A Pirkei Avot for Tu BiShvat - Hebrew Union College - Jewish Institute of Religion
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A Pirkei Avot for Tu BiShvat

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Monday, February 3, 2020

 Tu BiShvat, the new year for trees, is just around the corner! With trees and plants and a hope for spring on our minds, we were reminded of HUC MS 86, a unique and enigmatic work featuring arboreal motifs (and some cute animals).

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HUC MS 86 ff. 10v - Birds flanking a tree


HUC MS 86 contains the Mishnaic tractate Pirkei Avot – famous for its role as a collection of ethical teachings from the sages. However, MS 86 also includes an unidentified commentary, with interlinear scriptural references, elaborative additions, and often significantly different wording.

 pirkei avot image

HUC MS 86 ff. 1 – Pirkei Avot 1:1, initial word with geometric and floral motif

The differing formulations can be seen from the very outset. Here is the original formulation of the beginning of Pirkei Avot:

משֶׁה קִבֵּל תּוֹרָה מִסִּינַי, וּמְסָרָהּ לִיהוֹשֻׁעַ, וִיהוֹשֻׁעַ לִזְקֵנִים, וּזְקֵנִים לִנְבִיאִים, וּנְבִיאִים מְסָרוּהָ לְאַנְשֵׁי כְנֶסֶת הַגְּדוֹלָה

Moses received Torah from Sinai, and transmitted it to Joshua, and Joshua to the Elder, and the Elders to the prophets, and the prophets transmitted it to the Members of the Great Assembly.

The version presented in MS 86 (pictured above) reads as follows:

משה רבינו ע''ה קבל התורה מהקב''ה בהר סיני כמו שנאמר ויאמר יי אל משה עלה אלי ההרה והיה שם ואתנה לך את לוחות האבן והתורה והמצות אשר כתבתי להורותם ומסרה משה רבינו ע''ה ליהושע תלמידו שנ''א ומשרתו יהושע בין נון נער לא ימיש מתוך האהל ויהושע לזקנים וזקנים לנביאים ונביאים מסרוה לאנשי כנסת הגדולה

Our Rabbi Moses, peace upon him, received the Torah from the Holy Blessed one on Mount Sinai, as is said “And the Lord said to Moses, go up to the mountain and there I shall give to you the tablets of stone, and the Torah and Commandments which I have written, so that you may teach them.” [Exodus 24:12] And our rabbi Moses, peace upon him, transmitted it to Joshua his student, as is said, “but his servant Joshua, son of Nun, a young man, did not depart from the tent.” [Exodus 23:11] And Joshua to the Elders, and the Elders to the Prophets, and the Prophets transmitted it to the Members of the Great Assembly.

This expansion makes the text more reverential and provides scriptural support for the teaching.

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HUC MS 86 ff. 6r – floral and geometric motifs around an initial marking the beginning of chapter 3

One of the most famous teachings from Pirkei Avot (chapter 1:14) also gets and expanded treatment:

הוּא הָיָה אוֹמֵר, אִם אֵין אֲנִי לִי, מִי לִי. וּכְשֶׁאֲנִי לְעַצְמִי, מָה אֲנִי. וְאִם לֹא עַכְשָׁיו, אֵימָתָי:

[Hillel] used to say: If I am not for myself, who will be for me? And if I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?

The version in MS 86 renders the quote as follows:

הוא היה אומר אם לא אקיים את המצות בעדי מי יקיימם בעדי ואפילו כשאני רוצה לקיימם מה יש כחי וכמה אני אוכל לקיים מהם ואם לא אטרח לקיימם עכשיו בעולם הזה מצי אקיימם לפי שבעולם הבא אין כח בידינו לקיים מצות כי אם לקבל שכר עשייתן

[Hillel] used to say: If I do not perform the commandments for myself, who will perform them for me? And even if I do want to perform them, what strength do I have, and how many of them can I perform? And if I do not do the work to perform them now in this world, when will I perform them? For in the world to come we do not have the power to perform Commandments. Rather, we receive our reward for having enacted them. 

A distinctive feature of this manuscript is the addition of a teaching by Rabbi Hananiah ben Akashia at the end of each chapter:

רַבִּי חֲנַנְיָא בֶּן עֲקַשְׁיָא אוֹמֵר, רָצָה הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא לְזַכּוֹת אֶת יִשְׂרָאֵל, לְפִיכָךְ הִרְבָּה לָהֶם תּוֹרָה וּמִצְוֹת, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר (ישעיה מב) יְיָ חָפֵץ לְמַעַן צִדְקוֹ יַגְדִּיל תּוֹרָה וְיַאְדִּיר:

Rabbi Hananiah ben Akashia says: “The Holy Blessed One wanted to make Israel worthy, and so gave them Torah and many Commandments, as is said, “The Lord desires, for the sake of his vindication, that Torah shall be made great and glorious.” [Isaiah 42:21]

HUC MS 86 ff. 7r – Cedar Trees (?), marking the end of the third chapter and the invocation of Rabbi Hananiah ben Akashia’s teaching

The manuscript is proudly claimed as the possession of Moshe Baruch Matza (dated to the year 5556/1796): “These are my chapters, I am Moshe Baruch Matza (may his Rock keep him and grant him life), this is my name forever, and this is my legacy for generations upon generations.” The scribe of this work was Moshe Rafael Battigno (?), who signs his name on ff. 12r. The date of completion and the original source of the commentary remain unidentified.

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HUC MS 86 ff. 9v-10 – on the right-hand leaf is the signature of the scribe Moshe Baruch Matza, with ligature practice below. On the left-hand leaf is a decorative initial marking the beginning of chapter 5 of Pirkei Avot, with geometric and floral motifs.

The manuscript does not contain the complete Pirkei Avot. Several selections are omitted, while others are significantly expanded. The manuscript concludes with personal prayers, ethical teachings, the liturgical song of praise Ein Keloheinu,  and the Sephardic liturgical poem ברכו על הספירה – Bless the Counting.

Finally, on the back of the very final page of the manuscript, we see what appears to be a happy goat.

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HUC MS 86 ff. 14v – goat(?) with an elongated tail


Contributed by Jason Schapera, Digitization Specialist