Pirkei Avot, literally Chapters of the Fathers, but more commonly translated “Ethics of the Fathers,” is one of the most unique works of rabbinic literature.
Thought Avot is a book of the Mishnah, it consists mostly of aphorisms and ethical principles, not law. The book is particularly relevant now, as it is customary to study Pirkei Avot on Shabbat — one chapter each week– between Passover and Shavuot (though some continue to study it through the summer).
This year, the cycle will start with Chapter 1 on May 3, concluding with Chapter 6 on June 7 — but I thought I’d get an early start, begin blogging Pirkei Avot and see how far I get.
(For a general overview of Avot, I recommend Rabbi Jill Jacobs’ wonderful MJL article, which can be found here.)
Pirkei Avot begins:
1:1 – Moses received the Torah from Sinai and transmitted it to Joshua; Joshua to the elders; the elders to the prophets; and the prophets handed it down to the men of the Great Assembly. They said three things: Be deliberate in judgment, raise up many disciples, and make a fence around the Torah.
This mishnah ends with a paradigmatic Pirkei Avot lesson, both in its substance and structure — this is not the only tripartite teaching in Pirkei Avot.
But the mishnah’s beginning is also incredibly significant. Here the Rabbis map out the chain of tradition. “Moses received the Torah and transmitted it…” — and this most certainly does not only refer to the Written Torah, but the Oral Torah, as well.
This Oral Torah was passed through mesorah, tradition, to Joshua, the elders, the prophets, and finally to the Men of the Great Assembly, the leaders of Israel during the time of the Second Temple.
Indeed, the next mishnah (Avot 1:2) features Simeon the Righteous, who is described as one of the “survivors of the Great Assembly.” In the mishnayot after that, we have teachings from his students and theirs.
Thus, the beginning of Pirkei Avot serves a significant political purpose. After the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE, the future and nature of Judaism was up in the air. The Rabbis of the Talmud took Judaism in a very specific direction, away from its cultic past, toward one centered on Torah study and interpretation. What gave them the right to do this?
For them, the concept of Oral Law was absolutely essential. It was, to some extent, the unwritten source of their authority, and it’s this that is being propagandized and pushed at the beginning of Pirkei Avot.
The Rabbis use Pirkei Avot to perpetuate their ethical worldview, but at the same time, they are perpetuating their own legitimacy.