution), and the Divine Presence doesn’t arrive. [Therefore] it informs me that a judgment is also Torah [study]. And since it is true of even three, did it need to teach me about ten? With ten, the Divine Presence arrives even before the entire group of ten [has gathered]; with three, It doesn’t arrive until they have all sat down (in judgment/ to study).”

Why is five not mentioned in the above discussion, while in our Mishna, five is mentioned? Furthermore, it discusses three who are sitting in judgment, while in our Mishna, we are taught only about three who are involved in Torah study that the Divine Presence among them! And the discussion about two and one seems to be superfluous, since it is an explicit Mishna! (The Amoraim of the Talmud don’t simply restate lessons that have already been taught in the Mishna. If they seem to be saying the same thing, there must be a new lesson to justify this seeming repetition.)

But the thesis we have presented above (in our last shiurim, parts 2 and 3) clarifies the difference between the lesson of the Mishna and the lesson of Ravin bar Ada. The Mishna is discussing how the variation in the number of people participating in the Torah study affects the intensity of the Divine attachment they receive. Not all attachments are equal. Ten creates a more intense attachment than five, which creates a more intense attachment than three, etc. (And that there is no fundamental increase when going from three to four, or from five to six, seven, etc. The transformation points are at ten, five, three, two and one.)

But Ravin bar Ada is teaching us what it unique about each number, which has something that doesn’t exist in any other size group. Therefore, he omits five, since a group of five doesn’t bring about something that isn’t also found in the other groups. And three people involved in Torah study aren’t creating a reality that isn’t also created by other size groups. (Even though what is created my vary in intensity, it doesn’t vary in kind. Five and three are creating an attachment to the Divine Presence, and the only difference between the five/three and the other size groups is in the intensity of that attachment.) Now the questions and answers of the Gemara are better understood. First it asks “Since it is true of one, why was it necessary to teach me about two?” And the Gemara responds that two have their words written, something which doesn’t happen at all with one.

Why should two have their words written, something which isn’t attainable at all by one person? (The Maharal implies that it is understandable that two can bring about the same result in a more intense fashion compared to one, as indicated by our Mishna,. But he requires ­ and provides ­ and explanation of why two should be able to bring about a result that is not available at all to one person.)

The explanation is based on what we studied in Mishna 3. (See our explanations of this Mishna, especially parts 2 and 3. We will elaborate in those ideas here.) When two people sit together and study Torah, there is an element of stability and permanence, since they require an appointed time and place, compared to one person, who can study Torah in a more haphazard way. The result of this stability and permanence is that their words are “written in a book,” since writing results in a dimension of permanence for the words (relative to words which are simply spoken).

What is the meaning of this “writing”? As we have explained earlier, man and his actions “draw” the image and representation of the world. (See our explanation of Mishna 2 in this chapter, all three parts) While the actions of animals don’t have a fundamental effect on the way the world looks, man, due to his elevated nature (being created as a reflection of G-d, as a creator) has his actions define a picture of the world. If man’s actions are good, the world looks good. And if, Heaven forbid, man’s actions are corrupt, a picture is created, and that picture reflects the negative world that man has drawn. (A drawing or a picture is not identical with the original but is rather a representation of it. The implication is that the world man draws is a representation of a higher level, more transcendent reality.) This is the “book” in which all of man’s actions are written, as we explained in the first Mishna of Chapter 2. (See our explanation of Ch. 2, Mishna 1, part 5 ­ whi ch should be available in the archive ­ it was distributed over eight years ago!) This book is the impression on the world created by the Torah study of two people. There is a stability and permanence inherent in their study, since it is being done together, rather than individually. To make a lasting impression on a world — “writing in the book” — which was created with a dimension of stability, requires an activity which itself has a dimension of stability. This cannot be accomplished if less than two people are studying Torah together.


Pirkei Avot, Chapter 3:13


ג,יג  רבי דוסא בן הרכינס אומר, שינה של שחרית, ויין של צוהריים, ושיחת הילדים, וישיבת כנסייות של עמי הארץ–מוציאין את האדם מן העולם.

 Rabbi Dosa ben Horkenas said: Late morning sleep, afternoon wine, the chatter of the youth, and sitting in the gathering places of the ignorant drive a person out of his world.


 This mishna inspired the most wonderful and diverse conversation.

What does the mishna mean by ‘late morning sleep’? The phrase is equated with lost productivity. If we sleep well into the morning then we miss the most productive hours of the day, we miss the prime of our lives essentially. It is this that the mishna warns against. Rather, we are encouraged to be fresh in the morning and to make the most of these hours. In the context of Pirkei Avot we understand that this means learning Torah!

‘afternoon wine’ – wine is something that we use for celebrations, at chaggim, smachot, shabbat. We are supposed to appreciate the value of wine in this way. We are not supposed to squander it mindlessly in the middle of the day. You might ask why this is so?? Those of us who have watched while others drink excessively will know that wine dulls the mind, slows us down and causes us to function in a fog. We cannot be productive if we are drunk.  While it might be acceptable to drink at the end of the day, after the work is done (and then in moderation), it is not a good habit to fall into in the middle of the day when we are still supposed to be contributing positively to the world.

‘the chatter of youth’ – does the mishna mean childlike chatter or childish chatter? Is there a difference? Surely talking with one’s children or simply revelling in the beauty of children’s chatter is a positive thing, rather than a negative thing? What is the mishna actually saying? For us, this part of the mishna made sense when considering the context of Pirkei Avot. This was written for men who should not be distracted by the chatter of children or drawn in to childish behaviour. They were expected to be devoting themselves to learning Torah and to be setting a good example for children, providing a model of behaviour and conduct. Prattling mindlessly does not set a good example.

‘sitting in the gathering places of the ignorant’ – this is a contentious segment of the mishna for what does it mean? The interpretation that resonated with us hinged upon the notion that the mishna is referring to those who choose to remain ignorant despite the opportunities that might be offered to them. If a person socialises with such people then they are surely doomed to be distracted from their path.

Each of the described activities is clearly connected to time wasting. However, Rabbi Dosa’s language when he describes the consequences of these activities is very strong – drive a person out of his world. Is Rabbi Dosa equating time wasting with sin? It seems as though the punishment for time wasting is somewhat extreme… the difference between sin and the activities that Rabbi Dosa is describing is that Rabbi Dosa seems to be referring to activities which people are actively seeking out – to sleep away the morning, to numb oneself with alcohol and to engage in frivolity. Each of these are different ways that people manufacture to ‘kill time’ or not take responsibility for their lives. It is this that causes the extreme outcome to which Rabbi Dosa refers.

Ethics of Our Fathers for the Mothers?



by Rebbetzin Sara E. Freifeld, Ph.D

Reprinted with permission from the Jewish Action – Summer 1993
Union of Orthodox Congregations of America, New York

Each year as we re-read Ethics of our Fathers, we should approach it afresh, seeking a new thread from which to weave its expansive vistas in our living. How can we integrate its teaching into our daily lives?

Ethics of our Fathers teaches us by reducing our moral choices to a minimum. The essence of Torah wisdom is compressed into its brief and pithy contents, and through it we are challenged to live life at its greatest pitch and at its most sublime heights. There is so much Torah in its teachings, so much self-examination of one’s motives, that an average person feels intimidated by its demands for self-scrutiny. Can a normal human being attain its goals or are only a few people able to reach such lofty status? How does Ethics of our Fathers guide us towards change so that we can become all that it demands of us?

We find that before the mussar (ethical teachings), G-d speaks through the Sages of Ethics of our Fathers and offers us the greatest reassurance of our success: “All Israel have a portion in the World to Come, as it is said: ‘Thy people, all of them righteous, shall inherit the earth forever, they are the flower of My repeated planting, the work of My hands, wherein I glory.'” This passage, taken from the tractateSanhedrin, serves as an introduction to the entire work and sets the mood needed to approach the essence of Torah that it contains. Thus, before we begin the difficult and painful process of self-examination and self judgment, we are given the greatest encouragement possible: Know who you are and what your purpose is in this world–“You are the flowers of G-d’s plantings.”

Consider how much love is in this verse’s words. It seems to say “Take heart, be of good spirit. Trust in yourself. You can succeed. You have the potential to inherit both this world and the next.” G-d affirms us by seeing us all as righteous. We are the beautiful flowers that He has nurtured and replanted over and over again throughout our long history in order to watch us blossom in a new place, a new context, a different soil. In each planting, the flowers emerge fresh. We have never disappointed Him; we have always blossomed under the most difficult of soils and the harshest terrain. We flower not once, but each time. We are perennial, forever renewing ourselves for Him so that His garden will be joyful and fragrant.

This is how each chapter begins: with great love, with affirmation and promise so that we take courage and allow the mussar to enter our hearts. This is the entrance into Ethics of our Fathers, the model from which to learn how to give and take direction.

Thus, we begin any challenge and process of internal growth by first confirming the person. Ethics of our Fathers initiates each chapter with the affirmation of our beauty and the glory of our destiny as individuals in the Jewish Nation. Whether we are addressing ourselves or another person, we speak of goodness before uttering a word of rebuke. In this way we allow a person’s individuality to remain strong and intact. And when we offer mussar, we don’t look for results, but focus on process. We allow the time necessary for development and change, like G-d who replants us again and again, never despairing of our ability to grow. This, therefore, is how we must speak in order to be heard, in order to create the space necessary for self transformation. We learn from Ethics of our Fathers to never wound in the process of helping a person grow.

This was the approach used by my husband, Rav Shlomo Freifeld, ob”m, in his dealings with the hundreds of young people who came to him looking for guidance and direction in emotional and spiritual growth. Rav Shlomo believed that the secret of all success rested on the sense of self and the self-esteem of the individual. His first task with his students was to rebuild the individual person by focusing on the good. His yeshiva, Shor Yoshuv, was a storehouse of self-esteem where each person was nourished by learning about his own potential for goodness and growth. He believed that the home or school that does not build the self-esteem of its members is in great danger of destroying the very people it is meant to protect and develop. The child, including our own inner child, must be treated with respect. The most important teaching that takes place in the home and in the school is the teaching of attitudes about oneself. Facts can always be learned later on, once one’ s own sense of self-worth and dignity is firmly founded.

We learn from the introductory passage another important lesson in the process of giving and receiving “mussar” in order to encourage people to grow: we must teach people to think big and to be big by returning them to the sense of the Tzuras Ha’Adam, the image of Man, from which they were originally created. The Jewish People are reminded that the nation is the work of G-d’s hands, that it will inherit the world forever, that its purpose is to glorify the Creator.

Once you understand who you are and who you can be, you can begin the process of self-generation. You begin to change because you are no longer bound by the narrow vision that made you into a small and sinful person. You transcend your problem and now a new world has opened up to you. You begin to feel your strengths, to see the dawning of new possibilities for yourself. You begin to change. You are no longer hostage to your old self.

My husband had a favorite saying when people came to him with problems. He would say to them “Don’t be strong, be big.” The strength will come from your bigness, from your desire to go beyond your narrow limitations. Forget your background, your personal history, your past failures. All of these can be used as excuses for stagnation and lack of growth. “Be big.” Fill your life with the possibility of your own potential. Explore what it means to be a Jew, to live according to the blueprint of the Torah, to the vision of Man that it entails. Every Jew can succeed: “All Israel has a portion in the World to Come.”

This belief in the power of success and self-esteem can transform a human life in a miraculous way. You begin by taking small steps. You master one line or one small task at a time. You give yourself a goal you can reach. You start with a small change in character development or in the pattern of your day. You change one thing, no matter how small, and you reap the rewards of growth. Success builds success. You begin to learn that the next step is not more difficult, it is only different. This is what it means to be a Jew: we are eternally searching to better ourselves, to improve our character, to improve our society, to bring a rectification to the entire world, to come so close to G-d that we feel His Presence in every aspect of our lives.

Poised against the lofty heights of Man’s potential, Ethics of our Fathers plays with a contrapuntal theme: the lowliness of Man. The contrast of these two perspectives and the tension between them produces a complex symphony that integrates the Jew’s awareness of his greatness and his personal insignificance. Thus, the first verse of the third chapter begins on what would appear to be a dissonant note from the previous introductory statement: “Akavyah ben Mahalalel said, ‘Reflect upon three things, and you will not come into the grip of sin: Know whence you came, where you are going, and before Whom you will have to render account and reckoning. ‘Whence you came’– from a putrid drop. ‘Where are you going’–to a place of dust, of decay and vermin. ‘Before whom you will have to render account and reckoning’–before the Supreme King of Kings, the Holy One, blessed be He.'”

Against this statement of our humble beginnings and our inevitable end, Rabbi Akiva gives this perspective: “Beloved is Man, for he was created in God’s image. Still greater was the expression of this love in that it was made known to him that he was created in His image, as it is said in Genesis ‘In the image of G-d did He create Man.'”

In order for Man to know his own greatness, he must also recognize his limitations. He is a being fated for death and decay. Our body, the entire physical world that surrounds us is a temporary instrument in the hands of G-d. We have been “planted” in our Creator’s garden for a short while in order that we find our way back to Him. Just as we must know our greatness, we must know the limitation of time and space that circumscribe our life. From this perspective, knowing our mortality, that we have not been allotted an indeterminate lifetime, is a kindness. It forces us to review the course of our life and gives us the impetus to change and to grow, because “The time is short, the task is great, the master is demanding.”

Furthermore, at the end of our lives the Master will demand an accounting after which we will be re-united with His radiant presence and replanted in the Garden of Eden, there to grow into our ultimate plenitude.

What is the nature of this accounting? Our rabbis tell us that G-d will ask us not why were you not like Moses, nor like Isaiah. He will merely ask us why we had not been ourselves. Our loving Father needs our individuality, our spiritual individuality, for that is the part that will return to Him and give account. “My child”, He will say, “Why weren’t you, you? It was your uniqueness for which I longed. I wanted and waited for your Sabbaths, your Holidays, your prayers, your Psalms. It was your voice that I yearned to hear. I had my Moses and my Isaiah, but I did not have a ‘you’ before. The special task of your life can never be done by anyone else nor will there ever be another opportunity for that unique ‘you’ to fulfill its mission in this world.” Ethics of our Fathers reminds us of this again and again. As G-d expects our service to be unique to each of us, we too must remind ourselves to adjust our expectations to the unique personality of each person within our web of relationships.

In order to accomplish the tasks of our lives, Ethics of our Fathers teaches us to observe our own thinking and our own behavior, to look at our goals and desires, to examine and review them in order to change them for the better. In the world-view of the Torah, Man has the capacity to disengage from his own thinking, to distance himself from the prison of his negative thoughts and failings and to learn about himself. By examining our emotions, our fantasies, and our ambitions, Ethics of our Fathers makes us conscious of the workings of our own mind. There is no better self-help book in the world than Ethics of our Fathers. It contains the secret to self-scrutiny and change by affirming our value as Jews and our potential for lofty self-transcendence.

Pirkei Avot, Chapter 3:1


ג,א  עקביה בן מהללאל אומר, הסתכל בשלושה דברים, ואין אתה בא לידי עבירה–דע מאיין באת, ולאיין אתה הולך, ולפני מי אתה עתיד ליתן דין וחשבון:  מאיין באת, מליחה סרוחה.  ולאיין אתה הולך, למקום רימה ותולעה.  ולפני מי אתה עתיד ליתן דין וחשבון, לפני מלך מלכי המלכים הקדוש ברוך הוא

Akavya ben Machalelel would say: Reflect upon three things and you will not come to sin. Know from whence you came, and to where you are going, and before whom you will give an accounting. Form where did you come? From a putrid drop. To where are you going? To a place of dust, maggots, and worms. Before whom will you give an accounting? Before the King of kings, the Holy One, blessed be He. (Avot 3:1)


The focus of this mishna is to REFLECT on the things that we do in our lives and what leads us to do them.  If we cannot stop and reflect then we cannot grow or develop, nor can we begin to understand and appreciate this mishna. By always reflecting on ourselves, our behaviour, our past, present and future, we always perceive our lives within a certain context and perspective. If we live in this way then we will always stay on the right path and not veer (even unknowingly) toward sin.

Rabbi Moshe Bogomilsky asks: Why does it list the three things to reflect upon first and then repeat each with elaboration?

The answer according to Rabbi Bogomilsky: “it is related in the Gemara that Antonius said to Rebbe, “the body and soul are able to excuse themselves from judgement. The body says, ‘It is the soul that has sinned, for from the day it has departed from me I have been lying silent like a rock in the grave.’ The soul says, ‘It is the body that has sinned, for from the day that I have departed from it, I have been flying in the air like a bird and not doing any sin.’

Rebbe said to him, “I will give you a parable to what this can be compared. A king had an orchard with beautiful figs. He appointed two guards, one lame and the other blind. The lame one said to the blind one, ‘I see beautiful figs in the orchard. Mount me on your shoulda and together we will be able to enjoy them’. The king once came to the orchard and said to the guards, ‘where are all my figs?’ The lame one said, ‘do I have any feet with which to travel to the figs?’ And the blind one said, ‘Do I have any eyes to see the figs?’ The king mounted the lame one on the back of the blind one and judged them as a unit. So, too, on the day of judgement, Hashem brings the soul and injects it into the body and judges them together as unit for the sins they committed together while upon this earth.”

Akvaya Ben Mahalaleil is addressing both the physical body and the neshama in this mishna. It is this stark remind about the need to differentiate between gashmiut (materialism) and ruchniut (spiritualism) that makes this a very confronting mishna.

Pirkei Avot, Chapter 2:2


מסכת אבות פרק ב

ב,ב  רבן גמליאל בנו של רבי יהודה הנשיא אומר, יפה תלמוד תורה עם דרך ארץ, שיגיעת שניהם משכחת עוון; וכל תורה שאין עימה מלאכה, סופה בטילה וגוררת עוון.  וכל העמלים עם הציבור, יהיו עמלים עימם לשם שמיים, שזכות אבותן מסייעתן, וצדקתם עומדת לעד. ואתם, מעלה אני עליכם כאילו עשיתם

Rabban Gamliel, the son of Rabbi Yehuda ha-Nasi, said: It is good to combine the study of Torah with an occupation, for the exertion of both keeps sin forgotten. All Torah study that is not accompanied by work will come to nothing and bring sin in its wake. Everyone who works on behalf of the community should do so for the sake of Heaven; the merit of their forefathers will sustain them, and their righteousness endure forever. And as for you, I [The Almighty] will account you worthy of great reward, as if you had done [everything].


In this mishna we learn about the connection between Torah learning and derech eretz. In the context of the mishna, the Rabbis define derech eretz as an occupation or trade (Rabbenu Yona argues that the phrase derech eretz means different things in different contexts). They also relate it to one’s behaviour: humility, decency, manners. The message here is that behaviour and one’s general conduct in the world at large should clearly reflect Torah values. What one learns through Torah should permeate every aspect of one’s life.

Rabban Gamliel does not say that to a life of work one must add Torah; a life devoid of Torah study is unthinkable to him. Rather, he is reminding us that we must live through the Torah, with the Torah always in our minds and hearts.

Where the mishna becomes unclear is in how much one should involve oneself in the world outside of Torah. It seems that Rabban Gamliel is telling us that we must have a foot in two opposite worlds – the world of Torah study and the world of work, the world of the land. The preposition ‘im’ is important – ‘with’… does the study of Torah seem more beautiful when we are exposed to some of the challenges of the outside world? (The role of this preposition is debated in Berachot 35b). The crux of the debate is over which term is primary – the one that precedes the im or the one after it, that is, is work or derech eretz more important than Torah? In many ways it seems that this debate is central to two divergent ways of Jewish living as personified by the Modern Orthodox movement in contrast to the Hareidi movement.

Regardless, it is clear that there is a connection between these two worlds that should be nurtured and that the study of Torah should influence our conduct in the wider community. It is perhaps this message which ties the two parts of this mishna together: part 1 which seems to be debating the value of Torah Study and derech eretz and part 2 which discusses those who are involved in the community.

In Pirkei Avot, the only activity which we are told to do ‘for the sake of heaven’ is work on behalf of the community. The mishna is reminding us that our motivation in this type of work must not be dictated by a desire for glory or recognition, rather it must be pure and idealistic in the way that the Torah teaches us to behave.

Interestingly, the word in hebrew for community is ציבור – ‘Tzibur’ – , the root of which is:


As we know, the Hebrew language functions on both a literal and metaphorical level so when studying texts we should always be looking for alternate meanings hidden in words. Here there is a subtext:

צ – stands for tzaddikim (righteous people)

ב – stands for beinonim (middle of the road people)

ר – stands for rasha’im (wicked people)

The implication is that the community is made up of all these types of people and it is our duty to behave as the forefathers Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaacov. The mishna teaches us that not occupying ourself fully (both in terms of Torah learning and work) will lead us to sin, to gossip, to idleness. It is not our position in the world to judge others. We are expected to behave ‘betzelem elokim’ (in Hashem’s image) and a central part of Pirkei Avot teaches us what is involved in this pursuit.

Finally, it is interesting to note that this mishna uses two different terms to refer to work or occupation – derech eretz and melocha. The latter is a word that rings with familiarity because of its connection with the 39 prohibited activities relating to Shabbat observance. Melocha clearly refers to work which involves creation and the mishna seems to be leading us to the conclusion that we should ‘make’ something with our Torah learning, that Torah learning should be applied to life. One cannot exist without the other. Thus we are reminded na’ase ve’nishma – we will do and we will listen/heed. This is the essence of Judaism: learning and action and it is this that runs at the heart of the mishna.


Pirkei Avot, Chapter 1:17


מסכת אבות פרק א

א,טז  [יז] שמעון בנו אומר, כל ימיי גדלתי בין החכמים, ולא מצאתי לגוף טוב אלא שתיקה; ולא המדרש הוא העיקר, אלא המעשה; וכל המרבה דברים, מביא חטא.

17. His son, Shimon, would say: All my life I have been raised among the wise, and I have found nothing better for the body than silence. The essential thing is not study, but deed. And one who speaks excessively brings on sin.


Shimon was the son of Raban Gamliel and Hillel’s great grandson. He grew up surrounded by great Torah scholars and was privileged to learn from them. Shimon’s wisdom here is a warning to those who immersed themselves too much in Torah study to the point that they never have the time to actually perform any of the mitzvot about which they have been learning. states that “There is a famous subsequent debate on the issue of which is greater: study or deeds. At the beginning of the debate Rabbi Tarfon held that deeds are greater and Rabbi Akiva that study is greater. In the end all concluded that “Study is greater, for it leads to deeds.” This conclusion resolves the conflict by saying the two are always in harmony. However, Shimon’s saying is contradicts this conclusion: it clearly implies that there are learned people, including in Torah, who don’t act properly. Shimon ben Gamliel’s observation is unfortunately often corroborated today.”


We are always learning from speech and it is almost impossible to close one’s ears to the idle and sometimes destructive banter which surrounds us. The Western maxim – “Sticks and stones can break my bones, but words can never harm me” – is not a concept that finds its home in Judaism. On the contrary, the laws of lashon hara teach us to always be extremely careful with our speech as once the words are said they cannot be retrieved nor their impact contained.

Here we learn the value of balancing one’s speech with listening. If we are constantly talking then we will surely miss some of the wisdom which those around us can impart, furthermore, we may seen to be foolish if our speech is not properly weighed.

If we have a choice between speech and action we should choose action as often deeds speak louder than words. Clearly, having read some of the laws of lashon hara in a previous shiur, we can appreciate the way that excessive and thoughtless speech can lead to sin.

Rambam divides speech into 5 categories:

(1) Obligatory: speech which the Torah requires us to utter. The primary example of this is Torah study – although not tefillah.

(2) Praiseworthy: speech which is not commanded by the Torah, but which fulfills a positive purpose. This would include complimenting others, praising good people and qualities, and denigrating bad qualities. Also words — as well as song — which inspire, which touch the soul of the listeners and goad them to become greater people would fall under this category.

(3) Permissible: speech which relates to our businesses and our basic needs — food, clothing etc. One is considered praiseworthy if he minimizes his speech in this category.

(4) Undesirable: empty talk, that which the listener gains little from. This would include much of what we hear in the news (if it’s not the juicy stuff which probably belongs in an even lower category). The commentators give such examples as discussing how a person became rich or died (or both), or how a wall was constructed. (It’s almost amusing that scholars such as Maimonides had difficulty even coming up with examples of such talk. One imagines that they could not easily conceive of wasteful talk that would hold anyone’s interest in the first place. Guess they lived in the days before pro ball… 🙂

(5) Forbidden: that which the Torah explicitly forbids — cursing, false testimony, gossip (whether true or false), vulgar language, etc.

Maimonides writes that needless to say, the first two categories should form the bulk of our speech. Even regarding this, however, he adds two qualifying conditions:

(1) We practice what we preach. Learning but not doing, or praising good deeds which we ourselves do not fulfill may very well be worse than not speaking or learning in the first place. In this vein, our mishna stated: “Study is not the primary thing but action.”

(2) Our speech should be concise and to the point. We should always be wary that our words are proper and carefully chosen. Too much speech is counterproductive in almost every area. Even regarding Torah study the Talmud writes that one should teach his students in as concise a manner as possible (Pesachim 3b). And likewise, our mishna concludes: “Whoever talks excessively brings about sin.”

Pirkei Avot, Chapter 1:15


מסכת אבות פרק א

א,[טו] שמאי אומר, עשה תורתך קבע, אמור מעט ועשה הרבה; והוי מקביל את כל האדם, בסבר פנים יפות.

1:15. Shammai would say: Make your Torah study a permanent fixture of your life. Say little and do much. And receive every man with a pleasant countenance.

  • Make your Torah a priority: We should make our study of Torah a part of our daily or weekly routine. The implication here is not that we should study all the time, for if everyone in the world was studying full time society would cease to function. However, we are instructed to ensure that we make a regular time to study and that it should be something to which we commit. It is interesting that the word ‘aseh‘ is used here – ‘la’asot‘ means ‘to do’ – is it possible that the mishna is telling us that we mustn’t just study the Torah but we must ensure that we actually put our learning into practise as well?
  • Say little and do much: Be careful with your words. There are many ways of interpreting this mishna… Don’t be outspoken, don’t boast, don’t promise to do more than you are going to, rather speak in terms of your actions. This covers all things from our interactions with others, our commitment to tzedakah and chesed to the promises that we make to ourselves!
  • Greet every person with a cheerful face: It is so easy to become immersed in our own internal turmoil and to forget the impact that our outer demeanour has on those around us – we noted particularly our families! What a difference it makes when you smile at someone, greet them cheerfully rather than scowl or frown.

There is some fabulous commentary on this mishna which you can read here, here and here.