Pirkei Avot: Ethics of Our Fathers

Print this page Print this page

Rabbinic Genealogy

Pirkei Avot begins with a statement of the chain of transmission of the Torah from the original revelation at Sinai through the early rabbis:

"Moses received Torah from God at Sinai. He transmitted it to Joshua, Joshua to the elders, the elders to the prophets, the prophets to the members of the Great Assembly (1:1)."

From here, the first two chapters of Pirkei Avot trace the uninterrupted transmission of the Torah from the first rabbis, who formed the Great Assembly, to the disciples of these original rabbis and through the generations of rabbis who followed. By placing themselves in a line of transmission that begins with Sinai, the rabbis of the Mishnah define themselves as the possessors of the authentic tradition. As such, these two chapters establish the authority of the entire Mishnah: If the rabbis of the Mishnah received the Torah directly from God, through an uninterrupted line of transmission, then these rabbis have the authority to interpret this tradition and to issue binding legal rulings.

Instead of simply listing the order of transmission from one rabbi to the next, the text offers one or more teachings by each of the rabbis mentioned. Thus:

"Shemayah and Avtalyon received the tradition from [their teachers]. Shemayah taught: Love work; hate positions of domination; do not make yourself known to the authorities. Avtalyon taught: Sages, be careful of what you say lest you be exiled by the authorities...Hillel and Shammai received the Torah from them. Hillel taught: Be a disciple of Aaron, loving peace and pursuing peace...Shammai taught: Make the study of Torah your primary occupation... (1:10-15)"

In simultaneously placing each rabbi within the chain of transmission and giving each rabbi his own voice, Pirkei Avot makes an essential statement about the nature of Torah and interpretation: Even though each generation interprets and applies the Torah according to the needs of the time, these interpretations have the authority of laws given by God at Mount Sinai.

Lessons Learned

From the teachings attributed to each rabbi, we gain some sense of the personality of that rabbi, as well as an occasional insight into the needs of the time. In the text quoted above, Shemaya and Avtalyon, who were the heads of the rabbinic court in Jerusalem in the first century BCE, demonstrate particular concern about upsetting the authorities. This worry reflects the precarious nature of the Jewish community in Jerusalem living under Roman control in the century that preceded the destruction of the Second Temple.

Did you like this article?  MyJewishLearning is a not-for-profit organization.

Please consider making a donation today.

Rabbi Jill Jacobs

Rabbi Jill Jacobs is the Executive Director of Rabbis for Human Rights-North America. She previously served as the Rabbi-in-Residence for the Jewish Funds for Justice.