Avot d'Rabbi Natan

A companion volume to Pirkei Avot.

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Tucked in the back of Seder Nezikin in most editions of the Talmud is a mysterious series of books collectively referred to as Masekhtot Ketanot, the "Minor Tractates." 

Though classified as a unit, these minor tractates include material from a variety of genres produced over several hundred years. One of these volumes is Avot d'Rabbi Natan, a sort of companion volume to Pirkei Avot.

Ethics in Depth

Like its better-known cousin, Avot d'Rabbi Natan consists largely of maxims that cover the proper approach to Torah study, common human courtesy, and other life advice. For the most part, the instructions seem directed at those who pursue the rabbinic life of Torah study and discipleship. Many of the sayings recorded in one of the books appear also in the other. As in Pirkei Avot, the rabbinic statements of Avot d'Rabbi Natan are ordered by generation, beginning with those attributed to the first rabbis, and continuing through each generation of disciples. 

old leather booksUnlike Pirkei Avot, however, Avot d'Rabbi Natan rarely simply presents an aphorism, but instead adds long commentaries and expansions on these statements. For example, both books record Hillel's exhortation, "Be of the disciples of Aaron, loving peace and pursuing peace, loving humanity and drawing them to Torah." In Pirkei Avot, this statement stands on its own (1:12). In Avot d'Rabbi Natan, Hillel's comment sparks a multi-page meditation on Aaron's humility, the power of peace, and techniques for stopping quarrels.

Given the textual parallels between Pirkei Avot and Avot d'Rabbi Natan, it is clear that the two books are related. But what, precisely, is the relationship? Some scholars have described Avot d'Rabbi Natan as a commentary on Pirkei Avot written soon after the original. Others have suggested that Pirkei Avot is a distillation of the wisdom of the longer volume. Still others believe that the two texts originated with the same source, but then developed on parallel tracks.

Literary Style

In its style, Avot d'Rabbi Natan has more in common with midrash than with any other genre of Jewish text. Like midrash, this work tends toward creative exegesis that elaborates on texts through parables, stories, and the innovative interweaving of biblical sources. For example, a short rabbinic statement about responsibility toward the poor, included also in Pirkei Avot 1:5, prompts a narrative that attempts to explain the biblical story of Job:

"Yosef ben Yohanan of Jerusalem says: Let your house be opened wide, and let the poor be members of your household". . .Job's house was opened to the North and South, East and West, for Job used to say: From whatever direction a person comes, let that person enter from there, as the Torah says, "I have opened my doors to the wayfarer (Job 31:32)." Job began to say, "I did not act as others. Others eat fine bread and feed the poor coarse bread. Others wear clothes of wool and dress the poor in clothes of sackcloth. . . I fed the poor from what I was eating and dressed the poor in what I was wearing". . .Job began to praise himself, saying, "What did our father Abraham do that I did not do?" God said to Job, "How far will you go in self-praise? If the poor did not come into your house, you did not pity them, but Abraham did not act in this way. Rather. . .he went and sat at the door of his tent, as the Torah says, "As he sat at the door of his tent in the heat of the day (Genesis 18:1)." (Chapter 14)

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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.