In Chapter 3 of Pirkei Avos, the first Mishnah says:

1 Akavia the son of Mahalalel would say: Reflect upon three things and you will not come to the hands of transgression. Know from where you came, where you are going, and before whom you are destined to give a judgement and accounting. From where you came—from a putrid drop; where you are going—to a place of dust, maggots and worms; and before whom you are destined to give a judgement and accounting—before the supreme King of Kings, the Holy One, blessed be He.

א) עֲקַבְיָא בֶּן מַהֲלַלְאֵל אוֹמֵר: הִסְתַּכֵּל בִּשְׁלֹשָׁה דְבָרִים, וְאֵין אַתָּה בָא לִידֵי עֲבֵרָה. דַּע מֵאַֽיִן בָּֽאתָ, וּלְאָן אַתָּה הוֹלֵךְ, וְלִפְנֵי מִי אַתָּה עָתִיד לִתֵּן דִּין וְחֶשְׁבּוֹן. מֵאַֽיִן בָּֽאתָ: מִטִּפָּה סְרוּחָה. וּלְאָן אַתָּה הוֹלֵךְ: לִמְקוֹם עָפָר רִמָּה וְתוֹלֵעָה. וְלִפְנֵי מִי אַתָּה עָתִיד לִתֵּן דִּין וְחֶשְׁבּוֹן: לִפְנֵי מֶֽלֶךְ מַלְכֵי הַמְּלָכִים הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא.

The question is:

Why does the Mishnah divide itself into three parts, first telling us "Reflect upon three things", without specifying what they are, then it specifies what they are in a basic way, but not in detail, and only then does it specify them in detail, why doesn't it initially simply specify them all in detail, something like:

Akavia the son of Mahalalel would say: know from where you came -- a putrid drop, where you are going -- a place of dust, maggots, and worms, and before whom you are destined to give a judgment and accounting -- before the supreme King of Kings, the Holy One, blessed be He -- and you will not come to the hands of transgression


  • The bet Yosef has a methodological explanation.. not remember where
    – kouty
    Apr 25, 2021 at 15:11

4 Answers 4


I don't have any source, but from a purely literary perspective this is a very powerful usage. It helps emphasize the various stages of the point.

First, there is a practical statement. Its function is to set up and answer the unasked question: "How can I avoid being caught up by sin?" It says you need to focus on 3 things to do so.

What are those three things? Three items in a very logical progression. Remember where you came from, where you are going, and Who will be judging you. Without even knowing the answers to these three questions, there's still a powerful point- keep in mind the big picture.

[I remember Rav Noach Orlowek quoting the Sfas Emes a lot on this point. How does a person come to sin? They get caught up in the moment where their body's desires gets the better of them. In order to overcome it, one needs to bring in the intellect and put things in perspective. Passion and emotion is always "now" while intellect is past and future. I remember Rav Moshe Shapiro zatza"l saying a similar idea.)

Then, after we have the general point- avoid sin by keeping the "big picture" in mind- we can discuss the specifics of each questions. BN

  • Interesting theory indeed,I just want to hear other answers before marking anything, but yeah it's an interesting theory Apr 25, 2021 at 16:52


There is a sicha of the Rebbe on pirkei Avos to that chapter which says that the 3 clauses speak to 3 classes of people.

First it just says "reflect upon 3 things", without saying what they are.

This is said in regards to tzadikim. In general a Mishnah can include many ideas with a short language. When it says you reflect upon 3 things, it means to reflect upon "things that are 3", such as the third Beis Hamikdash, the third redemption, etc. etc. (And that will automatically cause one to not even come to the "hands" of a sin, since Tzadikim don't need to be told how to distance from sin itself, but even the possibility of sin, the "hands", one will be removed from)

Next "know from where (אין) you came", etc is speaking to beinoni, the middle man, who needs things spelled out for him a little more, telling them that they came from the level of אין, nothingness that's beyond revelation.

Similarly "and where (לאן) you are going", that you are going to the level of אן, 50+1, even beyond the 50th gate of understanding.

"And before who (מי) you are destined to give an accounting", the level of "who", מי, is kesser, corresponding to the 50th gate (Not sure exactly why this would be less than the earlier level, so it requires further research)

Then the next part of the Mishnah specifies everything, for one who is on a lower level of one who is a rasha, has no open connection etc , one needs to speak with harsh words of musar to get him to listen etc.



There is a letter of the Chazon Ish where he says that sometimes the Mishnah would use extra words to make the Mishnayos easier to remember. I think that reasoning applies especially to Pirkei Avos, due to its ethical message. So the Mishna is written in a style more similar to a speaker: eye-catching headline, then a list of the three things, then an explanation of how they work. The repetition helps cement the concepts in the listener's mind.

(I don't think it is online and I don't have the sefer personally, so I can't post a link.)

  • I just saw my answer is similar to Binyomin's. Great minds, etc.
    – N.T.
    Apr 25, 2021 at 23:34

Notes on shiur on Pirkei Avot 3:1 which is literally the exact answer to your question :) Sorry it's late:

Talmud says if one wants to be a chassid, study Avot - it's purpose is to teach you what it means to serve lifnim mishurat hadin, not just teach more din. I would imagine that what you are expecting to see sounds like basic din. Treat all mitzvot equally. If so it doesn't belong here, so what is Ben Azzai trying to teach us about being beyond the letter of the law?

Chapter 1: downward process "moshe received at sinai etc". Chapter 2: Rebbe said, what is the right path that a man should choose for himself? What can man contribute? Upward process - elevating man. These two directions are opposites, and in some ways incompatible. Can have someone good at one, not the other. Eg someone who is a good learner but a bad teacher, like me lol

Chapter 3 is where it gets interesting: Akavia ben Mehalal says, reflect upon 3 things and you will not come to sin.

Here goes.... 3 things: if you have only 1, like Chapter 1, God coming down, then that's only 1. If you have just chapter 2, only man trying to elevate himself to Hashem, then you only have that. In order to really be complete, and avoid sin, you have to have 3. And that means the ability to combine the first two and create a new, third reality, making peace between these two parts. In general, the number 3 in Torah represents peace. 1 is lonely, 2 is war, 3 is a new reality of combining 1 and 2 to make 3, the first principle of peace. Now let's look at the mishna bit by bit

"Reflect on 3 things and you won't come to the hands of sin. Know from where you came, and to where you are going, and before Whom you are destined to give an accounting. From where you came: from a putrid drop (humble beginning), where are you going: to a place of dust maggots and worms (grave is not very elegant either), and Whom you are going to give an accounting: the Supreme King of Kings Blessed Be He"

Simple meaning: think about these 3 things and it will keep you from sin: think about where you came from, where you are going, and Who is judging you. Humble beginnings, humble ending, and your Judge is not just any King, but the King of Kings.

Questions now:

  1. We are not talking about people who sin. This is Avot, it's about people who have got that worked out and are trying to go beyond the letter of the law - for that there's a rule book!
  2. Why this lengthy, verbose expression? "1. Think of 3 things. 2. These things are xyz. 3. Where is X? Where is Y? Who is Z?" Just say it straight! Think about the fact that you came from a putrid drop, you are going to the grave and Who you will give an accounting and you will not come to sin.
  3. Why does the mishna tell us think of 3 things? We can count!
  4. Why does it say "hands of sin"?
  5. What is the power of these 3 things?

So now let's view the mishna as 3 separate parts.

They are all directed to three different people, none of Whom are people who might sin. The first is the tzaddik, who has no temptation towards evil and has no pleasure in worldly affairs. His problem is that He might be too extreme, his view too narrow.

the first: Think about 3 things. The tzaddik needs to complete his picture: the 3 things are God, you and the world at large. A tzaddik could be content just thinking about God, or just thinking about His Godly soul. Not good enough. He has to think about 3 things! What is the third thing? The question: what are we doing on earth? If you are so holy and so Godly, why are you here? There are 3 things you must think about, God, yourself, and your MISSION. There have been tzaddikim in history who have only focussed on God and their soul, but not their mission. Holy people who didn't do much for the world, even though they were perfect saints all their life?

What exactly are the three things? Why is it not stated? Because it's already been stated: the world stands on 3 things! Torah, Prayer and Good deeds. Torah = God, Prayer means your soul's nature/expression, Good Deeds = make the world better. You have to have these 3 things. A table cant stand on 2 legs.

So that's the mishna's advice to the tzaddik, who wants to go beyond the letter of the law. "Your nature is you have a God, a Holy soul, but go beyond that and do something good for the world".

Number 2 is addressed to the benoni. The benoni is the person who does not sin, but could. He does find pleasure in worldly things, just not in sinful things. So the mishna is here to tell him how to go beyond that and lose the pleasure even in the worldly things that are permissible, like Kosher food: Kosher food is permissible, but you don't have to eat everything kosher! The law is very loose about what you can do in the bedroom, but the couple trying to grow beyond the letter of the law should perhaps not try everything that is permissible and try to be more Godly.

So what's the advice in the mishna? Where are you coming from, where are you going, and Whom are you going to give an accounting?

  1. Know that your soul came from heaven. It is a Godly soul.
  2. Know you are going for Resurrection.
  3. You will be giving an account not just to any king... Any other king wouldn't really care about you, he's the king you are a pithy commoner, but with Hashem, Who is higher than all kings, and yet takes an interest in you.

Considering and reflecting on these things will take away your appetite for foolishness, even kosher foolishness.

More specifically:

  1. מֵאַיִן בָּאתָ - you come from a place called Ayin, which is a very holy source of the soul. Not a question - a statement. So, your soul is not interested in foolishness.
  2. וּלְאָן אַתָּה הוֹלֵךְ, - you are going to a place where there will be no interest in physical things, even though the physical will be abundantly available.
  3. You are going to give an account to the King of Kings who takes an interest in your accomplishments, so why are you being foolish?

These 3 things are btw past, present and future. FYI the present is where you headed. You are contributing right now towards the ressurection.

The third part of the mishna is addressing the person who is sinful. I know I said that we are not talking about people who sin,. and the resolution of that is beyond the scope but suffice it to say that his goal in learning Avot is not to stop sinning, but to elevate himself beyond sin. That's why it's called "לִידֵי עֲבֵרָה" The handle of something is the part of it that lets you get close to it where you otherwise wouldn't be able to. Like the handle of a hot frying pan. The step that leads to the sin, and you want to get beyond that. That's how the rasha becomes a chassid.

So what considerations should the sinful type reflect upon?

  1. You come from a putrid drop
  2. You'll end up in the grave
  3. You will give an account etc.

This is the most revolutionary part of the mishna. You come from a putrid drop is not punishment for sin. That's just the way the world is. Same with ending up in a grave with worms and maggots - everyone does. not punishment for sin. If you want to tell someone to stop sinning, you'd expect the mishna to give consequences for sin! But it's not doing that... Give an account to the Holy One? Is that terrible? Maybe scary but... This mishna is not threatening you to not sin. The mishna is talking to someone who doesn't want to sin but might! He needs a little help.

The mishna is not saying the price of sin, it's saying, if you think about these three things, you will realise that you doin't really want to sin. You're not even interested, because you'll realise it's beneath you. All physical pleasures are just not worth it. The whole physical existence - i mean look at it. It begins miserable, it ends miserable, what are you getting excited about? It's not about how evil evil is, it's about the contrast against how holy holy is. That will help you lose interest in sin.

So raise yourself to where you really belong, and you will not even come to the handle of sin.

What the mishna is saying to all 3 is the same message: there is more to you than you realise. So where are you going? Why are you going down? If you knew how good good is, you wouldn't be interested in the bad. It's not that you wouldn't do it, you wouldn't even be interested in it.

Satisfaction comes from achieving a task, fulfilling a mission. There is no mission to sin lol

That's the chassid's approach, don't dwell on how horrible the sin is, as I've shown that's not what the mishna is doing. The chassid realises that there's nothing in him that needs sin. It's just irrelevant. The world of good is really what it's all about. That's a deep, delicate, intricate world, full of infinite wonders and delight, once you start to "get a taste" and "see that Hashem is good", then you'll never go back to sin. You'll have graduated.

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