Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers)

Pirkei Avot (known in English as ‘Ethics of the Fathers’) is widely known and regarded as a book in its own right, but in fact it is the tractate Avot (‘Fathers’) in the order Nizikin (‘Damages’) of the Mishnah.

Pirkei Avot can be translated literally as ‘Chapters of the Fathers’, but it is often referred to in English as ‘The Ethics of the Fathers’. This name more accurately reflects the contents of this book of the Mishna: moral advice and philosophical insights from the leading rabbinic scholars of different Jewish generations.

Pirkei Avot does not deal with laws, and is written in a direct and very accessible style. The quotes found in Pirkei Avot are generally spiritual and edifying, but they constitute a practical guide to ethical behaviour.

Jewish tradition encourages the study of one chapter of Pirkei Avot each Shabbat afternoon in the spring and summer months. Its text can be found in most Jewish prayer books, following the Shabbat afternoon service.

Some of the teachings of Pirkei Avot include:

Rabbi Hillel

  • “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I am only for myself, what am I?” (1:14)
  • “A person who is [too] shy [to ask questions] will never learn, and a teacher who is too strict cannot teach . . . and in a place where there are no men, strive to be a man.” (2:5)
  • “Don’t judge your fellowman until you are in his place . . . and don’t say I will study when I have time, lest you never find the time.” (2:4)

Ben Zoma

  • “Who is rich? He who is happy with what he has.” (4:1)
  • “Who is wise? He who learns from every man…. Who is a hero? He who controls his passions.” (4:1)

Shammai

  • “Say little and do much.” (1:15)

Rabbi Tarfon

  • “It is not your responsibility to finish the work [of perfecting the world], but you are not free to desist from it either.” (2:16)

What the Art Scroll Siddur says about Pirkei Avot

“The Talmud Baba Kama, p. 30a teaches that one who wishes to be a devout person should fulfil the dicta of Avot. Clearly, therefore, ‘piety’ refers to the full range of human behavior, and it is quite understandable that Jewish communities stressed the recitation and study of Avot.

The custom of reciting it on Sabbath afternoons began in Gaonic times. In many communities it was recited only from Pesach (Passover) to Shavuot, as a preparation for the festival of the Revelation at Sinai. For that reason too, the sixth chapter, which deals with Torah study, was appended to the five chapters of Avot as a fitting recitation for the Shabbat just before Shavuot.

The prevalent custom nowadays is to continue the weekly recitation until Rosh Hashanah (Jewish New Year), so that the long summertime Shabbat afternoons can be filled with shared Torah study. Another reason for the summer study is that the pleasant weather tends to stimulate man’s physical appetites; the study of Avot helps rein and direct them.” (p. 544)

Indeed, a careful study of Avot is certain to inspire any reader into the tremendous wisdom and common sense that our great rabbis had at that time. What they preached then can and should be applied to our daily lives today. Personally, I feel that along with the Torah itself, Pirkei Avot should be required reading for all people, not just Jews, alone. It is no coincidence, therefore that this tractate is referred to simply as ‘Avot’ – fathers. This teaches us that just as the Torah itself which was given by our great father in heaven, God, serves as a dictate of life, so to does this tractate act as if our own fathers were disciplining us and guiding us onto the proper path of ethics and morality.”

Extract from The Complete Art Scroll Siddur (Ashkenazi version),
translation by Rabbi Nosson Scherman,
Mesorah Publications, Ltd. Brooklyn, NY © 1984

Links:

Chabad.org: Ethics of the Fathers – the Translated Text

Jewish Virtual Library: Ethics of the Fathers

My Jewish Learning: Pirkei Avot – the Ethics of Our Fathers

Project Genesis: Chapters of Our Fathers

Shecehm.org: Pirkei Avot (sets out the text of Pirkei Avot in English translation)

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