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Pirkei Avot (Hebrew: פרקי אבות) Chapters of the Fathers, is a compilation of the ethical teachings of the Rabbis of the Mishnaic period. Because of its contents, it is also called Ethics of the Fathers.
The teachings of Pirkei Avot appear in the Mishnaic tractate of Avot, the second-to-last tractate in the order of Nezikin in the Mishnah. Pirkei Avot is unique in that it is the only tractate of the Mishnah dealing solely with ethical and moral principles; there is little or no halacha found in Pirkei Avot.
Actual meaning of the title
In the Mishnaic sense, the word avot (literally “fathers”) refers to fundamentals, or principal categories. Thus, the principal categories of creative work forbidden on Shabbat are called avot melacha, and the principal categories of ritual impurity are referred to as avot tum’ah. Perakim, or in the conjunctive form pirkei, means “chapters”. Thus Pirkei Avot means “Chapters of Fundamental Principles”.
Because of the more common usage of avot as meaning “fathers”, Pirkei Avot is often rendered in English as “Chapters of the Fathers”, or even more loosely, “Ethics of the Fathers”. While this translation engenders an appealing and not entirely mistaken image of “patriarchal teachings”, this is probably not the primary intention of the work’s title. The term ‘avot’ is not usually used as an honorary designation for ‘rabbis’ or ‘sages’.
The tractate consists of six chapters: five proper, plus one later addition.
It begins with an order of transmission of the Oral Tradition; Moses receives the Torah at Mount Sinai and then transmits it through various generations (including Joshua, the Elders, and the Neviim, but notably not the Kohanim), whence it finally arrives at the Great Assembly, i.e., the Rabbis (Avot 1:1). It contains sayings attributed to sages from Simon the Just (200 BCE) to shortly after Judah haNasi (200 CE), redactor of the Mishnah. These aphorisms concern proper ethical and social conduct, as well as the importance of Torah study.
The first two chapters proceed in a general chronological order, with the second focusing on the students of Yochanan Ben Zakkai. Chapters Three and Four are thematic and contain various attributed sayings in no explicit order. Chapter Five departs from the organization and content of the preceding four in that it consists mostly of anonymous sayings structured around numerical lists, several of which have no direct connection with ethics. The last four paragraphs of this chapter return to the format of moral aphorisms attributed to specific rabbis.
In liturgical use, and in most printed editions of Avoth, a sixth chapter, Kinyan Torah (“Acquisition of Torah”) is added; this is in fact the eighth (in the Vilna edition) chapter of tractate Kallah, one of the minor Talmud tractates. It is added because its content is similar to that of Avot, and to allow for one chapter to be recited on each Shabbat of the Omer period.
Traditional period of study
It is customary to study one chapter a week on each Shabbat between Passover and Shavuot; today, the tractate is generally studied on each Shabbat of the summer, from Passover to Rosh Hashanah, the entire cycle repeating a few times with doubling of chapters at the end if there are not a perfect multiple of six weeks. The tractate is therefore included in many siddurim (prayer books,) following Shabbat afternoon prayers.
Mishnaic tractate are usually accompanied in the Talmud by a gemara (rabbinic commentary.) Avot is the only section not to have a gemara, in either the Babylonian or Jerusalem Talmud.
However, one of the “minor tractates” of the Talmud, Avot deRabbi Nathan (“The Fathers according to Rabbi Nathan”), is an expansion of and commentary on Avot.
The number of medieval and modern commentaries on the Tractate of Avot is large, and probably not known accurately. Among the best-known commentaries are:
* Mishnah Seder Nezikin Vol. 4, Pinhas Kehati. From the Kehati Mishnah Commentary series, sponsored by the World Zionist Organization’s Torah Education Department, Maor Wallach Press (Israel)
* ArtScroll Mishnah Series, Seder Nezikin Vol.4, Avos – Pirkei Avos
* Pirkei Avos Treasury: The Sages Guide to Living with an Anthologized Commentary & Anecdotes. ArtScroll/Mesorah Publications. Moshe Lieber and Nosson Scherman.
* Pirkei Avot – Shemoneh Perakim of the Rambam/The Thirteen Principles of Faith. Maimonides , with translation and commentary by Rabbi Eliyahu Touger. Moznaim Pub Corp (April 1, 1994)
* Pirke Avot: A Modern Commentary on Jewish Ethics , Leonard Kravitz and Kerry Kerry M. Olitzky
* The Hirsch Pirkei Avos ,Samson Raphael Hirsch, Feldheim
Excerpted and adapted from: Wikipedia contributors. “Pirkei Avot.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 29 Apr. 2015. Web. 17 May. 2015.