Pirkei Avot: Ethics of Our Fathers

Pirkei Avot (literally, “Chapters of the Fathers,” but generally translated as “Ethics of Our Fathers”) is one of the best-known and most-cited of Jewish texts. Even those who claim to know little about Jewish literature are familiar with maxims such as “If I am only for myself, who am I? (1:14)” and “Say little and do much (1:15).” Popular Hebrew songs take as their lyrics lines such as “The world stands on three things: Torah, service, and acts of loving kindness (1:2)”  and “You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to desist from it (2:21).” 

Pirkei Avot is so popular that many siddurim (prayer books) include the full text of this book. In many communities, it is customary to read a section of Pirkei Avot every Shabbat.

Literary Context

Given the popularity of Pirkei Avot, we may easily come to think of it as a sui generis work with little connection to any other Jewish text. But Pirkei Avot is, in fact, part of the Mishnah, the first text of the Jewish oral law. Within the Mishnah, Pirkei Avot appears in Seder Nezikin, the section primarily concerned with torts; some believe, however, that Pirkei Avot originally appeared at the very end of the Mishnah as a sort of recapitulation of the essential principles of the entire text.

Because it lays out the founding principles of the Mishnah, some have suggested that the word “Avot” be translated not as “fathers,” but as “categories” or “bases,” in the same way that the basic types of work prohibited on Shabbat are designated as “Avot Melakha” or “categories of work.”

Like the rest of the Mishnah, Pirkei Avot consists primarily of short statements most often attributed to rabbis who lived around the beginning of the Common Era. But there, the resemblance ends. Whereas the bulk of the Mishnah concerns itself with case law, Pirkei Avot presents us with a series of ethical principles articulated by the rabbis whose legal opinions appear elsewhere in the Mishnah. Pirkei Avot thus serves as an introduction to the overall worldviews of these rabbis, whom we would otherwise know only through their legal rulings.

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Rabbi Jill Jacobs is the Executive Director of Rabbis for Human Rights-North America and the author of Where Justice Dwells: A Hands-On-Guide for Doing Social Justice in Your Jewish Community and There Shall Be No Needy: Pursuing Social Justice Through Jewish Law and Tradition. She will be blogging here for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning all through Sukkot.

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