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Pirke Avoth


One of the 63 tractates of the mishnah, placed at the end of Nezikin, the fourth order of the Mishnah. The Pirke Avoth (chapters of the Fathers), often cited as Avot, Avoth, or Aboth, is known also as the Ethics of the Fathers and Capitula patrum. It is a collection of ethical, moral, and philosophical maxims distilled from the flow of spiritual teachings of the rabbinic sages over a span of centuries. The Mishnah was compiled at the end of the second Christian century by Rabbi judah ha-nasi with the collaboration of Rabbi Meïr, a student of Rabbi akibaben joseph. Its six orders discussed religious, legal, domestic, agricultural, commercial, and physiological topics. The fourth order, Nezikin, dealt mainly with civil and criminal law and thus was appropriately followed by Avoth, which describes the desirable moral qualities of judges, wise men, and spiritual leaders.

The first chapter forms a chain of tradition reaching back to Moses and the Law received at Mt. Sinai, followed by the Prophets, through the generations to the men of the Great Synod, to Hillel and Shammai, and from them to the principal teachers of the Mishnah.

Chapter 2 begins with more of the wise sayings of Hillel, followed in verses 9 through 16 by quotations from the teachings of Rabbi johanan ben zakkai and five of his disciples. When the Temple was destroyed in 70 a.d., the academy that Johanan founded at Jabneh became the cultural and spiritual center of Jewish learning and tradition. The closing verses in this second chapter are maxims quoted from Rabbi tarphon.

Chapters 3 and 4 contain teachings of many sages, mostly of the Tannaic period. About 41 of them are cited by name.

Chapter 5 has a different formatthe anonymous sayings have a numerical basis (10, 7, 4, 3), perhaps as a pedagogic aid to memory. For instance, Mishnah 19 uses the number 4: "There are four types of those who sit before the sages: The sponge, the funnel, the strainer, and the sifter. The sponge soaks up everything; the funnel takes in at one end and lets out at the other. The strainer lets out the wine and retains the dregs; the sieve lets out the bran and retains the fine flour." This illustrates also the timelessness of the sayings of Avoth, for the wisdom of this truism is apparent to teachers and students of every generation. The only attributed authorship is toward the end of the chapter, where there is a reference to Ben Bag Bag and Ben He He.

Chapter 6 is a separate group of rabbinical sentences collected in a Baraita (addition to the Mishnah), called Kinyan Torah (Acquisition of the Law), added to the original five at a later date.

Raba, who died in 352 a.d., is quoted in Baba Kama 30a as advising: "He who wants to become truly pious and virtuous, let him study and practice the teachings of Avoth." As early as the eighth century (according to the Siddur of Rabbi Amran Gaon) the Babylonian academies had inaugurated the custom of reading a chapter of Avoth on Saturday afternoons. This custom continues today. Throughout the summer months Avoth is studied in the synagogues on the Sabbath, after the afternoon service by the Ashkenazim and in the morning by the Sephardim. It has been translated into Latin, Italian, Spanish, German, English, and many other languages. With its central themes the love of God and man and the veneration of learning, Avoth has exerted widespread influence over many generations.

A midrashic expanded form of Avoth known as Avoth de-Rabbi Natan has been preserved in two variant versions.

Bibliography: h. goldin, tr., Pirke Abot: Ethics of the Fathers (New York 1962). r. travers herford, ed. and tr., Pirke Aboth (2d ed. New York 1930; pa. 1962). c. taylor, Sayings of the Jewish Fathers (2d ed. Cambridge, Eng. 1897); An Appendix to the Sayings (Cambridge, Eng. 1900). m. guttmann, Encyclopaedia Judaica: Das Judentum in Geschichte und Gegenwart (Berlin 192834) 1:365368. m. meilziner, The Jewish Encyclopedia, ed. j. singer (New York 190106) 1:8182. j. kohn, Universal Jewish Encyclopedia (New York 193944) 1:3233.

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