Pirkei Avot: Ethics of Our Fathers

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Pirkei Avot (literally, "Chapters of the Fathers," but generally translated as "Ethics of Our Fathers") is one of the best-known and most-cited of Jewish texts. Even those who claim to know little about Jewish literature are familiar with maxims such as "If I am only for myself, who am I? (1:14)" and "Say little and do much (1:15)." Popular Hebrew songs take as their lyrics lines such as "The world stands on three things: Torah, service, and acts of loving kindness (1:2)"  and "You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to desist from it (2:21)." 

Pirkei Avot is so popular that many siddurim (prayer books) include the full text of this book. In many communities, it is customary to read a section of Pirkei Avot every Shabbat.

Literary Context

Given the popularity of Pirkei Avot, we may easily come to think of it as a sui generis work with little connection to any other Jewish text. But Pirkei Avot is, in fact, part of the Mishnah, the first text of the Jewish oral law. Within the Mishnah, Pirkei Avot appears in Seder Nezikin, the section primarily concerned with torts; some believe, however, that Pirkei Avot originally appeared at the very end of the Mishnah as a sort of recapitulation of the essential principles of the entire text.

Because it lays out the founding principles of the Mishnah, some have suggested that the word "Avot" be translated not as "fathers," but as "categories" or "bases," in the same way that the basic types of work prohibited on Shabbat are designated as "Avot Melakha" or "categories of work."

Like the rest of the Mishnah, Pirkei Avot consists primarily of short statements most often attributed to rabbis who lived around the beginning of the Common Era. But there, the resemblance ends. Whereas the bulk of the Mishnah concerns itself with case law, Pirkei Avot presents us with a series of ethical principles articulated by the rabbis whose legal opinions appear elsewhere in the Mishnah. Pirkei Avot thus serves as an introduction to the overall worldviews of these rabbis, whom we would otherwise know only through their legal rulings.

Rabbinic Genealogy

Pirkei Avot begins with a statement of the chain of transmission of the Torah from the original revelation at Sinai through the early rabbis:

"Moses received Torah from God at Sinai. He transmitted it to Joshua, Joshua to the elders, the elders to the prophets, the prophets to the members of the Great Assembly (1:1)."

From here, the first two chapters of Pirkei Avot trace the uninterrupted transmission of the Torah from the first rabbis, who formed the Great Assembly, to the disciples of these original rabbis and through the generations of rabbis who followed. By placing themselves in a line of transmission that begins with Sinai, the rabbis of the Mishnah define themselves as the possessors of the authentic tradition. As such, these two chapters establish the authority of the entire Mishnah: If the rabbis of the Mishnah received the Torah directly from God, through an uninterrupted line of transmission, then these rabbis have the authority to interpret this tradition and to issue binding legal rulings.

Instead of simply listing the order of transmission from one rabbi to the next, the text offers one or more teachings by each of the rabbis mentioned. Thus:

"Shemayah and Avtalyon received the tradition from [their teachers]. Shemayah taught: Love work; hate positions of domination; do not make yourself known to the authorities. Avtalyon taught: Sages, be careful of what you say lest you be exiled by the authorities...Hillel and Shammai received the Torah from them. Hillel taught: Be a disciple of Aaron, loving peace and pursuing peace...Shammai taught: Make the study of Torah your primary occupation... (1:10-15)"

In simultaneously placing each rabbi within the chain of transmission and giving each rabbi his own voice, Pirkei Avot makes an essential statement about the nature of Torah and interpretation: Even though each generation interprets and applies the Torah according to the needs of the time, these interpretations have the authority of laws given by God at Mount Sinai.

Lessons Learned

From the teachings attributed to each rabbi, we gain some sense of the personality of that rabbi, as well as an occasional insight into the needs of the time. In the text quoted above, Shemaya and Avtalyon, who were the heads of the rabbinic court in Jerusalem in the first century BCE, demonstrate particular concern about upsetting the authorities. This worry reflects the precarious nature of the Jewish community in Jerusalem living under Roman control in the century that preceded the destruction of the Second Temple.

The aphorisms that make up the text of Pirkei Avot range in topic from the ethics of everyday human interaction, to advice for sages and aspiring sages, to statements about the relationship of God and humanity. The worldview espoused by the rabbis quoted here emphasizes learning, service of God, discipleship, ethical behavior, humility, and fair judgment. Within the first four chapters of this work, these teachings follow a standard form. A rabbi is introduced, often, but not always, as a disciple or son of the preceding rabbi, and the text then offers one or more teachings by this rabbi.

The Final Chapters

The fifth and sixth chapters of Pirkei Avot differ both in form and, to some degree, in topic from the four preceding chapters. Chapter five consists almost entirely of anonymous statements of numerical lists. These lists all consist of ten, seven, or four items, these numbers being standard mnemonic devices in rabbinic discourse:

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"The world was created by ten utterances...There were ten generations from Adam to Noah...there were ten generations from Noah to Abraham...Ten things were created on the eve of the Sabbath of creation at twilight...There are seven characteristics which typify the clod and seven the wise person... (5:1-9)"

In some cases, these statements are substantiated with a listing of the items listed. For instance:

"There are four types among those who study with the Sages: the sponge, the funnel, the strainer, the sifter. The sponge absorbs everything; the funnel--in one end and out the other; The strainer passes the wine and retains the dregs; the sifter removes the chaff and retains the edible wheat (5:15)."

In other cases, the text simply asserts the existence of a certain number of something--ten trials of Abraham or ten miracles performed for the Jewish people in Egypt--but leaves the specific nature of these items to the imagination.

The contrast between the fifth chapter of Pirkei Avot and the first four chapters suggests that this fifth chapter may have been a later, though still early, addition to the work.

The sixth chapter of Pirkei Avot is certainly not original to the work, but probably was added in late antiquity or at the beginning of the Middle Ages, when it became customary to read one chapter of Pirkei Avot on each Shabbat between Passover and Shavuot. Since there are six Shabbatot between Passover and Shavuot, it was necessary to add a sixth chapter to the text. This final chapter, entitled Kinyan Torah (the acquisition of Torah) consists of a rabbinic statement that glorifies Torah and scholarship and that lays out a program by which students can come to possess Torah.

Later Commentaries

Pirkei Avot inspired a vast number of commentaries. The earliest of these is Avot d'rabbi Natan, probably composed in the late third century, which is included in the so-called extra-canonical tractates of the Talmud. Beyond this, the most famous commentaries on Pirkei Avot are those written by Moses Maimonides in the twelfth century and by Simcha ben Samuel of Vitry in the eleventh century. To this day, scholars continue to produce new commentaries on Pirkei Avot and students and teachers throughout the Jewish world continuously develop new interpretations and understandings of its teachings.

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Rabbi Jill Jacobs

Rabbi Jill Jacobs is the Executive Director of Rabbis for Human Rights-North America. She previously served as the Rabbi-in-Residence for the Jewish Funds for Justice.