Pirkei Avot in the News

Tuesday, June 15, 2021
Earlier this month, a 1492 edition of the Mishnah made headlines when it was used in the oath-taking ceremony of Dr. Eric Lander, newly appointed director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. Interestingly, government officials are not required to use a specific book of any kind when taking their oath of office. Some officials, including presidents, simply made “affirmations” without any book at all. Officials have taken oath using the Koran, works of Dr. Seuss, and even the Constitution – reproduced on a Kindle.

The 1492 volume chosen by Lander is from an edition of the Mishnah with a commentary by Maimonides. He had selected this as his oath-taking book because of a specific verse within Pirkei Avot, which reflected his values of Tikkun Olam (repairing the world). Pictured here, is the complete Mishnah; the volume Lander used is a thirteen-leaf fragment containing only the tractate Avot with the introduction of Ibn Tibbon and the commentary of Maimonides—appropriately the Jewish world’s greatest scientific scholar of the Middle Ages.

Many Jewish communities have the custom of studying Avot during the summer, a custom which started in the Geonic period, before 850 CE. Some traditions call for studying a chapter each week between Passover and Shavuot, while other traditions complete the tractate four times between Passover and Rosh Hashanah. There are actually sixteen variations on this custom, each with its own particular rationale. For example, the custom of completing a chapter each week until Shavuot is rooted in the understanding that the weeks preceding the revelation at Sinai were intended for spiritual preparation in advance of the great event. Thus, as we prepare for the holiday celebrating the Torah, Jews study to refine their character and focus on self improvement through the precepts taught in Avot.

The defined contents of the work also vary. Avot, the tractate, is five chapters long. However, liturgically, another chapter was added in order to round out the schedule of study for the various calendar-based customs. This collection is called “Pirkei Avot.” The sixth chapter is sometimes referred to as “Kinyan Torah” (Acquiring the Torah) and is actually part of tractate Kallah. As the name suggests, it is primarily focused on the benefits of Torah study and the necessary prerequisites for becoming a scholar (for example, “Do not seek greatness for yourself”). Since the Torah itself is also a moral code for the Jewish people, in order to grasp it to the fullest extent, one must have already done preliminary work on one’s character in order to succeed in one’s studies. Including this chapter as part of the Pirkei Avot study thus complements the notion of using these texts as preparatory training before Shavuot.

The word “Avot” has two meanings. The first is “fathers,” which is why this work is typically referred to in English as “Ethics of the Fathers.” But the term Avot in the Mishnah also refers to fundamentals. These words are related conceptually, of course, as our fathers are often among our earliest teachers. As Father’s Day approaches, we hope you take time to celebrate with the wonderful fathers in your life, whether they are the ones who raised you, or those whose teachings you discovered through studying the Jewish tradition. May you use their wisdom to bring repair to the world for your own children, and the children of humankind.

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