Torah Sparks

United Synagogue (USCJ) is proud and delighted to bring you Torah Sparks, with insights and learning materials on the Parasha (Torah portion) of the week. Torah Sparks is produced by the Conservative Yeshiva in Jerusalem.

Each week there will be a Dvar Torah - a discussion on some aspect of the reading, by CY faculty, alumni and friends; a Vort - a short thought from Chasidic rebbes or other thinkers about some point in the text; and Table Talk - questions to stimulate discussion on the Parsha around the Shabbat table. Torah Sparks is available here on the Conservative Yeshiva's Shiurim Online Beit Midrash website, as well as by subscription to weekly graphical emails. Please select the Parasha you would like to see - it will display articles from each year. A printable PDF is linked at the end of each week's presentation.

Avoth

Avot, Chapter 1, Mishnah 1

Avot, Chapter One, Mishnah One   Introduction Avot begins by tracing the transmission of Torah and contains three sayings by the Men of the Great Assembly.   Mishnah One 1)                     Moses received the torah at  Sinai and transmitted it to Joshua,  a)                                 Joshua to the elders,   b)                                 and the elders to the prophets, c)                                 […]

Avot, Chapter 1, Mishnah 10

Avot, Chapter One, Mishnah Ten   Introduction Shemaiah and Abtalion, the fourth pair, lived at the end of the period of Hasmonean rule and towards the beginning of Herod’s reign.  According to the Talmud both were converts.  Mishnah nine contains Shemaiah’s teachings.   Mishnah Ten Shemaiah and Abtalion received [the oral tradition] from them. Shemaiah used to […]

Avot, Chapter 1, Mishnah 11

Avot, Chapter One, Mishnah Eleven   Introduction Abtalion is the second sage of the fourth “pair”.   Mishnah Eleven Abtalion used to say: Sages be careful with your words, lest you incur the penalty of exile, and be carried off to a place of evil waters, and the disciples who follow you drink and die, […]

Avot, Chapter 1, Mishnah 12

Avot, Chapter One, Mishnah Twelve   Introduction Hillel and Shammai, the fifth “pair” are probably familiar to many of you, for they were the founders of that two great schools, Beth Shammai (the House of Shammai) and Beth Hillel (the House of Hillel), that truly begin a new era in Jewish history. Hillel and Shammai […]

Avot, Chapter 1, Mishnah 13

Avot, Chapter One, Mishnah Thirteen   Introduction This mishnah contains more statements from Hillel.  All of the sayings in this mishnah are in Aramaic.  Although almost all of the Mishnah is in Hebrew, it is unclear what the common spoken language of the Jews was at the time of the Mishnah.  These sayings are folksy, […]

Avot, Chapter 1, Mishnah 14

Avot, Chapter One, Mishnah Fourteen   Introduction This mishnah contains one of the most famous statements of Hillel.  Its poetry and its succinct message still make this, in my mind, one of the most memorable of rabbinic sayings.    Mishnah Fourteen He [also] used to say: If I am not for myself, who is for […]

Avot, Chapter 1, Mishnah 15

Avot, Chapter One, Mishnah Fifteen   Introduction This mishnah contains Shammai’s teaching. Note that the mishnah contained several teachings of Hillel and only one of Shammai.  This demonstrates how much more dominant Hillel and his school were in the world of the rabbis.   Mishnah Fifteen Shammai used to say: make your [study of the] […]

Avot, Chapter 1, Mishnah 16

Avot, Chapter One, Mishnah Sixteen   Introduction After completing the teachings of the “pairs” Mishnah Avot turns to the teachings of the patriarchs, the leaders of the Jewish people who were from the family of Hillel.  Rabban Gamaliel of our mishnah is Rabban Gamaliel the elder, who was the grandson of Hillel.  He was the […]

Avot, Chapter 1, Mishnah 17

Avot, Chapter One, Mishnah Seventeen   Introduction Rabban Shimon ben Gamaliel the elder, who is referred to in this mishnah as “Shimon, his (Rabban Gamaliel the elder’s) son” was the head of the Sanhedrin at the time of the destruction of the Temple.  Perhaps the reason that he is referred to here as “his son” […]

Avot, Chapter 1, Mishnah 18

Avot, Chapter One, Mishnah Eighteen   Introduction Rabban Shimon ben Gamaliel in this mishnah is not the same Rabban Shimon ben Gamaliel that we saw in the previous mishnah, but rather his grandson, the son of Rabban Gamaliel of Yavneh. He was the patriarch after the Bar Kokhba revolt (132-135 C.E.).  He lived in the […]

Avot, Chapter 1, Mishnah 2

Avot, Chapter One, Mishnah Two   Mishnah Two 1)                     Shimon the Righteous was one of the last of the men of the great assembly. 2)                     He used to say: the world stands upon three things: the Torah, the Temple service, and the practice of acts of piety.   Explanation The mishnah begins by noting that […]

Avot, Chapter 1, Mishnah 3

Avot, Chapter One, Mishnah Three   Introduction Antigonus (certainly a Greek name) was from the city of Socho, which was in Judea.  He received the oral tradition from Shimon the Righteous, mentioned above in mishnah two.   Mishnah Three Antigonus a man of Socho received [the oral tradition] from Shimon the Righteous. He used to […]

Avot, Chapter 1, Mishnah 4

Avot, Chapter One, Mishnah Four   Introduction After the teaching of Antigonus from Socho, the mishnah begins with a period in Jewish history known as the period of the “pairs”.  There are five “pairs” of Sages that are mentioned in our chapter, beginning in this mishnah and continuing through mishnah fifteen.  The final pair are […]

Avot, Chapter 1, Mishnah 5

Avot, Chapter One, Mishnah Five   Introduction This mishnah contains the teaching of Yose ben Yochanan, the second Sage of the first “pair”.  Midrash Shmuel makes an interesting note on the order of the chapter so far.  Shimon the Righteous (mishnah two) stated that the world depends on three things:  1)  Torah; 2) Worship (which […]

Avot, Chapter 1, Mishnah 6

Avot, Chapter One, Mishnah Six   Introduction This mishnah begins the teachings of the second “pair”. Note again the heavy concentration on learning and the continuation of the tradition, points which we noted in previous mishnayoth.   Mishnah Six Joshua ben Perahiah and Nittai the Arbelite received [the oral tradition] from them. Joshua ben Perahiah […]

Avot, Chapter 1, Mishnah 7

Avot, Chapter One, Mishnah Seven   Introduction Mishnah seven contains the teaching of Nitai who was from Arbel, a settlement in the lower Galilee.   Mishnah Seven Nittai the Arbelite used to say: keep a distance from an evil neighbor, do not become attached to the wicked, and do not abandon faith in [divine] retribution.  […]

Avot, Chapter 1, Mishnah 8

Avot, Chapter One, Mishnah Eight   Introduction This mishnah contains the teachings of Judah ben Tabbai, the first sage of the third “pair”.  The subject of his teaching is the proper attitude of the judge to the litigants who come before him.   Mishnah Eight Judah ben Tabbai and Shimon ben Shetach received [the oral […]

Avot, Chapter 1, Mishnah 9

Avot, Chapter One, Mishnah Nine   Introduction This mishnah contains the teaching of Shimon ben Shetach, the second of the third pair.  Shimon ben Shetach lived during the rule of Alexander Janneus and his wife Shelomith.  Shimon was Shelomith’s brother.  According to a legend found in both Josephus and the Babylonian Talmud (with some differences) […]

Avot, Chapter 2, Mishnah 1

Avot, Chapter Two, Mishnah One   Introduction “Rabbi” in the Mishnah without a name refers to Rabbi Judah Hanasi (the Prince), the son of Rabban Shimon ben Gamaliel.  He lived in a city called Beth Shearim, afterwards in Beth Shean and at the end of his life he moved to Tzippori.  Rabbi acquired eternal fame […]

Avot, Chapter 2, Mishnah 10

Avot, Chapter Two, Mishnah Ten Introduction The Mishnah now begins to list the sayings of the students of Rabban Yohanan ben Zakai, each of whom said three things.  The first student is Rabbi Eliezer.  The second half of this mishnah is not part of the original list but a later addition to the mishnah.  This […]

Avot, Chapter 2, Mishnah 11

Avot, Chapter Two, Mishnah Eleven   Mishnah Eleven Rabbi Joshua said: an evil eye, the evil inclination, and hatred for humankind put a person out of the world.   Explanation Rabbi Joshua lists three things that “put a man of the world”.  The first is an evil eye, which was already mentioned by Rabbi Joshua […]

Avot, Chapter 2, Mishnah 12

Avot, Chapter Two, Mishnah Twelve   Mishnah Twelve Rabbi Yose said: 1)                     Let the property of your fellow be as precious unto you as your own;   2)                     Make yourself fit to study torah for it will not be yours by inheritance;   3)                     And let all your actions be for [the sake of] the name of […]

Avot, Chapter 2, Mishnah 13

Avot, Chapter Two, Mishnah Thirteen   Mishnah Thirteen Rabbi Shimon said: Be careful with the reading of Shema and the prayer, And when you pray, do not make your prayer something automatic, but a plea for compassion before God, for it is said: “for he is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger, abounding in kindness, […]

Avot, Chapter 2, Mishnah 14

Avot, Chapter Two, Mishnah Fourteen   Mishnah Fourteen Rabbi Elazar said: 1)                     Be diligent in the study the torah; 2)                     And know how to answer an epicuros, 3)                     And know before whom you toil, and that your employer is faithful, for He will pay you the reward of your labor.   Explanation Be diligent in […]

Avot, Chapter 2, Mishnah 15

Avot, Chapter Two, Mishnah Fifteen   Introduction Up until this point the statements in Avot have been organized mostly according to chronological order, with a few minor excursions that also serve the overall order.  From this point and onwards the statements are not in chronological order.  The general order of the remainder of the tractate […]

Avot, Chapter 2, Mishnah 16

Avot, Chapter Two, Mishnah Sixteen   Introduction This mishnah is a continuation of Rabbi Tarfon’s statement in the previous mishnah.   Mishnah Sixteen He [Rabbi Tarfon] used to say: It is not your duty to finish the work, but neither are you at liberty to neglect it;    If you have studied much Torah, you shall […]

Avot, Chapter 2, Mishnah 2

Avot, Chapter Two, Mishnah Two   Introduction Rabban Gamaliel the son of Rabbi Judah Hanasi, is chronologically the last patriarch mentioned in Mishnah Avot.  Although he lived after what is normally termed the “tannaitic period” some of his statements were nevertheless included in the Mishnah.  Note how this tanna’s name is slightly different.  Instead of […]

Avot, Chapter 2, Mishnah 3

Avot, Chapter Two, Mishnah Three   Introduction Another statement by Rabban Gamaliel the son of Rabbi Judah Hanasi.   Mishnah Three Be careful [in your dealings] with the ruling authorities for they do not befriend a person except for their own needs; they seem like friends when it is to their own interest, but they […]

Avot, Chapter 2, Mishnah 4

Avot, Chapter Two, Mishnah Four   Introduction The first half of this mishnah contains another statement by Rabban Gamaliel, the son of Rabbi Judah Hanasi.  The second half of the mishnah returns to the statements of Hillel, whose statements were already taught in the previous chapter.  The reason that the mishnah goes back to Hillel, […]

Avot, Chapter 2, Mishnah 5

Avot, Chapter Two, Mishnah Five   Introduction This statement of Hillel’s is about virtue and Torah learning.   Mishnah Five He used to say: A brute is not sin-fearing, nor is an ignorant person pious; nor can a timid person learn, nor can an impatient person teach; nor will someone who engages too much in […]

Avot, Chapter 2, Mishnah 6

Avot, Chapter Two, Mishnah Six   Introduction This saying of Hillel’s is in Aramaic, as was his saying in chapter one, mishnah thirteen.  Note that what in English requires 18 words, requires in Aramaic only six.   Mishnah Six Moreover he saw a skull floating on the face of the water. He said to it: […]

Avot, Chapter 2, Mishnah 7

Avot, Chapter Two, Mishnah Seven   Introduction This mishnah contains the last of Hillel’s statements in this list.  In it he preaches the living of a simple life, devoted not to fame and material acquisitions but to the study of Torah.   Mishnah Seven He used to say: The more flesh, the more worms;   The […]

Avot, Chapter 2, Mishnah 8

Avot, Chapter Two, Mishnah Eight   Introduction This mishnah returns to the list of the “receivers” of the oral tradition.  Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai, who received from Hillel and Shammai, was the patriarch who survived the destruction of the Second Temple and escaped to Yavneh, where he helped the Jewish people continue to exist despite […]

Avot, Chapter 2, Mishnah 9

Avot, Chapter Two, Mishnah Nine   Introduction This mishnah contains interactions between Rabban Yohanan and his five students.  One interesting thing is that it shows one way in which rabbinic masters taught there students.  Rabban Yohanan sends them out on assignments and then evaluates their work when they return.   Mishnah Nine 1)                     He [Rabban […]

Avot, Chapter 3, Mishnah 1

Avot, Chapter Three, Mishnah One   Introduction Akabyah ben Mahalalel lived in the time of Hillel, before the destruction of the Temple.  We learned about the conflicts that this sage had with the other sages in Eduyot 5:6-7.   Mishnah One Akabyah ben Mahalalel said: mark well three  things and you will not come into […]

Avot, Chapter 3, Mishnah 10

Avot, Chapter Three, Mishnah Ten   Introduction The first half of the mishnah is another statement of Rabbi Hanina ben Dosa, the author of the previous mishnah.  The second half of the mishnah is from Rabbi Dosa ben Harkinas, a contemporary of Rabban Yochanan ben Zakai.   Mishnah Ten 1)                     He used to say: one […]

Avot, Chapter 3, Mishnah 11

Avot, Chapter Three, Mishnah Eleven   Introduction Rabbi Elazar of our mishnah was from Modiin (which is where I live!), the ancestral home of the Hasmoneans (Maccabees).  This is his only appearance in the mishnah but he appears many times in aggadic texts in the Talmud.  According to legend he was Bar Kochba’s uncle but […]

Avot, Chapter 3, Mishnah 12

Avot, Chapter Three, Mishnah Twelve   Introduction Rabbi Ishmael was a regular disputant with Rabbi Akiva.  His teachers were Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Joshua.  From Rabbi Nahuniah haKaneh he learned his midrashic methodology, for which he later became famous.  His midrashic formula are still recited everyday by those who follow a traditional siddur (prayer book).  […]

Avot, Chapter 3, Mishnah 13

Avot, Chapter Three, Mishnah Thirteen   Introduction Rabbi Akiva is arguably the most famous and influential rabbi in Jewish history.  He was certainly the most influential rabbi in the mishnaic period.  The Mishnah is based largely on his teachings, although most of them are attributed to his students. There are numerous legends about Rabbi Akiva, […]

Avot, Chapter 3, Mishnah 14

Avot, Chapter Three, Mishnah Fourteen   Introduction Mishnah fourteen contains another teaching of Rabbi Akiva.    Mishnah Fourteen He used to say: 1)                     Beloved is man for he was created in the image [of God]. i)                                              Especially beloved is he for it was made known to him that he had been created in the image […]

Avot, Chapter 3, Mishnah 15

Avot, Chapter Three, Mishnah Fifteen   Introduction This is another statement by Rabbi Akiva.  Note how in this extremely short mishnah, Rabbi Akiva succeeds in teaching some of the most basic theological principles of Judaism.  It is testimony not only to the depth of Rabbi Akiva in particular and the Mishnah in general, but to […]

Avot, Chapter 3, Mishnah 16

Avot, Chapter Three, Mishnah Sixteen   Introduction This is another statement by Rabbi Akiva.   Mishnah Sixteen He used to say:  everything is given against a pledge, and a net is spread out over all the living; the store is open and the storekeeper allows credit, but the ledger is open and the hand writes, […]

Avot, Chapter 3, Mishnah 17

Avot, Chapter Three, Mishnah Seventeen   Introduction Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah was one of the rabbis at Yavneh, after the destruction of the Temple.  When Rabban Gamaliel was deposed as patriarch, Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah took his place. In this mishnah there are really two totally separate mishnayoth.  I have explained and numbered each individually.   […]

Avot, Chapter 3, Mishnah 18

Avot, Chapter Three, Mishnah Eighteen   Introduction Rabbi Eliezer Hisma was a student of Rabban Gamaliel and of Rabbi Joshua.  Legend has it that he was a great mathematician.   Mishnah Eighteen Rabbi Eliezer Hisma said:  the laws of mixed bird offerings and the key to the calculations of menstruation days—these, these are the body […]

Avot, Chapter 3, Mishnah 2

Avot, Chapter Three, Mishnah Two   Introduction The first section of this mishnah contains a teaching of Rabbi Hanina who was the vice-high priest, (he would fill in for the high priest when he couldn’t serve).  Rabbi Hanina lived through the destruction of the Second Temple.  Perhaps there is a connection between his statement and […]

Avot, Chapter 3, Mishnah 3

Avot, Chapter Three, Mishnah Three   Introduction This mishnah contains the teaching of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, a student of Rabbi Akiva’s.  It is brought here due to its topical connection to the previous mishnah. Note how important small gatherings are to the rabbis of this and the previous mishnah.  These were one of the […]

Avot, Chapter 3, Mishnah 4

Avot, Chapter Three, Mishnah Four   Introduction Rabbi Hananiah ben Hakinai was one of Rabbi Akiva’s students.  According to legend he was also martyred.   Mishnah Four Rabbi Hananiah ben Hakinai said: one who wakes up at night, or walks on the way alone and turns his heart to idle matters, behold, this man is […]

Avot, Chapter 3, Mishnah 5

Avot, Chapter Three, Mishnah Five   Introduction Rabbi Nehunia ben Hakkanah lived at the same time as Rabban Yochanan ben Zakai, that is around the time of the destruction of the Second Temple.    Mishnah Five Rabbi Nehunia ben Hakkanah said: whoever takes upon himself the yoke of the Torah, they remove from him the […]

Avot, Chapter 3, Mishnah 6

Avot, Chapter Three, Mishnah Six   Introduction Rabbi Halafta was a student of Rabbi Meir (who himself was a student of Rabbi Akiva).  Kefar Hanania was a village on the border between the Lower and Upper Galillee.   Mishnah Six 1)                     Rabbi Halafta of Kefar Hanania said: when ten sit together and occupy themselves with […]

Avot, Chapter 3, Mishnah 7

Avot, Chapter Three, Mishnah Seven   Introduction The first statement in our mishnah is from Rabbi Elazar of Bartotha, a colleague of Rabbi Akiva’s.  The second statement in this mishnah is attributed to Rabbi Shimon, but this is probably a mistake in the printed edition of the mishnah.  The real author of the statement is […]

Avot, Chapter 3, Mishnah 8

Avot, Chapter Three, Mishnah Eight   Introduction Rabbi Dostai’s teaching is a continuation of the previous mishnah.  Whereas there the topic was one who interrupts his learning, here the topic is one who forgets that which he has already learned.   Mishnah Eight Rabbi Dostai ben Rabbi Yannai said in the name of Rabbi Meir: […]

Avot, Chapter 3, Mishnah 9

Avot, Chapter Three, Mishnah Nine   Introduction Rabbi Hanina ben Dosa, the author of this mishnah, was famous for his righteousness and for his close connection to God, a connection so close that God directly answered his prayers.  For instance, the following story is told of him in the Talmud (Berakhot 34b):  It happened that […]

Avot, Chapter 4, Mishnah 1

Avot, Chapter Four, Mishnah One   Introduction Ben Zoma’s full name was Shimon ben Zoma, and he is never called by the title Rabbi, although he was clearly quite learned.  He is famous for being one of the four rabbis who entered into the “Pardes”, the mythical orchard, which may refer to some type of […]

Avot, Chapter 4, Mishnah 10

Avot, Chapter Four, Mishnah Ten   Introduction Rabbi Meir was one of the great students of Rabbi Akiva, and according to the Talmud, the anonymous sayings in the mishnah were really stated by Rabbi Meir.  In other words, when Rabbi Judah Hanasi composed the mishnah, he used Rabbi Meir’s mishnah as the base.    Mishnah […]

Avot, Chapter 4, Mishnah 11

Avot, Chapter Four, Mishnah Eleven   Introduction Since this mishnah contains two mishnayoth from two different sages, we will treat each one individually. There were two Tannaitic sages by the name of Rabbi Eliezer ben Jacob.  The first lived during the time of the Second Temple, and the second was a student of Rabbi Akiva.  […]

Avot, Chapter 4, Mishnah 12

Avot, Chapter Four, Mishnah Twelve   Introduction Rabbi Elazar was another student of Rabbi Akiva’s.  In other places in the mishnah he is referred to as Rabbi Elazar without the name of his father, Shammua.    Mishnah Twelve Rabbi Elazar ben Shammua said: let the honor of your student be as dear to you as […]

Avot, Chapter 4, Mishnah 13

Avot, Chapter Four, Mishnah Thirteen   Introduction Rabbi Judah, the author of the first saying in this mishnah, was the son of Rabbi Ilai, and was a student of Rabbi Akiva and of Rabbi Tarphon.  Rabbi Judah is the most prevalent sage in the entire Mishnah.  When he disputes with Rabbi Meir or Rabbi Shimon […]

Avot, Chapter 4, Mishnah 14

Avot, Chapter Four, Mishnah Fourteen   Introduction Some believe that name of Nehorai is a nickname for either Rabbi Meir, Rabbi Nehemiah or Rabbi Elazar ben Arach.  The word Nehorai means “full of light” in Aramaic.  Others believe that Nehorai is the name of a tanna who was a student of Rabbi Joshua and Rabbi […]

Avot, Chapter 4, Mishnah 15

Avot, Chapter Four, Mishnah Fifteen   Introduction Again, this mishnah is really two mishnayoth and we will treat each separately. Rabbi Yannai is probably the father of Rabbi Dostai who was mentioned above in mishnah 3:8.  This is his only statement in the mishnah   Mishnah Fifteen—part one Rabbi Yannai said: it is not in […]

Avot, Chapter 4, Mishnah 16

Avot, Chapter Four, Mishnah Sixteen   Introduction Rabbi Jacob was the teacher of Rabbi Judah Hanasi, who composed the mishnah.  He appeared above in chapter three, mishnah seven (the printed edition of the Mishnah mistakenly reads Rabbi Shimon).  In another place Rabbi Jacob was famous for stating that all heavenly punishments and rewards are meted […]

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