Pirkei Avot: Ethics of Our Fathers

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The aphorisms that make up the text of Pirkei Avot range in topic from the ethics of everyday human interaction, to advice for sages and aspiring sages, to statements about the relationship of God and humanity. The worldview espoused by the rabbis quoted here emphasizes learning, service of God, discipleship, ethical behavior, humility, and fair judgment. Within the first four chapters of this work, these teachings follow a standard form. A rabbi is introduced, often, but not always, as a disciple or son of the preceding rabbi, and the text then offers one or more teachings by this rabbi.

The Final Chapters

The fifth and sixth chapters of Pirkei Avot differ both in form and, to some degree, in topic from the four preceding chapters. Chapter five consists almost entirely of anonymous statements of numerical lists. These lists all consist of ten, seven, or four items, these numbers being standard mnemonic devices in rabbinic discourse:

justice

"The world was created by ten utterances...There were ten generations from Adam to Noah...there were ten generations from Noah to Abraham...Ten things were created on the eve of the Sabbath of creation at twilight...There are seven characteristics which typify the clod and seven the wise person... (5:1-9)"

In some cases, these statements are substantiated with a listing of the items listed. For instance:

"There are four types among those who study with the Sages: the sponge, the funnel, the strainer, the sifter. The sponge absorbs everything; the funnel--in one end and out the other; The strainer passes the wine and retains the dregs; the sifter removes the chaff and retains the edible wheat (5:15)."

In other cases, the text simply asserts the existence of a certain number of something--ten trials of Abraham or ten miracles performed for the Jewish people in Egypt--but leaves the specific nature of these items to the imagination.

The contrast between the fifth chapter of Pirkei Avot and the first four chapters suggests that this fifth chapter may have been a later, though still early, addition to the work.

The sixth chapter of Pirkei Avot is certainly not original to the work, but probably was added in late antiquity or at the beginning of the Middle Ages, when it became customary to read one chapter of Pirkei Avot on each Shabbat between Passover and Shavuot. Since there are six Shabbatot between Passover and Shavuot, it was necessary to add a sixth chapter to the text. This final chapter, entitled Kinyan Torah (the acquisition of Torah) consists of a rabbinic statement that glorifies Torah and scholarship and that lays out a program by which students can come to possess Torah.

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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.