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Avot

AVOT

AVOT (Heb. אָבוֹת), a tractate of the Mishnah, is the most popular rabbinic composition of all time. Its timeless lessons and uncomplicated language have made the work accessible to vast audiences beyond the learned few who traditionally were well versed in the rhyme and reason of rabbinic discourse. The custom of studying Avot on the Sabbath, which spread from geonic Babylonia to Jewish communities all over the globe, enhanced the public profile of the work and led to Avot's mass circulation in the Siddur. Over the centuries, Avot inspired hundreds of commentaries and was translated into many languages such as Latin, Greek, English, German, French, Italian, and Spanish. No other rabbinic composition has sustained such widespread interest and popular appeal.

Structure

The first four of Avot's five chapters present an anthology of wisdom sayings attributed to rabbinic (and proto-rabbinic) sages and the central principle structuring these chapters is the chain of transmission. This chain is prominently introduced in the opening statement of Avot 1:1, a statement that constructs the earliest stages of the transmission of the Torah from its initial reception on Mt. Sinai until the early Second Temple period: "Moses received the Torah from Sinai and passed it on to Joshua, and Joshua to the elders, and the elders to the prophets, and the prophets passed it on to the Men of the Great Assembly." Avot 1:2 states that Simeon the Just was of the remnants of the Great Assembly and 1:3–12 states that Antigonus of Sokho and then five pairs of leading sages from Second Temple times each received the Torah from their predecessors. The frequent repetition of the keyword "received," "קבֵּל," conveys the impression that each sage received the Torah from his predecessor in the chain and chronological gaps are thereby glossed over. After the fifth pair of sages receives the tradition, however, the teacher-disciple pattern is disrupted and a genealogy of the patriarch's family is introduced without any explicit mention of their "receiving" the Torah (see *Patriarch). The shift from the teacher-disciple chain to a familial genealogy reflects a literary rift in the text and the significance of the location of this genealogy will be discussed below. The teacher-disciple chain resumes in 2:8, after the presentation of the genealogy of the patriarchate, with Rabban Johanan ben Zakkai "receiving" the Torah from Hillel and Shammai, the final pair of sages from Second Temple times. Chapter two continues with literary material that focuses on five disciples of Rabban Johanan ben Zakkai, and then concludes with two sayings attributed R. Tarfon, another disciple of Rabban Johanan ben Zakkai. Thus, the chain of transmission in the first two chapters of Avot constructs the history of the Torah's reception from biblical times until the early tannaitic period. Though commentators have often assumed that the Torah under discussion is the "Oral Torah," this rabbinic term, which refers to an oral Torah delivered to Moses on Sinai, probably postdates the original formulation of Avot's chain of transmission. On the other hand it seems unlikely that a chain of transmission would have been employed solely to defend the veracity of a written corpus, i.e., Scripture, and indeed, the three other chains of transmission in the Mishnah all relate to specific extra-biblical materials (see Yadayim 4:3; Pe'ah 2:6; Eduyyot 8:7). Thus, it seems that the Torah of Avot's chain of transmission included extra-biblical traditions though these traditions were apparently envisioned as natural offshoots of Scripture.

Chapters three and four also adhere to a chronological structure though they are structured by a generational rather than by a teacher-disciple schema. Chapter three opens with statements attributed to sages from the end of the Second Temple period such as Akavyah ben Mahalalel and R. Hananiah deputy of the priests, and then cites sages from the first three generations of the tannaitic period with only a few minor exceptions. Chapter four picks up with a few sages from the third generation of tannaim such as Ben Zoma and Ben Azzai, and then records statements, attributed, for the most part, to sages from the fourth and fifth generation of tannaim. This rough, generational schema suggests that chapters three and four were designed to continue the chain of transmission down through the tannaitic period. Thus, a bird's eye view of the text notes the continuous historical theme of the first four chapters of Avot while a closer examination reveals that this historical theme is developed in two ways; the explicit transmission of the Torah in the first two chapters and the implicit transmission in the latter two chapters.

Earlier Jewish literature certainly records familial genealogies, but there is no pre-rabbinic precedent for a teacher-disciple chain of transmission extending over a number of generations. Rather, Avot's chain of transmission is most closely akin to the contemporary successions genre that was common in the Graeco-Roman world. Successions, which emerged within philosophical academies during the second century b.c.e., ascribed the origin of a philosophical school to a legendary sage from the past and then portrayed each successive "scholarch" as the disciple of his immediate predecessor. Successions were scholastic (or doctrinal) in nature, since they outlined the transmission of proper doctrine over the course of time and thereby served to ground the traditions of a school in the hallowed past. Yet, since the links in succession lists were "scholarchs," i.e., the heads of philosophical academies, successions were also supposed to reflect the line of the legitimate institutional authority of an academy. In time, successions spread beyond philosophy to other intellectual traditions such as law, medicine, and Christianity while becoming in the process a standard element in the construction of the history of an intellectual discipline in the Graeco-Roman world.

The similarities between Avot and successions suggest that this Graeco-Roman literary genre was introduced into the Jewish setting in order to construct the history of the rabbinic academy. Like successions, Avot's chain of transmission opens with a legendary sage of the past and then traces the transmission of Torah through a list of successors portrayed within a teacher-disciple framework. Moreover, like successions, Avot's chain is not a straightforward reflection of historical reality but rather a rhetorical construct designed to demonstrate the continuity of a school and thereby ground its current teachings within the ancient past. By legitimating one particular school, Avot rejected the claims of all other competing groups, at least implicitly.

The institutional and scholastic dimensions of successions appear to be intertwined in the earliest stratum of the rabbinic chain of transmission but then separate as the chain is developed in two distinct trajectories. The earliest stratum of the chain which comprises the teacher-disciple chain from Moses until Rabban Johanan ben Zakkai consists of personalities who were both tradents in the history of the transmission of the Torah and leaders of the Jewish people. Like scholarchs in successions, they represented both continuous scholastic tradition and legitimate leadership. The scholastic dimension of this early stratum finds its continuation amongst the students of Rabban Johanan ben Zakkai who appear in chapter two and the sages of the implicit chain of transmission in chapters three and four. These sages represent the continuation of Jewish scholarship throughout the early rabbinic period and through them the tannaitic movement is portrayed as the preserver of authentic Torah knowledge. In contrast, the institutional dimension of the early stratum finds its continuation in the genealogy of the patriarchate of chapters one and two. The genealogy of the patriarchate was juxtaposed to the earliest stratum of Avot in order to portray the patriarchs as the proper heirs to the Jewish leadership of earlier eras. Thus the genealogy of the patriarchate and the implicit chain of transmission both seek to present the rightful heirs of Hillel and Shammai during the tannaitic period though from two different perspectives; the former focusing on the institutional dimension of successions and the latter on the scholastic.

Content

The sayings attributed to the sages in the first four chapters of Avot are quite unlike the halakhic materials that comprise the core of the Mishnah. Instead, they are akin to the contents and style of wisdom literature, a literature which includes such works as Proverbs, Ecclesiastes and Ben-Sira. Avot 4:4 paraphrases Ben-Sira 7:17, Avot 4:19 cites Proverbs 24:17, and other Avot sayings employ literary techniques often employed in wisdom literature such as riddles, numerical sayings, lists, anadiplosis, dialogue and metaphor. Moreover, the hallmark of Hebrew wisdom, the bipartite proverb, leaves traces throughout Avot as attested by the following examples: "Make for yourself a master and possess for yourself a comrade" (1:6); "Love work and hate mastery" (1:10); "He who makes his name great, loses his name," (1:13); "Say little and do much" (1:15); "And not study is the essential thing but action" (1:17); "Everything is seen (or: foreseen) and free will is granted" (3:15); "Be a tail to lions and not a head to foxes" (4:15); "Look not at the pitcher but at what is in it" (4:20). Numerous themes that appear in ancient wisdom literature also surface in Avot such as the search for life's secrets, reward and punishment, groping after order, self-evident intuitions about mastering life, and a bias against women. It is especially noteworthy that ethics receives more attention than any other traditional wisdom theme. Avot portrays kindness as one of the three pillars of the world; extols disinterested righteousness; exhorts the opening of one's house to the poor; urges one to select worthy companions and a virtuous way of life; commends truthful testimony; praises the pursuit of peace and love of humanity; counsels how to avoid transgression; cautions one to cherish the honor and property of others; and calls upon one to receive every person with joy and a pleasant countenance. In short, since Avot expresses wisdom themes by means of artistic literary forms it should be considered a member in the trajectory of Hebrew wisdom.

The prominence of Torah in Avot sayings, however, is unparalleled in earlier wisdom compositions. Although Torah plays a role in post-biblical wisdom, Avot elevates Torah to new heights by establishing the study of Torah and the observance of its precepts as fundamental Jewish values. Avot depicts Torah as a pillar of the world and the instrument through which it was created; as a crown of the Jewish people and the purpose of their creation. Torah is not to be viewed as an inheritance that is acquired without effort, rather it is to be toiled after constantly, sought even in distant places, established in one's home, discussed at one's dinner table, studied on the road and carefully preserved in one's memory. Torah is to be honored, cherished and implemented meticulously, and Avot guarantees that knowledge and observance of Torah will be rewarded in this world and in the world to come. Through this depiction of Torah, Avot transforms and updates the traditional understanding of wisdom by identifying wisdom with the tannaitic conception of Torah and rabbinic notions of religious piety.

Like wisdom literature and rabbinic thought, the Graeco-Roman literary setting also provides, at times, an illuminating backdrop for the contents of Avot's sayings. For example, the counter-intuitive definitions of wisdom, strength, wealth and honor attributed to Ben Zoma in Avot 4:1 are highly reminiscent of well known Stoic paradoxes. In a related vein, the five-part saying attributed to R. Tarfon, "The day is short, and the work is great, and the laborers are sluggish, and the recompense is great, and the master of the house is urging" (2:15) is extraordinarily similar to Hippocrates's five-part aphorism, "Life is short, the Art long, opportunity fleeting, experiment treacherous, judgment difficult" (Aphorisms 1.1) The literary similarities between these two statements suggest that the short mashal attributed to R. Tarfon is a variation on a well-known aphorism of the period, while their differences contrast the world-views of a Greek physician and a rabbinic sage. Whereas Hippocrates bemoaned the difficulty of acquiring medical knowledge during the course of a human's short lifetime, Avot stressed the temporal limitations that bound and challenge the homo religiosus.

Saying Collections

The collection of attributed wisdom sayings in chapters one through four is unusual for a Hebrew wisdom composition since collections of multiple author named-sayings simply do not appear in the Hebrew and ancient Near Eastern wisdom tradition. In Graeco-Roman antiquity, however, collections of proverbs and aphorisms were very popular and one type of Greek saying, the chreia, was technically defined as an attributed maxim. This distinctive feature of the chreia is precisely what also distinguishes the attributed sayings in Avot and therefore it appears that Avot sayings should be viewed as chreiai (despite the differences in content and tone between chreiai and rabbinic sayings). Many chreiai were both attributed to and collected by philosophers and therefore it is highly likely that chreiai collections served to preserve and propagate the teachings of philosophical schools. Moreover, chreiai were aggregated in various sorts of sayings collections including successions and thus the synthesis of the chain of transmission and attributed sayings in Avot was apparently modeled on the succession literary genre, a genre which included both chreiai and a succession list. In other words, the idea of conjoining a teacher-disciple chain with collected chreiai diffused into the rabbinic world from the overarching Graeco-Roman environment. In the wider Graeco-Roman setting as in Avot, the joint succession list-chreiai collection was apparently designed to legitimate and preserve the teachings of a scholastic tradition.

The Fifth Chapter of Avot

Chapter 5 is the only chapter of Avot that is not structured by an explicit or implicit chain of transmission. Instead, the chapter employs a descending numerical framework for the ordering of its mostly anonymous materials. This numerical structure commences with eleven lists of ten items apiece (5:1–6), continues with two lists of seven (5:7–8) and seven lists of four (5:9–15) and concludes with four bipartite sayings (5:16–19). The first ten lists are also chronologically ordered and run from creation until the period of the Temple. This historical overview suggests perhaps that chapter five provided the historical backdrop for the chain of transmission and, more generally, that Avot was designed to offer a chronology of Jewish experience from creation through the tannaitic period. In any event, the contents of these anonymous materials are in keeping with the spirit of the contents of the other chapters. After the numerical sayings, two sayings are attributed to Judah ben Tema (5:20) and, as the only attributed sayings in chapter five, these sayings supply a stylistic link to the first four chapters of Avot. It is possible that Avot originally concluded with Judah ben Tema's first saying, but the prayer of Avot 5:20 which beseeches God to grant his people a portion in his Torah is also well attested and provides a fitting conclusion for the tractate as a whole. In short, Avot encouraged the observance and study of rabbinic Torah traditions by developing a theological vision of a God who prizes adherence to the Torah, by demonstrating the sagacity of the rabbis via their sayings and by offering an historical justification for rabbinic authority.

After the redaction of Avot, some mishnayot were appended to chapter five and a sixth chapter called Kinyan Torah, also found in Kallah Rabbati and Seder Eliahu Zuta, was attached to the end of the tractate during the Geonic period. Furthermore, siddurim in the Sephardic tradition, assorted genizah fragments and the commentary attributed to R. Nathan b. Abraham Av ha-Yeshivah omit various mishnayot found in most versions of Avot. This shorter version of the tractate has been interpreted as an abridged version of an originally longer tractate or as an alternate and perhaps even more original version of the tractate.

Date of Redaction

The prominent role of the genealogy of the patriarchate in Avot suggests that a member of the patriarch's circle, if not the patriarch himself, redacted this treatise. Indeed, R. Judah ha-Nasi, the famous patriarch and editor of the Mishnah, strikingly appears in the opening mishnah of chapter two (in parallel position to Moses at the beginning of chapter one) within the context of the genealogy of the patriarchate. This genealogy establishes his family credentials and his authority is further legitimated by the institutional dimension of the succession in chapters one and two. R. Judah ha-Nasi appears for a second time in Avot 4:17 (though not according to certain Sephardic siddurim) where he functions as the penultimate tradent in the scholastic chain of transmission, a position which perhaps intimates that he should also be viewed as heir to the scholastic traditions of the past. Thus, the resounding recommendation of R. Judah ha-Nasi and the tannaim in Avot suggests that with the publication of the Mishnah or shortly thereafter, Avot was designed to legitimate the Mishnah and to justify the authority of its editor and his family. It should be noted, however, that some scholars prefer to date Avot to the fourth century or later.

Title

Since the Middle Ages, Avot has frequently been called Pirkei Avot, "the chapters of the fathers," but its name in earlier periods was simply, Avot. This title is often thought to be a shortened form of "avot ha-olam" ("the fathers of the universe") or "avot ha-rishonim" ("the first fathers"). In either case, Avot translates as "Fathers" and apparently refers to the many sages included in the tractate. An alternative interpretation suggests that the name of the treatise should be translated as 'Essentials' or 'First Principles'. According to this interpretation, the name refers to the wisdom of the sages, the fundamental principles of rabbinic Judaism expressed in the sayings of the tractate. This alternative interpretation has the added advantage of belonging to a literary practice in the Graeco-Roman world attested, for example, by the Kyriai Doxai ("Crucial Principles") of the Epicureans and the Regulae Iuris (Rules of law) of Roman law; similar literary collections which were also designed to describe the world-view of their respective intellectual traditions. The ambiguity of the title Avot is fortuitous and perhaps even intentional since it highlights the importance of both the structure, i.e. the sages of the chain of transmission, and the contents of the composition.

Location in the Mishnah

Avot is the penultimate tractate in the fourth order of the Mishnah, Seder Nezikin, and lacks both a companion Tosefta and talmudic commentary (though see Avot de Rabbi Nathan). The inclusion of Avot within an order that discusses civil law, criminal law and the judiciary process, led Maimonides to conclude that Avot was designed to legitimate the authority of rabbinic magistrates and to complement the legal code with a moral and spiritual guide (cf. Ex. 22:20–23:9). Others have suggested that Avot be viewed as an epilogue to the Mishnah since Nezikin may have once been the last order in the Mishnah or at least the final order to be studied. This suggestion is striking in light of the similar placement of Regulae Iuris at the end of Justinian's Digest and Kyriai Doxai at the end of Diogenes Laertius's Lives of Eminent Philosophers. It is possible that just as the abstract and general format of the Regulae Iuris and Kyriae Doxai made them suitable conclusions for larger compositions, Avot's survey of rabbinic principles and the transmission of the Torah made it a suitable epilogue for the Mishnah as a whole.

Commentaries

As noted above, classical and modern translations and commentaries to Avot abound. For lists of classical and select modern commentaries, see Cohen, Kasher-Mandelbaum, Kohn and Lerner. S. Sharvit deserves special mention due to his investigations into the language and style of Avot and the recent publication of his critical edition of the tractate.

bibliography:

E. Bikerman [Bickerman], in: Revue Biblique, 59 (1952), 44–54; J.J. Cohen, in: KS, 40 (1964–5), 104–17, 277–85 (Hebrew); L. Finkelstein, Introduction to the Treatises Abot and Abot of Rabbi Nathan (Heb., 1950); H.A. Fischel, Rabbinic Literature and Greco-Roman Philosophy: A Study of Epicurea and Rhetorica in Early Midrashic Writings (1973); D.E. Gershenson, in: Grazer Beiträge, 19 (1993), 207–19; I.B. Gottlieb, in: vt, 40 (1990), 152–64; R.T. Her-ford, Pirke Aboth (1925); M.M. Kasher and J.B. Mandelbaum, Sarei ha-Elef, 2 vols. (1978); P.J. Kohn, Oẓar ha-Be'urim ve-ha-Perushim (1952); M. Kister, Studies in Avot de-Rabbi Nathan: Text, Redaction and Interpretation (Heb., 1998); M.B. Lerner, in: S. Safrai (ed.), The Literature of the Sages (1987), 263–76; J. Kapah (trans.), Mishnah with Commentary of Maimonides: Zeraim (Heb., 1963); A.J. Saldarini, Scholastic Rabbinism: A Literary Study of the Fathers According to Rabbi Nathan (1982); S. Sharvit, "Textual Variants and Language of the Treatise Abot and Prolegomena to a Critical Editions" (Diss, Bar–Ilan Univ., 1976) (Hebrew); idem, Tractate Avot Through the Ages: A Critical Edition, Prolegomena and Appendices (Heb., 2004); A. Tropper, Wisdom, Politics, and Historiography: Tractate Avot in the Context of the Graeco-Roman Near East (2004). See also bibliography to *Avot de-Rabbi Nathan.

[Amram Tropper (2nd ed.)]

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