What is Pirkei Avot? Originally published February 2-3, 2018

Pirkei Avot פרקי אבות‬)), which translates to Chapters of the Fathers, consists of the ethical teachings which were passed down (it says) from Moses through Joshua, the “elders,” and the prophets, to the Great Assembly, to the first generations of rabbis.

It is a part of the Mishnah, but rather than covering Jewish law, it outlines the important precepts of living in this world with others.  It tells who said what and who taught what.  It deals with ethics.  (Sometimes it is called Ethics of the Fathers.)

The rabbis who compiled it lived in the centuries around the beginning of the Common Era.  (The Mishna itself was compiled in the second century CE, and collects five centuries’ worth of writings.)  Some of the best-known quotes in rabbinic literature are drawn from Chapters 1 through 4 of Pirkei Avot.

Chapter 5 consists of numeric ruminations, mostly on the numbers 10, 7, and 4, but also other enumerations.  For instance, 5:15 says, “There are four types among those who study with the Sages: the sponge, the funnel, the strainer, the sifter. The sponge absorbs everything; the funnel–in one end and out the other; The strainer passes the wine and retains the dregs; the sifter removes the chaff and retains the edible wheat.”  (Whichever type you are, we are glad to be able to provide the raw material for you in this column.)

Some interesting consecutive quotes from Chapter 5 (5:22, 5:23) of Pirkei Avot:

“Ben Bag Bag says: Search in it and search in it [the Torah], since everything is in it. And in it should you look, and grow old and be worn in it; and from it do not move, since there is no characteristic greater than it.”

“Ben Hey Hey says: According to the pain is the reward.”