Avot d'Rabbi Natan

A companion volume to Pirkei Avot.

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Here, the text uses Yosef ben Yohanan's brief statement about the necessity of opening one's door to the poor as a means of grappling with the theological problem of the book of Job, which tells the story of a seemingly-righteous man whom God tests with severe punishments. Through the comparison of verses from two different biblical books, Avot d'Rabbi Natan suggests that Job failed to do everything possible to welcome the poor, and ultimately was punished for his hubris in comparing himself to Abraham, the exemplary host.

Stories of the Sages

In addition to rabbinic statements and midrashic expositions, Avot d'Rabbi Natan contains a significant amount of narrative material. Here, we find a long account of the siege and destruction of Jerusalem, Yohanan ben Zakkai's daring escape from the city, and the establishment of a new center for Jewish learning in Yavneh, a city to the north. This mode of sustained narrative stands in sharp contrast to early rabbinic texts, which favor terse stories. 

Hillel and Shammai, two well-known and perpetually quarreling rabbis, play prominent roles in Avot d'Rabbi Natan. Here, as in talmudic stories about these characters, Hillel is patient and lenient, while Shammai is strict and easily irritated.

In one story, a man comes to Shammai asking to be converted on the condition that Shammai make him a high priest. Shammai responds, "Don't we have anyone in Israel to make a high priest rather than this proselyte?" and dismisses the man. The man then approaches Hillel with the same request. Rather than rebuke him, Hillel suggests that this man begin studying the biblical laws of the priesthood. As he learns about the difficulties and dangers of the priesthood, the man abandons this ambition but commits himself to conversion. In a final rebuke to Shammai, the man comments, "Your impatience, Shammai, almost made me remove my soul from the life of this world and of the world to come; and your patience, Hillel, made me worthy to inherit the life of this world and the life of the world to come (Chapter 29)."

Some Difficult Texts

In addition to its many quotable and inspiring statements, Avot d'Rabbi Natan contains a significant amount of material that is more difficult for contemporary Jews to stomach. Roughly a chapter and a half of the work is devoted to the (male) rabbis' thoughts about the nature of women. Just a taste:

"Why does woman adorn herself [with jewelry and makeup]? Because the woman was created from the man and the man was created from the earth. Even as flesh will go bad if you do not put in the spices it needs, so is woman. If she is not adorned, she goes bad. But earth does not go bad, and man is the same way (Chapter 9)."

And:

"Adam was the blood of the world. Because woman brought death upon him, she was put under obligation [to observe the law] of the blood of menstrual purity. . .Man was the light of the world. Because she caused him to be extinguished, she was put under obligation to light the Shabbat candles (Chapter 42)."

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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.