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Pirke Avot?A Classic for Summer Study by Nechama Reisel
Pirke Avot?A Classic for Summer Study by Nechama Reisel

Volume 1 , Issue 4

What makes a literary work a classic? Among other qualities, it has timeless appeal and meaning, and the ability to generate new insights and thoughts with each reading and rereading. Pirke Avot (The Ethics of the Fathers) is such a work. It is as relevant and needed today as it was when its teachings were first committed to paper after having been handed down orally for many generations.

Daily, our newspapers are full of accounts of ethical and moral aberrations among all ages and classes of our society, from high government officials to young school children. Judges and teachers both offer and accept bribes. Murder, betrayals of friends, disrespect for law, authority, teachers and parents are daily occurrences. To our cynical young, everyone seems to have his price. The newspapers exhort the schools to teach values, morals, ethics, but if students say that their parents and teachers do not practice their own preaching, what can we expect? Is there another way?

In the cycle of Jewish observance, there is a way. We are currently engaged in the study of Pirke Avot, a six-chapter treatise of the Mishnah (The Oral Law) dealing with ethics and piety. Avot is a compilation of aphorisms, maxims, and popular teachings of our Rabbinic Sages (our -fathers?), designed to guide man through Torah study, to earn his place in the World-to-Come. Is not the essence of Torah the moral and ethical behavior of man toward God and toward his fellow man? In Avot he is enjoined to do good deeds, to give charity, not to be overbearingly proud of his learning, not to covet wealth, or to be envious of his neighbor's good fortune.

The preface to each chapter states one of the central beliefs of our religion. ?All Israel has a portion in the World-to-Come.? This implies the fundamental goodness of all and their equality before God. Each chapter then teaches, through comments of the Fathers, how we may earn this place through Torah study and ethical behavior.

The first chapter commences with the establishment of the Divine origin of the Mishnah. It links it directly to Moses, who received it from God. Moses transmitted it to Joshua; he passed it to the Elders and they to the Prophets. The Prophets transmitted it to the Men of the Great Assembly. Finally, they transmitted it to Hillel, Shammai and their disciples. Rav Yehudah Ha-Nassi, one of Hillel's descendants, codified and sealed the canon in approximately 200 C.E. The chapter then begins the ?teachings? of these scholars:

Hillel says that a man must not keep apart from his community, nor must he judge his fellow man without first empathizing with him. (1:5).

Yehudah ben Tabbai and Shimeon ben Shatach warn against a judge's taking bribes. (1:8)

Nittai of Arabel cautions man to avoid associating with bad neighbors. (1:7)

Rabbi Yose says we must hold the money of another as dear as one's own money. (2:17)

Rabbi Elazar the Moda'ite warns against humiliating one's fellow man publicly. (3:15)

Ben Azzai urges us not to despise another human being or be disdainful of anything since everyone and everything has a place in the universe. (4:3)

Rabbi Elazar ben Hammua holds that the honor of a colleague, a teacher, and a student are of equal importance. (4:15)

Rabbi Shimon says: ?There are three crowns?the crown of Torah, the crown of priesthood, and the crown of kingship. Higher than these, however, is the crown of a good name.? (This is gained by diligent Torah study.) (4:17)

Shmuel HaKattan teaches that we must not rejoice over the defeat of our enemy. (4:24)

Chapter Five (5:12) reminds us of the Biblical injunction to feed the needy, and of the punishment we can expect if we fail to do so. (Leviticus, 19:6: Deuteronomy. 24:19)

Custom Dates to 856 C.E.

The custom of reading and studying Avot on Shabbat afternoons dates back to before the time of Amram the Gaon (a rector, or high religious authority) in Babylon (approximately 856 C.E.). At that time it was the custom of Torah scholars and yeshiva students to read a chapter of Avot on Shabbat afternoons. Today, too, it is our custom to study a chapter each Shabbat afternoon beginning with the Shabbat after Pesach and continuing until the Shabbat before Shavuot among Sephardim and the Shabbat before Rosh Hashanah among the Askenazim. It is also customary for parents to read and discuss these chapters in the home with their children.

Originally, there were only five chapters. But since there are six Shabbatot between the end of Pesach and Shavuot, a sixth, extra-Mishnaic chapter was added. It is written in the style, language, and spirit of the original live chapters, and deals with the acquisition of Torah knowledge, a fact that gave the chapter its title, ?acquisition of Torah.? Since it opens with a saying of Rabbi Meir, Rabbi Akiva's most famous disciple, the chapter has also become known as the ?Boraita of Rabbi Meir.? (A ?boraita? is a teaching that is next in authority to that of a part of the Mishnah itself.) The chapter is, essentially, an expansion of many points made in previous chapters. In studying any chapter, generally only a few paragraphs are dealt with at a session, but these are discussed in depth, with allusions to commentaries from various sources.

Why do we read PirkeAvot at this particular time of the year? It provides a link between Pesach and Shavuot in that studying it is, in a sense, a religious preparation for receiving the Torah, analogous to the preparation of the Israelites for their receiving the Torah from Moses after they had left Egypt. The continued study of the book (the cycle is repeated after completion of the six chapters on the Shabbat before Shavuot) until the Shabbat before Rosh Hashanah provides an additional link between our preparation for receiving the Torah and our spiritual preparation, during the month of Elul, for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur during the days of penitence. At these times we reexamine our conduct, thoughts, and relationship to our fellow human beings and to God. Through introspection and study of Torah, we try to attain a state of moral and religious purity in order to be worthy of God's positive judgment for the year-to-come. The study of Pirke Avot is an excellent preparation for this profound experience.

Another reason given for studying Avot between Pesach and Shavuot is that these are weeks of mourning for the more than 20,000 students of Rabbi Akiva, who are said to have perished as a result of their failure to honor one another. The teachings of Avot, Chapters Three and Four, clearly state that we must do so even when we differ with our colleagues.

Chasidic philosophy teaches that Avot is studied in order to help sublimate the natural (negative) inclinations and passions of human beings which are heightened during the warm, summer months.

Warm Days Conducive to Study

In the Northern Hemisphere, the long, warm Shabbat days are especially conducive to the study of Avot. Some synagogues follow the custom of having groups assemble in the homes or on the lawns of members where they study Avotand then have a collation, adding gustatory and social pleasures to the sweetness of studying Torah.

Physically, Pirke Avot is easily accessible to everyone since it can be found in most prayer books. Its language and brevity of style also make it intellectually accessible to all, who can study it on many levels. Its truths and teachings have remained pertinent throughout the centuries, and many volumes of commentary have been written to help us understand the teachings in this slender, but important work. Never has its studybeen more appropriate than in our present, corrupt society. To dip into its pages is a literary, intellectual, and moral treat.

Excellent translations and good, lucid commentaries can be found in The Daily Prayer Book edited by Dr. Joseph H. Hertz, Bloch Publishing, 1955 and in the volume published in the Artscroll Mesorah Series. Another volume published as part of the Me'am Lo'ez series (Maznaim Publishing Corp.), contains many delightful folkloric explanations as well as commentaries by other scholars.

May our studies make us all worthy of a place in the World-to-Come!

Ms. Nechamah Reisel. a resident of Queens, is a regular contributor to the World of Judaism series.



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