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.
Unlike 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.
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:
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