Avot d'Rabbi Natan

A companion volume to Pirkei Avot.

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Perhaps the best that we can say about these misogynistic texts is that they shed light on the worldview of third century rabbis, but as aggadah (narrative), have no direct legal force.

Academic Interest

Scholars have been keenly interested in Avot d'Rabbi Natan. An 1887 edition published by Solomon Schechter was the first ever critical/academic edition of a rabbinic work. Based on a study of all of the manuscripts available to him, Schechter proposed the existence of two similar, though distinct, versions of this text, which he designated "Version A" and "Version B." (All of the citations in this article are from Version B.) The two versions offer different perspectives on certain stories and sayings, and each includes material not found in the other. Later scholars, who have found additional manuscripts, have suggested the existence of more than two versions of Avot d'Rabbi Natan. Still, Schechter's classification remains the dominant means of dividing and referring to this text.

In addition to the question of the relationship among the various versions of Avot d'Rabbi Natan, a number of other textual issues have puzzled scholars of this text. First, who is Rabbi Natan? Midrashic books often take their name from the first rabbi mentioned in the text. Midrash Tanhuma, for instance, is so called because Rabbi Tanhuma appears in the first few lines of the collection. While Rabbi Natan does appear in Avot d'Rabbi Natan, he is neither the first nor the central character. Some have thereby speculated that an early version of the text may indeed have started with a statement by Rabbi Natan. Others suggest that Rabbi Natan may have been among the editors of the work.

The dating of the text has similarly perplexed scholars. Since all of the rabbis mentioned in this work lived before the third century of the common era, some have dated the text as early as 160 CE. Others, noting that Avot d'Rabbi Natan remains outside of the talmudic canon, have placed the text as late as the seventh or eighth century. Still others take a middle position, suggesting that the core of the text dates from the third century or earlier, but that the final redaction took place in the sixth or seventh centuries.

These scholarly puzzles, the richness of the text's stories and interpretations, and even its most problematic passages all make Avot d'Rabbi Natan a compelling read for those looking for a next step after studying Pirkei Avot.

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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.