Pirkei Avot

Chapter 1 Mishnah 1: Humility and Youth

 1.  “Moses Received Torah from Sinai” – Torah with Humility

Moses Received Torah from the Attribute of Humility

“Moses received Torah from Sinai” – this is referring to the level of Mt. Sinai, which is the lowest mountain, a matter of humility, which is Moses’ characteristic level, as it says of him, “And the man Moses was very humble, more than any other man on the face of the earth.”

A Spark of Moses – the Humility in Every Jewish Soul

This is also true of the spark of Moses in every Jew, as expounded in the Tanya[1] with reference to the verse, “What does Havayah your God ask of you except to fear Havayah your God.” The sages ask “Can fear of God be considered something negligible?!” and they reply, “Yes, for Moses it was something negligible.” Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi, the Alter Rebbe, explained that this can genuinely be stated with reference to any Jew, because of the spark of Moses that is in every one of us.

The whole issue of the verse, “What does Havayah your God ask of you except to fear [Him]” relates to humility. This can be learnt from the word, “What” (מַה) which alludes to Moses’ attribute of selflessness, as he himself said, “And we are what”[2]; fear of God is a matter of selflessness; the Aramaic word for “Yes” (אִין) alludes to the attribute of nothingness (אַיִן); “something negligible” refers to the fact that in one’s own eyes they are “something negligible.”

An individual being “something negligible” in his own eyes, relates to the secret of “Someone who is small is a rabbi[3]” – someone small is particularly suited to be a Torah teacher in whom shines Moses soul, as we are taught in Kabbalah that there is an “extension of Moses in every generation.” This is also the Kabbalistic idea relating to the expression “humility [i.e., being ‘negligible’] is greater than all” as referred to by Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi, who alludes to Joshua [Yehoshua], who received the Torah from Moses, who was a Levite [ben Levi], as the mishnah states, “Moses received the Torah from Sinai and transmitted it to Joshua.”

Secrets of Humility at Sinai

The gematria of “Sinai” (סִינַי) with the additional unit (the kolel) equals “humility” (עַנָוָה). Since each of these words contains four letters, each letter can be multiplied by the parallel letter in the second word (a procedure called haka’ah pratit). The product of this multiplication is 5050, which is the triangular number of 100, alluding to perfected beauty (יֹפִי, which has a numerical value of 100); and also equals 10 times 505, the numerical value of Sarah (שָׂרָה), who was renowned for her beauty. Furthermore, 100 alludes to the verse “What does Havayah your God ask of you” with reference to the sages’ interpretation, “Do not read, ‘What’ (מַה), but ‘one hundred’ (מֵאָה)”. The additional letter in this new rendering of the verse brings the total number of letters in the verse to 100! The new rendering of the verse alludes to the mitzvah to make one hundred blessings every day.

Humility – the Seventh and Most Endeared Attribute with which the Torah is Acquired

The final chapter of Tractate Avot, referred to as “Kinyan Torah,” enumerates forty-eight things that the Torah is acquired with. “…The Torah is acquired with forty-eight things. They are: study, listening, articulation, understanding, disciplined fear, reverent awe, humility…”

The attribute of humility is the seventh of the forty-eight attributes that are enumerated, and “All sevenths are endeared.” Moses too is the seventh generation from Abraham. This fits in with the fact that “Moses received Torah from Sinai” i.e., from the attribute of humility.

The Explanation Given by the “Avodat Yisrael

In the interpretation of the “Avodat Yisrael” on Ethics of the Fathers, he writes, “To the extent of one’s humility one can receive holiness from the Creator… If an individual is lowly and humble, then he causes God to lower and contract Himself, as it were, to that individual.”

He continues by explaining that Moses sowed the attribute of humility―the vessel into which holiness and Torah innovations can be integrated into our souls―in all the generations that followed him, as the verse states, “Light is sown for the righteous individual and for the honest hearted – joy.” The final letters of the words in this verse (אוֹר זָרֻעַ לַצַדִיק וּלְיִשְׁרֵי לֵב שִׂמְחָה) spell out R’ Akiva (ר' עַקִיבָה),[4] spelled with the letter hei at the end instead of the usual alef). The midrash teaches that Moses asked that the Torah be given through Rabbi Akiva, but heard him say that everything that he teaches and innovates was given to Moses as halachah at Sinai (“Everything that a veteran scholar will innovate in the future was already told to Moses at Sinai”), meaning that everything came to Rabbi Akiva from Moses’ attribute of humility.

Preserving Youthfulness

Later, the author of Avodat Yisrael writes that someone who has humility is referred to as a youth. Moses was referred to as a youth when he cried as a baby in his crib on the Nile River, “And behold, the youth was crying”; Joshua (who received the Torah from Moses by merit of his humility) was referred to as a youth when he served as Moses’ attendant,  “and Joshua bin Nun was a youth”; similarly, Samuel, who is as valuable as Moses and Aaron together, is referred to as a youth, “And the youth was yet a youth.”

In the phrase referring to Samuel, the word “youth” appears twice, which teaches us that he remained as unassuming and as humble as that of a youth all his life. Samuel’s humility began with the fact that his mother made him a “small coat”―so that he would always clothe himself with the attribute of “smallness.” This is why we have the custom to wear a small four-cornered garment at all times (even when sleeping).

This is the issue of the verse “For Israel is a youth and I love him and since Egypt I have called him My son.”[5]

2.  Ask Your Father and He Will Relate it to You, Your Elders and They Will Tell You

Ethics of the Fathers – A Book to Educate Youth

From the explanation offered by the author of Avodat Yisrael, we learn that one who studies Torah with humility – of the aspect of “Moses received the Torah from Sinai,” where Sinai is humility, as above – is referred to as a “youth” (as stated with reference to Moses, Joshua and the Prophet Samuel). In this case, the two words, “youth” (נַעַר) and “elder” (זָקֵן) form a two-word couple that often appears together in the Torah. For example, with reference to the Exodus from Egypt, the verse states, “With our youths and our elders we will go” (with the youths mentioned before the elders, following the order of maturation). Similarly, the phrase “From youth to elder” appears once in each of the three parts of the Bible, Torah, Prophets and Writings.

The verse states, “Ask your father and he will relate it to you, your elders and they will tell you.” In Tractate Avot, the elderly father – who has acquired wisdom – teaches his son – the youth – knowledge. Anyone who studies Ethics of the Fathers should feel as if they are a youth who is learning morals from his descendents. This idea is alluded to in the phrase, “Listen my son, to the morals of your father.”[6]

Just as the book of Proverbs is the principle education book in the Written Torah, so too, and even more so, Ethics of the Fathers is the principle book of education in the Written Torah, which is renowned as being even more precious to God than the Torah, as the sages state, “More precious to Me are the words of the scribes than the wine of Torah.” In the verse, “Educate the youth according to his way, even when he grows older he will not waver from it,” there are 34 letters, or 2 times 17, which alludes to the two types of “goodness” (טוֹב; which equals 17), mentioned in the phrase, “Good for the heavens and good for the creatures,” as explained above that the main principal to be learned from Ethics of the Fathers is how to be good.

Directing the Youth to Choose Goodness

The commentaries explain that “youth” (נַעַר) is related to “awakened” (נֵעוֹר), as in the idiom “re-awaken” (חוֹזֵר וְנֵעוֹר), which is the Kabbalistic interpretation of the phrase, “My heart is awake” (לִבִּי עֵר).

Another explanation of the word “youth” (נַעַר) is as the root appears in the phrase, “Shake yourself off from the dust arise” (הִתְנַעֲרִי מֵעָפָר קוּמִי).[7]

The first time that the root נ-ע-ר appears in the Torah is in the verse, “For the heart’s instinct in man is evil from his youth.” It is from this verse that the sages teach that even a newborn baby is called, “youth” (נַעַר); from the moment it is “shaken” (נִנְעַר) out of its mother’s womb.

With reference to the phrase, “And the youth was a youth,” Radak explains that a “youth” refers to someone with an intelligent and sharp-minded ability to distinguish between good and evil. This explanation is a foundation for the sages’ midrash on the following verse, “and they slaughtered the ox and brought the youth to Eli” which describes how Samuel, at the age of two, taught an instruction that opposed Eli’s teachings: that slaughtering the animal for sacrifice is kosher even when carried out by a layman (i.e., not by a kohen).

Elsewhere, a reference is made to the fact that Jewish youths are good young men who have never tasted the taste of sin (who have never had relations with a woman; like a virgin).

The father’s duty in educating his son is to direct his natural instincts to positive outlets. One allusion to this idea is that “Father-youth” (אָב נַעַר) equals 17 (טוֹב; good) times 19 (which is the average value of the abovementioned two words, “evil from his youth” (רַע מִנְעֻרָיו).

Youth – the Sefirah of Foundation

The Zohar explains that “youth” (נַעַר) relates to the sefirah of foundation, the mark of the holy covenant. Usually, this is understood as keeping the covenant, i.e., the purity of youthfulness, as mentioned above. However, sometimes it refers to the blemish of the covenant (in which case the rectification of “youthful sins” is by studying Ethics of the Fathers in depth, for its own sake). The foundation is referred to as a man’s “small limb,” which in purity refers once more to the sense of smallness mentioned above.

The foundation shakes out abundance and transfers it to kingdom (which is the youth’s sense of lowliness). Furthermore, one who merits to be called “a youth” in holiness, his attribute of foundation is elevated to be interincluded in the two sefirot of victory and acknowledgment, which shake out and empty the abundance into the foundation (in order to give it over to kingdom).

In many places, “youth” (נַעַר) refers to an attendant, as is stated explicitly with reference to Joshua, “And his attendant was Joshua bin Nun, a youth etc.” this is referring to the secret of the sefirah of foundation (Joshua was from the tribe of Ephraim, the son of Joseph, who is the archetypal soul associated with the sefirah of foundation) who serves the sefirot that are above him (victory and acknowledgment; victory in particular, as the end of the right line of the sefirot, as it receives from upper wisdom, the beginning of the right line) and also kingdom, which is below it (its entire purpose is to serve as a messenger, as in Kabbalah any emissary is associated with the sefirah of foundation— a “messenger boy”). Referring to the might of the sefirah of foundation (virility) it states, “Your bow was aroused and shaken [i.e., ‘Your might was surely revealed’]” (עֶרְיָה תֵעוֹר קַשְׁתֶּךָ), a phrase that incorporates the two-lettered “gate” [“awake” (עֵר)] of “youth” (נַעַר) twice. This phrase relates to the allegory of a bow that shoots arrows at the target (kingdom) without ever missing it.

Ethics of the Fathers – Drawing Power from Foundation in the Father, to Foundation in the Son

According to this idea, learning Ethics of the Fathers – the father educating the youth – realizes the Kabbalistic secret of “The foundation of Father [i.e., wisdom] is long and ends in the foundation of the small countenance [i.e., the emotive powers of the soul].” This means drawing down the selflessness of wisdom to illuminate the foundation of the small countenance, which is the power of the soul to become aroused (the light of wisdom is aroused at foundation) in order to verify the advice of the two kidneys, i.e., victory and acknowledgment, in reality (kingdom).

This drawing down of energies is the Kabbalistic secret of “Moses received Torah from Sinai and transmitted it to Joshua.” In this case, Moses represents the foundation of the father and Joshua personifies “Saul from Rechovot Hanahar” (the sixth of the eight kings of “chaos”), the foundation that receives at its root from the mother figure (the sefirah of understanding; as will be explained later how the relationship between Moses and Joshua represents the relationship between wisdom and understanding, i.e., the sage and the Torah scholar).

The Appearance of the Youth in the Seven Emotive Powers of the Soul

We have thus found, “a youth” in each one of the seven lower sefirot:

In loving-kindness, “For Israel is a youth and I love him” – the youth who is aroused [8] to God’s service through love of his Creator arouses love from Above, “As [when looking in] water, face reflects face."[9]

In might: “Youth” (נַעַר), meaning “shaken,” as in the phrase “Shake yourself off from dust arise,” (הִתנַעֲרִי מֵעָפָר קוּמִי) relating to the Kabbalistic secret of might which constructs kingdom.

In beauty: “For the heart’s instinct in man is evil from his youth”[10] converting the reason for the arousal of the attribute of judgment into the reason for the arousal of the attribute of compassion (the inner motivating power of beauty), as explained in Kabbalah and Chassidut with reference to the fact that initially, “For the heart’s instinct in man is evil from his youth” was the reason for obliterating of the world and then afterwards it became the basis of the covenant God made to never destroy the world again.

In victory and acknowledgment (“two sides of one body”), the “advising kidneys,” a youth is a clever, sharp-minded child, who is able to distinguish between good and evil.

In foundation, the youth is a precious young man who is pure and clean of all sin (guarding the covenant). Also in foundation, the youth is a devoted attendant to his master [as in the Kabbalistic secret of “greater is serving the Torah (in foundation) than studying it (in victory and acknowledgment)].”

In kingdom, the youth is the issue of feeling small and lowliness, as explained in the abovementioned interpretation by the author of Avodat Yisrael.

The Youths in the Torah

Above, we have mentioned that Moses, Joshua and Samuel are referred to as “a youth” in the Torah (the author of Avodat Yisrael emphasizes Joshua and Samuel in particular, because Joshua was called “a youth” when he was an adult and with reference to Samuel, the interpretation is that he remained “a youth” small and lowly, for his entire life).

However, in the five books of the Torah, there are thirteen individuals who are referred to as “a youth”:

Eliezer, Abraham’s servant – “Excluding only what the youths ate, etc,” as Rashi interprets how these were Abraham’s pupils who went out with him in the war against the kings, but actually refers to Eliezer alone; as the sages interpret and as Rashi mentions.

Ishmael – “And Abraham ran to the oxen… and he gave it to the youth and he quickly made it,” as Rashi interprets, “This was Ishmael [who Abraham wished] to educate to perform mitzvot.” Later in the Torah Ishmael is referred to a number of times as a “youth.”

Isaac – at the Binding of Isaac the verse states, “And I and the youth will go unto there” and later, “Do not send your hand to the youth” (previously, the verse states that Abraham took with him his two youths and Rashi explains that these were Eliezer and Ishmael, the two youths who are mentioned previously in the Torah.

Esau and Jacob – “And the youths grew up, and Esau… and Jacob…”

Shechem ben Chamor – “And the youth did not tarry in carrying out the matter.” Furthermore, in Hebrew, “Chamor” (חֲמוֹר) means “donkey” and “braying” (נְעִירָה), [i.e., the sound a donkey makes] is from the same root as “youth” (נַעַר).

Joseph – “And he was a youth with the sons of Bilhah, etc.” (Joseph is the seventh youth in the Torah, and “All sevenths are endeared – this is the mid-point of the thirteen youths, relating to the secret of rectifying “truth,” the seventh attribute of the thirteen attributes of faith, which is the principal matter of the youth guarding his “truth.”

Benjamin – “Send the youth with me,” “The youth cannot leave his father” etc, (Benjamin is referred to as “a youth” seven times in the Torah).

Ephraim and Menasheh – “The angel who redeemed me of all evil [a reference to ‘the heart’s instinct in man is evil from his youth’] should bless the youths.”

Moses, as the verse states, “And behold, there was a youth crying.”

Joshua – “And his attendant, Joshua bin Nun was a youth.”

Gershom – “And the youth ran to tell Moses, etc.” as Rashi interprets, “There are those who say that this was Gershom, Moses’ son.”

Furthermore, there are two women who are referred to as “a maiden”;[11] Rebecca (“And the maiden was of very good appearance”) and Dinah (“And he loved the maiden”). Take note that the male partner of each of these “maidens” is also referred to as “a youth.”

Youthful Allusions

Here we see that the first “youth” in the Torah (“Everything follows the beginning”) is Eliezer (who, in most of his reincarnations leaves his Canaanite state of “cursed” and becomes “blessed,” and eventually reaches the root of Mashiach, son of David, as is mentioned in the Arizal’s works). Eliezer (אֱלִיעֶזֶר) equals “And my heart is awake” (וְלִבִּי עֵר), which relates to “arousal” the principal meaning of “youth” (נַעַר), as mentioned above.[12]

The last “youth” in the Torah is Gershom (“Everything follows the end”). Since Eliezer is also the name of Moses’ second son, we see that Gershom and Eliezer – “the end is wedged in the beginning” – are brothers [in Hebrew “brother” (אַח) is from the same root as “bonding” (אִיחוּי)].[13]

All of the above-mentioned youths and maidens should study Ethics of the Fathers from their fathers-elders [thus arousing the thirteen principles of faith, with the two Names of God that precede them, which relate to simple compassion for the righteous and ba’alei teshuvah (returnees to Judaism), corresponding to Rebecca and Dinah. This relates to the Kabbalistic secret of “A woman of valor is her husband’s crown.”]

Image: Ilana Shkolnik-Langsam Pikiwiki Israel, CC BY 2.5,

[1] Tanya, ch. 42.

[2] In the name “Moses” (מֹשֶׁה) the middle letter is שׁ (300; which also equals “spirit of God”; רוּחַ אֶֿלֹהִים) and the first and last letters of his name spell the word “what” (מַה).

[3] The literal meaning of this phrase is “Someone who is small is great.” However, the word for “great” (רַב) (i.e., the opposite of small) in Aramaic is identical to the word for “rabbi.”

[4] The letters of “Akiva” (עַקִיבָה) when spelled in this way, can be rearranged to read עקב יה, which alludes to the phrase, “In the wake of humility comes fear of God” (עֵקֶב עֲנָוָה יִרְאַת הוי').

[5] The letters of the word “My son” (בְּנִי) are the initial letters of the three words, “son” (בֶּן), “youth” (נַעַר), “Israel” (יִשְׂרָאֵל). The total numerical value of these three words equals the numerical value of “In the beginning” (בְּרֵאשִׁית), which alludes to the final purpose of the world’s creation.

[6] Where the letters of the word “My son” (בְּנִי) are the initial letters of the three words, “son” (בֶּן), “youth” (נַעַר), “Israel” (יִשְׂרָאֵל), as in the previous note.

[7] The initial letters of the three words in this phrase spell out Kamah (קמה), the Divine Name related to establishing a king.

[8] “Arouse” מִתעוֹרֵר has the same root as “youth” (נַעַר).

[9] Proverbs 27:19.

[10] Genesis 8:21.

[11] The feminine form of “youth” is נַעֲרָה – but in both of the abovementioned cases the word is in a nonconventional form, written without the final hei (נַעֲרָ).

[12] “Eliezer youth” (אֱלִיעֶזֶר נַעַר) equals “Abraham Isaac Jacob” (אַבְרָהָם יִצְחָק יַעֲקֹב) the three Patriarchs who are the “fathers” of Ethics of the Fathers, who education the children-youth.

[13] “Gershom Eliezer” (גֵרְשׁוֹם אֱלִיעֶזֶר) = 861 [the triangle of 41 – “mother” (אֵם)] = “Israel is a youth” (נַעַר יִשְׂרָאֵל) as in the verse, “For Israel is a youth and I love him.”

Related posts

Chapter 1 Mishnah 1

Imry GalEinai

Pirkei Avot 3:3 The Jewish Law of Attractions

Gal Einai

Pirkei Avot 1:10 Converts and Penitents

Gal Einai
Verified by MonsterInsights