Avot de-Rabbi Nathan

views updated


AVOT DE-RABBI NATHAN (Heb. אָבוֹת דְּרַבִּי נָתָן; "The Fathers according to Rabbi Nathan"), a commentary on, and an elaboration of, the mishnaic tractate Avot. The work contains many ethical sayings, but also historical traditions, stories and bits of folklore. The work has come down to us in two highly different versions, customarily termed Version a (40 chapters) and b (49 chapters). It was known and used by many rabbinic authorities throughout the Jewish world in the middle ages. Version a has been included among the so-called "minor tractates" of the Talmud in printed editions of the Talmud since 1550. It should be emphasized, however, that the work was never considered part of "minor tractates" before the printed publication of the Babylonian Talmud. Version b was first published by Solomon Schechter (1887, together with a critical edition of Version a). The two versions seem to be two distinct forms (and the only forms known at least since the Middle Ages) of an earlier work.

arn consists of three different sections in both versions, reflecting the varying character of the five chapters of Avot in the Mishnah: (a) a detailed commentary on most of the sayings in Mishnah Avot 1:1–2:12, except 1:16–2:7 (see below); (b) supplementary material to Mishnah Avot chapter 3–4, consisting of diverse sayings of Tannaim; (c) an elaboration of the numerical sayings in Mishnah Avot chapter 5. Versions a and b both follow this threefold division: neither version includes any commentary on the sayings of the two students of Rabban Johanan ben Zakkai cited in Mishnah Avot 2:13–14 and neither version comments on Avot 1:16–2:7. These features, as well as others, shared by both versions, indicate that both must have evolved from one source. Indeed, they basically share the same core of material throughout the work, although the wording in each version is unique, and each contains additional material unparalleled in the other.

arn is probably not to be attributed to Rabbi Nathan (late 2nd century c.e.), but its name cannot be easily explained according to the texts as we have them. The skipping of Avot 1:16–2:7 in the first section of both versions indicates that the text of the mishnaic tractate Avot did not yet include this section (which is a later interpolation designed to introduce sayings by members of the Patriarch's family up to Rabbi Yehuda ha-Nasi's grandson Hillel). To be sure, parallel sayings of these same sages, who flourished at the beginning of the amoraic period, are included elsewhere in arn in both versions. However, no other sayings attributed to later amoraim are to be found in either version.

From these data one may conclude that the earliest form of arn goes back to a time not much later than the first half of the 3rd century c.e. However, a detailed comparison of the material in Avot de-Rabbi Nathan (in both versions) with the parallel material in other compositions of the talmudic literature leads to the conclusion that the present form of the two versions of arn is post-talmudic. The terminus post quem for the final redaction of the work is thus after the redaction of the Babylonian Talmud (5th century c.e. [?]) and the terminus ante quem is probably sometime in the 8th century, since the earliest manuscripts of arn are from the 9th century, or somewhat earlier. In several cases it can be demonstrated that an older form of a story was replaced (sometimes in both versions) by a newer, more elaborate one. Moreover, traditions known from elsewhere are frequently paraphrased in arn, thereby distorting their original form. The two versions seem to be basically of Palestinian provenance, but at least in Version a there are evident indications of secondary Babylonian coloring. The general outlines (but usually not the wording) of a common core, from which the two versions evolved, can often be reconstructed by careful comparison between them. This also means that each version is frequently unintelligible by itself. By and large, it seems that Version a tends to be more remote from the common source of the two versions than is Version b; yet, there are many examples in which one must rely on Version a in order to make sense of Version b. This complex history of composition and transmission was noted by Schechter, the first editor of both versions, but was subsequently played down in research. Kister has strongly emphasized that both Version a and Version b are post-talmudic works, although there are certainly ancient elements in the traditions included in them.

The textual transmission of Avot de-Rabbi Nathan is also problematic. According to Kister, the textual witnesses (manuscripts and testimonia of arn in the writings of medieval rabbinic authorities) of Version a fall into two principal branches, but often the original reading is contained in neither of them. An acquaintance with the two textual families, however, enables one in many cases to suggest, through cautious philological analysis, what the original reading might have been. An early genizah fragment (9th century?) of Version a seems not to represent an entirely new branch of that version, as suggested by some scholars, but rather a secondary text which attempted to reckon with textual defects found in the manuscript from which it was copied, defects that occur in later manuscripts of Version a (Kister). Only a few manuscripts of Version b survive, most of them stemming from a single, rather late, medieval copy. Errors in this manuscript cannot often be corrected without conjecture.

Current research into arn owes much to S.Z. Schechter, who published the two versions, with variae lectiones, notes, and a general introduction. Schechter's edition was a pioneering philological achievement in his time. Although it does not conform to the prevailing standards of modern philology, his notes are of durable importance for the student. a synopsis, and eventually also a new critical edition, are being prepared for publication by Menahem Kister.


L. Zunz, Die gottesdienstlichen Vorträge der Juden, historisch entwickelt (1832), 108ff. (Zunz-Albeck, 50–51); S.Z. Schechter, Aboth de-Rabbi Nathan (Heb., 1887); L. Finkelstein, Mavo le-Massektot Avot ve-Avot d'Rabbi Natan (Heb., 1950); J. Goldin, The Fathers according to Rabbi Nathan (1955); J. Goldin, Studies in Midrash and Related Literature (1988); A.J. Saldarini, The Fathers according to Rabbi Nathan, Version b (1975); M.B. Lerner, "Minor Tractates," in: The Literature of the Sages (1987), 369ff.; M. Kister, Studies in Avot de-Rabbi Nathasn: Text, Redaction and Interpretation (Heb., 1998); M. Kister, "Prolegomenon," Avoth de-Rabbi Nathan Solomon Schechter Edition with References to Parallels in the two versions and to the Addenda in the Schechter's Edition (Heb., 1997); M. Kister, "Legends of the Destruction of the Second Temple in Avot de-Rabbi Nathan," in: Tarbiz 67 (1998), 483–529 (in Heb.); M. Kister, "Avot de-Rabbi Nathan Chapter 17: Redaction and Transfigured Traditions," in: Meḥkerei Talmud, 3 (2005), 703–39 (in Heb.)

[Menahem Kister (2nd ed.)]