Pirkei Avot: More than ‘Who is rich?’ and ‘Who is wise?’

Pirkei Avot (literally “The Lessons of Our Ancestors” but also regularly “The Ethics of the Fathers”) is one of those works that is far more likely to be treated as a quarry to be mined for pithy epigrams than read as a book from beginning to end. But that’s what it is, of course – a book. And, at that, not only an ancient one but the most ancient book produced under rabbinic auspices to talk about the very questions that remain at the top of the Jewish agenda all these millennia later.

What does it mean to be live a good life? What does it mean to be a good Jew? How should Jews relate to non-Jews? How should observant Jews relate to less observant ones? What are the core values around which the ideal society develops? How exactly does study lead to principled living? Why do the righteous so often suffer and the wicked prosper? If death is but a portal that all mortals must step through, then where precisely does it lead? What constitutes real wealth or real wisdom?

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Strictly speaking, Pirkei Avot is one of the 63 shorter works that make up the Mishna, the oldest extant code of Jewish law. But unlike the other tractates, Pirkei Avot (in the context of the Mishna, more correctly called just Avot) does not focus on any aspect of ritual or civil law, but on ideas, and the very ones that speak to questions about the meaning of life in general and Jewish life in particular.

But a book this old (the Mishna was compiled at the beginning of the 3rd century CE) does not give up its secrets so easily. In places, it uses words that have failed to survive into modern Hebrew. In others, it uses words any modern speaker of Hebrew would know, but uses them to mean something entirely different from today’s meaning. On top of that, Pirkei Avot is replete with references to institutions and features of daily life that any Jewish resident of Roman Judea would have recognized instantly but that moderns will find obscure or even opaque.

In some mysterious way, Pirkei Avot is both well known and poorly known, a work somehow both over- and under-cited. Everybody who acquired even rudimentary Jewish training as a child knows a few passages. Other passages, wholly out of sync with modern sensitivities, are generally ignored. Still others, framed in unselfconscious hyperbole, are occasionally misquoted – including intentionally – by well-meaning people eager not to offend or confuse.

Fortunately, it’s the rare Jewish author over the past thousand years who hasn’t tried his or her hand at explicating Pirkei Avot and making its lessons intelligible and accessible. Many of these commentaries are themselves centuries old, and so not entirely accessible to moderns seeking a way into an even older text. And others presuppose a lifestyle and worldview that some moderns will find charming but that most will find unfamiliar and a bit off-putting.

And now we have a new book, Pirkei Avot Lev Shalem, featuring a fresh translation into modern English and two very accessible new commentaries, one by Rabbi Gordon Tucker of White Plains, New York, and one by Rabbi Tamar Elad-Appelbaum of Jerusalem.

The key concept was to create a work with many voices from which all can learn, and at the same time also to convey the intelligence and spiritual grandeur inherent in the work in a way that explains without unduly simplifying, and that invites readers in without simultaneously putting them off with obscure references or erudition for its own sake.

Good examples abound through the book – for example Elad-Appelbaum’s interpretation of the very short story featuring Hillel coming across a human skull floating in water or Tucker’s take on the nature of private property in the famous “what’s mine is mine” passage in chapter five, or his analysis of the “according to the pain is the gain” passage later on in that same chapter.

The last word can go to Elad-Appelbaum, who explains her work in these lofty, challenging terms: “This commentary to Pirkei Avot has attempted to describe the program for educating the individual Jew, as proposed by the Jewish sages of antiquity and dispatched by them to us, across the ocean of time that separates us. Its starting point is an outline of the scope of life itself and an invitation to the individual to explore life, equipped with the inspiration of Torah. Its continuation is the building of faith and the construction of character….”

In other words, the study of Pirkei Avot is an invitation to life lived purposefully and meaningfully, and with spiritual integrity and intelligence. To have such a book in our possession at all is a gift. But to receive a gorgeous invitation to study it – and Pirkei Avot Lev Shalem truly is a beautifully designed and bound volume – and to allow it shape our sense of who we are and what we were meant to be is more than just a gift – it truly is a blessing for all who respond to its siren call.

The author, a scholar of Judaism and Hebrew letters, serves as rabbi of the Shelter Rock Jewish Center in Roslyn, New York. He is the senior editor of Pirkei Avot Lev Shalem, published this spring by the Rabbinical Assembly, the international organization of Conservative and Masorti rabbis.