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All I Really Need to Know about Judaism, I Learned in Pirkei Avot Responsa in a Moment: Volume 13 Number 4

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pirkei avot

In memory of my parents
Rabbi Noah and Devorah Golinkin z”l
who served the Jewish people
 for the sake of Heaven (Avot 2:2)                 

It is customary to study Pirkei Avot every Shabbat afternoon between Pesah and Shavuot, or between Pesah and Rosh Hashanah. This month – in lieu of a Responsum – we would like to explain why every Jew should study Pirkei Avot between Pesah and Shavuot, and throughout the year. DG


In 1986, a Unitarian Minister named Robert Fulghum published a small book entitled All I Really Need to Know, I Learned in Kindergarten. It contained a lot of cute and important lessons which we teach children in kindergarten, which can serve us well throughout our lives. For example:

1. Share everything.
2. Play fair.
3. Don’t hit people.
4. Put things back where you found them.
5. CLEAN UP YOUR OWN MESS.
6. Don’t take things that aren’t yours.
7. Say you’re SORRY when you HURT somebody.
8. Wash your hands before you eat.
9. Flush.
10. Warm cookies and cold milk are good for you.
11. Live a balanced life – learn some and drink some and draw some and paint some and sing and dance and play and work some.
12. Take a nap every afternoon.
13. When you go out into the world, watch out for traffic, hold hands, and stick together.
14. Be aware of wonder. Remember the little seed in the Styrofoam cup: The roots go down and the plant goes up and nobody really knows how or why, but we are all like that.
15. Goldfish and hamsters and white mice and even the little seed in the Styrofoam cup – they all die. So do we.
16. And then remember the Dick-and-Jane books and the first word you learned — the biggest word of all — LOOK.

Much to everyone’s surprise, the book went on to become a run-away bestseller. By 2013 it had sold 7 million copies. Indeed, thus far Robert Folghum’s books have sold 17 million copies in 31 languages in 103 countries.

This month, I would like to talk about a similar topic: All I really need to know about Judaism, I learned in Pirkei Avot. Pirkei Avot, or the Chapters of the Fathers, is a different type of bestseller. It has been studied and memorized by Jews for over 1,800 years throughout the world. Since the time of the Geonim, it has been customary to study one chapter every Shabbat afternoon after Minhah between Pesah and Shavuot or between Pesah and Rosh Hashanah.(1) Indeed, that is why Perek Kinyan Torah was added to Avot, so that there would be six chapters, one for every Shabbat between Pesah and Shavuot.(2)

Other than the Bible, the Siddur, and the Haggadah, it has been printed more times than any other Jewish book. This is because, in addition to hundreds of separate editions, it has usually been included in the Siddur at the end of the Shabbat afternoon Minhah service, since that is when it was studied. A number of years ago, I purchased a collection of over 400 different editions of Pirkei Avot [1] for the Schechter Institute library in Jerusalem in memory of my parents, Rabbi Noah and Devorah Golinkin z”l, yet that is only a small percentage of the number of editions which exist.(3)

Why is this little book so popular? It is the distilled wisdom of the Tannaim, the Sages of the Mishnah, from the Second Temple period until ca. 200 CE. To what can it be compared? Let us say that someone began a few hundred years ago to collect the most important teachings of the greatest minds of the Western World, one or two sentences each, from:

Chaucer and Shakespeare,

Dante and Machiavelli,

John Milton and Isaac Newton,

Lock and Hume,

Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin,

Freud and Einstein,

John Dewey and Bertrand Russell.

Pirkei Avot is the Jewish equivalent. It contains in just 128 mishnayot or paragraphs, 1-2 sentences each from:

Hillel and Shammai,

Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Joshua,

Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Tarfon,

Rabbi Meir and Rabbi Shimon,

Rabbi Judah the Prince and Rabbi Elazar Hakapar,

For a total of 63 Tannaim out of 156 mentioned in the Mishnah.(4)

I teach an academic course at the Schechter Institute about Pirkei Avot every other year, and last year I decided to learn Pirkei Avot by heart. It took me about two-and-a-half months, while driving around Jerusalem and flying on airplanes and I held a Siyyum or “completion” on the yahrzeit of my mother Devorah Golinkin z”l last year. Since then, I have been reviewing Pirkei Avot by heart once a week.

I decided to learn Pirkei Avot by heart for three reasons:

  1. The Mishnah is called Torah Shebe’al Peh, the Oral Law and, believe it or not, for hundreds of years those who studied the Mishnah learned all 63 tractates by heart! I wanted to know Pirkei Avot by heart so I could know what it feels like to know one tractate of Mishnah as Oral Law.
  2. Louis Finkelstein z”l, Chancellor of JTS in New York from 1940-1972, used to tell his students that they should learn Pirkei Avot by heart because, if they ever need to give a spontaneous Dvar Torah or sermon or eulogy, they will be able to do so. I now know that this is true!
  3. Finally, as we shall see in a moment, “all you really need to know about Judaism, you can learn from Pirkei Avot”.

So allow me to share with you just part of the wisdom of Pirkei Avot. I shall divide the material into three sections: I shall begin with the subject of Judgement, I shall then talk about Torah study in all its ramifications, since that is a major topic in Pirkei Avot; and then I shall try to distill what Pirkei Avot has to say about how we should relate to the Jewish community, our friends and our families.

I) Judgement

3:1 “Akavia the son of Mahalalel would say: Reflect upon three things and you will not transgress: Know from where you came, where you are going, and before whom you are destined to give an accounting… and before whom you are destined to give an accounting — before the King of Kings, the Holy One, blessed be He.”

4:22 “Do not let your evil impulse promise you that the grave is your escape; for against your will you are formed, against your will you are born, against your will you live, against your will you die, and against your will you are destined to give an accounting before the King of Kings, the Holy One, blessed be He.

In other words, according to Pirkei Avot, after a person dies, he or she will be judged by God before the Heavenly court.

And how will we be judged? According to all of our deeds, which are recorded in the heavenly ledgers. As Rabbi Judah the Prince says (2:1): “Contemplate three things, and you will not come to the hands of transgression: Know what is above you: a seeing eye, a listening ear, and all your deeds are being inscribed in a book.” וכל מעשיך בספר נכתבים.

Similarly, Rabbi Akiva says (3:17): — “The store is open and the storekeeper extends credit, והפנקס פתוח והיד כותבת – and the account-book lies open and the hand writes, and all who wish to borrow may come and borrow. The collection-officers make their rounds every day and exact payment from man, with his knowledge and without his knowledge. Their case is well-founded, the judgement is a true judgement, and all is prepared for the feast.”

Indeed, a similar idea is expressed in the famous piyyut or liturgical poem Unetane Tokef on the High Holy Days:

Let us now relate the power of this day’s holiness,

for it is awesome and frightening.

On it Your Kingship will be exalted;

Your throne will be firmed with kindness and You will sit upon it in truth.

It is true that You alone are the One who judges, proves, knows, and bears witness;

Who writes and seals, Who counts and Who calculates.

You will remember all that was forgotten.

You will open the Book of Remembrances — it will read itself — and each person’s signature is there…

And who writes these Heavenly books? According to Pirkei Avot, each of us writes his own book. As Rabbi Akiva said (3:15): הכל צפוי והרשות נתונה – “All is seen,(5) and freedom of choice is granted”.

Thus far regarding the way we are judged by God. And what about the way we judge other people?

4:20 “Rabbi Judah [the Prince] said:אל תסתכל בקנקן אלא במה שיש בו   — “Look not at the vessel, but at what it contains. There are new vessels that are filled with old wine, and old vessels that do not even contain new wine”.

In two places, Pirkei Avot tells us to be very careful in the way that we judge other people:

Yehoshua ben Perahya tells us (1:6): “והווי דן את כל האדם לכף זכות — And judge every person charitably”.

While Hillel says (2:4): “Do not judge your fellow until you stand in his place”.

Or as Atticus Finch says to Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird (chapter 3): “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view…until you climb in his skin and walk around in it”.

II) Torah Study, Action and an Occupation

Not surprisingly, there are many statements about the importance of Torah study in Pirkei Avot. After all, the Tannaim or rabbis of the Mishnah viewed this as one of the highest Jewish ideals. They said:

2:5 “An ignoramus cannot fear sin, nor an Am Ha’aretz be pious.”

2:7 “but he who has acquired words of Torah, has purchased for himself Eternal Life in the World to Come”.

2:8 “If you studied much Torah, don’t be overly impressed with yourself; it is for this you were created.”

2:12 “Prepare yourself to study Torah, for it is not an inheritance for you”. In other words, you do not inherit Torah knowledge; you must work hard in order to acquire it.

2:14 “Be diligent to study Torah.”

2:16 “If you studied much Torah, you receive much reward.”

3:2 “but two who sit and there are words of Torah between them, the Shekhinah abides among them… and whence [do we know] that even if one person sits and occupies himself with Torah, that God establishes a reward for him…

3:3 “but three who ate on one table and spoke words of Torah, it is as if they ate from the table of God…”

4:10 “Rabbi Meir said: do less business and occupy yourself with Torah”.

5:22 “Ben Bag-Bag would say: turn it and turn it again, for all is in it; look deeply into it; grow old and tired while studying it; do not budge from it, for there is nothing better.”

The love of Torah study also led to respect for the Sages:

1:4 “Yose benYoezer says: Let your home be a meeting place for the wise; dust yourself in the soil of their feet, and drink thirstily of their words.”

1:1 “[The Men of the Great Assembly] said… and raise up many students.”

None of this is surprising. After all, Shimon Hatzaddik said (1:2): “The world rests on three things: on Torah, on worship, and on acts of lovingkindness”.

What is less well known is that Rabban Gamliel son of Rabbi Judah the Prince said (2:2): “Good is the study of Torah combined with a worldly profession for the labor in both of them causes a person to forget sin, and all Torah which is not accompanied by labor is annulled in the end and leads to sin”. In other words, we must combine Torah study with earning a living. Torah study alone without an occupation is annulled in the end and leads to sin.(6) If only the Haredi yeshivah students in Israel would heed this advice!

Similarly, if people think that the Sages who were so interested in Torah study were opposed to action – they would be wrong.

3:9 Rabbi Hanina ben Dosa would say: “One whose deeds exceed his wisdom, his wisdom endures. But one whose wisdom exceeds his deeds, his wisdom does not endure”.

3:17 Similarly, Rabbi Elazar ben Azaria would say: “One whose wisdom is greater than his deeds, to what is he compared? To a tree with many branches and few roots; the wind comes and uproots it, and turns it on its face… But one whose deeds are greater than his wisdom, to what is he compared? To a tree with few branches and many roots, even if all the winds in the world come and blow on it, they cannot budge it from its place…

4:5 “Rabbi Ishmael [the son of Rabbi Yohanan ben Beroka] would say: One who learns [Torah] in order to teach, is given the opportunity to learn and teach. One who learns in order to do, is given the opportunity to learn and teach, to observe and to do.

Finally, Shammai said  (1:15): אמור מעט ועשה הרבה – “Speak little and do much,” while Rabban Shimon the son of Rabban Gamliel said:  ולא המדרש עיקר אלא המעשה – “And the main thing is not to expound the law, but to do it” (1:17).

Thus, even though Torah study was central to the lives of the Tannaim, they stressed in Pirkei Avot that one must combine Torah study with an occupation and with action out in the real world.

III) How should we treat the Jewish community, our friends and our family?

Pirkei Avot does not have a lot to say about the Jewish community, but the two statements it makes are extremely important:

2:4 “Hillel said: אל תפרוש מן הציבור – do not separate yourself from the community.” Or, as Prof. Jakob Petuchowski once wrote: “Jewish living… is community living The Jewish hermit is inconceivable”. (7)

2:2 “Rabban Gamliel son of Rabbi Judah the Prince said: all who toil for the public, must do so for the sake of Heaven.” In other words, serve the Jewish community for the sake of Heaven, not for the sake of honor or monetary gain.

On the other hand, Pirkei Avot has a lot to say about how we should treat our friends:

1:6 “Yehoshua ben Perachya said: וקנה לך חבר — … acquire for yourself a friend.”

2:9 “Go out and see, what is the straight path that one should cleave to?… Rabbi Joshua said: חבר טוב – a good friend…”.

2:10 “Rabbi Eliezer said: May the honor of your friend be as dear to you as your own…”

2:12 “Rabbi Yossi said: May the property of your friend be as dear to you as your own…”

3:11 “Rabbi Elazar Hamodai said… and a person who embarrasses his friend in public… has no place in the World to Come.”

4:18 Another Mishnah contains sound psychological advice: “Rabbi Shimon ben Elazar said: Do not placate your friend when he is angry; and do not comfort him while his dead lies before him; and do not ask questions about his vow the moment he makes it; and do not try to see him at the time of his disgrace.”

1:15 Furthermore, “Shammai said… greet every person with a pleasant countenance” (1:15), while “Rabbi Yishmael said: greet every person with joy” (3:12).

We are also instructed to be hospitable to total strangers: “Yossi ben Yohanan of Jerusalem said: may your house be open wide, and may poor people be members of your household…” (1:5).

Furthermore, we are repeatedly told by Pirkei Avot to be humble:

1:13 Hillel used to say: “one who exalts one’s name will only degrade one’s name”.

4:4 “Rabbi Levitas of Yavne says: be very, very humble of spirit, for the hope of humanity is the worm”; in other words, we should be very humble because we are all mortal, finite human beings.

4: 10 “Rabbi Meir said… and be humble of spirit before all people.”

4:15 “Rabbi Matya ben Harash said: … and be a tail to lions, and not a head to foxes.”

5:19 “[A person who has] a good eye, a humble spirit, and a lowly soul, is of the disciples of Abraham our Father…”

Rabbi Shimon said that a person who acts in an ethical fashion will acquire a שם טוב – a good name, and the crown of a good name is superior to the crown of Torah, priesthood, and kingship (4:13).

3:10 “[Rabbi Hanina be Dosa] said: when the spirit of God’s creatures is pleased with someone, the Divine Spirit is also pleased with that person.” In other words, if a person has good relationships with other people, this finds favor with God.

I hope that I have whetted your appetite to study Pirkei Avot. In order to help you do so, I have appended below a Bibliography of English translations and commentaries on Pirkei Avot.

I would like to conclude with the words of Rabbi Tarfon:

The day is short, but the work is great;

the workers are lazy, but the reward is great;

and the Master (i.e., God) will brook no delay.

… it is not incumbent upon you to finish the work,

but neither are you free to desist from it. (2:15-16)


Notes

  1. B. Lerner, “The Tractate Avot” in: Shmuel Safrai, editor, The Literature of the Sages, 1987, p. 274, and in Hebrew: Yom Tov Lipmann Zunz, Minhagei Tefillah Upiyut Bikehilot Yisrael, Jerusalem, 2016, pp. 87-88; Yitzhak Yosef Cohen, Kiryat Sefer 40 (5725), pp. 104-105 = Mekorot Vekorot, Jerusalem, 5742, pp. 40-42; Shimon Sharvit, “The Custom of Reading Avot on Shabbat” etc., Bar Ilan 13 (5736), pp. 169-187; Ya’akov Gartner, “Reciting Avot on Shabbat”, Gilgulei Minhag B’olam Hahalakhah, Jerusalem, 5755, pp. 59-73.
  2. See the literature in note 1.
  3. For partial bibliographies, see Pinhas Ya’akov Hakohen, Otzar Habei’urim Vehapeirushim, London, 1952, pp. 96-112; Yitzhak Yosef Cohen (above, note 1), pp. 105-117, 277-285 = pp. 42-73; Yehudah Rubinstein, Kuntress Nahalat Avot, New York, 1972, 17 pp.; Ben Zion Dinur, Massekhet Avot, Jerusalem, 1972, pp. 33-28. R. Menahem Mendel Kasher and Jacob B. Mandelbaum, Sarei Haelef, new edition, Jerusalem, 1979, pp. 308-313, 623-624.
  4. See Lerner (above, note 1), p. 263.
  5. Tzafui is frequently translated “foreseen”, which is its meaning in modern Hebrew. This is a mistake. In Biblical and rabbinic Hebrew, tzafui means “seen”. See E.E. Urbach, Hazal: Pirkei Emunot V’deot, Jerusalem, 1969, pp. 229-230 and Gad Ben Ami Tzarfati, Mehkirei Talmud 3 (5765), pp. 697-699. It is worth noting that Tzarfati arrived at the same conclusion as Urbach, but did not see Urbach.
  6. See David Golinkin, Responsa in a Moment, Jerusalem, 2000, pp. 43-49.
  7. Elliot Dorff, Conservative Judaism: Our Ancestors to our Descendants, New York, 1977, p. 141.

Selected English Commentaries on Pirkei Avot

  1. Ben Zion Bokser, Ethics of the Fathers, New York, 1962 (also in his siddur)
  2. Martin Cohen, editor, Pirkei Avot Lev Shalem, New York, 2018, 352 pp.
  3. Herbert Danby, The Mishnah, Oxford, 1933, pp. 446-461
  4. Hyman Goldin, Pirkey Avot, New York, 1962
  5. Judah Goldin, The Living Talmud:  The Wisdom of the Fathers, 1955 and reprints (selected commentaries from the Rishonim)
  6. Judah Goldin in: Reuven Hammer, Or Hadash, New York, 2003, pp. 257-280
  7. R. Travers Herford, The Ethics of the Talmud:  Sayings of the Fathers, third edition, New York, 1945 and reprints
  8. Joseph H. Hertz, Pirkey Avot, New York, 1945 (also found in his Daily Prayer Book)
  9. R. Samson Raphael Hirsch, Chapters of the Fathers, New York, 1967 (also in his siddur)
  10. Charles Taylor, Sayings of the Jewish Fathers, Cambridge, 1877; 1879 = New York, 1969
  11. Amram Tropper, Wisdom, Politics, and Historiography:  Tractate Avot…, Oxford, 2004, 380 pp.

Rabbi Prof. David Golinkin [2] is the President of The Schechter Institutes, Inc. in Jerusalem.