What Is Pirkei Avot? Originally Published November 24, 2021.

Pirkei Avot (פרקי אבות) is translated as Ethics of the Fathers, though technically it means “chapters of the fathers” (or “of the ancestors,” since Hebrew uses the masculine for the plural - though they were all as it happens men).  (The word generally used for “ethics” is mussar, which was also used to name a religious movement among the Orthodox in the 1800s in Lithuania.  The movement, however, tended more toward developing piety than ethics, more toward a defined morality.)

Some say that “avot” should be translated as “categories” just as we label work prohibited on Shabbat as “avot melakhah,” categories of work.  

Pirkei Avot (pronounced peer-KAY uh-VOHT) is a section of the Mishnah which has provided us with many bumper-sticker quotes.  “Say little and do much” and “You are not obligated to finish the task, but you also are not free not to do it” are a couple.  In Pirkei Avot 5:23, Ben He He is quoted, “According to the labor is the reward,” which is sometimes translated as “The reward is proportionate to the suffering.” 

The text is the penultimate section of Seder Nezikin, which is generally about legal rules (such as if your ox falls into my pit, I owe you damages).  It was written from the comments of individuals around the beginning of the Common Era.  It differs from the rest of the Mishnah in its lack of examples of situations for rulings.  The rabbis simply pontificate on various items rather than discussing and ruling on them.  Also, it has no Gemara (later Talmudic commentary).  Additionally, it has little in the way of halakhah, and much more in the way of ethical behavior.

Also, the text begins with the transmission succession of the Torah - from God to Moses, to Joshua, to the elders, to the prophets, and to the members of the Great Assembly.  It goes on to say there are three precepts - to be cautious in rendering a decision, to rear many students, and to build a fence to protect Torah.  Then it goes on to discuss the thoughts of each successive rabbi.

There are five main chapters, followed by a sixth which some believe was added in the Middle Ages.  It is believed it was appended to make six chapters available for the six weeks between Passover and Shavuot.

One may find a copy of the text in Siddur Lev Shalem on page 235 (which refers to the text as “Teachings of the Sages”) and in Siddur Sim Shalom on page 603.

Your correspondent received a text message a few years back about Pirkei Avot.  Spell check had changed it to “Pinky Avoid,” but we understood.