Ethics of the Fathers
By Nachum Mohl
Ethics of the Fathers, or as it is known in Hebrew, Pirchei Avot, is perhaps the most popular and widely read tractate of the Mishna. It was collected some two thousand years ago by Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi, the author of the Mishna.
What is the Ethics of the Fathers?
If we were to collect the wisest statements from our sages concerning how to live our lives to the fullest and best, both in terms of our own fulfillment and in regards to our neighbors and our relationship to G-d, then this would be the book we would publish. Starting with the beginning of the Oral Tradition, (meaning from the time that Moses gave the Torah to the Jewish people at Mount Sinai) and extending to the period of Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi, the statements quoted by the various sages in Pirchei Avot span perhaps a thousand years.
Included inside this book, are the wise and ethical statements upon which we can draw inspiration and concepts to improve the quality of our lives. Each great Rabbi from the various time periods is quoted as to what he considers to be the most important principle upon which we can utilize to live our lives in face of the various trial, troubles, temptations and turmoil that invade individual tranquility and endanger personal and family peace. Each is written simply and concisely, as was the style of the Mishna.
There are five original chapters, as compiled by Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi, plus the sixth, which was added on several generations later by the authors of the Talmud. Following in chronological order, the Ethics of the Fathers make a continuum from Moses to the last of the great Rabbis of the Mishna, the period prior to the destruction of the Temple.
There is a very old and proper custom that between the seven weeks between Passover and Shavout a chapter is studied on each of the Shabbats. This corresponds to the concept that during the time that the Jewish People were taken out of Egypt until the time that they received the Torah at Mount Sinai, which was during these seven weeks, they occupied themselves in character refinement.
Others reinforce this custom and point to the tragedy that during this time the twelve thousand pairs of the students of Rabbi Akiva died mysteriously during this time. The reason given is that they did not behave with courtesy and honor toward each other. Therefore it is only fitting that we utilize this time to repair such ignoble character traits.
Others give the reason for learning Pirkei Avot on the Shabbat because it was on the Shabbat that Moses died. Therefore when we learn this book of the Mishna, the Oral Tradition, we are giving life to the teachings and thoughts of Moses, as he passed them down to his students. Each statement in the Ethics of the Fathers is in accord with the teaching of Moses. Also, since the Shabbat is a time not only of rest, but of spiritual advancement, the study of Pirchei Avot is considered to best bolster that goal.
Many have the custom to continue the learning of the Ethics of the Fathers even past Shavout until the end of the summer. Since the days are long and need for our personal character improvement is a constant need, Pirchei Avot is a must.
There are more commentaries on this tractate than on any other tractate of the Talmud. From the classic commentators like Rashi and the Rambam, there are commentators who through out the ages have added their personal wisdom and insight. From the great Chassidic masters to the Mussar teachers, each added his commentary as to how we can utilize the teaching in Ethic of the Fathers to the best in our lives. Even today, new books are constantly being published with modern commentators who marvel at the depth of perception shown by these Rabbis who, two and three thousand years ago, left their finest thoughts for us to discover on a long and peaceful Shabbat afternoon.
Don't restrict yourself only to one day of study, though. Once you get into the teaching of our greatest Rabbis, you will continue to study it throughout the week. And rightly that is exactly the way it was meant to be. The Ethics of the Fathers was meant for you to take it with you in your every day week day life. So get a new copy today and join the millions of Jews who throughout the generations have lived their lives with the Ethics of the Fathers, Pirchei Avot.
from the May 2004 Edition of the Jewish Magazine