Question: I have two questions regarding Pirkei Avot. First, is there a specific reason that the last chapter is read on the Sabbath before Shavuot, or is this just a quirk of the calendar? Second, in that last chapter we find a list of qualities that enable one to acquire Torah knowledge, including anavah, humility. I find this difficult to believe in light of the Gemara in Gittin that chastises one of the scholars for his anavah, saying that it ultimately caused the destruction of the Beit Hamikdash.
Zvi Kirschner (Via E-Mail)
Summary of our response up to this point: The study of Pirkei Avot through the summer is specified in halacha (Rema, Orach Chayim 292:2). While we generally refrain from organizing study sessions on Shabbat between Minchah and Ma’ariv, we do recite Pirkei Avot at that time starting after Pesach until Rosh Hashanah.
The Magen Avraham (ad loc.) explains that we usually don’t arrange study sessions between Mincha and Maariv on Shabbat for fear that they will continue until dusk and interfere with seudah shelishit. The Gaon of Vilna (Biur HaGra) explains that in the summer, the days are longer and there is time to study Torah before seudah shelishit. The Chafetz Chaim writes that since many people come to shul on Shabbat afternoon and engage in idle conversation, it is better to listen to Pirkei Avot’s words of mussar.
Since there are six Sabbaths between Pesach and Shavuot and six chapters in Pirkei Avot, we devote an entire Sabbath to the study of each chapter. After Shavuot, specifically in the month of Elul, there are weeks when we double up and learn two chapters on one Sabbath. We always read the last chapter on the Sabbath before Shavuot and the fifth and sixth chapters together on the Sabbath before Rosh Hashanah.
This last chapter is referred to as Kinyan HaTorah, lit., “the method of acquiring Torah.” It is not part of the original Mishnayot compiled by R. Yehudah HaNasi, but is rather a compilation of Tannaitic Beraitot that was added to Pikei Avot at a later date.
* * * * * The sefer Matnot Chayyim, authored by HaRav Matisyahu Salomon, shlita – Mashgiach Ruchani of Beth Medrash Govoha in Lakewood and formerly of Yeshivah Beth Yosef in Gateshead – contains a compilation of essays about Kinyan HaTorah. (The book is available through Israel Book Shop, Inc., Lakewood, NJ, 732-901-3009, or in England at Lehmann’s, 191-430-0333.)
In his preface, the author explains why Pirkei Avot is studied during the weeks prior to Shavuot. He writes that the preparations for receiving the Torah at Mt. Sinai on Shavuot entail 48 methods of acquisition, which are listed in the last chapter of Avot.
The Hasid Ya’vez, as found in Midrash Shemuel, states: “The Torah can only dwell in one whose being is devoid of negative traits, and who is full of important [and admirable] traits.” This is why G-d commanded the Jewish people (Exodus 19:15), “Heyu nechonim li’sheloshet yamim, al tigshu el isha – Be ready after a three-day period, come not near a woman.” Rashi explains that this command concerned the purification of Jewish women for the giving of the Torah. If the women remained pure, the men would as well (whereas if they intermingled, there was potential for both to lose their ritually pure status).
Rabbi Salomon adds that, similarly, the command that Beni Yisrael cleanse their clothes (Exodus 19:10) was in preparation for Matan Torah, and just as one must cleanse oneself physically, one must also purify oneself from ritual impurities and uncleanliness which restrain the soul from reaching the highest levels it can attain. The chapters of Avot are replete with important matters that enable the soul to come closer to its Creator and thus awaken a person to serve G-d.
About the Author: Rabbi Yaakov Klass, rav of Congregation K’hal Bnei Matisyahu in Flatbush, Brooklyn, is Torah Editor of The Jewish Press. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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