Pirkei Avot

By Rabbi Julian Sinclair, May 2, 2008

Usually translated as “Chapters of the Fathers”, Pirkei Avot is a Mishnaic tractate that comprises aphorisms on the topic of ethics. Among the celebrated sayings of Pirkei Avot is: “Hillel would say, ‘If I am not for myself, who will be for me? And when I am for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?’” (1:14).

Avot literally means “fathers”, but in Mishnaic Hebrew, it also refers to fundamental principles, as in the four avot nezikin — the four principle categories of civil damages. In this light, Pirkei Avot can also be translated as “Chapters on Fundamental (Ethical) Principles”.

One might be surprised to find Pirkei Avot at the end of the Order of Civil Damages (Seder Nezikin). Why conclude a Mishnaic order that deals with the technicalities of theft, assault, and oxen gone wild with six chapters on morality? What does the everyday reality of crime have to do with the quest for moral improvement? Everything.

The Maharal of Prague explains that Nezikin involves the perfection of one’s relations with the other — the state of never harming another — while Pirkei Avot involves the perfection of one’s self, one’s moral character.

It is customary to study Pirkei Avot on Shabbat afternoon at this time of year. In what seems a very English explanation, the Maharal states that the mild weather of these spring months were ideal for study.

Last updated: 2:36pm, May 7 2008