Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers) by Anonymous

Who is wise? One who learns from every man. As is stated (Psalms 119:99): “From all my teachers I have grown wise, for Your testimonials are my meditation.” – Ben Zoma in Chapter 4 of Pirkei Avot.

“Let your home be a meeting place for the wise; dust yourself in the soil of their feet, and drink thirstily of their words.” Yossei the son of Yoezer of Tzreidah in Chapter 1 of Pirkei Avot.

Pirkei Avot (translated as Chapter of the Fathers, and sometimes called Ethics of the Fathers or Sayings of the Fathers) is a book of wisdom quotes from different rabbis over the centuries. It is a part of the Mishna, the “Oral Torah,” the teachings of Moses and other figures, which originally was shared verbally and not written down. The Mishna is part of the larger work known as the Talmud, which most Jews hold to be almost as authoritative as the Tanakh (the Jewish name for what Christians call the Old Testament). The Ethics of the Fathers presents the sayings of different rabbis as they ponder what makes a man wise, the importance of Torah, and one’s relationship with others, government, God, and self.

The text consists of six chapters. The first chapter attempts to establish the authority of the rabbis by presenting a wisdom tradition passed down from master to apprentice extending all the way back to Moses and the Prophets.

“Moses received the Torah from Sinai and gave it over to Joshua. Joshua gave it over to the Elders, the Elders to the Prophets, and the Prophets gave it over to the Men of the Great Assembly. . . . Shimon the Righteous was among the last surviving members of the assembly . . . Antignos of Socho received the tradition from Shimon the Righteous . . . etc.”

In between the ellipsis are the aphorisms of each thinker. Only the first two parts are structured genealogically in which we learn the sayings of one thinker, then we hear the sayings of their apprentice or son, followed by that person’s follower or son, etc.

Most of the sayings are about the behavior and attitudes a wise person should adopt, always linked back to the Torah. There is a strong emphasis on learning, but also on performing deeds. Here are some quotes from the text to give you a sense:

Shimon the Righteous says, “The world stands on three things: Torah, the service of G-d, and deeds of kindness.”

Rabban Gamliel the son of Rabbi Judah HaNassi would say: Beautiful is the study of Torah with the way of the world, for the toil of them both causes sin to be forgotten. Ultimately, all Torah study that is not accompanied with work is destined to cease and to cause sin.

Rabbi Akiva would say, “Tradition is a safety fence to Torah, tithing a safety fence to wealth, vows a safety fence for abstinence; a safety fence for wisdom is silence.”

Rabbi Joshua the son of Levi says, “Every day, an echo resounds from Mount Horeb (Sinai) proclaiming and saying: “Woe is to the creatures who insult the Torah.” For one who does not occupy himself in Torah is considered an outcast”

He would also say, “One who learns from his fellow a single chapter, or a single law, or a single verse, or a single word, or even a single letter, he must treat him with respect. “’’ Said Rabbi Yossei the son of Kisma: Once, I was traveling and I encountered a man. He greeted me and I returned his greetings. Said he to me: “Rabbi, where are you from?” Said I to him: “From a great city of sages and scholars, am I.” Said he to me: “Rabbi, would you like to dwell with us in our place? I will give you a million dinars of gold, precious stones and pearls.” Said I to him: “If you were to give me all the silver, gold, precious stones and pearls in the world, I would not dwell anywhere but in a place of Torah.”

While the work is often focused on religious aspects, it also deals with other topics, such as wisdom and relations with others. The text reminds us consistently not to be arrogant and approach life with humility. Wisdom is found when one understands that there is something to learn from every man.

Works Cited

– Quoted sections come from chabad.org


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